A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships: Day School and Temple Partnership

Sari Laufer, Deborah Starr, Tami Weiser

Imagine a family that has been a synagogue member for a decade: their children have all gone through your preschool, are enrolled in the religious school and are currently attending the local public school. As things change for this family, they realize that they are looking for a different school experience, and starting in September, they are enrolling in the synagogue day school.

Did the religious school “lose” a family? Did the day school “win” with enrollment? Did the synagogue “win” or “lose” with increased revenue and maintained membership? These are all real issues that synagogues with thriving religious schools, youth programs and day schools often face. How we answer these questions, and the many others that this situation raises, can inform how we face our communal future.

One often finds Jewish day schools, synagogues and religious schools perceiving themselves to be in competition with one another. Our proposition is that this is the wrong mindset for the institutions involved, and certainly for the greater good of the broader Jewish community. Instead, these institutions should be symbiotic, share resources and “lift all boats.” We need not be adversaries. Rather, if we see ourselves as one whole rather than as silos, all can benefit. This has proven to be the case at our two Reform day schools, where enrollment is healthy and financial stability is strong.

Temple Beth Am Day School in Miami (15 months through fifth grade), the oldest Reform Jewish day school in the nation, shares a campus with Temple Beth Am. Wise School (a day school, early childhood-sixth grade) and Wise Religious School (K-sixth grade) are part of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, one of the country’s largest Reform synagogues. Despite our schools’ different models, both are working to assure a sense of cohesion for the synagogue, religious school and day school.

Practices for Success

A shared mission needs to be embraced and communicated by senior leadership.

The board, clergy and school administration must actualize the mission that we are one institution. It must be articulated and implemented from job description and employee orientation to function as a unified whole. This may be difficult for employees already in place, and employees who are unwilling to embrace a joint institutional vision may need to be let go.

On the other hand, there can be a positive outcome when hiring or restructuring as one institution. For example, at Stephen Wise, the incoming day camp director was hired to oversee two of the day schools’ afterschool enrichment programs. This gave the school and the camp a natural connection to discuss students, families and curriculum while creating a full-time position. The new employee is also an alum of the day school: a homegrown success story.

The organizational structure, on paper and in practice, should support and validate the symbiotic relationship.

At Temple Beth Am, there is a monthly meeting with the executive director, senior rabbi, religious school director and head of school. The executive director is an ex-facto member of the school board, and the head of school attends management team meetings of the temple.

At Stephen Wise Temple, the school does not have a separate board of directors; the synagogue board oversees and has fiduciary responsibility for the day school. On an administrative level, the head of school is an integral part of the temple senior leadership team, as well as a visible partner to the senior rabbi.

Shared mission can inspire shared experiences...and shared space can inspire shared frustration.

Who “owns” the classroom space, technology and supplies? Can a day school teacher send an angry email on Monday morning if the chairs in the classroom are not put back exactly as they were? Does the religious school get a cabinet in the classroom to store their supplies? There are words when different departments and interests are vying for the same space on the same date. There are considerations as to how fast the custodial staff can turn over a room. There are families booking bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings. Let’s not forget that events also just happen, such as funerals, brises and baby namings. Executive decisions then need to be made on who has priority for a space.

While there are daily challenges with shared space, there is also an opportunity for relationship building and perpetuating the sense of shared vision: combined professional development for day school and religious school faculty; an educational evening for both day school and religious school families on a topic relevant to parenting or child development.

In terms of connecting day school families more deeply with the synagogue, there are many opportunities. Each grade in the day school can participate in Friday night services in the temple followed by a family Shabbat dinner led by clergy. Clergy can work with fifth-grade students on the divrei Torah that they present at tefillah. The day school graduation and other important school ceremonies can be held in the sanctuary, rather than in an auditorium.

There are also opportunities to highlight students from both schools. When Stephen Wise Temple opened its new building in November, the dedication ceremony featured students from both schools, an important statement for the community.

There needs to be cross-marketing and recruitment.

The day school admissions director and the temple membership director must work as a team, whether or not membership is required of day school students, as it is at Stephen Wise Temple, but not at Temple Beth Am. When families express interest in the school, every information packet given out by the admissions director includes temple membership information, and vice versa. When families with young children sign up for temple membership, the membership director walks the family over to the day school admissions director’s office for a meet-and-greet.

On the other end, when families leave the school, whether the preschool or the elementary school, the head of school and the admissions director work with the religious school director to maintain that family’s membership—and their children’s Jewish education—through the religious school.

There is a united financial structure.

There is one finance office for the whole institution: temple, day school and religious school. Although the day school has its own budget, as do the temple and religious school, the bottom line of the budget is really one. The day school budget does not have line items for utilities, insurance, custodial and maintenance, etc. It is incorporated in the temple’s budget. Therefore, the day school revenue becomes a “contribution to overhead” to the temple/campus budget.

In development, the day school and temple work together. At Temple Beth Am, the latest endowment campaign had a goal of raising $10 million in 18 months. This successful campaign was for the whole campus, and that is how solicitations were made. Although some donors wanted their dollars specifically earmarked, and that was honored, it was not the intent of the campaign or solicitations. The Committee of 100 (temple members who pay more than the required temple dues so that those who cannot afford the dues are not turned away) includes many day school families. This past year, Stephen Wise Temple had a combined gala for the temple and school. Both groups were represented in the planning committees, honorees, and most importantly, the donors and attendees. In addition to the funds raised, which were equally divided between the temple and the day school, the experience of the evening was one of communal unity.

Day schools are a population for deeper synagogue engagement.

At Temple Beth Am, most day school families, especially with two or more children, join the temple in order to get the temple member tuition discount. At Stephen Wise Temple, day school families become members of the synagogue upon enrollment. In both cases, these families then benefit from all the temple offerings and programming. It builds temple membership, and when developed properly, can be a wonderful path to synagogue leadership. At Temple Beth Am, the overwhelming majority of temple board presidents are current or former day school parents; similarly, a significant number of day school parents have served on the board of trustees at Stephen Wise Temple.

Challenges to Coexistence

Full membership and associate membership

Temple Beth Am made the strategic decision to grant families who are members in good standing at other area synagogues a day school tuition discount. When families aligned to other synagogues seek a Jewish day school education for their children, the temple has put aside membership requirement and risen to the obligation to be a school for the larger Jewish community.

In Los Angeles, other temples with preschools are hesitant to send prospective kindergarten students to Wise School for fear of losing them as members. In general, day schools and temples do not share associate memberships. This situation is not unique to Stephen Wise Temple, as Los Angeles has a number of day schools affiliated with synagogues, and the conversation needs to happen on a larger scale. The clergy and lay leaders at all schools and temples must come to an agreement on an associate membership dues structure that allows families to belong to one temple and attend a day school at another.

Staff equity in raises

Should raises be the same for everyone, both school employees and temple employees? This has proven to be an area of contention. At Temple Beth Am, the rise in tuition is usually tied to a pay raise for teachers, but temple membership dues do not go up accordingly—and yet temple personnel enjoy the same pay raise. It is an issue constantly raised by the school board. Stephen Wise Temple moved away from raises being consistent across both the temple and school staff, and adopted a model whereby each part of the organization gives raises within its own budget. This can create tension between the two staffs.


Security is a major area of contention on the Temple Beth Am campus. There is considerable disagreement between the clergy and the day school board. As with most synagogues, there is a desire to be warm and welcoming, which includes a mindset of “open access” to the campus. In contrast, particularly in light of the present world of school shootings, the head of school, school board and parents are demanding a more secure campus, with the ability to know who is on campus at all times. This becomes particularly problematic when events are free and open to the public, or when walk-ins come to see the clergy without making prior appointments. A security task force was put in place to investigate how this balance is struck at similar institutions.

Stephen Wise has not found security to be challenging. There is a consistent security protocol for the entire site, temple and school, with all visitors stopped at a security gate. Families across both communities appreciate the sense of safety and security on campus; in fact, it is an asset in recruitment and enrollment. Our security staff works hard to be warm and welcoming, while at the same time maintaining strict safety standards.

No one article could identify all of the challenges and benefits to a shared institutional model for day schools, religious schools and synagogues. We have tried to highlight some of the lessons we’ve learned and continue to face as we endeavor to model the notion that כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh—all in the Jewish community are responsible for one another, and what strengthens one institution strengthens us all.

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HaYidion Catalyzing Resources Fall 2018
Catalyzing Resources
Fall 2018