By Toby Tabachnick
With enrollment down to 37 students spread throughout the eight grades of its religious school, Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation was in a quandary last summer.
The class sizes of the congregation’s Torah Lishmah Community had shrunk so dramatically, that if a couple of children were absent from one class on the same day, that class would lack the “ ‘critical mass’ necessary for an appropriate learning environment,” according to the congregation’s president, Michael Eisenberg.
While mergers with other religious schools were discussed, the leadership of TOL-OLS wanted to keep its youth under its own roof.
So, instead of combining with other schools, TOL-OLS has combined grades, consolidating its resources while allowing its school to remain independent.
“We came up with a very nice plan that has worked out very well,” Eisenberg said.
Instead of eight separate classrooms, the children are combined as follows: pre-K, kindergarten and first grade; second grade alone; third and fourth grade; fifth and sixth grade; and seventh grade alone.
“It’s working really well,” said Karen Morris, TOL-OLS’s newly hired educational director. “We have new curriculum materials, so kids [combined with younger grades] are not repeating things. It’s better to have bigger groups.”
Morris came to TOL-OLS last summer following the departure of its longtime educational director, Shelly Schapiro.
“It’s been a very high quality school,” Morris said. “I have been impressed with the work Shelly did, the level of the Hebrew. And there is a stable teaching staff.”
Morris has been a religious schoolteacher for decades, most recently at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills and Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. She has a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion and a certificate in Jewish studies from Indiana University, and a master’s degree in teaching from National Louis University.
The children are well served by being taught on the premises of their spiritual home, Morris said.
“They like having a synagogue school,” she said. “It’s a very nurturing place, and they feel very comfortable in their building. It’s their shul, and where they go to school.”
TOL-OLS had been invited to join J-JEP, the joint religious school program operated by the Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation, but ultimately decided against it, Eisenberg said.
TOL-OLS also considered merging its school with that of Congregation Dor Hadash, which holds services in the same building.
“Our first choice was to look at Dor Hadash,” Eisenberg said, “but it didn’t work because Dor Hadash likes schooling in people’s homes, and we weren’t ready to make that change this year.”
If TOL-OLS had merged with Dor Hadash, the combined enrollment of students would have numbered about 70, Eisenberg said.
“I was disappointed,” he said, “but ultimately we couldn’t swing it for the coming year.”
At the end of this year, the program will again be evaluated and mergers could again be considered, Eisenberg said.
In the meantime, TOL-OLS is going full steam ahead under the direction of Morris.
“Karen has done a phenomenal job,” Eisenberg said. “She has energy and
That energy and direction is evident in her plans for the coming year, which include a Hebrew Through Movement program, more Shabbat programming, Israeli dancing and the incorporation of technology to enrich Jewish knowledge.
“We have all the elements of a great school,” said Rabbi Chuck Diamond, spiritual leader of the congregation. “The only concern is the numbers.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)