The beleaguered Schechter Day School Network — an educational pillar of Conservative Judaism — is considering leaving its parent organization as it grapples with shrinking enrollment and shuttered schools, the Forward has learned.
The Schechter network has been under the aegis of the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, since its founding in the mid-1950s. One of the movement’s crown jewels, the network has contracted in recent years, a symptom of Conservative Judaism’s struggle to retain members as non-Orthodox American Jews shift away from denominational affiliation.
Now, Schechter — which counts 45 schools in its network nationwide — is considering spinning off to become an independent not-for-profit organization, albeit one with strong ties to the Conservative movement. The conversation comes as USCJ is undergoing its own overhaul, paring down its programming to focus on synagogues, or kehillot, as it calls them, the Hebrew word for “communities.”
Elaine Cohen, director of the Schechter network, said that discussions about leaving USCJ are “not a critique” of the organization, but rather an acknowledgement of USCJ’s new focus. “It’s not coming from a place of saying this hasn’t been a good home,” she said. Schechter will still collaborate with USCJ, she added.
“It has been a simultaneous process,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s CEO. “At the end of the day, I believe that Schechter probably needs to become an independent 501(c)(3), and it needs to build a powerful board that will be focused on the priorities that are unique to Schechter.” Wernick’s reference was to the section of the Internal Revenue Code under which organizations may be recognized as tax exempt charities. Donors to 501(c)(3)s may also deduct contributions to them from their income for tax purposes.
As a 501(c)(3), Schechter would be “more nimble” when it comes to raising money from donors with an eye on Jewish education, said Jim Rogozen, the outgoing chair of the Schechter board who was recently named the chief learning officer at USCJ. When asked if Schechter would be competing with USCJ or the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary for donations, he said: “We are all partners in the Conservative movement, and we need to work together to avoid things like that.”
Becoming an independent not-for-profit is just one of several options that Schechter is entertaining as it goes through a strategic planning process that will conclude sometime this summer, according to sources involved in the undertaking. Under one plan being considered, Schechter could still be housed in USCJ’s Manhattan headquarters, albeit as an independent enterprise. Or it might move to JTS, also in Manhattan, with which Schechter already partners in curriculum development.
A third, more controversial option is for Schechter to join RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the nondenominational day school network that currently counts 124 schools as members. But this would take Schechter out of a formally Conservative institutional framework.