Merger talks part of a national trend

Edward Edelstein, executive director of the Cedarhurst

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Last month, Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS) and Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy (RJA) announced a tentative merger plan for the 2012-13 school year.

The decision exemplified a trend across Jewish communities where institutions of various types from synagogues to organizations are increasingly looking to merge in order to create new structures that add value to the services they provide. In the case of SSDS and SMDS-RJA, the eventual model would be cross-denominational bringing together Reform and Conservative institutions, something that’s becoming more popular as day schools search for different paradigms in which to deliver education.

“The movement towards community day schools is probably the fastest-growing segment within the day school marketplace,” said Dr. Marc Kramer, director of RAVSAK, a continent-wide network of broad-based community Jewish day schools. “It’s a natural outgrowth of changes in the Jewish community where there is a broad social and cultural trend towards personal autonomy and idiosyncratic, very personal notions of what it means to be Jewish and how to act on one’s Jewishness.”

That’s been reflected in the growth of RAVSAK. Over the past decade, the New York-based group has expanded from 69 community schools to 121. Since 2002, conference attendance has increased nearly 12-fold.

The appeal is obvious. Community schools can cast a wider net to attract more students leading to more viable institutions. But it’s also provided an outlet for some in the Jewish community during a time when debates over patrilineal descent and the definition of who is a Jew continue to find the spotlight.

“In a community in which there are increasing numbers of interfaith families, perhaps for some people, that pluralistic model which is offered by the community school is something they are more comfortable with,” said Steven Kraus, a senior education consultant with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA).

Despite the advantages, the concept of a community school does come with challenges. For one thing, RAVSAK’s Kramer said that a community school is truly on its own with no larger movement to guide it.

“If there is a school that is aligned with a particular denomination, the leaders can turn to that denomination for standards and normative practices, accepted language, textbooks, curriculum, what have you, but in the community day school where governance in all ways is local, their leadership has to decide these things among themselves,” he said.

Kramer said the key to success is finding the right formula, one that is pluralistic, diverse and non-coercive.

“They have to do two things,” he said. “They have to look inward and say, what’s the kind of community we want to foster here and they have to look outward and ask what the broader Jewish community around them need, want, do and aspire to do and craft policies from there.”

That means eliminating issues such as whether children keep kosher at home.

“What they are not going to do is create things that are going to impose the school’s inner life on the families outside of school,” he added.

The bottom line is that any school merger comes with a myriad of issues, said Edward Edelstein, executive director of the Cedarhurst, N.Y.-based Jewish Educators Assembly.

“There are ideological differences, cultural differences between institutions,” he said. “It’s always difficult putting two institutions together but it’s not insurmountable and sometimes you do come out with a better, stronger institution at the end.”

Edelstein said that often the biggest obstacle to mergers is that there is simply no one to merge with. Many Jewish communities may have only one day school in the area, causing mergers to be something of a rarity.

But the intangibles of a merger are a tough sell as well.

“It’s not a bad thing but it has to be thought through very carefully and with a lot of sensitivity,” he said. “Both sides have to want it because there is a lot of compromise involved and you have to let go of some of your traditions. That’s hard to do sometimes.”

Edelstein said that mergers have become increasingly attractive however as enrollments have dropped. While Orthodox families often have a strong expectation of their children having a day school education, Conservative and Reform institutions can suffer more severely during tough times.

“In the non-Orthodox world, the challenge is just how important [a day school education] is to individual family members,” he said. “For many, many families, day schools are viewed as an option, not a requirement. When it works and it’s convenient, fine, and when it’s not, it’s expendable.”

That said, there are a number of different models and ideas for schools to pull from.

“Sometimes, you have economies of scale where one school maintains separate campuses so you may be able to cut down on administration to some extent,” Edelstein said. “You have only one board, larger buying power and a consolidated budget.”

Kramer said another idea involves schools sharing resources or staff.

“Two or three schools in a given location may agree to share the same art teacher who does two days a week in each one,” he said. “There may also be conversations about how to share back office features in some ways.”

Kraus said even more exotic models exist as well, including methods that keep schools viable by expanding their appeal beyond the Jewish community, such as with a Hebrew-themed charter school. He said another idea in Ohio saw a small day school grow its area of interest.

“You can go and take the Judaics curriculum but there’s also a world cultures curriculum for others,” he said. “It’s in the context of a school which keeps kosher, is closed for holidays but has a much more international/world cultures flavor. It’s not your typical day school. That’s another example of what communities are trying to do.”

Kramer said he was familiar with the situation in St. Louis.

“It’s two schools full of great educators, great leaders and great boards and they will find a way to do the hard work,” he said. “I’m incredibly optimistic about their ability to do this, acknowledging that it won’t be easy but it’s doable and they are going to have success on the other side of the story.”