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All together now

Joint Hebrew school offers students the opportunity to meet and share

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Fifth graders present their projects on B’reishit.

Some ideas simply make good sense.

According to Lisa Swill, education vice president at Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom, that is what spurred the creation of the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy.

Swill, now a member of the school’s board, has been part of the venture since the idea first was broached to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey several years ago.

“We were really just a collection of people in the county who were thinking we could make a regional Hebrew school,” she said. “It would save all the congregations a lot of money.”

Lisa Harris Glass, director of the federation’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative, said, “The conversation began as a result of a program [former director] Judy Beck ran – sort of like speed-dating for people interested in collaborating.”

According to Glass, synagogues came together to discuss such ideas as mergers and sharing sacred space. It was at one of the forums that the idea of a joint Hebrew school was raised.

“For a number of years, SLI was convening meetings of interested partners on a monthly basis,” she said. “Many synagogues at the table came and went throughout the process.”

Swill recalls that at early meetings to discuss a joint religious school, some synagogues favored a “spoke and hub arrangement,” where all children would attend a common school on Sundays and then each synagogue would do something in its own building one day a week.

“I didn’t like it,” she said. “I thought it was too disjointed and wouldn’t save us as much money.”

She pulled out of the discussions, but later was invited back to discuss the issue after two rabbis – Beth Sholom’s Baruch Zeilicovich and Rabbi David Fine of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center – came up with a different plan.

That plan – which merged the Hebrew school programs of Beth Sholom and Temple Israel in 2011 – became the template for the academy’s future growth.

“It’s been a great partnership,” Swill said. “So much so that we have had three more synagogues join us this year.”

Rabbi Sharon Litwin, NNFFA’s director and the associate rabbi at Temple Israel, said that the five synagogues now making up the academy work together through a 10-member lay board. Each participating shul sends two members. In addition to Temple Beth Sholom and Temple Israel, the group now includes Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, Kol HaNeshama in Englewood, and Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.

The project was not without its challenges, many of which arose during the first year.

“There were some issues of integrating different curricula,” Litwin said, noting that “the students had learned different things at different times.” There were also issues involving social integration, since some of the students had been together since they were 5 years old.

Offering classes in grades K-7, the academy now serves 86 children, 65 of them from Temple Israel. The majority of the faculty comes from that synagogue’s Hebrew school as well.

All students attend classes at Temple Israel on Sundays, and third through seventh graders meet again on Wednesdays.

“We didn’t have to add classrooms,” Litwin said, pointing out that none of them were at or near capacity before the new school was created. “We were all looking at our synagogue schools and seeing that the classes weren’t growing. Some were operating schools with 12 children, kind of a one-room schoolhouse for all ages and abilities. This was not as robust as we would want for a Jewish educational experience.

“We want the students to feel like part of a larger Jewish community,” she continued. “We pool our resources, so there’s now a teacher for every grade. There’s also special programming and workshops, and we can bring in special guests.”

Each synagogue contributes on a cost-per-student basis.

“There are definitely advantages, certainly for the smaller schools,” Litwin said. “It allows for community-building, and for students get to know Jewish peers their own age. It becomes a Jewish social experience as well as an educational one.” And because there is one class for every grade, “teachers can focus on the grade they’re teaching.”

“It’s no secret that the cost of Jewish education is high,” SLI’s Glass said. “Not only does that impact sustainability, but it also impacts quality. There was a ‘critical mass’ issue. Many individual schools were having to meld grades together.

“There are economies of scale available to a bigger group, and socially, it’s so much better to be with more kids,” she said. “It was, and is, the right answer for so many reasons.”

Litwin said the school is getting “overwhelmingly positive feedback” from parents. “The main concern is sitting in traffic on [Routes] 4 and 17 on Wednesdays. But in terms of content and the experience of their kids and what they’re learning, it’s overwhelmingly positive, so they say it’s worth the schlep.”

Still, projects of this kind pose a number of challenges.

“Every partner is afraid of losing its local identity,” Glass said, but because each congregation maintains its own junior congregation, students can celebrate Shabbat in their own community. In addition, each congregation has an opportunity to host special activities on behalf of the academy.

“It’s hard to give up full control,” she said. “Collaboration is hard, emotional, visceral.” But while there are still “bumps in the road, we’re working on it. I think it can grow.” She pointed out that a recent grant from SLI will help the academy “explore how we can innovate to deal with issues unique to a collaborative school.”

Some of those issues surfaced the first year, Swill said. “We had to keep stressing to our members that it wasn’t Beth Sholom kids going to the Temple Israel Hebrew school. It’s a new entity.”

Similarly, she added, Temple Israel members had to understand that the school did not belong to them but to all NNJJA congregations.

One of the major things to be sorted out was the dichotomy between egalitarian and non-egalitarian practice.

“We had to figure out how to work in terms of tefillah,” Swill said, explaining that her synagogue, which sends 13 students to the academy, is not egalitarian. “Rabbi Sharon lays tefillin. Our girls don’t. But if they see it, we have to figure out how to explain it.”

Ultimately, she said, the board left it up to the rabbis to decide how to handle such issues.

Swill said that while her own children do not attend the academy – they all went through the Beth Sholom religious school – she is “invested emotionally” in the project.

“I want to ensure that the program we’re sending our children to is solid, that [the students] are getting the kind of education my own children got so that they’ll love being Jewish,” she said. And, she added, children will learn how things are done in various congregations “so they can walk into any Conservative synagogue and feel comfortable. It’s nice to have very full classes and lots of noise.”

Dan Unger, who is on the Temple Israel school committee and has two children in the academy – his older son graduated last year and moved on to the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies – said NNJJA provides a benefit because “we all need more numbers. It’s nice that there’s a larger population, making it more cost effective for us and others.”

Still, while member synagogues benefit from cost savings, “the kids are [really] the ones that benefit,” he said, “spending time with other kids, having more friends, and having a graduating class where you’re being bar-mitzvahed with a bunch of kids you have grown up with.”

His children, 8 and 11, are enjoying the program.

“Things are more progressive since I went to religious school,” he said. “Kids actually look forward to it. They have a good time.” The academy, he said, “has great teachers. When Beth Sholom joined last year, we were able to get one of their teachers, who is wonderful.”

Unger described the academy’s first year as a “learning journey – trying to understand how things work and what’s important to each congregation. Everyone is an equal partner. We have to listen to each other.”

He pointed out that participating congregations also have to respect each other’s membership.

“We have to make sure that the other member shuls don’t think that because their children are attending religious school at Temple Israel, we will try to take away their members,” he said. Indeed, “it’s part of the contract” that synagogues refrain from poaching other congregations’ members. Unger noted that congregations also have to be careful in setting dates for b’nai mitzvah services, because they now must try to avoid overlapping dates.

Academy board member Ashley Milun of Teaneck, who belongs to Congregation Beth Sholom there, sends two children to the school. Overall, he said, they are enjoying the experience. But since both children had attended a Solomon Schechter school for a few years, “my fourth grader is a little ahead of the class in Hebrew.”

He said that distance also is an issue, especially on Wednesdays, but the benefits the children gained far outweighted the disadvantages.

“One of the things they love is the social aspect – getting to know more kids of their age,” Milun said. “For them to meet other Jewish kids their age is great.” The challenge “is getting them all on the same page, accommodating a wide range of skill levels.”

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