A Meeting Of Educational Minds

A Meeting Of Educational Minds

An interview with the heads of the new BJENY-SAJES as they reframe a vision for the agency.

When it takes seven syllables just to say your organization’s acronym, let alone its full name, you know you have a marketing problem.

Which is why finding a new moniker and “re-branding” are among the top priorities of BJENY-SAJES, the merger of New York’s two central agencies for Jewish education: the 100-year-old Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and the relatively youthful Suffolk Association for Jewish Education Services.

But the transformation of the agency, which receives 52 percent of its funding from UJA-Federation of New York and works with hundreds of diverse educational institutions, from haredi yeshivas to Reform congregational schools, has gone well beyond the cosmetic.

Since 2007, when the BJE completed a strategic plan and hired a new chief operating officer, Robert Sherman, and soon after when the two agencies began merger talks, change has been brewing, with new programs launched, new professionals brought in and a complete rethinking of everyday operations.

While mergers usually mean a reduction in staff and budget, the new agency is now larger than the combined totals before the merger process began, thanks mostly to increased support from the federation.

This year’s budget is $12 million, compared to combined budgets totaling $9.5 million five years ago. And BJENY-SAJES now has a staff of 53 full-timers and six part-timers, compared to 45 full-timers and 17 part-timers in the two agencies combined five years ago. (Back then the combined budgets totaled $9.5 million.)

“We have significantly increased full-time positions to focus on the core strategies and have far fewer small and tangential programs not in sync with the strategies,” explains Executive Vice President (and longtime SAJES head) Deborah Friedman, adding that “staff roles have shifted, where appropriate.”

The four major focal points for BJENY-SAJES are: the intersection of accessibility, affordability and quality at Jewish day schools; supporting “21st century models” of congregational learning; tapping the potential of social media in Jewish education; and helping early childhood education programs more deeply engage their students’ families in Jewish communal life.

Among the specific new projects, BJENY-SAJES recently began working with the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, Jewish Theological Seminary and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism on “branding” and the “value proposition” — focusing on how these schools can more effectively reach out to families not currently in the day school system. It is also working with over 40 congregations that are in various stages of rethinking and restructuring their Hebrew school programs and convening them with innovative groups like Storahtelling and Hazon to develop educational partnerships and programs. (See related article on p. 26 about the Leadership Institute for Congregational Educators.)

The agency is also working with schools and congregations that are using new technologies, especially the Internet and social media, to engage students, especially teens. (See op-ed by BJENY-SAJES New Center for Collaborative Leadership Director David Bryfman on page 36)

The agency also continues to enjoy a national reputation for its expertise in accessing government funding for various non-religious and special-needs services at Jewish day schools.

Although final decisions are still being made about the new agency’s name (there are apparently a few contenders, all top secret) and revamped website to be unveiled this fall, and the New York State Attorney General’s formal stamp of approval is still being awaited, the merger is essentially complete.

The new agency hosted its first tribute dinner a few months ago, a celebratory event on the top floor of Seven World Trade Center. With over 500 people attending and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein the keynote speaker, the event raised $762,000, more than double the amount the groups had raised previously.

Friedman and Sherman, who before joining the BJE headed San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education, recently sat down with The Jewish Week at their Midtown headquarters to discuss their major goals and activities. (The agency, which closed a Nassau County branch during the merger process, also has offices in Suffolk and Westchester counties.)

How has the role and work of BJENY-SAJES, and central Jewish education agencies in general, changed since the strategic plan and the launch of the merger process?

Sherman: We are shifting from service to leadership, from an organization that provides services but does not necessarily focus on change advancement or ways to go about strengthening Jewish education in all the different sectors. We’re not just strengthening it, but thinking differently about the approaches. … I’d call us a communal agency rather than central, taking the perspective of what does the whole community need, thinking about change from larger systemic perspective, not just change in a particular institution or sector.

What are some of the unique challenges of running a Jewish education agency in New York?

Sherman: Obviously scale first and foremost: it’s huge. Most other communities have maybe 10 day schools. Here we have 300 day schools and yeshivot, and it’s very fractionalized. … For a big portion of the day school yeshiva community, when we’re talking Jewish education, a big piece of what we’re talking about is a certain kind of literacy [in classic Jewish texts]. … When you start moving to the other side of the spectrum you get a lot of soft kinds of outcomes: sense of identity, feelings of belonging, spiritual engagement, how you express your Jewishness. So your education outcomes are very different. … Also, it’s not just that it’s different from other Jewish communities in the U.S., but that we have everything.

Friedman: We have northern Westchester and we have Williamsburg.

Can you talk a little more about your focus, in dealing with such an enormous and diverse set of constituents and needs?

Sherman: We focus on what I call the four levers of change: people, ideas, networks and resources. That is, people; the powerful ideas motivating them; how do they work in networks that leverage their knowledge and skills; and what are the resources necessary to invest in the system? …The way we think about the whole piece of work we do is creating large-scale change by connecting people with resources and with each other. We create certain kinds of initiatives and projects and programs that lead to those changes.

I know congregational schools, better known as Hebrew schools, have been a major area of your agency’s focus and that a big emphasis has been engaging parents, as well as kids. What do you mean when you say ‘21st century models of congregational schools’?

Sherman: Congregational education in the past was largely classroom instruction. And that’s really good for literacy, but when you’re trying to reach those softer human outcomes you need lots of other [more experiential and creative] approaches … In bringing in groups like Storahtelling, Hazon and Avodah Arts, we’re not interested in helping [the schools] just have another [field trip or special event], but thinking about how do the students learn from it, and we’re also helping the groups think about what they’re doing and what effect they want to have.

And what about early childhood education?

Sherman: We are focusing on building a pipeline for young families. Early childhood education is as much about the family as it is about the child, and we’re looking at what is the role of the education community in engaging the entire family — from birth — and being partly guide, helping families on the next step of their Jewish journey.

Friedman: We call it Early Childhood and Family Engagement. Knowing, believing, belonging and doing all need to be centered on family activity … In work with teams of lay leadership, we’re having them think about whether they are welcoming early childhood families into the congregation … so families feel engaged not just in the early childhood program, but in the larger community.

Sherman: We’re also working with the PJ Library [a national Jewish children’s book club that is offered to families free of charge]. We’re helping with recruitment, but also with related programming, because if it’s not attached to programming, it’s less effective. It’s an opportunity to create community, to network people with other experiences.

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