School Standoff

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Disagreements over direction of Frankel Jewish Academy remain unresolved.

Rabbi Eric Grossman, head of school, speaks at the mezuzah dedication at the new entrance to Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.
Rabbi Eric Grossman, head of school, speaks at the mezuzah dedication at the new entrance to Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.

The heat continues to rise on a long-simmering conflict involving Frankel Jewish Academy and some parents, rabbis and community leaders who feel the non-denominational Jewish high school is becoming less inclusive.

What started as a conflict over a Reform rabbi who taught at FJA has grown to wider disputes over some of the school’s policies and practices. For example, complaints have surfaced about FJA’s most recent board election and board governance change, leading to a legal complaint being filed June 12 that seeks to compel the board to release information. (See accompanying story.)

All the while, community leaders have tried to cobble a compromise. These efforts have included many private meetings between the parties, carefully worded letters, countless hours of shuttle diplomacy and more — mostly to stave off what some leaders believe is becoming a rift in the Jewish community.

Foremost of the issues, however, is FJA’s hiring policy for its Judaic Studies department. Rabbi Eric Grossman, head of school, and Jeffrey Garden of West Bloomfield, a founder, say the policy dates back to the school’s inception more than 13 years ago, and requires those who teach Bible, rabbinics or lead minyan to be shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant, including not driving, working, etc.).

Rabbi Eric Grossman
Rabbi Eric Grossman

Although not defined in FJA’s bylaws, the hiring policy is at the discretion of the head of school.

This policy virtually excludes the community’s Reform rabbis and some Conservative rabbis because they are not strictly Shabbat observant.

“This is not a Reform issue, but an issue of the ability of a school to present all of the varieties of Jewish life and reflect the best of what they offer,” said Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield.

“I have no qualms having my kids hear from any pulpit rabbis in the community. For anyone unhappy with that reality, there are other alternatives. FJA is the only alternative for the broader community,” Loss said.

Rabbi Harold Loss
Rabbi Harold Loss

FJA President Bill Newman said, “We feel fortunate meeting the needs of students and families. We know who we are, and we are achieving our academic goals; we are graduating kids who go to great schools. We are a great college preparatory school.”

Detroit already had traditional Orthodox yeshivot and a modern Orthodox high school at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield. FJA was to be a new breed, a new choice open to all.

Indeed, the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit (now Frankel Jewish Academy) opened in 2000 with 51 students in grades 9 and 10 at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield as a school accepting students from all streams of Judaism.

“The [school] was created to welcome students from both public and Jewish day schools throughout the Detroit community,” Garden said. “The school was to be based on traditional Jewish law and to be open and embrace all students from our community. In the school’s hallways and classrooms, FJA is non-denominational.”

About 50 percent of FJA students affiliate with Conservative congregations; 25 percent belong to Reform temples; and 25 percent affiliate with Orthodox shuls, with some unaffiliated students mixed in. In the community at large, more than 52 percent of Jewish Detroit affiliates with the Reform movement, according to the 2010 Detroit Jewish Population Study commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

Rabbi Josh Bennett
Rabbi Josh Bennett

Rabbi Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel piloted and taught the “Denominational Differences” discussion class for many years at FJA, along with a Conservative rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi. The demise of that class two years ago — plus complaints then from some Reform students about being disrespected by more observant students — sparked some of the ongoing clash, and seemed to be the first time the shomer Shabbat policy came into public play.

Penny Blumenstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit when FJA opened in 2000, said, “This was never presented to us. This was a community school open to all. It was never pitched as having halachic [Jewish law] guidelines.”

The only publicly aired halachic issue at the new school centered around the admissions policy, which is based on matrilineal descent, which defines a Jewish person as someone with a Jewish mother. According to an Aug. 25, 2000, JN story, this matrilineal policy was in keeping with other day schools in the city, but did not follow the more liberal path of other trans-denominational high schools at the time across the country.

With the Jewish Academy defining “Who is a Jew” halachically, the more liberal Reform movement, with its higher rate of intermarriage, was affected most. Yet, the founding rabbi, Lee Buckman, encouraged all students to apply.

Rabbi Grossman with some FJA students at the new school entrance.
Rabbi Grossman with some FJA students at the new school entrance.

The shomer Shabbat hiring policy remained under the radar until it was challenged in a letter to FJA from Bennett more than two years ago.

“Students are suffering for not having their rabbis be part of the school,” Bennett said recently. “It is sad students are not given the opportunity to be taught and mentored by other Jewish leaders in their community because of school policies.”

FJA’s Grossman said, “We really reach out to clergy in the community to constantly share their knowledge with students. Our students like to connect back with their home congregations. At Town Hall [a weekly school gathering], we have rabbis from Temple Beth El, Temple Israel, Shaarey Zedek; we really cast a wide net in bringing community rabbis and leaders into the school.”

But, as one Reform rabbi said, “That’s like being let on the bus, but not being able to sit in the front.”

Nearly two years ago, in August 2011, the Reform rabbis decided to go public with their challenge of “denominational insensitivity” in a JN story, hoping the exposure would lead to a compromise they were not able to achieve by working behind the scenes.

Several months after the story, at its November 2011 meeting, the FJA board passed a resolution “reaffirming its support of our school’s mission, philosophy, head of school and hiring practices.” It also resolved to “support the school’s efforts to attract and respect Jewish students from all religious and ideological backgrounds.”

Still, despite ongoing efforts, no resolution to the issue has surfaced.

Adding Voices
Now Federation leaders and a dissatisfied group of FJA parents are making their opinions known as well.

On Oct. 15, 2012, a letter was sent to the FJA board of trustees by longtime Federation and community leaders Penny Blumenstein, Larry Jackier, Jane Sherman and Doreen Hermelin in which they urged FJA leadership “to sit down and participate in good faith with the entire parent body and Federation leadership and resolve this issue immediately.”

“We as a Jewish people cannot afford to fight among ourselves,” the letter stated. “There are too many in this world who are trying to do that for us.”

Community leaders felt progress was forthcoming and that a follow-up JN story focusing on the issue at that time would stymie negotiations. So a story was delayed, but progress did not come.

Federation became involved and individuals worked “tirelessly behind the scenes with all parties to find a solution,” said Douglas Bloom, Federation president. “Without a resolution, the quality of Jewish education available in Detroit and the cohesiveness of the community will be adversely affected.

“We recognize there are sincere, strongly held opinions on both sides, and all parties are acting in what they believe are the best interests of the students. Federation’s role is not to impose a solution, though it will continue to help those directly involved work toward one.”

He added that Federation does not mandate personnel policies among its partner agencies, all of which are independently governed, but works in partnership on behalf of the community’s best welfare.

Federation’s 2012 allocation to FJA’s $6 million budget was $138,815. Community dollars and Federation played a major role in the launch of the Jewish Academy, ultimately providing $750,000 in startup support.

In the Aug. 25, 2000, JN story, it was reported that the school received unprecedented financial support from Federation. In fact, the school became a nationwide example of what a community and its federation can do to support day school education.

“That was a huge amount of money for us,” said Robert Aronson, then Federation’s executive vice president and now its senior development officer. “I doubt the school would have gotten started without it. From the beginning, Federation was there at the side of the school to help.

“I remember one of my proudest moments as a Federation exec was to talk with Sam Frankel about making a gift to the Jewish Education Trust that would encompass all day schools,” Aronson said.

“Sam said, ‘I won’t do that, but I will give $20 million to endow the high school.’ It was one of those fall-off-the-chair moments. Sam Frankel thought very big. His expectation and hope had nothing to do with the politics of religion, but with a well-attended, academically excellent high school to attract Jews from across the religious spectrum that would be in demand because of the excellence of its offerings and because of its teaching of Jewish values.”

That significant financial commitment changed the name from the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit to Frankel Jewish Academy.

“Our idea was we had a lot of yeshivahs, but not a community high school that welcomed all the various streams,” said former Federation president Blumenstein. “We decided to give it a chance; we gave them the ability to become a Federation agency with Federation support — a hechsher [seal of approval]. I didn’t think it would succeed. It has. The numbers are good, the education is fine, but it has become divisive in the community in a way I didn’t think needed to happen.

“I am disappointed,” said Blumenstein, a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative synagogue in Southfield. “We need to find a way to resolve all these issues. We can’t afford to have a community with such distress. We have a huge Reform community, and we also need to respect their beliefs.”

Suggested Solutions
During meetings and in correspondence, various solutions have been proposed to no avail. Suggestions focus on broadening board representation (only one member is Reform at this time) and dropping the shomer Shabbat policy to open the field of candidates to hire the best person possible.

Rabbi Robert Gamer
Rabbi Robert Gamer

“You get the best person you possibly can to teach,” said Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park. “I spent a semester at JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary in New York] studying with a woman who is Lebanese Christian and getting a degree in midrash. She taught me a lot. High school kids would learn a lot from her, and she’s not shomer Shabbat, or even Jewish. If someone is teaching Bible in a way you want them to teach it, it shouldn’t matter.

“Each institution has the right to make its own policies,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of wisdom in this policy.

“I understand the importance of Shabbat. But what if you are shomer Shabbat, but don’t keep kosher, or you are shomer Shabbat and you let your kids ride bikes on Shabbat? Shomer Shabbat can mean different things to different people. Whose standard of shomer Shabbat are you talking about?”

Gamer, the only Conservative rabbi to sign a May 4, 2012, letter to FJA written by local Reform rabbis, says he understands why these rabbis might feel disrespected, especially with such a substantial number of Reform students at the school.

“Frankel offers phenomenal education, and I don’t think students are being hurt pedagogically,” he said. “It’s more damaging to the psyche of the community and to the larger constituency of the Academy in the Reform movement.

“I don’t know how it will get resolved. Seems both sides have dug in. It is so public; both sides still are not willing to change.”

Lisa Lis
Lisa Lis

In that May 4 letter, the rabbis stated: “To use shomer Shabbat as a litmus test for who can teach a Judaic studies class or lead minyan not only excludes many respected rabbis and educators, but is contrary to the school’s own bylaws, namely that teachers must be exemplars of Jewish values and role models for our students. For FJA to be the best school and to live up to its mission, the current hiring policy must be changed.”

Ken Goss, FJA board president at the time, responded with a May 24 letter that stated, in part: “Having given careful and thoughtful consideration to your repeated requests, we now need to agree to disagree and respectfully end our dialogue on this topic. We look ahead to the future opportunities in which we have common ground and can work together collaboratively.”

This was more than a year ago, and the Reform rabbis are not giving up. In fact, they have been joined by FJA parents trying to make changes of their own.

One concerned Reform parent in the group asked, “Is it right for a school to take money from Reform Jews, but not represent us?”

Hannan Lis
Hannan Lis

Hannan and Lisa Lis of Farmington Hills, community leaders and parents of a current FJA student, are part of the group speaking out about various issues of concern to them at the school. They are a Conservative family.

“I find the policy disrespectful to rabbis who can be great teachers,” Lisa said. “The shomer Shabbat litmus test removes a whole class of teachers and scholars.”

Both say they have repeatedly tried to find compromises.

“Just don’t have the litmus test; don’t restrict teachers from applying who are not shomer Shabbat,” she said. “We are not telling them who to hire; just find the best teacher.”

Hannan Lis asked, “What are they afraid of? What is the downside of getting rid of the litmus test? We want the school to be successful. It’s a really good school and we think it can be even better. They have to be honest about their shortcomings, evaluate and move forward.”

Quality Education
FJA Head of School Grossman said, “The thing we hear more than anything else from parents is ‘My kids are happy.’”

Jessica Polk of Commerce Township (Class of 2011), however, didn’t find the school necessarily welcoming. She came to FJA from Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills. She was used to the Jewish day school drill, to minyans and Judaic studies classes. She was not used to the disrespect she experienced from some Orthodox students.

“It happened more outside of class,” she said. “On a fast day, I was fasting and they said, ‘What’s the point, you are Reform. Why bother?’ I went to the more Orthodox minyan; the minyans for Reform students were a joke. They [Orthodox students] suggested I leave their minyan. I prayed every day. At minyan, you are supposed to pray. That’s what I learned at Hillel.

“I never understood why they did what they did,” Polk said. “They are Jewish; I am Jewish. Why is what I do wrong because of what denomination I belong to?”

No one interviewed for this story disputes the success or quality of the Jewish college preparatory school. All agree that most students are happy and that graduates are being accepted into top-notch universities.

“We hear feedback from kids that they feel accepted, don’t feel judged and that the school is a welcoming place for all different backgrounds,” Grossman said. “We want them to feel good about being here. We want to be open.”

The school is attracting students. FJA has grown from 51 students in two grades in 2000 to 230 students in 2013, and from using portable classrooms in the early years to occupying its current state-of-the-art digs inside the JCC. Tuition, with fees, has grown to nearly $22,000 per student for the 2013-2014 academic year, with 60 percent of students receiving some financial assistance, according to Newman.

“Our donor base represents our student diversity, and we are as strong as ever,” he said.

One Reform parent with a son and three stepchildren at FJA has her own take on the school and the situation.

“It’s so interesting to me that, in the end, whether you’re Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, we’re all the same religion and all want the same thing for our kids,” said Jill Mayers Marx of West Bloomfield.

She says she believes that not all students come to FJA specifically for a Jewish education. Some parents don’t like the public schools; others like the flexible tuition at FJA over Roeper or Detroit Country Day.

Marx wants her son at FJA because of the quality education and because she knows the school will give him more Jewish knowledge than he’d get at home.

“I know someday down the road, if my son needs to be part of a minyan, he’ll know how to do it,” she said. “I wouldn’t. He’ll always have that. It’s a good foundation. I’m glad he’s exposed to it, and he can choose.”

She says she hears zero complaining from the four teens.

“They know this is the school they are going to and they have to abide by its rules,” she said. “At home, they have different rules.

“We have four kids there and all have different levels of success. With each one, the administration is truly amazing. They have stepped up to the plate. I am 100 percent happy we made this decision and would not have it any other way.”

By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor 

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