Rodef Shalom, Beth Shalom boards OK measure to unify their religious schools

Rodef Shalom, Beth Shalom boards OK measure to unify their religious schools

The boards of trustees for Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom have approved a proposal that will continue the move to a unified religious school serving two of the largest congregations in western Pennsylvania.

Rodef Shalom’s board, at its Feb. 14 meeting, approved the measure, which sets as its goal creation of a “Jewish-Joint Education Program (J-JEP).” Beth Shalom’s board approved the same measure Oct. 25, 2011.

The two congregations integrated their seventh-grade programs this past year, which the presidents of both congregations say was a successful experiment.

Now, stage two is expected to begin this fall, though many questions about how it will initially look and operate remain to be worked out.

“There’s more that unites us than divides us,” Beth Shalom President Stefi L. Kirschner said.

“We believe this synergy will allow us to do more,” said Rodef Shalom President Don Simon. “We’ll have more students in classes, more student interaction, [and] it will only lead to a stronger faculty.”

Ultimately, the J-JEP would encompass grades kindergarten through seven, though it is not certain all those grades would be consolidated right away. The school, which would unify Sunday education only, would emphasize Judaic education, while the two congregations would continue to have separate Hebrew, b’nai mitzva and confirmation tracks.

“As a result of our two congregations combining our religious school programs, we believe we will see greater numbers of students in our classrooms, [creating] a smaller, higher quality faculty, and an increase in overall vitality in our now-combined program,” Rabbis Aaron Bisno and Michael Werbow said in a joint statement.

Rodef Shalom currently has 118 students enrolled in its Jacob Religious School (grades K-12). Beth Shalom has 54 pupils in its K-7 religious school.

A task force consisting of staff and members from both congregations will be organized in the coming weeks to work out details of the J-JEP. Kirschner expects the panel to deal with a unified mission statement for the school, a core of shared values and an “environment in which all children will be comfortable” to name just some of the issues it will address.

Rabbis and steering committees and heads of school for both congregations will be involved with the task force, which will make recommendations to both boards for approval.

Simon said he is optimistic about the venture, noting that the two congregations already use versions of the same curriculum.

Developed by the Union for Reform Judaism, the Chai Curriculum consists of 27 complete one-hour classroom lessons in Torah, avoda (work), and gemilut chasadim (deeds of kindness). Lessons are based on big ideas and are designed around gathering evidence of student understanding.

While the URJ originally developed the Chai Curriculum for use by Reform congregations, it has since modified the model for Conservative congregations as well.

One benefit of integrating the education programs, according to the presidents, will be the opportunities kids from both congregations will have to learn about each other’s movement.

“We’re looking forward to discussing what both of our movements have to say,” Kirschner said. “That’s the good fortune of bringing our children together.”

Simon agreed, and added that unification can be accomplished without diminishing the identity of either congregation.

“One of my hopes for the school is it will strengthen our identities,” he said. “We need to put a component in the curriculum that differentiates between Reform and Conservative belief and introduces Reform students to Conservative thought and Conservative students to Reform thought.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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