When J-JEP (the Joint Jewish Education Program) launched in 2012 as a collaborative effort between Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation, the fledgling supplemental religious school for grades K-7 had 110 students.
Now, just five years later, more than 180 children attend the Judaics courses offered at Rodef Shalom on Sundays and the Hebrew programs offered at both synagogues during the week. That’s more than a 60 percent increase in enrollment at J-JEP.
“I’m very proud of that,” said Liron Lipinsky, who has served as J-JEP’s director since its beginning.
The increase in J-JEP enrollment runs counter to national and local trends.
Enrollment in Jewish supplemental schools across the country is declining as affiliation at non-Orthodox synagogues continues to fall. In 2013 in greater Pittsburgh, there were 1,371 students in grades K-12 enrolled in part-time Hebrew or synagogue schools. By 2017, that number had dropped to 998, according to the Jewish Community Scorecard, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh that tracks Jewish community performance.
Lipinsky attributes J-JEP’s success, in part, to the flexible Hebrew curriculum offered to its students, who can choose from a menu of language study that takes into account each family’s goals of proficiency and emphasis.
For example, families can choose whether their children will focus on liturgical or conversational Hebrew, factoring in each child’s level of fluency and whether that child will best be served by attending a formal class or working independently online.
It was that flexibility that led Marcie and Matt Weinstein to enroll their two children, Nate, 11, and Abby, 9, at J-JEP after they made the decision to switch from a local day school to a larger private school in town.
“In today’s world, with all their activities, J-JEP fit well,” said Matt Weinstein. “This year, they are taking their Hebrew classes online, and last year, they took courses at Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom.”
The Weinsteins, who are affiliated with the Reform movement and Rodef Shalom, also liked the idea that their children would be learning with children who were part of the Conservative movement, who in some cases have “more Hebrew proficiency. That was one of the attractive features,” Weinstein said.
The formation of J-JEP was inspired by an opinion piece about “Courageous Conversations,” written by Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi, Aaron Bisno, that appeared in the Chronicle in 2011. In that piece, Bisno called upon Jewish organizations to seek ways to work together. Boards of both Rodef Shalom and Beth Shalom thereafter approved initiatives seeking to collaborate with one another with an eye toward integrating their religious schools. The collaboration began with combining the 7th grade of both congregations during the 2011-2012 school year on Sundays for Judaic classes. The following school year, all of the kindergarten through 7th-grade students from both congregations were brought together for Sunday religious school programming.
Both congregations saw a need to work together, particularly with declining numbers in classrooms, religious school leaders of both congregations told the Chronicle at the time.
While J-JEP is still comprised primarily of students whose families are affiliated with either Rodef Shalom or Beth Shalom, there are “a couple dozen students from unaffiliated families, or families that are affiliating elsewhere,” said Lipinsky . J-JEP participants that are not members of either Rodef Shalom or Beth Shalom pay a community fee in addition to tuition.
The school has, in fact, served as a feeder to the membership rolls of both congregations, according to Lipinsky .
“Every year, we start with a couple dozen families that don’t belong to Rodef Shalom or Beth Shalom, but by the end of the year, most end up joining,” she said.
The pluralistic school “celebrates Jewish diversity,” Lipinsky noted. “We look at different denominations through comparative lenses, and our teachers come from all backgrounds.”
A J-JEP survey conducted last spring showed that families value the quality of the education their children are receiving.
“The kids are happy,” Lipinsky said. “And several families said they see J-JEP as a good alternative to day school education.”
Such is the case for the Weinsteins. While the day school their children attended “provided a good foundation,” Matt Weinstein said, “J-JEP provided the next step we were looking for.”
J-JEP now offers adult educational opportunities as well. This year, parents, as well as community members at large, can take an elective on “Israel at 70,” taught by the Federation’s Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff.
The Weinsteins have enrolled in Schiff’s course, appreciating not only the quality of its instructor, but the convenience of its scheduling.
“They time it so we can drop off the kids and then just walk into the library for the class,” Weinstein said.
The success, growth and expansion of J-JEP proves the power of community collaboration, according to Bisno.
“Five years later, it’s incredibly gratifying,” said Bisno of the substantial growth of the school. “What we hoped would bring more stability to the classroom has resulted in capturing the imagination of the community. To my mind, this proves the fact that collaboration can yield results that are greater than the sum of its parts.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at