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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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Not just blah-blah-blah and pizza

Mahwah shul develops programming for pre- and post-b’nai mitzvah kids

So now there’s a how-to-write-a-blessing class. “The parents are really appreciative,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

“I used to meet with b’nai mitzvah kids and their families twice,” he added. “Now we meet seven times in the course of a year. The last one is right before the bar mitzvah. Now I’m thinking the last one should be after the bar mitzvah. It’s a lot of time on my part, but it’s time well spent in developing a relationship with the kids and with the families.”

While these efforts are designed to connect children and their families to the congregation before the bar or bat mitzvah, the synagogue also has changed its post-b’nai mitzvah connections to the children.

 

Reworded interdating rules sow confusion, controversy

United Synagogue Youth convention may have eased standard … or not

What’s in a name — or a word?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Take the word “refrain,” for example.

At its annual international convention in Atlanta this week, some 750 members of United Synagogue Youth voted to change some of the wording in the organization’s standards for international and regional leaders.

Most of the changes are clear, easily understood, and warmly welcomed. For example, the group added provisions relating to bullying and lashon hara — gossiping. Leaders should have “zero tolerance” for such behavior, the standards say.

 

French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

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A school grows in Englewood

Moriah, first local Jewish day school, celebrates turning fifty

It was 1971, and Dr. Norman Sohn was finishing his training in Boston. He and his wife, Judith, were faced with a decision. Where would they go next? Where would they settle down?

As a newly fledged surgeon, the world was open to him. He could get a job almost anywhere. He was originally from Manhattan, and his wife was from New Rochelle, so the New York metropolitan area made sense to them.

They knew they wanted a yeshiva education for their children — Dr. Sohn had gone to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a school that combined religious and secular studies in a way that was progressive for its time — and they also wanted the luxury of choice. They didn’t want a one-school city, as Hartford and even Boston were at the time. “What really attracted me was the multiplicity of neighborhoods that were hospitable to Orthodox people,” Dr. Sohn said. “But here there were so many that if one didn’t work out, there was another.”

 

Sounds of joy

Children’s choir ranked number one by congregation

Perhaps if Tzipporei Shalom’s music were to be reviewed by a professional critic, the word “wow” might not find its way into the finished product. But to the congregants of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck — home to the children’s choir — the word seems just about right.

“It was the top-rated program in two synagogue surveys,” said Ronit Hanan, the shul’s musical director, who co-founded and co-directs the group with congregant Adina Avery-Grossman.

The a capella singing group has appeared with Safam, recorded a selection on a CD with the noted chazzan Netanel Hershtik, sung with Neil Sedaka, and joined with the synagogue’s adult choir, Tavim, on special occasions, most recently at CBS’s recent Shabbaton. They also participate in an annual community-wide junior choir festival together with choirs from local Reform congregations.

 

Affordable BRCA screening available for all Ashkenazi Jews

A new program at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in the Bronx is offering affordable genetic testing for the Ashkenazi Jewish BRCA cancer mutations.

Anyone who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, with at least one Ashkenazi Jewish grandparent, is eligible for the testing for a modest fee of $100.

For many years the recommendations to test for the gene were based on family or personal history of breast or ovarian cancer. But a research study recently revealed that in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, the risk of harboring BRCA cancer genes is high whether or not there is a family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

One in forty Ashkenazi Jews carry genetic glitches in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that elevate the risk of breast and ovarian cancer to as high as 80 percent by the time they are 80 years old. In fact, the landmark study of randomly selected Ashkenazi Jewish men in Israel found that “51 percent of families…harboring BRCA1 or BRCA1 mutations had little or no history of relevant cancer.”

 
 
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