Editorial: Come Together

We reported several weeks ago about a proposed merger between two Jewish day schools in St. Louis, the Reform Jewish Academy-Saul Mirowitz Day School (RJA) and the Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS). After an exhaustive and exhausting process of engagement by both schools, the Jewish Federation and the community, the two nonprofits’ boards voted to move forward with the process of due diligence to consider whether and how to complete such an arrangement.

It’s not our business to tell other organizations how to conduct their internal business, of course. But if the question is asked as to whether we believe a permanent and substantial collaborative effort between the schools is beneficial to the community, we think the answer is an emphatic yes.

The first reason is from a community policy perspective. Jewish education for children and teens is critical to a vibrant Jewish world (or as the Jewish Federation of St. Louis puts it in its new motto, a “thriving” one). Whether through synagogue-based religious school, a community-wide effort such as the Central Agency for Jewish Education or full day-school education, the cultural and religious learning and sharing among a next generation of Jews reinforces whatever values are shared in a home setting.

Second is simply nuts and bolts. These are two highly capable educational institutions that have been forced to fight fires they largely cannot control – enrollments that are flat at best and shrinking at worst; increasing cost structures; and a recession that has rocked the nonprofit world. To have the benefit of a shared building (as is being proposed at the current SSDS location) and other joint infrastructure expenses is to enable more spending on things that matter most.

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Third is the things that matter most, namely, teaching, philanthropy and marketing. A healthy and lasting day school must serve the principal mission of a quality Jewish education, to focus efforts on the revenue needed to effectively operate (and provide opportunities for those in financial need), and to tell the story of Jewish day school education so as to reach out to as many prospective students as possible.

We understand there are those who fear the loss of cultural identity and educational philosophy of each school in forming a single operating entity on a single campus. The discussion about these issues is absolutely critical to shaping a day school that can prosper. But we are not comparing the outcome here to a utopian scenario in which both schools have hundreds upon hundreds of students, and endowments that would allow for both excellent learning and financial sustenance. Real-world problems require real-world solutions, and we believe the presently suggested solution is the right one.

We cannot overemphasize the ability of Jews, not only in this community but through history, to adapt and evolve. True, we tend to focus myopically on the here and now and the familiar, but that lens is only available when facts allow. While change alone is hardly a reason to support this proposed merger, neither is it a reason to reject it. We are Jews before the combination and we will be Jews thereafter, and we have the intellectual resources to determine how best to educate varying strands and movements within the community, whether in this instance or others.

We are gratified that those involved in these institutions, from the school communities, the Federation and beyond, have devoted countless hours, sweat and smarts to analyzing, discussing and encouraging the collaborative path for these two great schools. Their labor, regardless of their view on the ultimate outcome, exhibits the love and nurturing necessary to carry not only Jewish education, but other key community elements, forward into an emphatically positive future.

In supporting the concept of this combination, we reserve a more general discussion about mergers and collaborations among Jewish organizations. They may be fitting in some instances and not so much in others, and can take many forms, ranging from partnership on a specific event, to ongoing programmatic alliances (such as our Can We Talk? Series with the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Community Relations Council) to mergers and consolidations. Facts, context, support and a tremendous amount of thinking and listening go into determining what’s best in a particular situation.

While the offer of a quarter million dollars from the Federation to a new school is exceedingly generous and helpful to the cause of merger, it does not in and of itself win the day; imagine if another voice offered the same or greater amount not to merge? No, the winning formula must be a clear vision, accompanied both by long-term, well-constructed planning and the ability to acquire requisite resources. We find that combination in abundance in this context, and that is why we strongly support the concept behind this proposed merger.