Agency focuses on growing Jewish learning

Agency focuses on growing Jewish learning

Edward Frim (photo provided)
Edward Frim (photo provided)

With its eye on the changing demands posed by a future vastly different from the educational world in which it was created, the Agency for Jewish Learning has concluded its two-year initiative to evaluate its ongoing mission. As part of it’s transition, it announced the departure of Edward Frim as its executive director.

Frim, who has served in the post since 2005, will be leaving at the end of the month. His departure comes on the heels of the other top AJL executive, community scholar Rabbi Scott Aaron, who left Aug. 15 to take a position in Chicago.

The AJL undertook its planning initiative — which also included a new business plan — with assistance from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“This planning effort led the board to redefine the CEO position, as AJL seeks to best implement its strategic priorities and business plan and nurture relationships with local and national funders,” Stephen Moritz, the AJL’s board chair, said in a written statement.

The planning initiative was led by Frim, the statement said, and resulted in “significant new fee and outside grant income to the agency.”

The new funds, coupled with support from the Federation, will allow the agency to implement innovations in the areas of early childhood education, family engagement, leadership education, synagogue education, teen education and special education. Included in the new model is the reorganization of J-SITE and offering new opportunities for teens.

The AJL was launched about 10 years ago to continue the mission of its preceding organization, the Jewish Educational Institute of Greater Pittsburgh (JEI). The JEI had been formed in 1991 by merging the efforts of the Hebrew Institute, which provided Jewish education for adults, Community Day School and the School of Advanced Jewish Studies (SAJS).

“JEI took adult education to another level with classes like the Melton program,” said Jan Levinson, a past board chair of both the JEI and the AJL. “And we had Danny Schiff, of course.”

Schiff, the AJL’s former community scholar who graduated more than 1,000 students from the agency’s Florence Melton Adult Mini School, left Pittsburgh in 2009 to make aliyah.

When the AJL was formed, Levinson said, its focus was on educational programming for adults, and on administering SAJS, which later became J-SITE, as a Jewish supplementary program for high school students.

But things have changed, Levinson said.

For starters, demand and enrollment in adult Jewish learning courses at the AJL has dramatically dropped, because of a host of free adult classes offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, he explained. Furthermore, the AJL is no longer needed to provide written resources to teachers at Jewish schools, because they are readily available from online sources.

And with greater demands on the time of teens and changes in their areas of interest, the old model of J-SITE wasn’t really working.

“We’re looking at a completely different model,” Levinson said. “What the AJL was doing then doesn’t need to be done anymore. The world changed. It couldn’t keep doing what it was doing in the past.”

The emphasis of the AJL now will be on “providing services to people and building capacity,” Levinson said.

The agency will focus on partnering with and assisting other local organizations in growing Jewish learning opportunities.

“The best way to describe it is the AJL will identify and support the community in its Jewish inspirational learning at every level,” Moritz said. “I see programs being offered in partnerships.”

Getting buy-in from the community organizations benefiting from AJL’s educational resources is key to sustainability, according to Frim.

“If the community is going to be sustainable, the institutions benefiting need to contribute a portion to it,” he said. “It signifies the commitment they’re making.

“The big change,” he continued, “is the AJL is focusing more on capacity building. This is the direction we’ve been moving in for several years. We are helping change the culture of the community so that institutions recognize the need to invest in their own growth.”

The agency is in a stronger financial position due to the efforts of Frim, according to Moritz, adding that the AJL has significantly improved its cash flow, reduced its debt and implemented new accountability and business systems.

During Frim’s tenure, the AJL received national recognition for groundbreaking work in such areas as its JECEI early childhood initiative, its Congregational School Improvement Initiative, the Spertus College Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies, the DVASH special needs Hebrew curriculum and new models of the Melton adult education program.

Frim also was responsible for developing local collaborations with many area Jewish organizations and congregations. And he was instrumental in bringing to Pittsburgh outside programmatic and financial resources through partnerships with national groups, according to Moritz.

“Over the last 18 months Ed has played an important role in helping to redefine the mission and vision of the Agency,” Moritz said. “We all believe that this is an appropriate time to hand off the institution to new leadership to carry on the next phase of the institution’s growth. The AJL is grateful for Ed’s vision and many years of hard work that have enhanced our community’s capacity to deliver inspiring Jewish education and engage learners of all ages.”

For Frim, the building of relationships was vital in facilitating the work of the AJL over his nine-year tenure.

“Relationships are really the things that have allowed me and the agency to do the things we’ve done,” he said. “That really is the core of what we do. We built on relationships to move the community forward. That’s the part of it that I almost value the most. Each of the things we’ve done represents a bunch of relationships with different people.”

The AJL board has formed three transitional committees to move the agency forward, Moritz said. One committee will be charged with hiring an interim administrator of the agency. A second committee will support the AJL staff in implementing programming. A third committee will provide financial oversight.

The AJL will continue to be pivotal in delivering Jewish education to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, according to Levinson.

“If we did not have an AJL today we would either have to create a new organization to do its work or distribute its responsibilities to other agencies because Jewish learning is a top priority for the community,” he said.

The Federation is “encouraged” by the new direction of the agency, according to Woody Ostow, the Federation’s board chair.

“We are very optimistic about the future of the agency,” he said.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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