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February 20, 2014 12:06 pm

‘Moving the Needle:’ Jewish Day School Education’s Search for Relevance

avatar by Edmon J. Rodman /

Jewish schoolchildren. Photo: Wiki Commons.

JNS.orgLOS ANGELES – “Moving the Needle” was the name of the recent national Jewish day school conference in Los Angeles, and for those in attendance, whether the needle is nudging more towards “full” or “empty” was a personal measurement.

Last month’s three-day conference—whose full title was “Moving the Needle: Galvanizing Change in Our Day Schools”—was organized by RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network and the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools (PARDeS). It attracted more than 500 Jewish day school board members, lay leaders, heads of school, Judaic directors, teachers, and funders from more than 110 Jewish day schools and educational organizations.

For Marc Kramer, founder of RAVSAK, “Moving the Needle” was about taking school leaders on a journey of networking, skill building, and tool gathering. “Leadership requires a constant sharpening of the sword,” he said.

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Amanda Pogany, head of school at the Luria Academy in Brooklyn, said attending the conference presented an opportunity to “re-energize.”

“The work can be stressful, and coming to the conference grounds you and reminds you why we are here,” said Pogany, whose school has 137 students and covers pre-school through seventh grade in a setting she described as “open Orthodox.”

“School administration is a lonely profession; it’s a great opportunity to meet colleagues, and be validated,” said Rabbi Eli Mandel, vice principal of Jewish studies at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, a high school with 1,300 students. A private high school that the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto refers to as Canada’s largest, its program is complete with ice hockey, golf and swim teams, and a theater program that produces plays in Hebrew.

Mandel’s first time at the conference, he was there to network with other Jewish educators and to learn about their best practices.

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington, Del., whose school has 56 students, had attended an all-day intensive session called a “Deep Dive” for small schools. “Thirty percent of the day schools have 150 students or less,” said Winaker, who was interested in “sustainability” and welcomed the opportunity to connect with others working in similar settings.

Others like Barbara Gereboff, head of School at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, Calif., were there to help others move the needle. The teachers from her school were there, in part, to make a presentation on integrating technology into the classroom.

Gereboff also came to find a collaborator, “I am looking to find someone to experiment with,” she said.

Jerry Shapiro, head of school at the Agnon School in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, let on that he is a “huge believer” in conferences. Coming to Los Angeles provided him with an opportunity to discover “what’s working in the community,” as well as observing that “we are all working on the same issues,” said Shapiro, whose school has 333 students and covers early childhood though eighth grade.

In light of the results of last fall’s Pew Survey on American Jewry, which showed that one in five Jews say they have “no religion,” one of the issues at play is the dearth of Jewish literacy, an area that Shapiro felt a Jewish day school education can address. But he also felt day school is “not a silver bullet” to the literacy problem.

“Camps, in-Israel programs, and non-formal youth movements can be profoundly influential,” he said.

When asked about bullying in schools, a subject that has received national attention, Shapiro thought that problem was far less frequent in Jewish day schools. “The culture doesn’t support such behavior,” he said.

“We speak about how to be a mensch in the world,” Shapiro added.

Aiding enrollment is the relatively low tuition of approximately $13,000 a year at Shapiro’s school, he said. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland is also “very generous” in the area of education, he said. The federation began its Day School Affordability Endowment program in 2003.

In 2008, during the economic recession, Jewish day schools experienced a “declining enrollment,” said RAVSAK’s Kramer. In 2012, enrollment began to re-stabilize, and now many schools are growing, he said.

Divergent views on how to move the needle were on display in the conference’s vendor area, which included companies selling computer programs to help organize and manage administrative offices; an author, Rosemary Zibart, promoting her novels about the Holocaust; and a company selling Jewish art that could be used for fundraising.

“There’s been a lot of talk here about the tuition crisis, but there’s a meaning crisis,” said Rivky Stern, production manager for the AlephBeta Academy Jewish education technology non-profit, who was seated at a table in the vendor’s area.

While conference attendees were finishing their kosher dinners and having dessert, Stern and David Block, curriculum developer for the company, were fishing for customers.

“We’re trying to make bible and Jewish studies relatable,” said Stern, who herself had attended a Jewish day school.

“Kids need to find personal meaning and relevance in Judaism,” said Block, who formerly was as a tenor in the Maccabeats—the Jewish a capella group whose songs have received tens of millions of hits on YouTube.

Their solution was a series of 8-10 minute animated videos, which Block said he viewed as “making the texts relevant.” Created with Rabbi David Fohman, the company’s founder, one video was titled “Exodus, What Does it Mean to be Chosen?” Another, “Joseph: Coats, Dreams and Jealousy,” delves into a story that “is darker than the one we might remember learning as a child,” according to the video’s description.

In Jewish education’s search for relevance, “videos are springboards,” said Block.

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