With two major Jewish agencies in the area planning to merge, the question becomes: Will it be a perfect match or simply a marriage of convenience?
Leaders of both the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education and the Jewish Outreach Partnership — currently situated in adjacent buildings on the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park — are certainly banking on the former.
The merger talks come at a time of unprecedented contraction in Jewish communal life, with layoffs and cutbacks an unfortunate reality.
They're also taking place as counterparts to ACAJE across the country have either closed or are in danger of closing.
The Philadelphia merger does not seem to be driven by the imminent prospect of closure, but by a push toward efficiency and a confluence of other events, culminating in the hiring of longtime JOP director Rabbi Philip Warmflash to become the new head of ACAJE. Warmflash, who begins his post in September, is replacing Helene Tigay, who is retiring in August.
"JOP is losing its executive director. The only way to keep him is to merge," said Randy Grauman, president of JOP's board. "And there is quite a synergy between the two agencies. ACAJE does for synagogue schools what JOP does for synagogue life."
'Playing in the Same Sandbox'
ACAJE — probably the better known of the two organizations — focuses on improving Jewish education, particularly in synagogue schools. JOP primarily serves as a resource for strengthening synagogue communities and leadership.
"In a certain sense, we've been playing in the same sandbox, and that sandbox is the synagogue," said Warmflash. "But we've had an artificial line in the middle" of it.
"Now," the rabbi continued, "we have the work of understanding what the merger means and implementing the various components and creating a joint culture."
In recent weeks, the boards of both organizations approved a merger in principle; still, both sides cautioned that it's not yet a done deal. A joint committee is charged with hashing out a new mission statement, outlining the responsibilities and the makeup of a new board, and even settling on a name. Only after an agreement is reached and approved by both boards — a process expected to take all summer — will the merger become official, according to sources involved in the process.
Tigay, who presided over ACAJE for 18 years, said that the merger makes sense for these economic times. She also noted that while she has stayed out of the process, bringing together the two agencies reinforces her philosophy that change in a Hebrew school can't be separated from what happens with the rest of a congregation.
Still, she stressed, if ACAJE's mission is eventually expanded, then professional and lay leaders must work not to dilute it.
David Smith, president of ACAJE's board, said the idea of a merger had been percolating for months before Warmflash's hiring. He also noted that Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia officials had let it be known that they were seeking ways for agencies to increase efficiency and decrease duplication.
"My immediate reaction was that ACAJE and JOP have missions that overlap somewhat and are complementary to the extent they don't overlap," said Smith.
Federation provides nearly half of the total funding for both agencies. ACAJE, created in 1987, has a staff of 22 and an annual budget of $1.6 million. JOP has a staff of eight, including some part-time workers, and a budget of more than $600,000, according to Warmflash.
JOP, formerly known as the Community Hebrew Schools, got its current name in 1998. Since the last of its string of independent, non-synagogue based entities closed within the past 10 years, it has focused more heavily on consulting with synagogues.
JOP oversees the Synaplex Philadelphia program, which helps synagogues find new ways to engage Jews through innovative, Shabbat-based programming. It also runs Reshet: Networks for Synagogue Strength.
Last week, for example, JOP brought together lay and professional heads of 37 area shuls to address the economic challenges facing synagogues and to foster better communication among key synagogue players.
Warmflash said that staff and programming for both agencies will be funded by Federation through August 2010.
After that, it's not clear what will happen.
Susanna Lachs, co-chair of Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning, said that although Federation has not been directly involved in the merger talks, leaders there are highly supportive of the idea.
"There will be continuity," said Lachs, who also sits on the ACAJE board. Come mid-2010, she explained, the new body will have to submit a joint request for the funding of its programs.
Of those, she stated: "I assume that some will continue what they've been working on for years, and some will be new."