HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Building a Strong Relationship with Local Rabbis

by Allison B. Oakes Issue: Strengthening Community
TOPICS : Community

The Eleanor Kolitz Academy (EKA) is the only Jewish day school in San Antonio. As such, our mission is to serve the entire Jewish community; for the benefit of the school and the community, we cannot afford to do anything less. However, carrying out this mission is not easy, nor has the school always been wholly successful. Like many schools in small Jewish communities, our large mandate has bumped against the realities of denominational politics and school culture. Working closely with all of the local rabbis, we have developed a new strategy designed to meet the needs of the different factions in our community. Our hope is that the new regime will strike the right balance between advancing the religious pathways of our diverse student body while preserving the sense of unity, of klal Yisrael, so central to our mission.

Just like day schools in other cities, the EKA is looking for methods of sharing resources. The San Antonio Jewish community cannot support two schools, Orthodox and pluralistic.

In the past, our school’s solution to conflicting expectations from different sides of the Jewish spectrum was to create a “safe” curriculum that would not offend anyone’s sensibilities. Over time, due to professional leadership and rabbinic pressure, that safe curriculum shifted more and more to the right, taking on a very traditional / Orthodox appeal. This alienated much of the Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated communities and resulted in a decrease in their representation at EKA. Without a large enough Orthodox population in the city solely to support the school, enrollment decreased.

Just over a year ago, I was appointed head of school to take the lead in working with San Antonio’s rabbinic leadership to create a program that would meet the Judaic academic needs of the majority of the San Antonio Jewish community. We determined that a dual track Judaic Studies program (Orthodox and pluralistic) was our best option.

Just like day schools in other cities, the EKA is looking for methods of sharing resources. The San Antonio Jewish community cannot support two schools, Orthodox and pluralistic. Our belief is that one community school can be successful if dual Judaic Studies learning tracks exist while all of the professional and materials resources are shared within general, special, and Hebrew language studies. This is the vision I was charged with bringing to fruition, and community collaboration is the only way it could happen.

My first task was to meet with the lead rabbis from local congregation, to listen to their assessment of the school and the direction they feel it needs to go in order to meet the needs of their congregants. As relationships developed, I sought to gauge their interest in the dual track program and request a promise of support. I promised to apprise them of the program’s development and offered plenty of opportunity to provide feedback, since I was depending on them to promote the school to their congregants. Each rabbi agreed enthusiastically. This was a tremendous step forward for the EKA because in recent years the rabbi of the largest synagogue in San Antonio publicly lost confidence in the school representing his community as the school drifted further to the right.

One rabbi expressed his enthusiasm by pushing hard for the immediate start of the program. My knowledge of the failure of similar programs in other cities provided me the tools to convince him that we needed at least one school year of committed work in building the program and promoting it so that current and prospective EKA families would be confident that both Judaic tracks were equally rigorous and that a possible rift in the school community will not occur.

In consultation with the rabbis, the Judaics director and I developed several drafts of the program over the course of the year. Each draft was distributed to the rabbis for comments and revised with their suggestions in mind. The culmination of months of hard work was the presentation of a final draft at a meeting at the school that all lead rabbis attended. I applauded their dedication and partnership and we discussed the final details, such as going into the community to fundraise the substantial sum needed to pay for two new teachers and classroom materials. Each made an individual commitment to assist in the fundraising. This final vote of confidence in the program and the school is tremendous for the future of the school and Jewish education in San Antonio.

The rabbis showed concern not only that their congregants’ beliefs and values be reflected in the new curriculum. They also directed us to build mutual respect between students and families so that the program is not divisive but offers a substantial lesson in diversity and relationships. To this end, we are implementing a version of a schoolwide Derech Eretz program borrowed from the Charlotte Jewish Day School that extends beyond the school walls into the homes of the students.

I would be remise if I did not mention that forging a positive and working relationship between heads of schools and their local rabbinate is difficult. My success in San Antonio is due to the willingness of all the rabbis to work with the school and each other for the community’s benefit. Through frequent communication, transparency and openness, this all too important relationship can be created, built upon, and made strong. ♦

Allison Oakes is Head of School at the Eleanor Kolitz Academy in San Antonio, Texas. She can be reached at oakesa@eka-sa.org.

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Strengthening Community

What do we mean when we call our schools a “community”? How does the Jewish diversity that typifies community day schools coalesce into its own community? What happens when the various communities that exist both outside and within the school come into conflict? Discover ways of understanding and strengthening the community of your school and its position within the larger surrounding communities.