Leaders of three synagogues along the Old York Road corridor hope their plans for a groundbreaking Hebrew school merger will create a stronger program and provide students with a larger Jewish social network.
In what is being touted as a first in the Philadelphia area, three synagogues are joining forces to create a combined supplementary educational program for their students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
The congregations, all located along the Old York Road corridor, include two Conservative synagogues — Beth Sholom Congregation and Adath Jeshurun — and Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel.
The program, which is slated to begin next fall, is still in the planning stages but leaders of all three congregations notified their members of the plan to merge their elementary-age religious schools in a letter this week.
“Our three congregations will design and implement a visionary, collaborative elementary educational model that meets the needs of the children and families of our three congregations,” according to the vision outlined in separate but similar letters sent to each congregation. “It will balance the needs of the community and maintain the relationship between these families and their home congregation. We hope that this will become the model for elementary education in our area and beyond.”
The decision to collaborate comes at a time when membership and religious school enrollment has been shrinking at many congregations in the region and beyond.
The changing geographic and demographic factors have affected the Old York Road corridor, where the three iconic institutions involved in this merger once stood as symbols of a strong and growing Jewish population.
But that has changed in recent years, as the number of Jews in the area that includes Elkins Park, Melrose Park, Abington and Cheltenham has declined even as congregations there have worked together to help revitalize Jewish life and attract new members.
The letters sent to congregants listed the increased size of a combined program as the first benefit, noting that “there would be almost 250 students learning and socializing together, enabling our children to be part of a large group of peers.”
Beth Sholom, with about 700 membership units, currently has about 65 students in its kindergarten through sixth-grade Hebrew school program. A.J., with about 550 families, has about 60 Hebrew school students. Both institutions have some classes of fewer than 10 students.
K.I., with just over 1,000 families, boasts a bigger program, with some 140 students currently enrolled. K.I’s satellite religious school program in Blue Bell will not be involved in the merged school, according to Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler, director of religious education.
Rigler emphasized that it wasn’t the numbers driving this new initiative but rather a forward-looking vision.
“Our community is eager to say we are one community; we can learn from each other, look at our strengths, celebrate who we are and give our children the best opportunity to understand what it means to be Jewish in today’s world,” she said.
She and others made clear that the respective institutions “are not looking to abandon our synagogues by any means — but we are understanding we can be stronger.”
Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, senior rabbi at Beth Sholom, agreed. “We are aware that in general we can do more for our families and our kids when we work collectively than when we work in silos,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the congregation would continue to stick to its Conservative affiliation. “We are committed to making sure our families get the best with what we can do collaboratively and maintain the integrity of our individual congregation and denomination.”
He said that although it is “undeniable” that there are fewer students in Beth Sholom’s classrooms than there were 10 years ago, that was not the primary motivation, a view that was echoed by the other two synagogues.
“This is not throwing out the red flag,” he said, “but recognizing that we have to be smart to find partners and work together.”
Anne Fassler, the president of A.J., who also has children in the religious school program, said that given that the kids in the area all know each other and socialize already, it will be a great opportunity for them to get their religious school education together in a program she termed “creative, groundbreaking and really exciting.”
This kind of collaboration is “long overdue,” she said, echoing the view of many of those involved.
Rabbi Philip Warmflash, the executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture who is working as a facilitator to help the parties work out the details, said talks between Beth Sholom and Adath Jeshurun, which already share a collaborative Hebrew high school program, began last year but gained momentum in the fall, when K.I. expressed interest in joining.
Warmflash and others said the initiative is still in the early planning stages. He said there were still many issues to address — like where and when the school would meet and how to resolve some differences between Reform and Conservative traditions, like observance of the second day of holidays, when a student should begin learning to read from the Torah, and whether the children would be required to wear a kipah, as they are in Conservative congregations, but not in Reform ones.
The program is expected to be built on an experiential, project-based curriculum called JQuest that K.I. inaugurated last year under the leadership of Rigler, who is slated to become the educational director of the merged school.
Rigler described JQuest as a “21st-century model of Jewish education” that “focuses on helping students find deep meaning in their tradition through project-based learning and arts education.”
Glanzberg-Krainin of Beth Sholom said JQuest provides a methodology, rather than specific content, that keeps it “child-centered, helping students to follow their passions and provide a small enough setting where kids who require individual needs can get individual attention.”
Arnold Meshkov, president of K.I., said he sees this initiative as a way to get families excited about Jewish learning.
“We’re all aware of the Pew survey,” he said. “It is difficult to convince kids and their parents that Jewish education is worthwhile. JQuest gives kids choices about Jewish learning; it’s not one size fits all.”
The 64-year-old Meshkov, who said his family has been involved at K.I. since he was 7 years old and has seen the politicking and divisiveness among synagogues in the past, said he has been pleased with the cooperation so far. “There’s not a lot of drama and controversy; I’m holding my breath it will continue.”
He noted that for K.I., breaking down boundaries with the Conservative movement began several years ago when Congregation Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham sold its building and began renting space at K.I.
“Yes, we may pray a little differently, and be more or less observant,” Meshkov said of the different streams, “but our Jewish heritage is the same. We want to take advantage of our commonality rather than our differences."
Although there are other collaborative elementary school programs around the country, Warmflash said, most are comprised of congregations in the same denomination.
“This is definitely a first in our area,” said Warmflash. He added that all three congregations are ready to make the investment in a program that could serve as a “model for elementary education way beyond” the Old York Road corridor.