Jewish Day Schools in the Communal Ecosystem Today and Tomorrow. And the Day After That.

by Charles Cohen

We recently saw the launch of “Securing a Thriving Jewish Future,” a global conversation hosted by The Jewish Agency for Israel to discover exciting ideas in the areas of (1) education; (2) the connection between Israel and World Jewry; and (3) collective and individual Jewish identity.

I spent some time engaging in some of the online conversations, and one idea kept leaping out, whether I was talking about the value of subsidies in promoting Jewish activities, or linking Jewish activities, or what can best help me navigate my own Jewish journey, one idea kept coming back to me – that of the community ecosystem.

Words like “relationship,” “collaboration,” and “partnership” kept coming up across topics and from multiple participants. Indeed, these are all essential components of a thriving community. And when they grow and mature to allow organizations to align visions, increase transparency, and focus intently on service recipients’ needs, they can create a vibrant communal ecosystem: An organic, sustainable network of funders, service providers, and prosumers who connect to help each other grow.

Much has been written about this idea, from Dr. Leora Isaacs and Jeffrey Lasday, among others. They’ve examined the ecosystem writ large, and what communities must do to create them.

So what does the Jewish educational ecosystem look like from a day school perspective? Why does that matter? And what would success look like?

Examples abound of day schools increasing their connections with other institutions to create better, more well-integrated Jewish experiences for community members, even those beyond their current students. The Ramah Fellows program is strengthening the relationships between some schools and camps, allowing both segments to build on the educational experiences the other provides to their participants.

Schools are finding more exciting and effective ways to collaborate with synagogues than ever before. Following the example of schools like Pressman Academy, East Valley Jewish Day School recently announced that it was moving into a local synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom. And that’s on top of a growing number of synagogues – Young Israel of Hollywood, The Jewish Center in Manhattan, Boca Raton Synagogue, for example – that are carving out precious space in their budget to regularly fund local day schools. This is on top of communal funding efforts through federations, or independent models (NNJKids, Kehillah Jewish Education Fund of Chicago, see our white paper for more examples).

Many schools – Kellman Brown Academy, and Solomon Schechter School of Long Island, among them – are using their in-house expertise to offer “beit-midrash” learning programs for parents and other adults to demonstrate and expand their strong culture of Jewish learning.

There are any number of examples of collaborations among day schools. Regional councils like those in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Northern New Jersey meet regularly to explore potential collaborations and avoid unnecessary competition. Day schools in Toronto are partnering on a joint advertising campaign promoting the day school enterprise, rather than any one particular school.

This is the present. What does the future look like?

My colleague Ken Gordon approached it here, but I would take it further: a healthy day school can be a true community center, on par with any JCC. It can be a spiritual center, offering services and acting as a venue for any occasion. Its leaders can share their expertise with other institutions by acting as mentors and advisors. A day school can be a model of innovation and daring. A strong day school can be anything the community needs it to be, on top of an excellent center for immersive, intensive Jewish education.

But a sustainable, high-quality day school, standing on its own, is no ecosystem. It must be a resource and a partner for others. If a school’s ecosystem has been thus far used to bolster and support the school, the symbiotic nature of the system – indeed, the very Jewish values on which its vision and mission are based – demands that the school return the favor. Expand services, share expertise, collaborate on programs and development and engagement. As an active leader in a healthy communal ecosystem, Jewish day schools can be instrumental in securing a thriving Jewish future for its students, and its entire community.

Charles Cohen manages the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center, a partnership of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Orthodox Union. A strategic planner with experience building relationships between and among many different Jewish organizations, Charles researches and analyzes affordability strategies including communal funding, blended learning, and endowment funds.

cross-posted on the PEJE Blog