Money and survival topped the agenda as educators met in New Jersey for the first-ever North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference.
The conference at the Marriott Glenpointe Hotel in Teaneck, held Jan. 17-19, drew some 600 participants and support from all the major Jewish denominations, an indication perhaps of the shared pressures on day schools during the lingering recession.
Every breakout period at the conference offered a session on finances. The gist of these sessions was summarized by Sally Gottesman, founder and president of the Eleemosynary Group, who told a roomful of participants, “There’s money out there…”
Others discussed the need for cooperation among the denominations. Nathan Lindenbaum, a trustee at two Orthodox yeshivot in Bergen County, spoke of joint efforts with other Orthodox and Conservative day schools in the area. “The tuition crisis was impacting schools all across the denominations,” he said at one session. “So we decided to collaborate across the denominations.”
The conference is a joint initiative of RAVSAK, representing non-denominational community schools; the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University, the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association; and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools.
Among the 50 participants from New Jersey were staff from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, and the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey.
Asked why they decided to hold this joint conference this year, administrators of all four day school streams, sitting together, brought the conversation back to finances. “Part of the decision to collaborate this year was that if we had our own conferences, they might all suffer,” said RAVSAK’s executive director Marc Kramer.
“We are dealing with a reality of doing more with less. That is forcing us to reassess how to do things,” said Scott Goldberg, director of YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership.
Multiple sessions reflected additional challenges in the areas of technology, from embracing games in the classroom to using social media to teaching in a 3-D world. There were two sessions devoted to making prayer more inspiring for both high school and lower school student populations.
Sessions reflected the pluralistic nature of the event: Women wearing kipot sat next to women wearing sheitels, and men with beards and kipot sat alongside men with neither. Sessions included presenters from a variety of denominations.
Most participants expressed enthusiasm over the various streams of Judaism getting together.
“It’s a groundbreaking idea to rally around unifying educational themes and bring all the Jewish constituencies together,” said Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School principal Rabbi Eliezer Rubin. “The conversation and dialogue is not so different at the end of the day. That’s ironic because of the separation of the denominations. I believe this collaboration may have unforeseen positive consequences for the broader community.”
“It was a great opportunity to network with my peers,” said Susan Dworken, head of school at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.
Dr. Joyce Raynor, head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange, also pointed to the energy that comes from bringing such a large group of people together, and the importance of realizing that “people from different strands and brands of Judaism at the same table all have the same experience.”
Some saw it as welcome, but nothing new. Moshe Vaknin, head of school at Hebrew Academy of Morris County, noted that the local Orthodox, Conservative, and community schools are already cooperating as part of UJC MetroWest’s Day School Endowment Project. “MetroWest is already doing it and it’s been incredibly successful the last three years,” he said. “I’m glad they’re realizing that on a national level.”
Raynor said the conference was “similar to PEJE,” the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which holds conferences every year that draw people from across the spectrum.
The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education was a major sponsor of the conference, which was also sponsored by the Kohelet Foundation and the Covenant Foundation.