Taking part in the New Jersey Jewish Educators Association meeting are, from left, Sherri Morris of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Gail Buchbinder of Temple Beth Ahm-Yisrael in Springfield, and Stacey David of the Summit Jewish Community Center.
Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
May 21, 2009
Eight education directors and one intern from Conservative synagogues from across New Jersey sat around a table on a recent morning at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, brainstorming their way through the issues they are facing from the economic fallout.
“We have kids who aren’t going to camp and their parents are begging me for volunteer opportunities for them,” said Charlotte Frank of Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. “Whoever heard of 13-year-old kids around here staying home for the summer?”
Added Judy Jaffe of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair: “Our children are coming to school with a lot more baggage” related to economic woes at home. “Sometimes we know about it, sometimes we don’t. Some students are acting out.”
And if students are bringing anxiety into the classroom, so, too, are the teachers, pointed out Jaffe. They fear for their own job security.
The educators are members of the New Jersey Jewish Educators Association, affiliated with United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. Betty Golub of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, who serves as president of the association, pointed out that the group usually focuses on tangible school-related issues, like creating a standard calendar for Conservative movement religious schools and making the best use of report cards. “But we’re all facing difficult issues now,” she said. “It was coming out in side conversations. That’s when Susan Werk” — education director of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell —“suggested we share what each of us is doing.”
During the hour the educators spent together, they worked their way through issues and solutions, led by Werk, sharing ideas for combating the effects of the economic downtown on students and teachers alike.
Some of the schools are creating programs — or scheduling events simultaneously — with other groups within their congregations, such as sisterhood and men’s clubs, to save on energy costs. At a number of the synagogues, networking opportunities for congregants are being organized, like Java Nagila, a coffee and shmooze gathering offered at a synagogue in Wayne.
At Congregation Beth El in South Orange, director Sherri Morris said, an effort has been mounted to create an organizational chart to find common threads and create joint programs and projects.
At her synagogue, Golub has been searching for creative ways to fund-raise, and she has created a Hebrew enrichment class with Torah reading for students who leave Solomon Schechter Day School for financial reasons or otherwise. “We want to be sure they feel at home here,” Golub said.
Betty Golub of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, president of the NJJEA, listens as Susan Werk of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, standing, facilitates a discussion of the challenges religious schools are facing in this difficult economy.
Early registration efforts at several of the NJJEA participating synagogue schools are not going well, with younger children pulling out altogether. In response, the participants spoke of colleagues offering free or reduced synagogue membership to parents of young children signing up for religious school; despite the reduced revenue this may represent, said a number of the educators, they regard it as an investment in the future.
On the larger issues, group members were quick to offer suggestions. Golub suggested a regional in-service training, once in June and once in August, for all religious school teachers to focus on sensitivity to those suffering from the economic crisis. And to help their young people cope with the stresses, Werk suggested turning to community organizations that already work with teens, like J-Serve and Central Hebrew High, to see if there are projects they can develop to engage the youth during the summer.
Stacey David of the Summit Jewish Community Center offered an idea that has been discussed at her synagogue. “We’re thinking of vacation Bible school,” she said, which combines religious learning with typical camp activities. “It’s such a hit with the churches.” Everyone at the meeting seemed to love the idea, and Golub pointed out that such a summer program was run successfully in Bridgewater decades ago.
The educators appeared to be swimming upstream at a time when synagogues are dropping their catered Shabbat dinners in favor of less expensive onegs and having “dark” nights to save money. Not every problem raised drew a successful solution; an attempt to draft a joint statement that all religious school teachers across the region would voluntarily give up raises failed.
But participants left suggesting that with enough grit and pooled talent, they could weather the economic storm.