The student commons area at Frankel Jewish Academy
The student commons area at Frankel Jewish Academy

In a move without similar precedent, Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield has forgone its annual allocation from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit for the 2015-2016 fiscal year and for 2016-2017.

Until now, neither the school nor Federation has mentioned this information to the community or to parents of FJA students, who will pay base tuition of $22,500 in the coming academic year. The JN learned that the school’s projected Annual Campaign allocations for both years have been covered by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

The current allocation report for fiscal year 2016-2017, which is posted on the Federation website, states (in Note 10): “Due to a generous contribution, Frankel Jewish Academy has been able to meet their financial strategic plan for FY 2016-17, allowing funds to be redirected toward vital community needs.”

In 2015-2016, FJA’s allocation was $141,817. After an equal contribution was made to Frankel, that sum was returned to Federation to be used specifically as part of a project to improve security to Federation agencies, explained Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO.

“Right after the Sandy Hook shootings [where 20 children were slain in a school in December 2012], we decided there was no debate; we just had to make everything safe,” he said of a three-year Federation-funded security project. In the fourth year, half would be paid by Federation and half by agencies.

“We were scrambling to fill that hole. FJA made a donation to everyone else. We said thank you.”

The high school did not request an allocation from the Annual Campaign for 2016-2017. Funds that would have gone to FJA in this fiscal year were directed to day school scholarships instead, said Linda Blumberg, Federation’s director of planning and agency relations.

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen, FJA Head of School since 2015, told the JN that FJA still will be receiving community assistance.

Frankel, which had 220 students for the 2015-2016 academic year and expects about that many next year, continues to receive dollars from the Federation-administered Shiffman Family Tuition Assistance Fund. In 2015-2016, FJA was given $297,065.

According to Blumberg, FJA’s Shiffman allocation for 2016-2017 is $255,307. Schools also get funds from the Jewish Education Trust, but Blumberg said those numbers don’t come in until September.

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

The only other time a Federation agency returned funds was “when Jewish Family Service gave part of their allocation one year to JVS for housing assistance and financial counseling when JFS received additional funds from FEMA for emergency assistance, and JVS needed more funding for these urgent-needs programs,” Blumberg said, referencing the major flooding in various communities in August 2014.

This instance seems to be in a different category. JFS returned a partial allocation because of overfunding; both years, FJA declined its whole allocations because it says it was covered by donor contributions.

A ‘Win-Win,’ Says School

Repeated emails and phone calls to Cohen by the JN were not responded to for more than six weeks, starting April 18. Jeff Brodsky, FJA board president, also did not respond prior to his term expiring recently.

On June 2, however, Cohen spoke to the JN.

“If a donor came to us and said I’m interested in funding your school, and if funds from Federation can be reallocated to other needs or institutions, it’s a win-win for everybody,” Cohen said. “When it comes to donations or donors, unless it’s a foundation grant, generally if they wish to be anonymous, we respect that.”

He said he can’t answer whether the allocation situation will continue, but stressed the need to meet the school’s financial strategic giving plan. He also emphasized that the school’s standing as a Federation agency and Annual Campaign beneficiary had not changed.

“We have a relationship with Federation,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for Federation to reallocate where there’s a need. We continue to partner wherever we can. I have a wonderful relationship with [Federation president] Larry Wolfe, who spoke at both our Annual Dinner and Commencement, and Scott Kaufman. We work very closely together.”


Transparency Issues?

Cohen did not explain why the allocation situation was not conveyed to FJA parents.

When told about the allocation returns, Jill Diamond Marx of West Bloomfield wondered why the school hadn’t shared the news with parents. “Why not just say FJA is proud about giving back to Federation for other needs?” she asked. “The school should feel proud about that and that they did enough outside fundraisers to be able [to cover things]. They could have just kept the donor anonymous.”

Marx and her husband, Darrell, have had four children graduate from FJA, the most recent one in June. Thinking about the situation a bit more, she said, “I just wonder if it goes back to that whole thing several years ago when people were saying they were getting money from Federation and asking what kind of school it was. Maybe they wanted to be more independent to make the decisions they want to,” said Marx, who says she was not involved in the internal politics of the school.

On June 27, 2013, the JN covered a controversy about inclusiveness regarding Reform students and a Reform rabbi at FJA. At that time, the school maintained its stance not to have a Reform rabbi teach a Jewish studies class about denominational differences because he was not shomer Shabbat (following the traditional rules of Sabbath). The school has a significant Reform student population and, in 2013, some students had complained about being disrespected by more observant students.

Since this 2013 article, FJA has declined to comment on this issue to the JN. Cohen says this issue did not drive the allocation decisions.

“As far as I know, the Federation has never — not with me, and I’ve been [in this position] a year — dictated what our policies should be,” he said.

“We have a diverse school population and diversity among the teachers as well,” he said. “There is no denominational requirement for teachers. The same thing in Judaic studies. We expect teachers to have expertise and to develop positive relations with students.

“I do not ask about personal practice; I look at those qualifications I mentioned, including pedagogy, passion and expertise in the subject matter,” Cohen said.

“The goal in the school is to work with students, to inspire them to develop a Jewish identity meaningful for them. Because we have students from every background, it’s different for each student. That’s wonderful for the school. I want students to be inspired to be  leaders throughout the school, the Jewish community and throughout the denominations.

“What’s really important is that we all have the same intention regardless of denominations. We want students to have a Jewish identity and commitment to Judaism that ensures the Jewish community stays strong.”

Former FJA parent Lisa Lis of Farmington Hills was vocal during the inclusiveness controversy that flared in 2013.

“Frankel was meant to attract students from the whole community, to be pluralistic, and for years it offended many in the community who felt excluded because of the shomer Shabbat policy for teachers to teach Jewish studies and minyan,” she said last week.

“I am a little optimistic with Rabbi Cohen; he hasn’t made any tacit steps to heal the rift, but he seems to certainly be more open than the previous head of school.”

By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor