A decision to suspend three long-running programs for area Jewish educators has left the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) on the defensive, but it may have helped spark greater cooperation on educational issues among the community’s rabbis.

Jason Shames, the federation’s chief executive officer, said the programs, which already had been scheduled, are “on hiatus” for the year. The programs were two conferences, one for early childhood educators and one for Hebrew school teachers, and an ongoing forum that gathered together day school principals every few weeks. The resources that would have paid for these programs are instead being used to evaluate the programs and goals of the federation’s Jewish Educational Services (JES) division.

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

“The core of JES remains the same,” said Shames, pointing to the federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program and the projects JES undertakes with the day schools. “Jewish education remains a priority.”

Shames pointed to a soon-to-be-announced grant in the $30,000 range to Jewish day schools to support collaborative professional development for teachers. This grant is part of the shift toward grant-based allocations called for by the federation’s strategic plan adopted last year.

Professional development had been the primary focus for JES, which prior to the global financial crisis had a staff of 11, several of them paid for by outside grants. Now it has a staff of two. Organizationally, the staffers are being reassigned to JFNNJ’s Synagogue Life Initiative (SLI).

Shames said the evaluation of JES is part of the process of moving federation’s operations in line with the goals and strategies called for by the strategic plan, which “gave this community a new mission. It talks about the federation providing added value and leadership to the community. It called for goals and objectives that meet that mission. The JES has not been put to the litmus test in terms of our strategic plan.”

Hence, he said, the need for the evaluation. “The needs of our community are far outpacing the entire communal effort to address them, so we need to focus on the federation’s priority areas,” he said.

Initial news of the federation’s retrenchment in educational programming, however, was poorly received by the area’s rabbinic leadership.

The North Jersey Board of Rabbis (NJBR), which is mainly composed of the area’s non-Orthodox rabbis, had begun discussions about working together to enhance Jewish education when it learned of the changes at JES.

Some of the initial concerns the rabbis had were somewhat alleviated following conversations with Shames.

“There are some of us who are unhappy with the decision to reallocate the education dollars this year for the study,” said Rabbi Randall Mark, the current NJBR president. “There are others who have an issue with the process as opposed to the content: Tell us what you’re doing and why, not just that you’re doing it.”

He said that the rabbis understood the motivation for the hiatus. “All of us want the federation to spend wisely,” Mark said. “We acknowledge the need for them to ensure the dollars they receive go for the best possible use. Stopping to take a look is not a bad idea.”

Word of the hiatus at JES came as the rabbis were embarking on their own venture into promoting Jewish education. The group decided to put time and effort into that, and several volunteered to join a committee on the issue.

“We’re going to make this a larger part of our efforts, to work with federation, and to advocate for a broader community involvement in supporting Jewish education,” said Rabbi Benjamin Shull. The rabbi, who leads Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, will assume the NJBR presidency later this month.

The group has been discussing what they as rabbis can do to address “significant changes” in the Jewish educational landscape, among them “some shrinking of the institutions,” Shull said.

“If we need new models and broader representation and support for Jewish education – and I think we do – we should be having some rabbinic voice in trying to bring the broader community together. There’s an overall sense that our community is too fragmented, our educational institutions are working in their own areas, and there’s not enough discussion of collaboration.