Conservative, Orthodox, pluralistic and Reform day school organizations to merge

Five North American Jewish day school organizations and networks representing more than 375 schools from across the denominational spectrum are merging.

The Jewish Community Day School Network, or RAVSAK, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE, Yeshiva University School Partnership, the Schechter Day School Network and Day Schools of Reform Judaism, or PARDES, announced in a news release Tuesday they have agreed to “move forward towards the formation of a new, integrated North American Jewish day school organization.”

RAVSAK represents nondenominational Jewish schools, the Schechter network is affiliated with the Conservative movement and Yeshiva University mostly serves modern and centrist Orthodox schools. Together, the schools represented by the five groups enroll about 40 percent of the total number 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.

The merger comes as enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools is declining and centrist and modern Orthodox school enrollment is flat. Haredi Orthodox 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.

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 the news release.

The merging organizations began combining their annual conferences in 2010.

The still unnamed new entity is “committed to improving financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools, and supporting a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field,” the release states. “It will work directly with schools, cohorts of schools, and individual professional and lay leaders to strengthen skills and build capacity in areas of teaching and learning, leadership, governance, affordability, recruitment, retention, fund development and endowment building.”

The new group will “network colleagues and schools of different ideologies and geographies to address shared challenges and capitalize on shared opportunities, while still providing distinct services and counsel to schools from within similar streams.”

The decision to merge follows an almost year-long planning process facilitated in part by the Avi Chai Foundation, which has pledged financial support for the new organization until the foundation shuts down operations in 2019.

In a joint statement, the planning team, representing leaders from each group, said,“The formation of a single integrated day school organization will optimize the quality of services we provide to the schools we serve, giving them the resources they need to build the strongest possible future. It is a definitive affirmation of the centrality of day schools in Jewish life and reflects our dedication to seeing Jewish learning, literacy, culture and commitment flourish in a rapidly changing world.”

The new organization, which has begun a branding process to select its name and “develop an identity that reflects a unified, cooperative and fresh vision of the day school field,” plans to launch this summer.

Why some public school parents are switching to Jewish day schools

When Ali Martell’s eldest daughter reached school age, Martell and her husband both assumed she’d go to a Jewish day school, as they had.

And for a while, she did. But after the couple’s two younger children started school, too, the Martells began to feel overburdened by tuition. They couldn’t afford to send their kids to the summer camp of their choice, replace their aging minivan or go to Israel for a cousin’s bar mitzvah. So three years ago, they pulled their kids out of their Toronto Jewish day school and enrolled them in public school.

But this fall, Martell’s kids are all going back to Jewish day schools.

“My husband I were both happy that we had a bit of financial flexibility, but we were really missing the Jewish day school system,” Martell told JTA. “We just didn’t feel connected to the community like the way our kids were when we were in Jewish day schools.”

The last straw came on Israeli Independence Day this past May, when Martell found herself teary eyed watching her friends’ day school kids marching down a blocked-off street wearing Israel’s blue and white. For her kids, Yom Haatzmaut was just a regular school day.

“As a family, we were all feeling that little piece was missing from our lives,” Martell said.

The Martells are among the many Jewish families who are making the switch this fall from public school to Jewish day school. Though precise data about such students doesn’t exist, record-keeping at the Avi Chai Foundation suggests that the annual number of switchover students is at least in the hundreds: In the last year alone, Avi Chai was aware of 200 or so public school children switching to Jewish high school.

While transferring the opposite direction, from Jewish day school to public school, is probably more common and has an obvious financial benefit, there are a variety of factors motivating families to go the other way.

Many do so for the same reason families choose Jewish day school from the get-go: because they value a Jewish education. Without the financial means, some families opt to split their kids’ education between public school in the early years, then Jewish day school once they’re older (or vice versa).

For others, the decision can be motivated as much by “push” factors — such as the shortcomings of the local public schools — as “pull” factors, like the benefits of full-time Jewish education.

“Some people who transition to Jewish day schools are transitioning out of public school because they’ve decided the public school system doesn’t work for them,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, a network of 135 community Jewish day schools. “They perceived the quality of the public school education is not high, or their child excels in certain areas in ways the school cannot serve those needs.”

Andrea Askowitz, a mother in Miami, said she switched her kids into a Jewish day school only because her local public school, Sunset Elementary, was way too rigorous.

“I wasn’t drawn to the Jewishness, just drawn away from the inhumanity,” Askowitz said.

Some parents don’t realize what they’re missing until their child already is in public school and the parents gradually become aware of the importance of having their kid in a Jewish environment – to say nothing of the benefits of a formal Jewish education, Kramer said.

He recalled one public school father whose “aha moment” came halfway through a Passover seder, when he observed with disbelief how his friend’s day school-educated kids seemed capable of leading the seder.

“They see their friends’ kids, and they see they’re happy, excelling, building competency in Hebrew,” Kramer said. “They have the realization that unless you’re in this game you can’t play beyond the beginner level.”

Northwest Yeshiva High School, the only modern Orthodox high school in the Seattle area, usually gets a few students every year from public schools. Melissa Rivkin, the school’s advancement director, says many come from families who would have preferred Jewish education throughout but just couldn’t afford it.

“They either are from families who save until high school and then will put their kids in a Jewish school in high school because those are very pivotal years in a teenager’s life and they want them to have Jewish values, Jewish education, Jewish friends,” Rivkin said. “Or, they are kids who were in public school and didn’t like it — maybe it was too big, or the social group was too fragmented — and they’re looking at our school more as a community environment.”

Some enroll simply because they want the benefits of a small school, like access to teachers and fewer students in each classroom; Northwest Yeshiva has only 60 students in total.

For Barret Gruber Harr, a Reform Jew whose two daughters are switching this fall from public school to Hillel Day School near Detroit, the decision to switch was a convergence of considerations. She and her husband weren’t happy with their kids’ local public school, which had denied her eldest daughter’s diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They had considered Hillel two years ago when they moved to the area from Dallas, but they were put off by its seeming Orthodoxy.

Then they learned from friends that Hillel recently had undergone a philosophical change, and they took a second look. Initially skeptical, they fell in love with the school almost immediately. Harr, who is getting a master’s degree in Jewish education, says Hillel appears to be doing everything right.

“Every class we went in the kids were deeply engaged, the teachers were charismatic,” she said of her tour of the school. “They’re really cultivating 21st-century learners, and to really love Jewish values, and teaching collaboratively and creatively. I was crying by the end of the tour. I will eat ramen for the rest of my life so my kids can go to this school.”

Miriam Greenstein, who lives in the Northeast, decided to make the switch this year for her oldest daughter, who is entering the sixth grade. She had been at a Hebrew charter school,  a publicly funded school, but Greenstein decided that having excellent Hebrew-language studies and Jews among her peers just wasn’t enough.

“This is her bat mitzvah year. She’s missing out on the Jewish part of her education, and that’s important to us,” Greenstein said. “When it’s Purim, I want her to feel like it’s Purim that day. When it’s Chanukah, I want her to feel it’s Chanukah all week long. You’re not going to get that in a public school. And that’s an experience I want my daughter to have.”

The challenge of pluralistic day schools

More than 225 Jewish educators from pluralistic community day schools across the country convened in Los Angeles for four days of networking and brainstorming last month.

The 20th annual conference of Ravsak: Jewish Community Day School Network, held at the Biltmore Millennium Downtown, was the organization’s first conference in Los Angeles and its largest ever.

Ravsak — an acronym for the Hebrew meaning Jewish Community Day Schools Network — was founded 20 years ago with about 12 schools. By 1994 there were 27, and by this year there are 120, a reflection of the tremendous growth in day school attendance across the country.

The theme of the conference, underwritten in part by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, was “Everything to Everyone: The Challenges, Limits and Opportunities of Jewish Community Day School Education.”

The theme stemmed from the reality that as attendance at community day schools has mushroomed, the socioeconomic levels, cultural background, learning styles and Jewish affiliation of the students and families has become increasingly diverse.

While 20 years ago day school attendance was dominated by families that were already Jewishly committed and observant to varying degrees, that is no longer the case.

“Today we see families with new commitments, families whose commitment to the Jewish people is largely articulated through enrollment in Jewish day school, who are building their lives based on what the kids do in school,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak, pointing out that a growing percentage of children have only one Jewish parent.

Some topics covered at the conference could have applied to any school — students’ sexual identity, mental health and learning differences, lay leadership, philanthropy and legal issues. Other issues pertained specifically to community day schools — how to create inclusive prayer atmospheres, forging an attachment to Israel and the Jewish people and successfully integrating sub-communities, such as the Orthodox, the Reform or the intermarried.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino delivered the opening keynote speech, challenging leaders to question their assumptions about community day schools.

Pardes, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, folded its conference into the Ravsak conference, and the North American Association of Jewish High Schools recently merged with Ravsak, which had previously dealt mostly with kindergarten through eighth-grade schools.

Aside from the conference, Ravsak provides leadership training, consulting services and curricular and staffing initiatives for day schools, and recently opened a new Center for Jewish Day School Education, as a laboratory of ideas for teachers and administrators.

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Jewish Leaders Help LAUSD Tackle Diversity

Five Jewish leaders were among the 22 appointees to a new Human Relations Council for the LAUSD Board of Education. The council will advise and review policies and make recommendations to the Board of Education on matters related to human relations, diversity and equity.

Appointed to the board were: Dan Alba, L.A. regional director of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that educates students and teachers about how to apply lessons of tolerance through understanding the Holocaust; Jenny Betz, project director of the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute, which runs cultural diversity and tolerance workshops for students and teachers; Rabbi Allen Freehling, executive director of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission and rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue in Brentwood; Beverly Lemay, program manager at the Museum of Tolerance, which hosts thousands of school children each year; and Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, executive director of Jewish World Watch, which raises awareness and funds to stop genocide throughout the world.

“In a community as diverse as Los Angeles, community leaders must have a role in developing policies that emphasize the importance of tolerance and respect of other cultures,” said School Board President Marlene Canter. “The Council provides a formal, ongoing forum for our community partners to voice their opinions and concerns.”

Hillel Pumps Up the College-Bound

Los Angeles Hillel Council’s March 18 “Get Into College Conference and College Fair” is geared toward helping Jewish students and their parents understand the importance of Jewish life and community in deciding which college to choose. Aside from general information about schools and admissions, the fair focuses on topics such as Jewish life on campus, how to deal with anti-Semitism, cults and anti-Israel rhetoric and a parents-only session on letting go and helping your student succeed.

The conference takes place March 18, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles.

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Free Spirits Wanted

Alex Melamed
Shalhevet senior Alex Melamed was one of 102 student journalists nationwide — a male and female from each state — to win an Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholarship from Freedom Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to a free press. Along with a $1,000 scholarship to the college of his choice, Melamed will be flown to Washington, D.C., in March to receive the award and attend a journalism conference. Two of the 102 winners will be chosen for an additional $50,000 scholarship.

Melamed, who emigrated from Ukraine at age 6, worked his way up to being editor in chief of The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s newspaper.

Some of the topics he has written about include an examination of the specific mandates of Jewish journalism and a three-part series on Torah and evolution. As editor in chief, he has motivated young writers to push themselves to write complex articles.

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Science Scholars Receive Awards at Milken

Six Milken Community High School students received Excellence in Science Awards from the American Technion Society Southern California Chapter. The awards are part of a collaboration between Milken and the American Technion Society meant to foster more interest and expertise in science while promoting closer ties to Israel and Technion, Israel’s leading science and technology university. In addition to the awards, professors and researchers from Technion have visited Milken science classes and the Technion website is available for use in researching the science projects.

The winners were: Alixandra Kriegsman, 10th grade, for “Indigo vs. Dycromine Dye — Which is More Colorfast?”; Abigail Zwick, 10th grade, for “Effect of Wearing a Swim Cap on Streamline Velocities”; Jonathan Batscha, ninth grade, for “Determining the pH of Various Soils Affected by the Simi Valley (2005) Fires”; Yael Cypers, ninth grade, for “Calculating the Salt Concentrations of Various Sidewalk Samples”; and Madison Friedman, ninth grade, and Daniel Reisfeld, ninth grade, for a study of increasing efficiency of photovoltaic cells.