By Alanna Berman
While education agencies in many Jewish communities across the country face bankruptcy and close their doors, San Diego’s own Agency for Jewish Education has continually evaded this fate. For 44 years, the Agency has provided quality educational programming. Last year, thanks to funding by the Leichtag Family Foundation, the Agency even expanded its programming to North County, and it’s growing its annual Yom Limmud Community Day of Learning into a community-wide following to which hundreds look forward every year.
Now, instead of operating completely autonomously out of its Kearny Mesa offices, the Agency is moving to the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. The integration will be mainly a change of address for the AJE, at least for the first year. After that, they’ll evaluate the arrangement and decide whether, and in what ways, to integrate the two organizations more fully.
The organizations announced the new arrangement last month, and they’ll formally integrate the AJE with the JCC and the JCC’s Center for Jewish Culture July 1, thanks to a $300,000 commitment from the Jewish Federation of San Diego County.
This landmark integration will ensure the role of Jewish education in San Diego for years to come, by bringing some of the biggest players in the game under the same roof, say the major players involved in the project.
“This is a very innovative kind of groundbreaking new beginning for Jewish education [in San Diego],” Caryn Viterbi, president of the CJC, says.
Viterbi, who previously served as president of the AJE, worked closely with current AJE president Cheryl Bender to come up with the framework for the integration.
“As far as the funding of it goes, [this framework] really maximizes the use of community resources, and really recognizes that all of our organizations have a responsibility as stewards of the charitable resources in the community,” Viterbi says.
More specifically, Federation allocated funding from its Annual Campaign efforts because members saw AJE’s importance in the community and wanted to ensure its survival — something that wasn’t necessarily guaranteed in the distant future due to the nature of the economy, Federation president Jan Tuttleman says.
The new framework will actually cost less than what AJE’s programming had in the past, thanks to the ability now to hold most of its programming at the JCC’s centralized location, and the ability to pool resources thanks to connections already established there by the Center for Jewish Culture.
“By finding a really great home at the JCC, we can really all feel good that those AJE programs are going to not only be run effectively and professionally, but will have a chance to even continue to raise the bar further,” Federation CEO Steve Morris says. “[That way] we can really focus together on what the rest of the landscape is out there to find new and innovative ways [to continue Jewish education in San Diego].”
Physically, the AJE will move its offices to the JCC, along with its board members, who will now sit on the boards of either the JCC and/or the CJC. Programming will continue at the JCC, and over time is expected to change and grow, although how much or how little remains to be seen. As far as the responsibility of making decisions regarding best practices for future educational programming, that duty will fall to Federation, now the community convener for all things ‘Jewish education.’
“Federation has agreed to be the keeper of the vision of education in San Diego, which was a really important function that AJE had served,” Bender says.
Adds Bender, Federation has embraced that role by making a commitment to ensure that Jewish education has a place in the community and that it is innovative, creative and expansive.
For the most part, however, community members will notice no immediate major changes in the programming of the AJE, besides having to visit the JCC’s Web site for AJE program information.
The community adult education programming, which includes the Florence Melton Adult Mini School, the lecture series in Coronado and North County, and Makor, the online catalog of adult educational and cultural events, will all be under of the auspices of the JCC (but the lecture series will continue in Coronado and North County). Teacher professional development will continue under the direction of Marcia Tatz Wollner, who will also move to the JCC, and teen education will be run by the JCC’s teen department. Of course, Yom Limmud, San Diego’s community day of learning, will now also be run by the JCC, although it’s always taken place there.
“The programs we currently have are all going to move over to the JCC, and we are very excited about that, but what we’re really excited about is the opportunity for those programs to grow in the future,” Bender says.
For at least the first year at the JCC, all AJE programming will remain the same, except for some possible scheduling changes to classes or lectures, Bender says. Additionally, if and when changes are made, they will be made with input from community members, AJE program participants and members of both the JCC board of directors and Federation leadership.
One way to do this is through the JCC’s newly established education committee, which will help guide the professional staff in the development of educational and new creative programming. The committee will ensure that a voice for Jewish education is present on the board of directors’ team, Viterbi says.
Additionally, Federation will establish the Jewish Educational Services Committee, where community members with a vested interest in Jewish education will convene to discuss areas for growth in the community and possible changes to education.
“[The JESC] will include all stakeholders in the community who are interested in education,” Tuttleman says. “Although many members of one group will overlap with members of the other, [the JCC’s education committee] will guide the professionals at the JCC in program aspects, and the JESC is really an appropriate function of the Federation in that, when AJE first existed, AJE was the community convener.”
Tuttleman says not only will the JESC evaluate current programming, but it will also determine what new programs the community needs and find funding sources for these efforts.
“The whole idea of the council fits perfectly in Federation’s design of its Community Planning and Innovation Center,” Morris says. “I believe this is a great opportunity to involve the community to help guide the future, and we really have to convene the people who are experts in the field and determine how we can support Jewish education in a more effective way.”
According to Bender, this is not the first instance of evaluating program effectiveness, either, and the respective councils at both the JCC and Federation will continue a longstanding history of turning feedback into positive results.
“AJE regularly surveys all of its program participants to see what we did well, where we can improve and what they would like to see in the future,” she says. “In addition, we have a joint plan to speak with our major donors about their gifts and what their expectations are for the future, so we would like to get as much input as we possibly can to provide the community with what they want and need.”
In the past, feedback has led to many important changes that are now seen as the hallmark of AJE’s programming. Expansion into North County, for example, which added programming in Carlsbad and Encinitas, was a direct result of survey responses by AJE program participants over the years.
“This constant evaluation is what makes Jewish programming vibrant and innovative,” Viterbi says, noting that AJE programming in North County will continue after the integration to the JCC. “There is a need constantly in the community for all programs to be evaluated and to be meeting its needs. All of our organizations will do that on a regular basis to ensure that programs and resources remain vibrant and innovative.”
Longevity, value and long-term growth are why the integration is occurring now, when many other models of community education continue to close up shop nationwide.
“[About two years ago], we evaluated many, many different models, and the board of directors [of the AJE] took the very courageous step of agreeing to look outside the boundaries of the corporate institution to look at the organization and evaluate whether there were other structural ways of setting this up in the community,” Bender says.
Out of that strategic planning process came the idea to go to Federation and the JCC for help in ensuring the future of Jewish education in San Diego. While AJE’s finances were never shaky, board members determined the best way to grow as an organization would be to look at becoming more efficient.
“It’s a very difficult thing as a board of directors to look outside of your own boundaries and try to figure out what is, in fact, the best thing for the community, so we are very proud of them for being able to do that,” Bender says.
And as for the future, all the players agree Jewish education in San Diego looks bright and will continue to look that way thanks to efforts of Federation, the JCC and AJE.
“I think we will have some people watching and learning form us [here in San Diego], rather than the other way around,” Morris says. “We’ve had some conversation through the Federation movement, looking at different models across the country; learning about what we are doing here, and I think JESNA (the Jewish Education Service of North America), for one, will look at this as a solution for communities that are looking for something groundbreaking as well.”
And groundbreaking it is.
“We know San Diego will be the role model for cost effective, collaborative and innovative efforts,” Viterbi says, “and while there are Jewish organizational institutions across the country, we are the first to have a collaborative effort among organizations working together to ensure a bright future for education in the community.”
For more information about the arrival of the AJE at the JCC July 1, visit www.lfjcc.org.