When the Jewish Education Services of North America, or JESNA, closes its doors at the end of the month, it will be a quiet end for an agency that loomed large in the field of Jewish education for more than three decades. Founded in 1982, the New York-based JESNA was the Jewish federation system’s central address for education. JESNA advocated for day school and supplementary Jewish education, provided qualitative evaluations of Jewish schools, and helped expand awareness and focus on professional development. JESNA also worked closely with local education entities, such as the Washington area’s Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.
In recent years, JESNA was hit hard by the double whammy of recession and institutional changes in the Jewish education world. In the wake of the economic collapse, JESNA’s largest funder, the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Agency Alliance, reduced its funding to JESNA from about $1 million in 2006, to $563,000 in 2012. JESNA responded by shedding employees and slashing its budget. At the same time, new, more specialized Jewish education institutions were formed — such as Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and RAVSAK, which focus on day schools — that drew interest and support from former JESNA clients, advocates and donors.
Last fall, JESNA announced it would refocus its work on supplementary education provided by synagogue and temple religious schools. Then, in January, it entered into merger talks with New York’s Jewish Education Project, a local agency that was expanding into the national arena. Those talks fell through. When JESNA’s leaders could not find another partner, they decided to close the agency.
JESNA was an important player in the field of Jewish education for more than 30 years. It achieved many successes. While our national community is fortunate to have several organizations that will continue to address the challenges facing the broad field of Jewish education, we will miss the voice and leadership of JESNA.
We offer the staff of JESNA our gratitude for their leadership and hard work in support of Jewish education. We are a stronger national community because of their work.