Regional day school heads are expressing support for a merger announced last week of five North American Jewish day school organizations. Those groups represent more than 375 schools from across the denominational spectrum.
“It’s very exciting news for the entire day school field,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, a pluralistic community school in Rockville, Md. “I hope that in the long run it will be a positive influence on the entire Jewish community.”
“The merger gives us the opportunity for sharing of ideas, economy of scale, sharing best practices across the individual interest groups and, most of all, an opportunity for unity in a divided Jewish community,” echoed Zipora Schorr, director of education for Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore.
Joshua Levisohn, head of Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, a modern Orthodox school in Rockville, agreed. “Anytime you have Jewish organizations coming together under one banner is exciting,” he said.
The Jewish Community Day School Network, or RAVSAK; the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE; Yeshiva University School Partnership; the Schechter Day School Network and Day Schools of Reform Judaism, or PARDES, announced Jan. 19 the planned formation of a new organization.
RAVSAK represents nondenominational Jewish schools, the Schechter network is affiliated with the Conservative movement, and Yeshiva University mostly serves modern and centrist Orthodox schools. Together, the schools represented by the five groups enroll about 40 percent of the total number of students in full-time Jewish schools, according to The New York Jewish Week, which reported that the merger is estimated to save more than $1 million annually.
The merger comes as enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools is declining and centrist and modern Orthodox school enrollment is flat. Haredi Orthodox schools, which will not be represented in the new group, have been rapidly growing, accounting for more than half of all full-time Jewish school enrollment.
Dan Finkel, head of Gesher Jewish Day School, a nondenominational school in Fairfax, said the schools involved in the merger have more in common than not. Security, for example, is not a denominational issue, he said. “For those of us in community schools” who don’t ally with a particular denomination, “that’s the model we’re thinking about anyway. There’s no need to do this in silos.”
“Professional development, networking conferences, consulting, board development, teacher training — many of these are nondenominational in nature,” added Levisohn.
Members of the five groups already have experience meeting together; they’ve held a joint professional conference annually since 2010. And some already have gone through the process of merging cultures into a new organization.
“Our school was born of a merger between a community day school and a Schechter school,” said Avi Baran Munro, head of Community Day School in Pittsburgh, Pa. “We were comfortable with that.”
The still unnamed new entity is “committed to improving financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools and supporting a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field,” according to the release announcing the initiative. “It will work directly with schools, cohorts of schools and individual professional and lay leaders to strengthen skills and build capacity in areas of teaching and learning, leadership, governance, affordability, recruitment, retention, fund development and endowment building.”
A national organization could be in a strong position to fundraise for the day school movement, Malkus said, adding that in partnership with federations and philanthropies, it could be a strong advocate for Jewish day schools.
The decision to merge follows an almost year-long planning process facilitated in part by the Avi Chai Foundation, which has pledged financial support for the new organization until the foundation shuts down operations in 2019.
Levisohn calls it “an interesting experiment.”
“There’s an expectation that the programs will get stronger and reduce duplication,” he explained. “But its significance is up in the air. No one knows for sure what it will look like in two to three years.”
Sharon Levin, head of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a nondenominational school near Philadelphia, said she is concerned that in constructing the new organization, what was worth keeping about the organization that has served her school will be lost.
“I see the benefits of talking to each other and sharing professionals,” she said. “On the other hand, the benefits we get from RAVSAK are incredible.”
The professionals there respond to her calls and emails quickly. They offer programs she finds useful. And they don’t clock out at 5 p.m. “I’ve gotten a call in the evening — to my home from someone at their home — on an important question,” she said.
Schorr, of Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh, agrees there are risks.
“Those risks reflect the tendency of each movement and/or group to be somewhat defensive and proprietary about its own philosophy or agenda,” she said. “It will take a great deal of –mature and respectful discussion to be able to work out the details.”
The new organization, which has begun a branding process to select its name and “develop an identity that reflects a unified, cooperative and fresh vision of the day school field,” plans to launch this summer.
JTA contributed to this article.