The Congregation Beth Shalom Religious School and the Rodef Shalom Jacob Religious School have begun a joint program on Sundays for their seventh- graders in what may be a first step in a wider collaboration between the two congregations, and perhaps other congregations in the city.
Although the two congregations are affiliated with different movements —Beth Shalom with the Conservative movement, and Rodef Shalom with the Reform movement — the hope is to break down barriers to provide a more beneficial learning experience for the students.
“We were trying to figure out how to keep the seventh-graders engaged,” said Liron Lipinsky, head of the Beth Shalom Religious School. “It’s common among religious schools that seventh-graders leave after their bar or bat mitzvas.”
Encouraged by Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno’s recent columns in the Chronicle urging “courageous conversations” about combining community resources, Lipinsky began having conversations with Susan Loether, Rodef Shalom’s religious school director, and Rabbi Amy Hertz, Rodef Shalom’s director of lifelong learning.
“We talked about us coming together, specifically focusing this collaborative effort on the seventh-graders,” Lipinsky said. “We decided to bring these two groups together, breaking down those barriers of Reform versus Conservative, taking all those conversations we had and putting them into action.”
The seventh-grade Sunday program will cover topics chosen by the students themselves last spring: ethical issues in Judaism, critical issues with the clergy, Jewish cooking and culture, social action and Holocaust education.
“They will be widening their circle of friends, and engaged,” Lipinsky said. “Now, all of those children we expected to drop off are signed on.”
Seven children from Beth Shalom and seven from Rodef Shalom are enrolled in the program. While they gather together on Sundays, they learn separately at their respective synagogues during their weekday religious school classes.
Differences in Conservative and Reform ideology will not present a problem for the class, Lipinsky said, because they will only be discussing those different ideologies as comparative issues. The “critical issues with the clergy” topics will be taught by rabbis and cantors from both congregations and at both synagogues.
“At the end of the day, the idea is to teach and to grow our knowledge overall,” Lipinsky said. “Our main goal is to strengthen the Jewish community.”
Collaboration on programs such as this will hopefully increase the vitality of local Jewish education, said Bisno.
“Our decision to collaborate on our seventh-grade program grew out of conversations with our congregations, our sharing and our desire to increase the vitality of our educational offerings,” he said. “Because both of our post b’nai mitzva programming feeds into J-SITE, our seventh-graders seemed the natural place to begin.”
The differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism should not stand in the way of educational collaboration, said Bisno.
“There is certainly far more that we share in common than distinguishes us,” he said. “It is not unprecedented for Reform and Conservative congregations to work together.”
In fact, in Monroeville, Temple David, affiliated with the Reform movement, and Parkway Jewish Center, which is Conservative, have aleady merged their religious schools.
Bisno believes that while there are still distinctions between the two movements, they have evolved to make collaboration easier.
“I don’t want to plaster over the real distinctions between Reform and Conservative Judaism,” he said, “but the short answer is ‘yes,’ it is easier now. Reform Jewish families and Conservative Jewish families are all working to raise their kids in 21st-century America and the rigid distinctions between our two communities no longer serve us well.”
At Beth Shalom, there was little concern about combining its seventh-grade religious school class with Rodef Shalom’s, according to Rabbi Michael Werbow.
“Certainly there are things we want to keep our eye on, like food and making sure it is kosher,” he said. But the issue of patrilineal descent — accepting as Jewish the child of a mixed marriage where either parent is Jewish, not just the mother — “never came up,” he said.
“In having conversations with Rabbi Bisno and reflecting on his pieces on ‘courageous conversations,’ it is clear that collaboration will be beneficial to all of us,” Werbow said. “And there will always be opportunities for this to be a broader conversation down the road.”
Bisno hopes to see more widespread collaboration in the future among Pittsburgh’s Jewish institutions.
“Our congregations were all founded for the purpose of enhancing Jewish life and not for self-serving ends,” he said. “Where Rodef Shalom and our sister congregations of whichever denomination can work together to achieve those ends, I am committed to doing so. The needs of our community demand that we all work together to bring vitality to Jewish life.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)