Local educators have welcomed news of a merger of five national Jewish day school organizations, a multi-denominational collaboration modeled in part on one pioneered in Greater MetroWest.
The organization, to be known as NewOrg until a permanent name is finalized, brings together Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox day school networks, as well as the nondenominational RAVSAK and the umbrella Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
The decision to merge “recognizes that a combined day school organization will more effectively meet the diverse needs of local schools by pooling the talent, expertise, and resources originally dispersed among its founding agencies,” according to a news release.
The Greater MetroWest Day School Campaign, which brought all four area day schools together starting in 2007, was among the models that helped inspire the creation of NewOrg.
Philanthropy consultant Kim Hirsh — who as a development officer at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ was instrumental in coordinating the local endowment — served as a consultant on the project almost from its inception (see sidebar).
Calling the merger “bold and risky,” Hirsh said, “It’s the right thing to do, and it was inevitable.”
The merger comes as enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools has declined and centrist and Modern Orthodox school enrollment is flat. Fervently Orthodox, or haredi, schools, which will not be represented in the new group, have been rapidly growing, accounting for more than half of all full-time Jewish school enrollment.
NewOrg will work to promote greater local communal and funder engagement and assist both schools and communities in efforts to increase enrollment.
The new organization intends to offer an expanded set of programs, services, and networking opportunities to benefit the more than 375 schools and almost 100,000 students currently served by the separate groups, as well as other schools interested in participating.
Its denominational partners are PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism, the Schechter Day School Network (Conservative), and the Yeshiva University School Partnership (Orthodox). It expects to begin operations this summer.
Local day school leaders look forward to collaborating.
NewOrg “will allow us to pool our resources to enhance educational excellence,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. “We will be in a better position to share expertise and learn from one another’s experiences. Working in concert with a larger cohort will expand the scope of our conversations and broaden our educational horizons.”
Said Adam Shapiro, head of the Schechter-affiliated Golda Och Academy in West Orange: “We at our school have over the years participated in programs run by all of the organizations, which offered a tremendous level of development for our teachers. To put all of these organizations under the same roof can only be a good thing.”
“I am all for collaboration and joining forces,” said Moshe Vaknin, head of the RAVSAK-affiliated Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph. “Anything that helps the Jewish people, I am for, and putting all our forces together for the common goal will make the Jewish people stronger for the future.”
Over the last few years, the five organizations have experimented with holding a joint national Jewish day school conference. According to Brad Klatt of Livingston — a PEJE board member and former Kushner schools president who was brought in early on to consult on the formation of NewOrg — interaction among participants changed visibly over time.
At first, he said, educators gathered, particularly at meals, with colleagues from the same denominations. “But after three years now, we see everyone together. Even the meals offer a total cross section. You cannot tell who’s from where. The idea is that in the end, we see the common goals,” he said.
Educators said NewOrg will respect the differences among the various denominations.
“NewOrg is not pluralistic,” said Rubin. “It recognizes the distinctive lines of each denomination and respects differences of religious orientation. As a Modern Orthodox school, JKHA/RKYHS will maintain its identity while it deepens its relationship with our educational partners.”
Shapiro agreed. “Nothing changes our affiliation with the [Conservative] movement. Ideologically, it really does not have an impact on the religious decisions we make here in school. We will always be strong in our conviction and ideological beliefs,” he said.
Indeed, Klatt said, NewOrg “preserves, protects, and honors the organizations’ separate cultures.”
The decision to merge follows an almost year-long planning process facilitated in large part by the Avi Chai Foundation, which has pledged financial support for the new organization until Avi Chai shuts down operations, as long planned, in 2019.
Together, the schools represented by the five groups enroll about 40 percent of students in full-time Jewish schools, according to The New York Jewish Week, which reported that the merger is estimated to save more than $1 million annually.
With reporting by JTA