TEANECK, N.J. — 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.
The three-day North American Jewish Day School Conference here that wrapped up Tuesday was the product of a year of planning by the heads of 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.
The conference at the Marriott at Glenpointe drew more than 550 participants from across the continent, surprising organizers who expected a much smaller turnout because of the economy. 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.”
Among the challenges facing the day school system is how to maintain relevance in the wider Jewish community. With the issue of affordability, other options such as charter schools have become more popular.
“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 Jewish law, 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].”
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, N.J., and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, N.J., 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 northern New 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.
The group collects donations through its Web site, nnjkids.org. It has made one distribution to each of 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 effort at cooperation.
“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 was the “subtext” for the entire conference, said Moriah School principal Elliot Prager, but the event should become a model for future collaboration among 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 everyone.
“Each movement may have its own visions and its own priorities,” he said, “but ultimately we’re all guided by the same goal and ideal of ensuring the future of the Jewish people.”
“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. 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 of the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, Calif. “We find we have a lot of common ground. We have a diversity of ideas.”
To Avi Baran Munro, head of Community Day in Pittsburgh, the conference provided a unique insight and unity into the national day school landscape.
“Positive things can come out of economically challenging times. New partnerships, new economies, shaking people out of old habits and communicating a message of growth and potential in a time when people are thinking that things are gloomy,” said Munro.
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.
A decision on whether to repeat the conference is still far off, Kramer said, adding that “We are leaving open the door to all the possibilities.”
Renee Salzberg, of the Hebrew Day Institute in Baltimore, said she hoped the conference would lead to more collaboration.
“It’s a great beginning,” she said.
(Chronicle Associate Editor Justin Jacobs contributed to this story.)