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Conference confronts ‘new reality’ for day schools

 
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More than 550 educators from across the United States and Canada gathered in Teaneck earlier this week for the North American Jewish Day School Conference. Photos by Robert A. Cumins

In a time of economic uncertainty, when fund-raising campaigns are down and school tuitions are up, members of the North American day-school community crossed denominational lines to come together for one big powwow in Teaneck this week.

The heads of the four major day-school networks — RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools — spent 2009 organizing the three-day North American Jewish Day School Conference at the Marriott at Glenpointe that wrapped up on Tuesday. With the theme “Thriving in a New Reality: Klal Yisrael, Community, School, and Home,” the conference drew more than 550 participants from across the continent, surprising organizers who expected a much smaller turnout because of the economy. Excluding accommodations, registration cost between $550 and $595 per person, depending on how many participants each school sent. Some 200 participants received subsidies of 50 percent from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, the Covenant Foundation, and the Kohelet Foundation.

“We’re all dealing with the same challenges of trying to make quality Jewish educational experiences for children,” said Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute for University-School Partnership. “That commonality drove our programming from the macro-level — needing to do more with less and really forcing us to reassess how we do things.”

One of the challenges facing the day-school system is how to maintain relevance in the wider Jewish community. With affordability issues abounding, other options such as charter schools have grown in popularity.

“There is no alternative to day school,” Goldberg said. “There’s day school and there’s not day school. Day school is the most effective means of keeping the community vibrant. Other things will come along that will contribute to the perpetuity of the Jewish people, but they’re not [as good as] day school.”

Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, said that while the four sponsors may disagree on aspects of halacha, they all agree that day schools are the best way to promote Jewish identity, and they worked from that premise.

“We put all our cards on the table and saw most of us were holding the same cards,” he said. “There are lots of different ways people express themselves Jewishly. I don’t think anyone gave up [anything] in order to make that happen [at the conference].”

Organizers would not comment on the conference’s budget. The final costs — and how they would be divided among the sponsoring organizations — have yet to be determined, they said.

In addition to workshops on best-practice issues such as hiring and dealing with school boards, many of the sessions focused on cooperation — between schools and federations, schools and government, schools within the same network, and schools from different movements. In the wake of what is now recognized as a tuition crisis in the day-school movement, many of the collaborations focused on finding new sources of funding.

“The cost of Jewish education has been growing faster than income for a very long time,” said Nathan Lindenbaum, a trustee at the Moriah School in Englewood and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, during a Monday session on community collaboration. “We believe the current model is not sustainable. It’s impacting across denominations.”

Lindenbaum introduced session participants to Jewish Education For Generations, a group of North Jersey rabbis and educators representing the Orthodox and Conservative day schools in the area who banded together to create alternative funding. One result is Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, commonly referred to as the kehillah fund.

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The conference represented the four main day-school organizations coming together across denominational lines. From left are Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University; Elaine Cohen, executive director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association; Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network; and Jane West Walsh, executive director of PARDeS.

The group collects donations through its Website, nnjkids.org. It has made one distribution to the area’s eight elementary day schools and intends to continue distributing funds quarterly.
“Our fundamental belief is there is nothing wrong with our educational model,” Lindenbaum said. “Our educational model is wonderful. What’s wrong is our funding model.”

Also on the panel were Uri Cohen, director of development at the Solomon Schechter School Manhattan, and Elaine Suchow, director of development and coordinator of the Tri-State Consortium at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens. The Consortium brought together area Schechter schools for a joint branding campaign, the first such cooperation for the schools.

“In the landscape of day schools, collaboration is not assumed,” Cohen said. “There’s not an expectation that the schools work together, so any collaborations at any level is a step in the right direction.”

The tuition crisis is the “subtext” for the entire conference, said Elliot Prager, principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, but the event should become a model for future collaboration between the movements. The day-school community as a whole has shifted its focus in the past two years from innovation to simply remaining viable, he added, and that is a major challenge for everybody.

“Each movement may have its own visions and its own priorities, but ultimately we’re all guided by the same goal and ideal of ensuring the future of the Jewish people,” he said.

“Working across the denominations is a wonderful success and breakthrough,” Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, principal of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, told The Jewish Standard. “We are all jointly invested in Jewish continuity. We all know the No. 1 indicator for successful Jewish continuity is a Jewish day-school education. It’s exciting [to have everybody together].”

Others echoed Knapp’s sentiments.

“It’s incredible that we have all these different networks coming together,” said Susan Weintrob, head of school, Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, Calif. “It becomes much better for the Reform, the Conservative, the modern Orthodox, and community day schools. We find we have a lot of common ground. We have a diversity of ideas.”

Weintrob, who recently stepped down as president of RAVSAK, noted that RAVSAK and PARDeS held a joint conference last year in San Francisco.

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Nathan Lindenbaum, a trustee at Moriah and Yeshivat Noam, spoke about Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, the area’s day-school kehilla fund, during a panel on community collaboration.

Ariella Allen, Judaic coordinator at Yeshiva Atlanta, said that upon her return she would begin looking into new technologies she learned about at the conference, such as video-conferencing between classrooms in different regions.

The conference was “a great opportunity to learn from one another,” she said. “We have excellent educators all over the field. People have been more than willing to put aside their differences and gain from what everyone has to offer.”

Nellie Harris, upper school principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester in New York, said she was particularly interested in the conference’s theme of how Jewish education will adapt to the 21st century. She called the conference “a balance between theory and practice,” as educators figure out how to move forward.

“There was an opportunity for us to not only talk about those skills but what is unique about Jewish day schools,” she said.

As the conference concluded Tuesday evening, organizers had already begun to receive the positive feedback they had hoped for. A decision on whether to repeat the conference is still far off, though, Kramer said.

“We are leaving open the door to all the possibilities,” he said.

Renee Salzberg, of the Hebrew Day Institute in Baltimore, said she hoped that the conference would lead to more collaboration.

“It’s a great beginning,” she said.

 
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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

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Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

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Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

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Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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