SMJCS starts first semester as fully merged school

(From left) Zahava Kiernan, Riva Stern and Daniel Shanker sit in the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School gymnasium before Simchat Gan, a ceremony marking the first day of school for kindergarten students. Photos: Yana Hotter

Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Merging two organizations of any kind may be fraught with troublesome issues that can haunt all concerned for years. So blending a Reform and a Conservative day school into a new Jewish school — with different approaches to Biblical studies and food, among other considerations— could cause problems that eventually could derail the effort.

Yet for the students, the goal is constant, said Cheryl Maayan, head of school at the new Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. She also was the head of the former Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy (RJA), which merged earlier this year with the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School. However, the day-to-day operations of the merger have begun to be realized with the start of the school year last week.

“The goal is, we want our students to be comfortable in any Jewish environment,” Maayan said. “These are the kids who will be our leaders one day.”

After classes began Aug. 15 at the new Jewish school for 165 students in grades kindergarten through eighth, community leaders say the experience has been positive.

Joanna Dulkin, Hazzan at Shaare Zedek Synagogue, has two sons at the new school. They were at the RJA last year.

“So far, we are really excited,” she said. Her son came home and exclaimed: “First grade is the best.”

She added: “This is the kind of school where the kids are sad when they can’t go to school . . . I’m even more happy that the school is teaching the kids to be mensches in the world.”

In creating the new staff, teaching and administrative staffs members from RJA and Schechter were observed and interviewed, Maayan said. Each member of the faculty was asked to write a personal statement about the role they would play in helping the school to achieve its mission. 

Putting together the two teaching and administrative staffs meant that some were not hired with one-year contracts for the new school, Maayan said. Seventeen teachers from Schechter are teaching in the new school, with 20 carried over from RJA. About five were let go and several of the Schechter teachers retired, she said.

Yet the rehiring process gave the new school the opportunity to get to know members of the faculty more completely, she said.

Some believe the process that board members, parents and administrators of RJA and Schechter developed for the merger process can be an example of how a clear, shared vision of a greater good can overcome fears of change and pettiness.

“In terms of organizational mergers, bringing together people with different philosophies but a similar mission, this process has been relatively bump free,” said Dana DeBlasi, a parent of two boys in the school who had attended RJA. She’s associate director of development for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

The boards of the two schools agreed to create a new day school to maximize such resources as teachers, books, computers and a building.

RJA had been located at B’nai El Congregation while Schechter students met on the campus of Congregation B’nai Amoona, in the same building where the new school is housed.

“Our community has no choice but to do this,” DeBlasi said. “We have more infrastructure than ability to support.”

Enrollment at Schechter had been 93, while RJA had 77 students. Maayan and some board members — drawn in equal number from the two schools’ boards — expect the merged student body to grow if the school proves itself to the Jewish community.

“We want to teach respect and tolerance for each other as Jews,” said Galia Movitz, vice chairman of the combined board and immediate past president of the Schechter board. “The common denominator is that we are all Jewish. We may choose different practices. The earlier we can expose our children to different practices in Judaism, the better they will be.”

To that end, the school has issued policies covering ritual wear and food and kashrut.

“We honor family choice regarding the wearing of kippot and other ritual wear,” the one-page statement says. “Our curriculum is coordinated with our policies to teach students how and why the policies are consistent with Jewish values and how they embrace both Jewish tradition and modern Jewish practice.”

Maayan noted that daily services alternate between Reform and Conservative practice.

“There is a difference in tunes” when students sing, she said. “During the Reform service, there is more discussion about the prayers. During the Conservative services, we want students to experience the flow of davening.”

As for food, another potentially delicate issue, the school created a kashrut policy that attempted to respect Conservative and Reform families.

All food served by the school for lunches — SMJCS emphasizes organic and if possible, locally produced menu items — is prepared in the supervised kosher kitchen at B’nai Amoona. Dairy and meat lunches are served on different days.

Students may bring kosher or non-kosher (no pork or shellfish is allowed) lunches and snacks from home. Parents are encouraged to consider not mixing meat and dairy items in food brought from home. The school has a policy of not allowing personal foods to be shared among students; parents bringing snacks for students at birthday or special celebrations are required to bring supervised kosher food items which are baked and boxed by a kosher commercial bakery or purchased commercially prepackaged.

Maayan has used the new school as a way to bring best practices in the contemporary day-school movement to St. Louis. In the past year, she visited three schools in Boston, one in New York and one in Minneapolis, all with the intent of gleaning the best ideas she could find.

Maayan said that as part of the school’s participation into the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project,  SMJCS Director of Jewish Life Carol Rubin also speaks by phone each week with Rabbi Sheryl Katzman. Katzman is affiliated with the AVI CHAI Foundation; the project is run through the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Katzman also will visit the school four times a year, with one coming early next month.

When Katzman and Rubin talk, it’s about the curriculum and how to ensure a strong Biblical emphasis, fine-tuned to be grade appropriate.

“We ask, ‘What do we want the kids to know?’” Katzman said in a phone interview. “We start at the eighth grade and work backwards. The Bible is the Bible. The Conservative and Reform [movements] have a pretty similar approach to studying text. Later on, choice may play out.”

Movitz, an Israeli by birth, said she believes this school merger can show the way past some of the divisiveness that occasionally besets parts of the Jewish community.

“I hope this will serve as a model nationwide, something that others can look at and say, ‘Here’s an example of success.’ There’s no reason to have three congregations serving one group of people”

Some in the local community point to the new school as a “best practice” that congregations here could follow, especially in light of declining membership and rising operating costs. Still, say those involved with the day school merger, the effort to this point has been intense.

“It was not easy,” said Movitz. “It’s hard to get people off their mindset. They see things one way. Maybe they couldn’t see beyond that.”

However, what mattered was the ideal of educating students to be well-rounded and well-grounded in Jewish learning and tradition.

“At our first meeting [of the combined boards from the two schools], we all were comfortable right away,” Movitz added. “We are all community-minded people.”

As such, the new school received a $250,000 pledge from Federation to help with the transition, to support a campaign for capital improvements and to create an endowment. And a fundraising campaign in the spring netted $2.7 million. The goal is to raise between $3 million and $5 million.