A Case Study in School and Synagogue Community Building
Pressman Academy is a day school housed within a synagogue, Temple Beth Am, in Los Angeles. Like other Jewish day schools, Pressman must first meet all of the requirements and expectations of a school positioned within the independent school market. Additionally, the school is expected to meet the needs of the host institution. Because Pressman Academy serves nearly 90% of the community’s children, the day school has proven a critical source of growth for Temple Beth Am, drawing many families to the synagogue that otherwise would not have affiliated with a synagogue or would have affiliated with other synagogues and other denominations. Consequently, the synagogue relies upon the school to funnel families into the larger synagogue community and support their continued engagement. Likewise, the school depends on the synagogue to provide Jewish engagement opportunities for the students and their families. This article explores some of the tensions implicit in this relationship and suggests ways to enhance the collaboration to better serve the larger community.
School and Synagogue Interests and Priorities: The Tension
Pressman Academy has four main priorities. First, it is responsible for the education of its students, guided by state and national standards, and for which the school must ultimately answer to parents who are paying for that education. Second, the school aims to form a partnership with parents in caring for their children. This plays out both as “customer service,” with the school working to please its parents, as well as parent engagement, which is done to support the school’s work. Third, the school is accountable to the state for its governance, including filing the board’s bylaws and complying with 501(c)(3) regulations. Fourth, the school must adhere to financial, legal and HR rules. In this regard, the school functions as an arm of the synagogue, with Temple Beth Am’s board of trustees holding ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the school.
In addition to these priorities similar to any other day school, Pressman Academy is also responsible for integrating its family population into the larger synagogue community. The synagogue expects that its day school will channel school families into its membership and programming, allowing the synagogue to grow and to nurture lifelong relationships between school parents and synagogue.
Temple Beth Am shares some of the responsibilities and priorities as the school. It is accountable for governance, legal, financial and HR compliance, and there is a lot of natural overlap and collaboration. The school and synagogue share a resource and development department, an accounting department, HR resources and legal counsel. However, the synagogue’s main priority remains ensuring that adult members have ample opportunities for Jewish engagement, primarily through ritual services, pastoral care, Israel missions, community service and adult learning. Synagogue leaders also work to build and maintain relationships that will ensure members remain in the community even after families see their children age out of schooling. In addition to these demands, the school expects the synagogue to provide leadership and continuous support for its growth and health along with reasonable autonomy for its educational efforts.
The school and the synagogue share a desire to integrate families into the larger community, for both institutional sustainability and the long-term sustainability of the Jewish people. For the school, having children and families participate in the synagogue helps them draw connections between Jewish learning and practice, study and community. For the synagogue, encouraging day school families to take part fulfills its larger mission of Jewish engagement. Temple Beth Am often runs programs for children designed to attract parent participation as well.
While both seek to run programming for families and children outside of regular school hours, the primary audience differs, with the school catering to children and the synagogue to adults. Because the school and synagogue hold differing priorities, tension sometimes arises in their approaches to finding ways to integrate families, despite overlapping aims. Herein lies the challenge that schools face when trying to promote communal engagement from within a larger synagogue infrastructure. How can school leadership meet the needs of the larger organization’s interests in their parent community, while also fostering the best opportunities for their student community?
The following fictionalized scenario, based loosely on real events, illustrates this kind of situation.
A Case Study of these Priorities: Shabbat Morning
Recognizing that families were looking to engage on Shabbat with their school community, the head of school, Peg, tasked the school rabbi, Rabbi Goldberg, to create a twice a year Shabbat morning experience. Teachers prepared their students to lead different parts of the service, school staff and parents came together with children on Shabbat morning, and the service was followed by a celebratory kiddush.
As the program evolved, the number of families in attendance grew, with close to 200 people attending on a Shabbat morning. Many of the 200 were people who did not necessarily attend the other 50 Shabbatot a year in the synagogue but came specifically for this school Shabbat program.
Recognizing the program as a success, the synagogue leadership wondered if there were a way to capitalize on the program’s popularity to create connections with the synagogue clergy and to encourage more active participation on other Shabbatot. The synagogue asked its cantor, Cantor Jennings, to take on this project on behalf of the synagogue’s clergy.
The head of school set up a meeting with Rabbi Goldberg and Cantor Jennings.
Cantor Jennings began the meeting, “The Shabbat program is incredible. There is a lot of potential in helping the families bridge into the synagogue and feel a connection to the larger community.”
“What do you have in mind?” Peg asked. “How do you imagine doing this?”
“I would love to come to the Shabbat services and have a role,” the cantor responded. “I think I could give the parents a taste of what Shabbat is like in this community. And hopefully bond with some people to get them to come back.”
“Wonderful,” Rabbi Goldberg responded. “We would love to have you. What kind of role were you imagining?”
“I was thinking I could lead part of the service, teach some of the prayers and lead some music that would inspire the adults in the room. The students know so much, and many of the parents sit passively like they are watching a show. I think I could help them feel involved. Then they would know the prayers and our tunes—it could be a beautiful connection!”
Rabbi Goldberg began to shift in his chair. “I love the idea,” he replied, “but I am not sure how to work this piece in. The school is trying to find opportunities for the students to bring their prayer education into an authentic Shabbat service, and our students lead the entire morning. Our drash is given by the 7th graders, as part of their b’nei mitzvah training. And we want the parents to be there, so there is an authentic kahal to experience this service and the children’s leadership, even if it is a little messy at times.”
This story illustrates the tensions present in the school-synagogue relationship, even when the best intentions for cooperation are present. The school’s priority here is to educate its students and, only secondarily, to engage parents; the synagogue tries to shape this experience toward the adults by introducing them to its Shabbat morning services. Through our own similar experiences, we developed core practices to recommend how schools and synagogues (and truly any partnership) can collaborate effectively to best serve their larger community.
Strong lay leadership. Every parent in the school is also a member of the synagogue, and they bear the shared interest and investment in both entities. Our lay leaders serve as viable mediators between the staff leadership of both the school and synagogue. Their interest in the health of both parts of the institution positions them to push towards a vision of collaboration and cooperation. In this case, the lay leadership of the synagogue and the school can question, challenge, and gather together the people needed to encourage the staff to seek compromise. As one lay leader recently told us, “My only goal is to support you and make you successful in your jobs.” Their investment in the particulars of the program can be secondary to helping the larger institution thrive.
Relationship building. Human connection truly drives partnership deeper than pragmatic dependencies. Whether between senior leadership, principals and program directors, or teachers and office staff, direct and personal relationships motivate our staff to support each other and compromise self-interest for the needs of the institution. Being in relationship fosters a willingness to forgive easily and appreciate others’ motivations. In this case, a personal and meaningful relationship between Cantor Jennings and Rabbi Goldberg would enable them to both trust each other and also be more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, rather than retreating to protect one’s territory.
Strengths-based appreciation. In a synagogue and in a school, each part of the institution brings expertise from which the other can draw. In considering the extent to which family programs meet the needs of the children or the adults, rather than competing for their own priorities, it is crucial that the school and the synagogue form a collaboration. When developing family programming, the school can benefit from the synagogue’s expertise in reaching adults, while the synagogue can tap into the school’s deep understanding of young people, as well as its experience in marketing and recruitment. In this case, the school would be wise to engage Cantor Jennings in how to craft a meaningful experience for parents.
Collective investment. It’s not enough for the two of us, as leaders in the organization, to believe in collaboration and to model it. We also need to cultivate a culture among our departments’ leadership and staff of a holistic community and learning environment. By bringing our entire staff and lay leadership into the vision, we can ensure that the promise of a fully integrated community lives on. In the case above, Rabbi Goldberg and Cantor Jennings need to certify that their colleagues are invested in collaboration for the greater good.
Clarity and advanced planning. We have found it crucial to share the projects, programs and initiatives we are undertaking. This occurs within senior leadership meetings, on the lay level in board and committee meetings, and in presentations at our department staff meetings. This effort to communicate clearly depends upon planning, sharing an extensive timeline, and building in checkpoints that allow for reflection and feedback on the process. In the case, the school’s advanced planning of the Shabbat morning project would give it time to communicate plans for the design of the program with Cantor Jennings, so that suggested additions and changes would not trigger Rabbi Goldberg’s concern over altering established plans.
Transparency about tension and safe spaces. As a staff, we have sat down to name what each part of the institution “owns” and in what spaces we share ownership. For example, Pressman Academy “owns” the school building and Temple Beth Am “owns” the rabbi suite, so neither has to ask the other for permission to schedule their own spaces or do maintenance in them. In other spaces, both institutions can lay claim to their use. By remaining open and authentic about areas of tension, we are more easily able to resolve issues. In the case above, tension arose because the Shabbat program fell within overlapping ownership of the school and synagogue. When Rabbi Goldberg and Cantor Jennings can openly share the stake they have in the program, they will more openly be able to find a solution.
While we have not solved all of the challenges inherent in a day school being situated inside a larger organization with conflicting organizational priorities, we recognize that our collaboration offers opportunities to better serve the Jewish community. When we silo our efforts, our commitments and our resources, we lose sight of the overall purposes and goals of the Jewish organizational endeavor. By harnessing the resources, talents and passions of both a synagogue and a school, we multiply the points of connections we can cultivate and deepen the relationships that exist across communal life.