As the new school year approaches, area Jewish educators are watching closely as The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington assembles its new Department of Jewish Life and Learning. The department replaces the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, an independent education agency that closed in May.
“All of us are holding our breath,” said Moshe Ben-Lev, education director for the Northern Virginia Jewish Congregation.
The Partnership had a low profile in the Jewish community because it offered few direct services. Founded in 2004 from the merger of three education agencies, it worked closely with community educators, providing professional training for preschools and synagogue schools. And it offered a number of programs for the general community, such as the Routes Jewish Learning Day and the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.
The Federation hired four of the Partnership’s 16 employees to staff the new education department. It is recruiting a committee to guide the department’s work, according to Federation CEO Steve Rakitt.
When the committee is filled, it “will work with us in probably the most important aspect of this new beginning — [deciding] what are the other issues facing Jewish education in our community, and how can we address those issues in partnership with educators, synagogues, day schools and with others in the community,” he said.
The Partnership’s demise follows several years of “substantial financial challenges,” Rakitt says. It fell victim to tighter dollars following the Bernie Madoff scandal and the economic collapse in 2008. Exacerbating these problems was the inability of the agency’s leadership to raise sufficient funds, as well as the unclear role in the minds of many of what the Partnership did.
“A lot of the work the Partnership was doing was abstract,” said Federation President Liza Levy. “They were not really delivering services. They were working with other entities in the community to deliver those services. How do you make something like that concrete to a donor?”
“They’d become a smaller and smaller organization that was able to do less and less,” said Rabbi Bill Rudolph, of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, which participated in the Partnership’s CE21 initiative for congregations to rethink how they offer education to members.
The closure also comes at a time of decline for central Jewish education agencies. In June, for example, JESNA, a national organization, closed. In recent years, federations in Boston, Ft. Worth and Atlanta have absorbed their community education agencies. San Diego’s Agency for Jewish Education was integrated into the JCC.
When it closed, the Partnership was running a $200,000 deficit, said JoHanna Potts, who was the Partnership’s chief operating officer and is one of the four staff members hired by the Federation.
In fiscal year 2013, the agency had a $2.1 million budget. In the May financial report, the most recent available, the Partnership had received $804,000 in funding from the Federation, $400,000 through fundraising and $122,000 from program fees, she said.
The agency’s collapse came quickly. In March and April the leaders of the Partnership and the Federation met “to figure out the best way to deliver critical services to the community and how to move to that best way,” Rakitt said.
In April, the Partnership board eliminated the position of chief executive officer, which had been held by James Hyman.
A joint committee recommended “to bring the Partnership into the Federation as a department,” Rakitt said. Both agencies subsequently approved the decision. The Partnership board must still vote to dissolve itself as a legal entity, he said.
The new arrangement will save on overhead by using existing Federation back-office and administrative support, according to a Federation press release. The lease on the Partnership’s office on Wilkins Avenue in Rockville runs through September 2014. Rakitt said the Federation is looking for other uses for the space.
The Partnership’s closure didn’t take area educators by surprise. Its staff attended a meeting of the Education Directors Council in the spring and laid everything on the line, Ben-Lev said.
“They told us, ‘This is the situation. This is the budget. We don’t know what the future will be. What are the things that you think are most important?’ It was a transparent, honest conversation.”
He said there remain many unknowns about the fate of the Partnership’s programs. “Who’s going to cover special needs? Who’s going to handle teen philanthropy [the JYPI program]?” Ben-Lev said.
Rakitt said that the Federation is considering how to “make sure that key and critical services are delivered, and key constituencies such as synagogue educators, early childhood educators, teen philanthropy, Routes and other signature programs — how do we maintain them and how do we even improve on them?”
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, who serves Hevrat Shalom Congregation in Gaithersburg and a number of other area synagogues, worries whether there’s a larger problem than just the Partnership’s inability to raise funds.
“While restructuring may help both Federation and the Partnership to better use their resources, I think that the community needs to ask if it is putting enough into Jewish educational programs,” he says. “We have foundations in this area that could underwrite many of our educational programs if someone will say this needs to be done.”
Rakitt agrees that community fundraisers need to do a better job at selling education. “I think one of the challenges is messaging to donors and the community the extraordinary value of Jewish education and the work Jewish education agencies do.”
Still, Rudolph of Congregation Beth El wonders if that will be enough in tough economic times. “Money is still tight and organizations that don’t provide a direct service may be seen as a luxury, and that’s a shame.”
A staff of four with many responsibilities will not be able to do the creative thinking and planning that is part of an education agency’s role, he said. “The world is changing and someone should be doing the big picture thinking.”
Potts said that will be the job of the committee that the Federation is putting together.
With a new year approaching, the financial problems of the Partnership appear to be solved. What is still unclear is what a new, smaller Federation education department will be able to deliver.