A Schooled Response

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Can a Jewish community education and engagement program exist and prosper within a local Jewish Federation?

The answer’s easy: Of course it can. But there are plenty of other questions to ask and answer.

The Jewish Light reported April 30 that the Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) and Jewish Federation of St. Louis have delved far into the process of folding the former’s programs into the latter. The same week’s issue included an explanatory analysis piece about the proposal by Federation president and CEO Andrew Rehfeld. The groups are working together to encourage open dialogue to build the most effective combination.

The concept of the Federation offering such education services isn’t at all inconsistent with what has occurred in other cities. Many of these integrations have allowed for a healthy set of education programs like those that CAJE deploys.

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Communities where an integration has been accomplished in a sensible, deliberate manner have been more likely to have successes than those in which agencies were at odds, or where an existing organization was basically left to atrophy while another group picked up the pieces. That’s not a model for optimizing success in any context.

And that’s not the model here. The groups have devoted significant collaborative attention and thought to the matter and have reached the point where more public attention to detail can and should ensue.

Since the public announcement of the integration, the Light has endeavored to understand the proposal from the agencies’ and other perspectives, by talking with representatives of the Federation, CAJE and a variety of voices within the community.

Based on the entirety of those discussions, we are not aware of anything that seems likely to derail the process of integration. Community members certainly have the prerogative to opine on whether the process should culminate in the combination, or whether Federation is the right home for CAJE’s services. But because many combinations of this nature have worked while some haven’t, the yes-no questions are of limited utility; the value of analysis lies in assessing whether the merger can be accomplished to the overall betterment of the community.

To that end, we offer a set of considerations that ought be addressed both as part of the integration process and on an ongoing basis. Consider it a “study guide” of sorts, one that relates to both the substantive success of the endeavor and to its perception by community members. Some of these questions have already been suggested by the two agencies’ leaders as important to the dialogue leading up to a final determination by the two boards.

1. Community oversight and lay leadership: The mission of the existing CAJE is “to support and provide opportunities for lifelong Jewish learning to ensure that the St. Louis Jewish Community and its values survive and flourish.” (Engagement was de facto added to the mission over the past couple years — and agency leaders now refer to it as Central Agency for Jewish Education and Engagement.)

The lay CAJE board exists to ensure fulfillment of that mission and to provide vision, strategic guidance and advocacy for the agency’s programs. How does the new structure, if existing as a program or department of Federation, guarantee that independent advocacy for the education component remains strong and distinct? Will there be advisory or other ongoing oversight to ensure the place of Jewish education in the agency and community? And on issues of curriculum and philosophy, will the longstanding input from rabbis and other experienced Jewish educators on program creation and evaluation continue to flow regularly and meaningfully?

2. Educational Resources: Federation and CAJE have made clear that the quality personnel of the existing education agency would remain intact in its new home, which is great. How will resources be deployed to sustain both staffing (as required) and scope of services? What assurance is there that the education component will successfully compete for resources among the various Federation programs? Will the education and engagement components themselves compete for resources? The answers to these questions may relate quite directly to the lay advocacy questions described in paragraph (1) above. Will support for other groups that conduct education programs be affected directly or indirectly by the integration, either now or down the road, and can the potential effects be anticipated and addressed?

3. Engagement: What does the “engagement” component of CAJE’s work mean in the context of the integration? CAJE already has responsibility for several areas of engagement that overlap with its education goals either directly or indirectly. But a variety of other agencies — in fact, almost all of them, including us — participate in engagement in one form of another. 

What effect will the new collaboration’s engagement activities, however they may evolve, have on the delivery of outreach and engagement services by other agencies and programs? How does the overall community effort toward outreach and engagement best promote and maximize the strengths of each agency for the good of the Jewish community?

4. Agency health and well being: Federation’s substantive role is to further its mission and its strategic plan, adopted in 2010. Education, community infrastructure and administrative efficiencies, all addressed by this combination, are well within the Federation wheelhouse. And Federation has achieved successes in bringing added value to the community’s other agencies, both on the service-delivery side in the area of professional support and development, and in savings for insurance and other rising costs.

Still, the implementation model under Federation’s current strategic plan has resulted in less emphasis on direct agency allocations, and more on grant and targeted funding. The resultant environment is one in which agencies, against the backdrop of a challenging philanthropic world, fret about overall support for their role as primary program providers. As we all know, the size of the overall pie available for programmatic and agency funding is not entirely elastic. Will this particular combination, especially as it relates to the somewhat amorphous area of engagement, have any impact on other groups’ financial health?

5. Quantitative and qualitative evaluation: What standards and tools will be utilized to understand the successes (or failures) of the integrated model? Is it expected that the collaboration will result in more participants in programs or stem the longtime decline in enrollment that many communities, including this one, have faced? The Federation itself has a rigorous agency review process, and has utilized a logic-based model to determine targeted funding and judge its success; will there be similar analytical expectations in this instance?

These five subjects are not only important, but also sensitive, to address. As such, some readers might infer a particular agenda from our words. For instance, as a Federated agency (we receive about 6 percent of our funding from the Federation), some might think we are inherently predisposed in favor of these two agencies’ actions. Others might contrarily assume that as an independent journalistic institution, we are duty bound to poke holes in the proposal or offer criticism for its own sake.

Neither could be further from the truth. We recognize that the mission and programs CAJE has provided give true and substantial value to the fabric of our Jewish community and that for the future health of that community, the matrix of youth and adult Jewish education — whether offered by CAJE, the Federation, day schools, synagogues, the JCC, Chabad, Aish HaTorah or others — must continue in a high-quality manner.

We have zero doubt about the capabilities of CAJE and Federation laypersons and staff to envision, design, craft and implement first-rate educational programming from a professional perspective. Nor do we have doubt about the level of commitment and dedication of any of the parties involved.

All we ask — as we continually ask of ourselves, here at the Light — is that our collective decisions best support the delivery of services necessary to a healthy and vibrant St. Louis Jewish community. 

To ask about the matters above is not to be critical of the merger decision or the work of the agencies involved. Quite the contrary: Our goal is to encourage everyone in the community to pose questions and contemplate answers about how we, together, build as bright a future as possible. To not ask would be apathy, and apathy, not discourse, is our most dreaded enemy.