HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A Small Jewish Community and Its Day School: A Jewish Social Contract

by Joshua Elkin Issue: Size Matters

While this portrait is adapted from a larger case study project developed for the AVI CHAI Foundation, which focuses on strengthening the Judaic mission of day schools, all articles in this section are studies of day school adaptibility, ingenuity and foresight.


In 1998, the Charlotte Jewish community faced a profound and difficult challenge: how to offer a day school education for the widest range of families in what is, after all, a small Jewish community. The only day school in Charlotte was a Chabad-sponsored institution, which had been in existence since 1989. But there were leaders in the community who wanted to figure out ways to increase the outreach to families seeking a non-Orthodox education. The option of opening a second school was categorically ruled out by an outside consultant, who concluded that the community was simply too small to sustain two day schools.

What ensued was an extensive and challenging community-wide conversation during which many leaders, volunteers and professionals, squarely faced the challenge of determining how to chart a path whereby the school would morph into a community school (affiliated with RAVSAK), while at the same time continuing to be an acceptable vehicle for the Orthodox community. All parties at the table had to ask themselves the question: what are we willing to give up in order to sustain our school and insure its attractiveness for the widest possible population of Jews?

Communal leaders exhibited great resourcefulness in this process, as they have continued to do in the ensuing years. It is fair to say that each group around the table in 1998 gave up something for the sake of forging a compromise and making the school acceptable to families across the denominational spectrum. Without watering down the Judaic program, the school leadership dedicated itself to shaping what they have called “common denominator Judaism” which would be both as welcoming and as rich as possible. The Chabad leadership agreed that the school would become independent. It would be board-driven with transparent governance. In addition, students with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother would be accepted into the school. Girls would no longer be required to wear dresses, and boys would not be required to wear tzitzit under their clothing, as they had been when the school was under Chabad auspices. The Jewish life that would be taught would focus on the positive mitzvot instead of the negative ones.

There were some things Chabad leaders felt were essential to keep in place. Foremost among them was maintaining the leadership of Mariashi Groner, wife of the Chabad rabbi and founding head. Of equal importance was that the Judaic studies teachers would be Orthodox, observant Jews, keeping Shabbat and kashrut diligently.

This experience teaches that a small community can forge a seemingly impossible compromise, if the focus is on common goals. Leaders of different outlooks found a way to proceed forward. The smallness of the community and the interdependence of all segments of the community presented an unusual opportunity for building a sense of Klal Yisrael, all under the roof of one day school. Those who have reflected on the decision and how things have unfolded subsequently acknowledge that the community charted the best route possible at the time. It is a lesson in the challenges and opportunities inherent in working across the usual denominational lines. In a smaller community like Charlotte, the only option was to figure out how to make the school work for everyone.

Managing Multiple Voices

Key to the success and sustainability of the school has been the continuity of strong leadership. Mariashi is the public face of the school. As the wife of the Lubavitcher rabbi in town and a proud scion of a distinguished Lubavitch family, Mariashi pulls off a remarkable dance as the head of a community day school, successfully negotiating the wide gaps between her own beliefs and practices and those of the people she encounters daily with her humility, charm and genuine care for the Jewish people. She presents the school as the essence of a “common denominator” approach to Judaism—reassuring parents that the Charlotte Jewish Day School can and does accommodate students from across the Jewish denominational spectrum. She is truly adept in working with all constituencies while preserving her own and her family’s sense of religious tradition and integrity.

Mariashi is a tireless leader. She is constantly engaged in overseeing all aspects of the school. She has multiple daily interactions with faculty, students, parents and board members. She is in touch with a number of alumni, who are an integral part of the CJDS narrative. She even taste tests the soup for the hot lunch that day. She speaks to the head of the preschool that is one of CJDS’s main feeder schools. She connects with the of the local federation about some benchmarking that the small intermediate communities of North America (of which Charlotte is one) are doing around day school finance and operations. Mariashi stays close to this process.

She has to manage even more constituents, including the rabbis and the volunteer leaders of the two synagogues which are housed on the same campus as CJDS. She and her board leaders spend a substantial amount of time building positive relationships with the Reform and Conservative synagogues. In addition, there are the monthly meetings of the executives of all the agencies that share the Shalom Park campus. Around that table communal fault lines are negotiated and mostly resolved before they get too contentious.

The board reflects the diversity of the school’s constituencies, with an intentional mix of the denominations. Regardless of the background, everyone acknowledges how adept Mariashi is at forging trusted relationships with all members of the board and with other communal leaders. Her love and passion for the school, as well as her longevity, position her to balance the many different voices with which she comes in contact.

But What Is “Common Denominator” Judaism?

As the Charlotte Jewish Day School morphed from an Orthodox to a community school, it was clear to all that this would be the sole day school in town and that it would be essential that everyone commit themselves to the core of what all arms of Judaism affirm. On the one hand, the school had to be an acceptable vehicle for the Orthodox community; on the other hand, it had to be warm and embracing of the full range of Jewish children and families who might show up at the door. The head of school speaks constantly about “what we have in common,” or common denominator Judaism, but not by watering down the content. Rather, she strives to build a rich Judaic program and atmosphere, including preserving the number of hours of Judaic studies from the previous Chabad school, an intensive focus on Hebrew language, and a determination to keep the material fresh and varied, including new holiday celebrations each year (see below).

According to one longstanding board leader, the school has to appeal to three broad groupings: an Orthodox constituency; parents that mainly see the school as a bulwark against assimilation; and others who are running away from the public options and choosing CJDS over other private schools. Creating something in common among these groups is a tall order; yet, the school is remarkably effective in creating an environment where all students and their families are embraced and affirmed, whatever their affiliation or observance pattern might be.

In its Judaic studies curriculum, “common denominator” includes the same focus on excellence and constant improvement found in the school overall (see below). For example, the Tal Am program of Hebrew instruction is widely used in the school; however, the program is adapted to fit CJDS’s particular needs. Teachers are expected to work over the summer to modify Hebrew reading pamphlets to reflect their own approaches.

The focus on character development provides another means for Jewish language and tradition to permeate the school in a way that is acceptable and inspiring to all. The CJDS leadership is concerned about social and emotional development, as well as intellectual and spiritual growth. Over the life of the school, there has been an increasing focus on middot and mentschlichkeit. In addition, the faculty models how students should speak to each other. For example, teachers are trained not to yell, and perhaps for that reason there is remarkably little yelling in the school by students too.

Managing and Implementing Change in a Long-Established School

One of the critical ingredients in the school’s recipe for success and cohesion lies in its culture of constant self-improvement. This drive starts with the head and permeates every aspect of the school. In its Jewish life, Mariashi refuses to repeat holiday programs from year to year; every year she strives to add something new and fresh to school programs. (One can see the diversity and creativity of programming on YouTube.) The theme for each school year is different, forcing all members of the community to step out of their comfort zones.

The striving to achieve higher standards extends to the general studies domains as well. A number of years ago, the director of general studies came to the conclusion that the standardized testing which was being administered each year was not sufficiently geared to higher-functioning students. She courageously adopted ERB testing, which is widely used in the independent school world. Initially the scores were embarrassingly low, but with perseverance, the CJDS students were able to score at much higher levels even within a year.

To support this culture, the head of school invests heavily in her teachers’ professional development by finding budgetary monies to bring high quality in-service sessions to the entire staff along with follow-up. Tellingly, a key local Reform rabbi praised CJDS and its leaders for their creative resource development, which helps ensure that teachers have what they need to be effective. Her appreciation surely reflects the fact that the school’s strong educational practices have made it attractive to a broad swath of the Charlotte Jewish community.

Chabad is fortunate in that its movement stresses the importance of education, and so there are many qualified Judaics teachers—usually young women—available to come from outside Charlotte to teach at CJDS. Most of the Judaic staff has been teaching at the school for quite some time: 10, 15, 18 and 25 years. The teachers offer role models of how to live as shomer Shabbat, as was stipulated when the school morphed from a Chabad to a community school.

Board Leadership

Finding mission-appropriate leaders to sit on the day school board is not an easy task in any sized city—all the more difficult in a smaller community. We heard from a number of informants that multiple organizations keep approaching the same people to fill key slots. It is not uncommon to find board members of the day school who serve in volunteer leadership positions of their synagogue and even the federation. This reality has both minuses and pluses: the volunteers find their time, money and loyalty pulled in many directions; nonetheless, crossover leadership means that there are people who see the totality of the community and who adopt multiple perspectives as they work on issues, solve problems and plan for the future.

What strategies can a day school develop to retain volunteer talent over the long term who are willing to invest time, energy and financial resources? The head of school has come up with one solution: keep past presidents of the board engaged and involved in the school. While these long-time board members complain and joke about their longevity, they also know that this kind of continuity helps secure the school for the long run. This is a brilliant move that more schools should consider, especially in small communities. Past presidents are deeply invested in the school’s success, and retain an indispensable fund of knowledge and experience that can strengthen the board’s work. With the existence of term limits in the by-laws, CJDS is able to maintain continuity, but without foreclosing opportunities to recruit new volunteer talent for the board.

Links to Other Organizations

An additional factor garnering community support for the school is its location in Shalom Park, in close proximity to many other Jewish organizations. Examples include the baking of matzah with the students in the preschool, which is located right next door to the day school, and the musical performance of CJDS students at the recently held community-wide observance of Yom Hazikaron for fallen soldiers in Israel.

Two other examples of campus-based collaborations stand out. The day school has a partnership with two preschools, one next door on the campus, and the other housed a mile away at the Chabad facility. The collaboration, JIE (Joined in Education), provides a vehicle for the three schools to raise funds to support their program. Their joint efforts yield greater returns than three separate programs.

The campus also provides a special setting for intergenerational programming, with the day school students visiting senior citizens regularly at the JCC on the campus. The physical proximity of all the organizations makes this kind of intergenerational activity natural and organic to the educational enterprise. Though the community may be small, it is tight, interdependent, and strives to create something larger than the sum of its parts.

The Social Contract

The Charlotte Jewish Day School is able to survive thanks to two main factors. At the beginning, the stakeholders arrived at a kind of social contract—Orthodox teachers, community day school—that required all parties to give up something in order to create a new whole that would work for the most people. This agreement required a complex dance among all the players, one that might not work elsewhere. Yet the contract has worked spectacularly in Charlotte for over 25 years, where the school has grown and thrived, receiving enthusiastic support from Jews of all denominations.

The second foundation to the school’s success has been leadership, both professional and lay. Both have demonstrated extraordinary consistency during the school’s life from the beginning. Lay leaders ensured that the city established one, unified, community school, on terms that people could live with. The persistence of former presidents on the board long after they finish serving their term has established a school community that is consistent and strong, with wise leaders devoted to the school for the long haul. Mariashi has given the school a steady voice and vision to match her dedication and passion for Jewish learning.

Nonetheless, Mariashi’s longevity in the position renders the challenge of leadership transition at CJDS even more acute. The difficulty that all schools face in finding a new leader is compounded by the fact that the school is so closely identified with its founding head. An even greater concern lies in the question of whether a new leader would be able to preserve the social contract nearly as successfully as she has. If the new leader is Orthodox or Chabad, he or she will need to establish credentials with the majority of the community that the school is truly welcoming to all. If, on the other hand, the new head is not Orthodox, he or she will need to honor the contract in order to convince the Orthodox in the community to continue with the school. This complex dance is essential for preserving the school in its current configuration.

CJDS shows what a small school can accomplish in overcoming divisions within the Jewish community. The contract that enabled this unity, however, comes at a certain cost, and will require either reaffirmation or renegotiation in the future, when the time comes for the school to appoint a new head.♦

Now an executive and leadership coach, Rabbi Joshua Elkin formerly served as head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, and as the founding executive director of PEJE. josh@joshelkin.com

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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