At its June meeting, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis took an “extraordinary” step, voting to express displeasure at what it called “the effective shutting down” of the Jewish Education Service, a project of UJA Federation of North Jersey.
According to Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, who will soon end his two-year term as president of the rabbinic body, “We did not do so lightly.” In fact, he said, “three months’ worth of meetings were devoted to Jewish educational issues before we reached this decision.”
The rabbi noted that he especially regretted cuts in funding for adult education, “which shows Jewish adults the reason for involvement.”
Engelmayer said the NJBR sent a letter to UJA-NNJ last week informing the federation of the resolution and “expressing our frustration.”
“If rabbis won’t stand up for Jewish education, who will?” he said.
Pointing out that the JES budget has been cut over a period of several years, Engelmayer noted that this year’s budget went “beyond simple cutting. It virtually ended JES in everything but name only by firing critical staff and cutting back the hours of those who were left, shutting down funding for programming, and effectively shutting down the resource center so many teachers in our area have come to rely on.”
He added that this year’s cuts to Jewish education “eliminated any post-Melton courses and limited the Melton program itself to a final year.” (Efforts are under way to maintain the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, an international adult education project of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; see related story.)
In addition to the cuts, said Engelmayer, a decision was made “to subsume JES in another entity, suggesting, at least, that Jewish education is no longer seen as important enough to be its own department.”
Rabbi Randall Mark, who will shortly take over as head of the NJBR, said it is important to understand that “everyone in the Jewish community – laymen, rabbis, federations – is concerned about Jewish education and trying to find out how we can do the best we can with limited resources.”
“The resolution expresses our frustration in a public form,” he said, “but the federation is equally frustrated as they try to do more with less.”
Miriam Gray, former education director of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake – who in 1981 was on the committee that established JES and has remained on the group’s advisory board – said she also bemoans the “untimely demise” of the JES, which she called “the ultimate source of support for congregational schools.”
Gray pointed out that many students who attend congregational schools do not come from religiously committed homes.
“These families look to the congregational schools to do what the families cannot do. Our schools must inspire both the children and through them the parents – tough work, and we are always at the short end,” she said, noting that congregational schools do not have the resources to provide the services they had obtained from JES.
“I thank God I wasn’t on the allocations committee,” she said. “Jewish education is not sexy. Family programs, Israel, and overseas programs are sexy. With education, the thinking is, the local schools can do it.”
“We are all living under an economic gun,” said Engelmayer. “Most synagogues are already operating after-school Hebrew school programs at a loss, and I doubt there is any area day school that is running at a profit.”
Engelmayer said he is disappointed that rabbis were not given a chance to have input in federation decisions regarding education.
“If you want the community to agree with your decisions, you need to let them in [on them],” he said. “We do not want to be confrontational, but we do feel we had to speak out at a time when Jewish education generally is in desperate need of increased communal support.”
David Gad-Harf, UJA-NNJ’s associate executive vice president and COO, noted that while the federation “has had to downsize” its educational programs, it has retained “two critical functions, providing support and consultation for day schools and congregational schools.”
While “we cannot provide the same level of service until we raise enough money to regrow the infrastructure,” he said, “teacher support will continue through [JES professional development director] Minna Heilpern for day schools and [school services director] Frieda Huberman for congregational schools.”
In addition, he said, the federation will continue to sponsor two of the three conferences it offers each year, one for congregational school educators and one for early childhood educators.
Regarding the rabbis’ letter, Gad-Harf said the federation has not yet had a chance yet to respond to it. But, he said, especially as the rabbinic group will soon be under new leadership, “it is important to reach out and to bring the rabbis closer. We don’t want an issue like this to define our relationship.”
The NJBR’s Rabbi Mark agreed.
“We don’t look at it as a fight between [the two groups],” he said, noting that the rabbis and the federation can use the resolution as a “jumping-off point for how we can work together to ameliorate the problem. No one has the dollars. There are no easy answers.”
Mark noted that the rabbinic board has been exploring ways to bring the community together in programs of Jewish education. He said, for example, that the group is hoping to sponsor a community night of Torah study in February and is inviting other community groups, including the federation, to join in that project.
The resolution was important, he said, “because it put on the table the frustration” rabbis feel over the issue of Jewish education. The “good news,” he said, is that it will “lead to conversations about what we can do to improve it.”