Congregational Mergers: Impact and Opportunities for Religious Schools

By Aviva Janus

What two congregations merge, what can be done to stabilize the experience for religious school faculty, families and students? How can the impact of tremendous congregational change be minimized for the religious school and those it serves? What are the opportunities created in such a situation?

As two historic Reform congregations merged recently in Maryland, we asked these questions. The merger progressed from whispered hallway conversations to a new reality with a myriad of changes for all involved. One of my main roles, as the religious school principal, was to reassure faculty, students and parents that our community would not only survive but become stronger. From strength to strength (mi chayil l’chayil) became my unspoken motto.

Now that my colleagues and I have successfully completed the merger of two religious schools it is time to reflect on the process, specifically noting what helped and what could have been managed differently. As Jewish demographics change, I am certain that other religious schools will find themselves in similar situations. Therefore, our experience undergoing this process may serve to benefit those religious schools in the future.

In our case, my co-educator and I transitioned under the guidance of an interim senior Rabbi. We met frequently over the summer to formulate and execute our plan to combine religious schools as smoothly as possible. All three of us were within their first twelve months of employment at our respective institutions. As our school opened, an additional co-interim senior Rabbi joined our team. The significance of this cannot be understated. While the best interest of our members was the ultimate goal, we were each undergoing a professional transition at the same time. It is challenging to reassure families and nurture religious school faculty while simultaneously learning their names. In a best-case scenario situation, the professionals will have deep and trusting relationships with those they serve. In our case, we were not afforded this luxury.

Understanding this dynamic, both temples had the foresight to instruct myself and my co-educator from the very beginning of this process that we build a strong relationship between us in order for our school to thrive. We were told that the success of a temple depends on the health of the religious school. Then, a decision was made to enable us to work with an organizational psychologist who met with us individually and separately. These conversations were tough, as we shifted from school logistics to professional strengths to personal limitations. Working with the organizational psychologist and in meetings on our own, there were frustrating conversations between us. We were two dedicated professionals used to making decisions solo, who needed to adjust quickly to checking in on large and small.

Eventually we found a rhythm and a dynamic that works for both of us. While there are bumps in the relationship from time to time, for the most part, we have learned how to steer a ship with two captains. In hindsight the most crucial thing provided us was the unwavering message from both temples that we could make this work. We heard repeatedly from all sides that the success of the religious school depended on us creating a healthy dynamic so that we could provide a consistent solid Jewish education for our students.

Below are the take-aways from our process:

  • Recognize that this process will take lots of patience as adjustments to new ways of doing things are established.
  • Re-design shared space so that both people have input.
  • Go out to coffee or take a walk outside of the office together. Do this as many times as necessary to form a trusting relationship. Then keep doing it.
  • Understand and internalize that when one educator shines, both look good. A rising tide floats all boats is the image that was before me many times.
  • Vent when you need to, but not to employees or families in the organization.
  • Improve your sense of humor and use it liberally. At our senior staff meetings there was always a cartoon and a humorous quote on the agenda.
  • Acknowledge that the transition can be more challenging for the educator, teachers, families who relocated to an unfamiliar building.
  • Develop the humility to see that there are other systems that can be as effective or possibly more effective.
  • Learn to accept the idea that this new school does not completely reflect either of the past programs.
  • Evaluate as a part of the process. Despite the current system, is there another way that would work better?

As I reflect on this experience and view it through the lens of opportunity for professional growth, I am deeply grateful to the leadership at both institutions. The way this was handled by the professional and lay leaders in our congregations was to provide unwavering support and guidance to myself and my co-educator at every juncture. The role of an organizational psychologist to smooth out relationship bumps, set expectations, and help define responsibilities was key.

Aviva Janus is the co-Religious School Principal at a recently merged Reform Temple in Baltimore, MD. She previously served as the Education Director for seven years at a Conservative Synagogue. Aviva holds an MA in Jewish Professional Studies from Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership.