New directions for federation’s educational services
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New directions for federation’s educational services

With planning survey completed, new programs launched

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A promotional card prepared by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey for Jewish early childhood programs.

How can the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey best help the 31 synagogue-based religious schools and 46 Jewish early childhood programs that serve the community?

That was the question organizational consultant Debra Brosan was hired to examine last year.

“Enhancing the affordability and accessibility of Jewish cultural and learning experiences” is one of the federation’s three priorities.

At one point, the federation’s Jewish Educational Services department featured a sizable staff and budget. But the financial crisis in 2008 and the effects of Bernie Madoff’s fraud made a significant cut to the federation’s revenues and programming. Funding has remained stagnant,and the federation has not seen a return to its 2007 fundraising and programmatic heyday.

So what to do?

A year ago, the federation announced that it would suspend the two conferences it has been organizing for Jewish educators, one for congregational educators and the other for early childhood educators. Instead, the money would be used for a consultant to evaluate the federation’s programs for these constituencies. (Most of the federation’s support for area day schools continued uninterrupted, though it also stopped organizing regular meetings for day school principals.)

“We don’t have enough bandwidth staff-wise to parallel everything we’re doing while undergoing a process to identify the priority areas,” the federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, told the Jewish Standard last year.

So Brosan interviewed educators and congregational leaders about what they wanted from the federation, ran focus groups, and sent surveys to area Jewish educational insiders, parents of students in congregational and early childhood programs, and parents whose children are not enrolled in a Jewish framework. She received 175 surveys.

The challenge was to figure out “the impactful use of available resources,” Lisa Harris Glass, the federation’s director of Jewish educational services, said.

With the study concluded, Glass prepared a summary of the report for federation lay leaders.

She said the study supported the federation’s role as a Jewish educational leader. “There was a really obvious desire for the federation’s Jewish Educational Services division to be the center, to bring resources and the newest ideas and make them accessible for our community,” she said. Respondents also wanted the federation to take its expertise in helping synagogues change and help their schools change too.

The result is a new program called ATID, an acronym that is the Hebrew word for “future,” taken from the initials from Addressing Transformative Innovative Design in Jewish Education.

Five congregations – now being selected from eight applicants – will take part in ATID this year. JES will work with a team from each school that includes the rabbi, the education director, a teacher, the chair of the education committee, and a board member.

“We’re looking for them to determine an area where they would like to innovate or change, and then we’ll help them go through the process of doing that,” Glass said. “The idea is not that they’ll have a brand new school for September of 2014, but ideally they’ll have a pilot that in one or two grades will meet needs in a different way.”

“ATID is a perfect example of how Federation creates synergies by bringing different groups together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” said Shames.

“Whether it’s with an initiative like ATID, or in other areas that matter to the Jewish community, Federation stands ready and able to convene, collaborate, and call on others to collaborate,” he said.

In November the federation will host a conference about non-traditional models of synagogue education, “to spark the idea for change.”

The survey also identified a need to help congregational schools use educational technology. So, in the first immediate result of the study, the federation is offering an Israel-based online class in educational technology for 10 school directors. For the early childhood piece of the educational picture, one theme that emerged was the federation’s role in enhancing collaboration.

“There was desire to raise the profile of the value of choosing a Jewish childhood program, to explain why that should be the choice,” Glass said.

So the federation has designed a promotional card to promote the idea of Jewish early childhood education, which will be customized with each program’s information.

“It’s meant to get picked up and looked at,” she said.

The federation printed up 20,000 copies, to be left by the schools where parents of young children would pick them up.

“This is an example of what federation can do for you as a community that would be cost-prohibitive for you to do alone,” she said. “We would like to think this is the right response, but data will tell” as the schools find out whether the cards bring in new children.

Glass said she is pleased with the study and its results.

“We did what we said we would do in the time frame we said we would do it,” she said.

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