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Could the future of the BJE in Boston be in doubt?

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There is apparently some concern among the higher ups at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston that the federation there could make moves that would essentially force the dissolving of the BJE.

The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston has been in the process of implementing a strategic plan to revamp how the federation and its constituent agencies work. A task force has been evaluating several service areas, including the Jewish education landscape in Boston.

Two weeks ago, the task force made some recommendations that set off alarm bells with BJE brass.

The president of the BJE, Lindsay Farrer, sent out a letter to CJP staff — who are expected to meet sometime in the next week to discuss the task force recommendations — in which she urges against those recommendations and makes the case for the continued existence of the BJE.

“Some sweeping changes under discussion, potentially some major changes,” Farrer told the Fundermentalist. Though he would not disclose exactly what changes have been discussed, it appears from reading his letter that it involves a reallocation of BJE staff and a significant cut in allocation. “Ultimately how it plays out is unclear,” he said.

Here is his letter:

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To: Ms. Myra Kraft, Chair, CJP Board of Directors, et. al.
From: Dr. Lindsay Farrer, President, Bureau of Jewish Education
Date: April 22, 2009/28 Nisan 5769

Last week, we were informed of the decision of the CJP Ad Hoc Task Force on Jewish Education to recommend to the CJP Board that all allocations to the Bureau of Jewish Education be ended as of August 1, 2009. At a hastily called meeting on Sunday, April 19th, the BJE Board instructed me to transmit to you and the CJP Board the following, representing the position of the agency in response to this precipitous outcome:

1) For 90 years, the BJE has played a significant role in sustaining and improving the Jewish educational system in Greater Boston. In the last twenty-five years, we have designed, implemented and evaluated the programs of Jewish Continuity, Israel Education and Engagement, Family and Youth Education, Special Education, Early Childhood (for Families with Young Children), and Professional Recruitment and Development for which Boston—and CJP— are known. We have continually pledged to be active partners with CJP and “honest brokers” of the relationships with congregations and schools needed to achieve the community’s agenda.

2) Our record of educational innovation, both in anticipation of emerging needs and in response to community priorities, is unparalleled and proven, including: new technologies, curricular resources, professional models, organizational development and institutional change, and institutional and community-wide programming.

3) Since the 1980’s, CJP has formally evaluated the value and work of the BJE three times, not including the assignment of this year’s Task Force. These evaluations were very extensive and their conclusions overwhelmingly favorable regarding the BJE’s work, outcomes confirmed by our own Strategic Planning efforts. Where criticisms and concerns were raised, the Bureau addressed them and retained the confidence of the community’s 130 schools and 2000 educators. Our last self-assessment in 1997 involved over 100 interviews of recipients of our services and others, and months of open deliberation among educators, lay leaders, rabbis, and our own leadership. It led to a realignment of BJE services that integrated both the CJP priorities at the time and the BJE’s own sense of those educational needs not otherwise addressed through CJP initiatives. None of these evaluation processes remotely reached conclusions that would have justified liquidating the agency.

4) Several times during the last five years, the BJE has offered to deliberate with CJP and the other “education partners” on the future vision and goals for Jewish education in the community to consider whether the current array of services and the delivery structure are appropriate for today’s needs. All our offers have been rebuffed, in part in anticipation of the recent CJP Strategic Plan process.

5) Given the costs associated with potentially curtailing most of the BJE’s services as of August 1, 2009, the savings to CJP might be no more than $350,000 – $400,000 in the first year. With the avowed transfer of some BJE staff and functions to other auspices, the long-term “savings” to CJP might not be much greater than another $300,000.

The recommendation of the Ad Hoc Task Force effectively shutters the BJE without having engaged in a full, evaluative process to assess the quality of all the individual programs BJE provides and without fully comparing the BJE’s services to others presently operating in the community. In the absence of such a comprehensive assessment, the drastic actions recommended appear simply arbitrary and capricious.

Therefore, the Board of Directors of the Bureau of Jewish Education respectfully requests that the CJP Board delays action on the Task Force recommendation, so the agency will have the opportunity to review the group’s report, develop alternative scenarios, express in detail its ideas and plans for the future of Boston’s Jewish education “system”, and engage lay and professional leaders in a deliberative process to align our program and services closely with CJP’s Strategic Priorities. We hope that CJP would join with us in an open and affirmative way in this deliberation.

Absent this kind of reconsideration and the lack of a concrete plan for the continuation of services, the dramatic changes proposed will result in the following, among other consequences:

• 2400 children and 350 educators in 32 pre-schools will lose professional guidance, Jewish curriculum, Israel connections, quality accreditation (Magen HaGan), and state advocacy and communal programming to strengthen their indispensable role in engaging young families;

• 20 congregations (and more in waiting) will lose the advice and support for their full-time “Renaissance Educators” – a BJE model that has revolutionized how these synagogues have staffed their education programs and integrated formal and informal learning for Jews of all ages;

• Over 30 Family Educators will not have a professional conduit to the latest research and national program resources on how to transform synagogues into family friendly Jewish life centers as Jewish journey coaches;

• There will be no macro-planning or programming in special education. The BJE’s comprehensive approach to full inclusion, which now reaches hundreds of children and families in 20 more sites than existed in 2001, involves government advocacy, development of regional collaboratives, pedagogic resources and programs in congregational, day and pre-schools, and our Inclusion Rating Tool for synagogue assessments. This plan complements the direct intervention and training
services provided by other groups.

• Our synagogue change approach, implemented in all or part in more than 10 local congregations to date, is now nationally sanctioned, but will not be carried out.
Our Board feels strongly that there are alternatives to the Task Force’s conclusions (including ones that the “field” might endorse even though the Task Force has rejected them), such as:

1) A reconfigured BJE as an “arm” of CJP, retaining its identity and professional confidence and confidentiality with the field.

2) A smaller, but independent, agency devoted to supporting a few specific areas of the CJP Plan (Boston 2020). Or, even with a reduced allocation (in line with the anticipated savings in year one),

3) CJP might offer the BJE the time and supportive counsel to restructure itself, seek alternative funding sources, and develop ways to serve the “Boston 2020” Plan.

The BJE feels that what is essentially a ”structural” response will not address the complex and multiple issues and needs that Boston’s ongoing quest for Jewish educational excellence will face in the future. Though a few federations have closed their central agencies in the last few months (Toronto, Boca Raton, Northern New
Jersey), many others, notably among the largest cities, have developed strong relationships, redefined and shared responsibilities with their BJEs (New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Baltimore).

The Boston BJE’s plans and ideas for that future should be given a true airing and the consideration that the agency deserves for its years of partnered service and the community deserves as well.
 

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