More then 120 religious school students gathered at Rodef Shalom Congregation Sunday, Sept. 9, as part of a groundbreaking day for two area congregations.
It was the first day of religious school at the J-JEP (Joint Jewish Education Program), the newly created collaboration between Rodef Shalom and Congregation Beth Shalom for grades kindergarten through seventh grade.
“Today we will see the fruit that will come out of this tree we have planted,” Beth Shalom Rabbi Michael Werbow said.
The collaboration was based on the need to unify the Jewish community, particularly with declining numbers in classrooms, say religious school leaders of both congregations. These numbers, they said, are due to aging populations, as well as the presence of five synagogues in a one-mile area.
“Our J-JEP opening day is just a first step in bringing our families and students together, and not just between our two congregations,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom. “Providing the very best Jewish education for our kids is our highest priority for all of us, and it’s time we came together to get this done as one community.”
Susan Loether, director of the Jacob Religious School at Rodef Shalom, sees the cooperative venture as a new start for both schools.
“Mostly, it was to energize both our schools, which had gotten smaller over the years,” she said. Class sizes in the kindergarten through seventh-grade classes were as low as four students per grade. This year alone there are at least 20 kindergarteners, resulting in two kindergarten classes, along with two second-grade classes.
Liron Lipinsky, head of school at Beth Shalom, cited strength in numbers as one reason behind the collaboration.
“If we could educate the children together as opposed to separate them by denomination we would create a stronger community of Jewish learners,” Lipinsky said. “There is power in numbers.”
J-JEP has been in the planning stages for many months. A task force made up of teachers and lay leaders from both synagogues drafted a pilot program, which was implemented last school year for the seventh-graders only. Lisa Schlar’s now eighth-grade daughter attended the trial run program last year. While Schlar was on the J-JEP task force representing Beth Shalom, she, like other parents, had some trepidation about the collaboration.
“We spent the last six months ironing out details and challenges of merging Reform and Conservative congregations to get to the best educational program possible for our kids,” she said, “to prepare them for a lifelong Jewish education, to give them the proper stepping stones for bat/bar mitzvas and for being a member of our Jewish community.”
Although last year produced some challenges, she said her daughter, Ariana, had a great experience and she is looking forward to her fifth-grade son’s upcoming school year.
The schools surveyed parents to see what aspects of the pilot didn’t work out last year, and those points were fixed for this school year.
For example, Loether said the kids split their time between the two buildings last year, which turned out to be confusing. This year, with a couple of exceptions, classes will solely be at Rodef Shalom.
In addition, J-JEP leaders did not want to overtly identify which child was from which congregation.
The changeover lent itself to a mixture of emotions for parents and students alike.
“There are people who are still questioning and apprehensive and people who are so excited,” Loether said. “It’s a total spectrum, and it’s to be expected.”
Nonetheless, there was energy in the air as parents and students gathered in Rodef Shalom’s Levy Hall for an introduction to the school year that, fittingly, began with a blast of the shofar.
Dan Nichols, Rodef Shalom’s guest artist-in-residence, was on hand to play guitar and lead the group in a rousing selection of traditional Jewish music before the children, infused with energy, went with their teachers to their new classrooms. On Sunday, the students, some of whose parents registered them for school that very morning, were milling in and out of their classrooms for such activities as Israeli folk dancing, kippot decorating and a scavenger hunt in the Biblical Botanical Garden.
Rodef Shalom was chosen as the home base for J-JEP because the classrooms were curriculum-ready, and the synagogue had more space. But some events will be held at Beth Shalom, Loether said, such as a “Latkapalooza,” and each student will return to his or her home synagogue for the Purim carnival.
The students will meet at their home synagogues for Hebrew and individual b’nai mitzvot training.
The new curriculum is a blend of the best and most successful aspects of each school’s previous curriculum, both leaders have said. Both schools had already been using the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Chai” curriculum; Lipinsky said only minor differences between the Conservative version and the Reform version were made, so the kids will be learning both.
Loether added, “Teachers get information from both tracks and can present both kinds of material.”
The joint curriculum will also include regular “specials” of art and Judaism, and music and Judaism. Some Hebrew will be taught, especially for the younger students. And Beth Shalom’s Israel studies will be incorporated into the J-JEP curriculum.
Teachers from both schools had to re-apply for their jobs, leading to 10 homeroom staff and a few specialists (i.e., teachers for cooking and Israeli dancing), along with several 11th- and 12th-graders in the role of teachers’ aides.
Since Beth Shalom is a Conservative Congregation and Rodef Shalom is Reform, the schools had to iron out how to handle some basic differences, including kashrut and the wearing of kippot. The children will be encouraged, though not required, to wear kippot, and if there is any cooking to be done, it will take place in Beth Shalom’s kitchen.
“In thinking about what makes a strong and well-rounded Jewish adult will be knowing what the differences are and being knowledgeable about both,” Lipinsky said. We are teaching them what Judaism is, and the differences are so few and far between, it really is a nonissue,” said Lipinsky.
“It’s not about the difference between Reform and Conservative; it’s about Jewish kids learning Jewish values,” emphasized Loether.
Added Schlar, “That doesn’t mean our core values aren’t the same — they are — we all want our kids to grow up as mensches, with good feelings about being Jewish.”
Whether the consolidation of religious schools will be a citywide trend remains to be seen, but, said Lipinksy, “Conversations in Pittsburgh have been taking place for a long time. We have a lot accomplished, but I know we are going to learn a lot more this year.”
“It is my hope,” Bisno said, “that others will see that what we can accomplish together is so much greater than what any one of us could possibly do on our own.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)