By Rachel Wizenfeld
Hyman Brand, in Kansas City, is the first community day school to successfully integrate a fully Orthodox track, according to Rabbi Judah Isaacs, director of the OU Department of Community Engagement. Other schools have tried it in the past, but it has never taken off. Hyman Brand’s Matmidim Program, which has Torah-observant educators, allows Orthodox students to learn Judaic studies at a level that is on par with Torah day schools from around the country. The Matmidim students then join the rest of the school for secular studies, lunchtime, recess and extracurricular activities.
While Rabbi Isaacs believes the benefits of such a merger are plentiful, including tremendous kiruv opportunities, the real reason to pursue this arrangement is financial efficiency.
Most small and midsize Jewish communities have a hard time supporting multiple day schools, he asserts, even with a supportive federation and community assistance. Rabbi Isaacs hopes that communities that don’t yet have an Orthodox school as well as communities with a struggling Orthodox school and a struggling community school will seriously consider a merger like Hyman Brand to ease the community’s financial burden.
A community school can be more successful in recruiting kids across the spectrum because there’s a stigma against Orthodox schools, even those that are open to the community, says Rabbi Isaacs. Ironically, since the Matmidim Program opened at Hyman Brand, a large number of Reform families joined the school. According to Rabbi Daniel Rockoff, rabbi of the local Orthodox shul and the religious advisor for the Matmidim Program, the school had a reputation for being too traditional; once the Orthodox kids were tucked away into their own program, Reform families felt more comfortable enrolling their children—which ultimately helped lead to a more financially sustainable school.
Besides the logistical challenges of operating such a program, Rabbi Rockoff says he wants to make sure that within the school, administration, board and community, they’re addressing issues without people feeling threatened, but rather recognizing that this operation is for everyone’s greater good.
He adds, “Obviously in New York or Los Angeles, the ideal is to have separate schools. But when you go to communities with smaller Jewish populations, there’s a combination of ideal and reality, and sometimes the reality becomes the ideal . . . we try to collaborate when we can.”
Such an arrangement highlights community day schools at their best, according to Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network. “A community day school is supposed to reflect the community . . . with the addition of certain teachers and classes, it amplifies the school experience for everyone and adds high notes of diversity.”
He adds that the diversity helps kids live with tension and feel good about it. “It helps them understand gray from black and white.”
The merger at Hyman Brand worked, according to Kramer, partly because the Jewish community in Kansas City is relatively small, which tends to lead to a greater sense of community and more cooperation.
“The sheer desire to make it possible is a huge drive,” he says. “This is why it’s successful. The leadership has tremendous respect for other people’s opinions and perspectives.”
Rabbi Isaacs says that while this couldn’t be the model everywhere, he could think of more than a dozen communities that could benefit from a Hyman Brand-type merger, including Austin, Texas, which currently doesn’t have an Orthodox day school, and larger communities where the Orthodox schools are really struggling.
Rachel Wizenfeld is a frequent contributor to many Jewish publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.