Complementary School Mergers (Part I)

May 5, 2011

Source: JESNA 


JESNA's Learnings & Consultation Center released a new issue of Quick Bytes on Complementary School Mergers. In it they report on two online surveys (in November 2009 and February 2011) with the members of the Association of Directors of Central Agencies (ADCA) to gather data about proposed and/or completed school mergers in communities throughout North America. The report highlights recurring themes and important variations and raises questions for discussion. A subsequent edition will focus on day school and Jewish communal institution mergers.

Taken together, the two surveys provided data from 20 different communities, which vary greatly in terms of size (ranging from intermediate to large) and geographic location.

The three most common reasons identified by respondents for initiating merger processes were:

  • Decreasing enrollment (in one or more schools) due to demographic shifts (population, location, etc.) render current situation non-viable;
  • (Anticipated) Financial savings; and
  • (Desired) Social interaction with students and families from other congregations.

The top three challenges to enacting successful mergers identified by respondents to both surveys were:

  • Synagogues want to have "their students" in "their building" interacting with "their staff" and each other;
  • (Synagogue) Leadership were not convinced of the ultimate value of the merger; and
  • Cultural differences between the institutions.

Approximately two-thirds of the merger discussions were conducted by the institutions in partnership with communal or external consultants, and the remaining third were undertaken by the institutions themselves.


Many of the communities that have considered and/or are engaged in complementary school merger processes have turned to JESNA for consultation and coaching. JESNA's Education Consultants work to understand the dynamics at play, and to identify promising options.


For example, through the JESNA-ADCA WOW Project, JESNA guides a collaborative process, carefully analyzing the community's needs, assets and dreams, and designing and guiding the implementation of strategies tailored to the unique characteristics of the local community, its educational institutions and its Jewish population.


JESNA will be holding a free webinar on Friday, May 20th - 12:00 - 1:00 PM Eastern Time to facilitate a dialogue about complementary school mergers, for those who are interested in sharing and learning from their colleagues.


Rabbi Aaron Bisno, Senior Rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania wrote a recent blog post on this topic on eJewish Philanthropy:

He wrote:

"Clearly, were we to rebuild our community from the ground up, we would never organize our community in the ways it is designed today. Take religious education, as just one example.
Is there any justification for every congregation continuing with its own stand-alone school? Our curricula are essentially the same (even between denominations this is true; after all, Hebrew is Hebrew) and because we all employ senior staff to oversee our programs, maintain expensive physical plants and, in many cases, share the exact same faculty (employing them on consecutive days!), every congregation loses money on the arrangement. Of course, similar questions could be asked with regard to lifelong education, pastoral care, (even, egads!) worship, to say nothing of the high costs of communal affiliation, more generally.


Are we so committed to outdated paradigms and our own institutional egos that we would sooner perpetuate what Sigmund Freud referred to as the “narcissism of small differences” than partner with our neighbors for the betterment of our community as a whole?


We who care most about the future of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community can no longer afford to rest on our laurels. Nor, for that matter, can we risk hiding behind exaggerated distinctions among our rabbis and programs. We have too much in common and the immediate costs and long-term stakes for our sticking with the status quo are simply too high. Just imagine what we could realize if we stopped competing with ourselves!"

Updated: May. 11, 2011