For the first time this fall, students from Mosaic Law Congregation, shown here in 2016, are participating in a joint religious school program with students from Congregation Beth Shalom
For the first time this fall, students from Mosaic Law Congregation, shown here in 2016, are participating in a joint religious school program with students from Congregation Beth Shalom

Reform and Conservative religious schools merge in Sacramento

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Religious school is a bit different for many Jewish kids in the Sacramento area this fall.

On Sundays, they attend classes at Mosaic Law Congregation, a 117-year-old Conservative shul in Sacramento. On Wednesdays, they head to Congregation Beth Shalom, a 44-year-old Reform synagogue in nearby Carmichael.

It’s not a matter of denominational confusion. According to the rabbis and lay leaders of these congregations, they picked up on a growing model of interdenominational religious schools — a result of declining membership, which means a decline in religious school enrollment and an inability to pay full-time educators.

“Sacramento has not been growing, and while we can each adapt on our own and make ourselves like a Montessori or private school, [we] recognized that more children being together builds self-esteem and will be fun,” said Rabbi Nancy Wechsler, spiritual leader at Beth Shalom since 2003.

“A number of our children are friendly with one another and have been to numerous bar and bat mitzvahs at Mosaic Law, and their members are here just as frequently. I trust that sharing a project like this will be positive.”

Added Rabbi Reuven Taff, who has been at Mosaic Law for 22 years: “With the waning of a critical mass in each grade, [religious education] became compromised in terms of having an effective learning and teaching experience.

“[Rabbi Wechsler] and I talked through the philosophies from URJ [Union of Reform Judaism] and USCJ [United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism], and discussed how we could create an educational partnership to allow children from both congregations to have a meaningful learning experience together, without compromising the tenets of Reform and Conservative Judaism.”

With the blessing of both boards, the role of Mosaic Law’s current education director, Irit Winston, expanded to direct the entire program. Called Kehillah (community), the new setup will have Winston splitting her time between the two locations, which are a 15-minute drive apart.

“We will have healthier and larges classes,” Winston said. “Children and families will be able to socialize with each other, and students can learn about other Jewish kids who practice differently from them. It’s one community, and we share the same goals and traditions and values.”

It’s one community, and we share the same goals and traditions and values.

Kehillah is not the first time the two congregations have joined forces. When a supplemental high school program run by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region closed its doors six years ago, Beth Shalom and Mosaic Law created Midrasha for its high school and confirmation students.

“We wanted to keep the teens together,” said Jana Fields-Uslan, president of Beth Shalom. “The kids love it and we have good attendance. Last year, we had 50 kids.”

But not everything is totally smooth when two congregations come together.

“Everyone likes the special uniqueness of their synagogue,” Wechsler admitted. “In addition, we like the uniqueness of the movement we are affiliated with. However, Jewish is Jewish, holy is holy, Hebrew is Hebrew. We are not so far apart from how we live our Jewish lives here in Sacramento.”

To allay concerns, Mosaic Law’s Taff asked to speak to Beth Shalom families, and he did.

“He spoke to them honestly and openly,” Fields-Uslan said. “He convinced them that the Reform/Conservative issues were not a big deal. He promised parents the program would be reviewed in December [and Beth Shalom] would be visible on Mosaic Law’s campus. And if it didn’t work, we would go back to what it was.”

For his part, Taff thinks it will work. “This partnership can break down whatever perceived barriers exist among each congregation and reinforce that we’re all one Jewish people,” he said.

The challenges appear to be more logistical than philosophical. For example, kashrut will be addressed through dairy and vegetarian snacks. The curriculum, which includes Hebrew, Judaica and prayer, will remain intact with adjustments made for particular prayer melodies and b’nai mitzvah tropes.

Program success will be measured in two ways: families’ comfort level with socializing together outside of school, and students meeting their academic performance goals. Assessments will be made mid-year and in May 2018.

“Overall,” Taff said, “it is a win-win for our two congregations and for our Sacramento community.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.