From Strength to Greater Strength

From Strength to Greater Strength:
Collaborations between Reform and Conservative religious schools offer a lot of potential

Singing about Tu Bishvat; via JQuest FeceBook page
Singing about Tu B’shvat; via JQuest FeceBook page

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

The effects of the latest economic downturn and dwindling membership and engagement with traditional synagogues have led many Hebrew schools to board up their windows. The creative ones, however, have found innovative ways to shift toward success.

There is a growing move toward Hebrew/religious school mergers and cooperation throughout the United States, and sometimes between what even a decade ago would seem like unlikely partners: Reform temples and Conservative synagogues. This model “offers a lot of potential,” says Anna Marx, director of Jewish Education and Leadership Development for Jewish Learning Venture (JLV). “We are paying close attention to congregations where it is happening.”

Marx says in most cases – and there are at least six known across the country – the catalyst for cooperation is a financial one. While schools have found that working together does not save on the cost-per-child, they get a lot more for their money. Marx says schools feel they can have more opportunities and provide a better education to their children by pooling resources.

“When we pool the talents of multiple synagogues where you can work with two or three talented rabbis, cantors and teachers, you really start seeing positive changes to the education,” Marx says.

There are multiple models. JQuest B’Yachad is a collaborative educational program for elementary aged students who belong to either Reform congregation Keneseth Israel or one of two Conservative synagogues, Beth Sholom Congregation or Adath Jeshurun – all in the Philadelphia area. When JQuest B’Yachad launched, it put together a sophisticated governing structure, including three lay committees made up of staff and lay representatives from all three congregations. A director and two associate directors each represent one congregation in the collaboration and the rabbis make rabbinic decisions together on any potentially divisive issues.

To ensure that each synagogue gets building exposure, the school rotates location by semester – meeting in each of three congregations throughout the year.

Rabbi Phillip Warmflash, executive director of JLV, says when Keneseth Israel, Beth Sholom and Adath Jeshurun were in negotiations the question of location almost caused the collaboration to break down.

“We had to take a hiatus for two weeks until it was resolved,” recalls Warmflash, whose organization has been supporting the JQuest B’Yachad collaboration and curriculum.

In Detroit, Yachad – a program of Reform Temple Emanu-El and Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom – is a shared religious school (K-7). The program is run by a single director who spends approximately 90 percent of her time on Yachad and the remaining time on other educational programs at Temple Emanu-El. The director is supervised jointly by the rabbis from both congregations.

Rabbi Arturo Kalfus of Temple Emanu-El says the collaboration was triggered by a phone call he received from the local federation. Enrollment had dropped at Beth Shalom and the federation wanted to know if he would be interested in starting a dialogue.

“I had been thinking about it already,” says Kalfus. “We are minute away from each other, so it made a lot of sense. I quickly contacted the rabbi.”

Kalfus preempted the location discussion by offering that they would host one day of their two-day program in his synagogue and one day at Beth Shalom, which is now what they do. The collaboration was easier than others, he says, since both religious schools were already using the same Judaica and Hebrew curricula.

“We talked to our lay people and we quickly decided nothing prevented us from implementing it immediately. We worked hard over the summer to put everything in place and our families accepted it,” Kalfus says.

There were issues that had to be dealt with, of course – and that is not uncommon, says Warmflash. The most regular challenges include questions of how to handle kippot, kashrut, holiday celebrations (where do you do them?), prayer services and fees.

Yachad solved the kashrut issue by ensuring that there is always a vegetarian option. The congregations share the total cost of the educational program proportionately; Temple Emanu-El pays 66 percent and Beth Shalom 33%.

“There are savings that permit us to sustain the level of our program that perhaps separately each one of us might not have had or been able to do,” says Kalfus.

The Joint Jewish Education Program of Pittsburgh (J-JEP), a shared religious school program for enrollees from Reform Rodef Shalom and Conservative Beth Shalom, solved the prayer service challenge by having the rabbis lead a combined t’filah for the school and using that service as an opportunity to teach about multi-denominational Judaism. The rabbis also hold joint adult education sessions for parents during school hours.

“The Jewish community often waits until the last person leaves and then turns off the lights,” says Warmflash. “We can do something really exciting here for our population. Why wait until the numbers are scary? Do it at a time of strength and create even greater strength.”

Says Kalfus: “I think anyone can do this.”