The Agency for Jewish Learning, a longtime cornerstone for Jewish education in Pittsburgh, will dissolve as an independent organization in the coming months, merging its functions with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
The move was approved by a vote of the AJL’s board of directors on March 27.
Details and logistics of the mergers will be hammered out in the coming months, said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Federation.
Last week’s decision to dissolve the AJL came after a yearlong process of evaluating community needs, according to Steve Moritz, the AJL’s board chair. The board ultimately came to the decision, with input from other stakeholders, that the AJL could better capitalize on its achievements of the last 11 years by merging its programming with other community agencies.
Some teen programming had already been transferred successfully to the JCC in recent years, he noted, including the Diller Teen Fellows and the Samuel M. Goldston Teen Philanthropy Project.
The AJL will transition its remaining programs for teenagers to the JCC. These programs include J-SITE, J-Serve (in conjunction with BBYO, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Volunteer Center and Repair the World.), HaZamir Pittsburgh and Hebrew learning programs.
The Federation will assume responsibility for capacity building for Jewish learning and for the programs that help other agencies, schools and organizations build their own Jewish learning services, including services that focus on early-childhood development.
The issue boiled down to a question of “how to get the best use out of community dollars,” Moritz said. “For me, that’s the bottom line: trying to figure out how to maximize community dollars for Jewish learning.”
The changes will offer several advantages for the Jewish community, according to Moritz, including the improvement of the integration of current AJL programs with other existing programs that serve the same demographic, increasing the reach of these programs and stabilizing the long-term financial viability of Jewish learning programs and outreach.
The changeover will occur following the summer, Moritz said, with all current programming continuing as planned for now.
The AJL was launched about 11 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).
When Community Day School became independent, the AJL emerged with its focus on partnering with synagogues, schools, early childhood centers, youth groups and Jewish agencies to build community programming capacity while offering its own programs as well, including J-SITE, its continuing teen education program that was the successor to SAJS.
“This is a good time to act,” Hertzman said, noting that the successes of the AJL — such as the Yom Limud program for Jewish educators, the Tikkun Leil Shavuot communitywide evening of learning and the Pittsburgh Early Childhood Education Initiative — have laid the groundwork to build an even more expansive network of opportunities.
The change is part of a nationwide trend for local Federations “toward merging different agencies in a recognition that there are often mutually reinforcing goals,” according to Hertzman.
Over the summer, the JCC will evaluate AJL personnel to determine staff going forward, said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC.
“The AJL has some very good programming staff,” he said. “We will evaluate the high-quality and high-performing staff, and they will likely become part of the JCC staff.”
As the AJL evaluated its community role over the last couple of years, the JCC has been “part of that conversation,” Schreiber said, and is now ready to assume a greater role, building on the success it has had in running the Diller and the Goldston programs, which continue to work to capacity and engage teens throughout the region.
While details and funding issue are still being worked out, the development of a “high-level committee” is being discussed to talk about larger issues of teen engagement, Schreiber said, and he expects that some new programs for teens will evolve over time.
Jewish programming at the JCC in fact has been evolving and growing in the last 15 years. Since 2000, several new JCC engagement initiatives have been added, including an expansion of Jewish holiday programming, the PJ Library for children and the Mother’s Circle, an outreach program for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children.
“We are always looking at new things,” Schreiber said, adding that JCC leadership wants to look at the national landscape to garner ideas of best practices to broaden teen engagement.
The AJL held its Fruit of the Vine annual fundraiser just last Sunday, on the eve of the board’s announcement of its intent to dissolve the agency. Funds raised from the wine-tasting event “will still go to Jewish learning,” Hertzman said.
In fact, the AJL, JCC, and the Federation have agreed that 100 percent of the Federation funding currently allocated to the AJL for Jewish learning will continue to support Jewish learning. A dedicated center within the Federation will be established for capacity building, with details to be worked out in the coming months, including leadership, staffing, and the status of a community scholar.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.