Parents react to proposed RJA-SSDS merger

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Several parents whose children attend either Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy (RJA) or Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis (SSDS) expressed cautious optimism in the wake of learning about a possible merger of the two schools for the 2012-2013 academic year.

“I’m generally excited about the prospect and open to hearing how this transition would take shape,” said Dave Simon, whose son, Levi, is a first-grader at RJA. “I was talking to a couple of RJA dads and they were somewhat fearful about this. They are Reform and they’re concerned about their kids being in a more observant setting. I am sure there are many Conservative-affiliated Jews who are concerned that there may be less emphasis on Judaic and Hebrew studies.

“In a way I suppose this challenges our Jewish identities. I find that often the kids in (Jewish) day schools are turning their parents onto Judaism by expressing what it means to them.”

Last week, the Jewish Light reported that the chairs of the two schools have signed a letter of intent authorizing their boards to “conduct due diligence” and develop a definitive merger agreement in the next month or two. Parents also received letters last week informing them of the board’s plans and inviting them to meetings at their respective schools to ask questions and discuss their concerns.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

For the integration of the schools to take effect, each school’s board will need to approve a formal agreement by a two-thirds majority.

Marci Boyer, who has children in the first and fourth grades at SSDS, thinks the two schools coming together is a “great” idea.

“It makes perfect sense,” said Boyer, who lives in Creve Coeur. “Neither of the two schools is really growing. Both are doing fine but if we brought the kids all together, there would be more resources, more money, more options and we could have one amazing school instead of two good ones.”

Like Simon, Boyer understands that RJA and SSDS have different educational philosophies, noting those differences might not only pose concerns to some parents but be stumbling blocks. “Hopefully, those details could be ironed out to make it work,” she said.

Separating the adults’ issues from what would truly be best for the children is most important to Jamie Sentnor, who has two children at RJA.

“If this is what is going to save both schools and allow our kids to get an excellent Jewish education in the most fiscally responsible way, teaching them Jewish values and helping them to become mensches, I am all for it,” she said. “But if it will compromise the basic tenants and values of Reform Jewish Academy, then I’m not in favor of it.”

Sentnor, like several other parents interviewed, hopes the process of moving forward with the merger won’t marginalize the way anyone celebrates Judaism. “We’ve got to get away from this us-and-them mentality,” she said. “People basically have good intentions and the truth is, there is overlap between the two schools. If we could work together to give the kids the best education and the most resources possible, that would be terrific.”

Abby Kelman supports the merger, adding her only proviso is that a combined school be community based. Her youngest daughter is a seventh grader at SSDS and her older three all attended at one time.

“One of my concerns is that there are so many turf issues here in St. Louis,” said Kelman. “But to me there is no substitute for a good Jewish day school education. If there can be a community-based, pluralistic Jewish day school that encompasses Reform through Modern Orthodox, I’d be all over it like a cheap suit.

“My hope is that everyone comes to the table with an open mind. If that happens, I think this can be done.”

Meanwhile, both Cheryl Maayan, head of school at RJA and William C. Rowe, interim head of school at SSDS, having been meeting in small groups with parents. Both said that while they are hearing considerable support for the proposal, there are also many questions. Maayan and Rowe said they want to give parents more of an opportunity to process the issue and be able to talk with them directly before commenting further.