Concierges help families sort through education options

Barbara Luboff and her husband were thrilled that their young granddaughters would be staying with them for six weeks over the summer. The family — parents and grandparents — wanted to give the girls “a good dose of Judaism while they were in L.A.,” Luboff said, in large part to compensate for the fact that the girls and their mom are the only Jews in Loja, Ecuador, where they live.

But Luboff found it difficult to get information on Jewish schools and camps. A longtime synagogue member active in the Jewish community, Luboff wondered if she was just “out of the loop” because she was a grandparent. Then she stumbled upon the Web site for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) concierge service, a one-stop resource for all things Jewish for kids in L.A.

In short order, concierge Stacy Reznikoff Kent directed Luboff to a number of options. Luboff chose the preschool at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge for Claire, 3, and for Annie, 6, Gan Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin campus in Simi Valley, but with a convenient bus pickup/drop-off at Ahavat Shalom.

“It was a perfect solution,” Luboff said. Kent was “so knowledgeable, personable, friendly and reassuring.” And the programs themselves exceeded Luboff’s expectations.

“It was a real thrill to pick up the girls on Fridays and have them singing Jewish songs in the car,” she said.

Despite some unique features of the Luboff family’s situation, a lot of Jewish parents find themselves in similar straits. More than most cities, Los Angeles boasts a wide array of Jewish day schools, religious schools, camps and youth and family activities. But if you’re new in town, or a first-time parent, or just not familiar with the community, this wealth of opportunities can seem daunting.

Where do you begin looking for programs that suit your family’s needs? What if you want to compare different schools? How do you evaluate programs once you’ve found them?

In February, the BJE launched its Concierge for Jewish Education program, focusing solely on Jewish offerings. And unlike a growing number of related services — including locally published school guides or consultants who charge fees of up to $150 per hour — the BJE provides its service for free.

Funded by a two-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, the program currently employs two part-time concierges — one for the Valley, the other for the city — and features a Web site containing guidelines for evaluating schools, with tips on everything from educational philosophy to governance, personnel and costs. Encompassing information on more than 150 programs of all denominations (and nondenominational), it not only covers schools and camps, but Israel trips, special-needs programs, youth groups, cultural events and more.

Federation Vice President Miriam Prum Hess — who as director of day school operations at the BJE also looks after all nonacademic concerns of the 36 Los Angeles-area BJE-affiliated day schools — traces the genesis of the concierge program to trends in Jewish birthrates and education that were first noted more than a decade ago.

A 1997 Federation demographic study, which Prum Hess oversaw, revealed both decreasing birth rates among Jews and declining enrollment in Jewish schools. In addition, the study noted that of all the schooling options available, the largest percentage of Jewish kids — 51 percent — were in Jewish preschools. But it also revealed that “of those 51 percent, we lose about a third of them when they complete nursery school. And of course, that still means we’re not reaching 49 percent,” Prum Hess added.

Then, in 2005, the Avi Chai Foundation released a study titled, “Linking the Silos.” Under the direction of Jewish Theological Seminary Provost Jack Wertheimer, a group of prominent researchers found that over the years, Jewish educational institutions had become isolated from one another, with each operating as “a silo … vertically organized operations, divorced from constructive, horizontal interaction with others.” The study urged Jewish organizations “to build cooperation across institutional lines … and to help families negotiate their way through the rich array of educational options created over the past decade and longer.”

The BJE lay marketing committee was determined to tackle the challenges raised by the study. But the committee members perceived an additional challenge: When it comes to Jewish education, people already connected with the community know where to turn, but “for people who aren’t already involved … it’s hard to find the information, to find a place of entry,” Prum Hess said.

That “place of entry,” the committee believed, might be found when parents first participate in organized activities with their child. Kent, concierge for the city — and the mother of four children under the age of 8 — said they’ve had good responses from placing postcard advertisements “where parents hang out … indoor gyms for kids, places where parent-and-me classes meet, pediatricians’ offices, malls or coffee shops,” as well as on Internet listserves for new parents.

Stefanie Somers — religious school kindergarten teacher, mother of two young children and concierge for the Valley — said she and Kent have also had success organizing coffees for groups of moms. While the kids play together, the concierges talk to the moms about what to look for in a preschool or how to tour/interview/ask questions of directors, for example.

Many of the program’s clients are Jews who were once affiliated but “for whom Judaism had been absent in their lives for some years. But now that they have children, they’ve come full circle and are looking for a Jewish preschool” and, perhaps, synagogue affiliation as well, Kent said.

While the BJE already has a large database of information on Jewish schools and programs around the city, the concierges also visit programs in their territory, “meeting with directors, finding the strengths and uniqueness of each school,” adding to and revising their information, Prum Hess said.

They also use a Web-based customer relations management program, Salesforce, in which the concierges continually update information gathered from each client contact; they do the same with details about programs, schools and even one-time activities. Each new item entered into the system triggers an e-mail to families for whom it is appropriate. Once a client’s information has been entered, the software also triggers reminders to the concierges to contact clients at times of transition, i.e., from preschool to elementary or day school to religious school.

Right at the Start

It’s not only that children are killing children. There’s also the fact, chronicled in such publications as U.S. News & World Report, that cheating is up in classrooms across the nation. No wonder educators of all stripes are pondering what it takes to teach ethics to their students.

Because children’s behavior is molded at an early age, it was fitting that the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), in planning its 20th annual Early Childhood Spring Institute, chose as its theme “Educating An Ethical Child in the 21st Century.” On March 6, nearly 1,100 Jewish preschool teachers joined 80 parents of young children to explore the Jewish side of moral education.