FJA Head of School works to build bridges that will benefit the school and beyond

The Jewish News
Keri Cohen

Keri Cohen

Rabbi Azaryah Cohen began as head of school of Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield in 2015. Since he assumed this role, the high school has improved its outreach to Reform rabbis, earned accolades for its ability to place students in colleges of their choice and has launched its Genesis S.T.E.M. Lab that will bring study of science, technology, engineering and math into the 21st century.

A major problem that threatened to cause a rift in the Jewish community that became public in 2011 has been calmed as well.

The issue dealt with the relationship between the school and Reform movement rabbis and members. The rabbis objected to not being able to lead minyan services and to a hiring policy in the school’s Jewish Studies Program that excluded teachers who were not halachically Shabbat observant, or shomer Shabbat. This “litmus test,” which rabbis said violated the school’s own bylaws, effectively eliminated most Reform rabbis and some Conservative rabbis as well.

A third factor impacted Reform parents as well. They protested that the FJA board did not have Reform representation equal to its denominational portion of the student body.

Today, out of 176 students, approximately 80 percent are from Reform and Conservative families and 35 percent are from public schools, according to FJA.

Progress has been made on all fronts.

Although it is difficult to determine the denominational makeup of the current 21 board members, President-Elect Amy Folbe is a member of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation. She takes office next July.

“We don’t ask about denomination; we are looking for folks who are passionate about Jewish education,” said FJA President Bill Sider. “We aim to have a diverse mix and it is a goal we actively pursue.”

Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, who has been in regular contact with Cohen, says it takes time for a board to change its makeup.

“Through our conversations, I feel there is an effort to represent Reform, Conservative and Orthodox on the board,” Loss said. “I hope, in a short time, we will see a greater balance.”

Rabbi Paul Yedwab, also of Temple Israel, said, “Reform rabbis and cantors have been invited to lead minyans and that issue has been resolved completely.”

“FJA is that community where we can come together, study together, get to know each other and break down barriers.”

—  Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

FJA administrators added that rabbis from all denominations were invited for a minyan tour, to participate in a Rabbi Roundtable and to come during Friday Town Hall meetings where students asked questions about their experiences as rabbis and Jews.

Progress, too, has been made since a 2013 JN story in which former Head of School Eric Grossman maintained that the shomer Shabbat hiring policy dates to the school’s inception in 2000. In the same story, Penny Blumenstein, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit president in 2000, said, “This was never presented to us. This was a community school, open to all. It was never pitched as having [halachic] guidelines.”

FJA was created with $750,000 from Federation in startup support and later received a $20 million donation in exchange for naming the school after Sam and Jean Frankel.

Although there still are no Reform teachers in Jewish Studies, Cohen reaffirms what he said in a 2016 JN story that there is no denominational requirement when hiring for Jewish Studies.

In fact, according to FJA, the school listed its most recent job openings on websites and lists for all denominations, including the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Central Conference of American Rabbis as well as non-denominational organizations that focus on education.

FJA recently hired Seth Korelitz, who had taught at Hillel Day School, as director of Jewish Studies; FJA alumna Rebecca Nadis, who taught at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Chicago, as a Jewish Studies teacher; and Rabbi Avi Spodek, who comes from Akiba Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Dallas, as chair of Rabbinic Studies.

“None of the Jewish Studies hires, to my knowledge, had been asked about their denomination or their personal practices as Jews,” Cohen said. “Frankly, I would consider it insulting if I were asked about my personal practices, and I wouldn’t do that to anyone else. It’s the same for students; it’s a matter of what they choose.

“For Jewish Studies and general studies teachers, the criteria are strong pedagogy, content knowledge and the ability to inspire our students to think critically,” he said.

“There is no shomer Shabbat ‘litmus test;’ they are looking for the best teachers for Jewish Studies,” Loss said. “Applicants are not a ready resource in any movement.

“We want to move forward,” Loss added. “The change in leadership has brought about a positive movement in the school and the focus of FJA is to ensure every student of every background is respected and feels comfortable. Rabbi Cohen’s goal is to increase the size of the school, and I am happy to partner with him to get those looking for a fine Jewish education to attend.”

Nancy Reed of Bloomfield Township is a former PTO president and mother of four FJA students over the last 13 years. She and her family are members of Temple Israel. Her final FJA student, Isaac, graduated this spring.

“The change in head of school has certainly brought some positive changes to the school,” she said. “Rabbi Cohen professes to being open to hiring the best teachers when it comes to Judaic Studies rather than hiring teachers who are shomer Shabbat and religiously observant. As of last year, I did not see that change in hiring happen.”

FJA’s Mission
In talking about the school, Sider and Cohen cite the 2013 Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” that found a significant rise in Jews who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.

“Regarding the Pew study, this institution is critical to Metro Detroit,” Cohen said. “We know other local institutions serve particular denominations; our school serves the entire community. I think it is critical to have an option that serves multiple denominations.

“FJA is that community where we can come together, study together, get to know each other and break down barriers. We can extend dereck eretz, respect, to every person regardless of what each believes,” he said.

“The big part of what we want to do is to open as many avenues as possible for students to connect with their Judaism and community in an authentic way. There is no single path or model,” Korelitz said.

For example, he points to about a dozen minyans options, from traditional to one for ninth-graders without a day school background to one devoted to creating art after reflecting on prayers.

During the height of contention with the Reform rabbis, some FJA students had said they felt disrespected by some more observant students. That does not seem to be the case today, according to school leaders as well as parents contacted for this story.

“Are we aware of any Reform students feeling disenfranchised? No,” Sider said. “That’s good news in a world with so much divisiveness. Students who come out of this school feel like Jaguars [the school mascot].”

Addressing Concerns
As at most schools, some FJA parents had other concerns. These include teacher turnover, lackluster academic support and need for better communication with parents. Yet parents interviewed feel there is an openness toward addressing them.

“I am very hopeful they are changing and have realized they need to change for the school to attract students,” Reed said. “I really do think Rabbi Cohen is a much more open-minded head of school than Rabbi Grossman, who was not interested in changing the status quo.”

Cohen may come by his open-mindedness honestly. He is the son of the late Rabbi Eliezer Cohen, founder of Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, an inclusive Orthodox shul. One of its founding precepts, according to its website, was that women have a place in the synagogue. Following rationalist halachic Judaism, women recite Kaddish in the presence of a minyan, read from the liturgy, open the ark, and deliver summaries of the week’s Torah portion and haftarah — all activities permitted by Halachah. Now, Azaryah Cohen serves as co-rabbi of Or Chadash.

Roz Keith had two children at FJA over seven years. She and her family are Temple Israel members. Her son, Hunter, graduated this year.

“FJA was a great school for both kids in different ways,” she said. “It can be a very stressful, competitive academic environment. It was not necessarily the best academic situation for Hunter because they didn’t always have the right academic support for him; so, from that aspect, FJA is not one-size-fits-all.

“It became a different school over the years we were there; there was a lot of staff turnover, which was a bigger negative than the Reform rabbis teaching. I felt when Hunter graduated there were a lot of teachers I didn’t know. When Danielle graduated in 2014, most teachers had been there for years and years.

“I hope things are changing with Rabbi Cohen. I like him; he’s approachable, down to earth and has the students’ best interests at heart.”

Regarding the teacher turnover, Cohen, who has been with the school in several teaching and department head capacities since 2006, said, “Depending on the year, we have had instructors leave for a variety of reasons, often reasons beyond our control.

“We understand the student-teacher relationship is special and do everything we can to support our teachers’ growth, provide opportunities for collaboration and work to better understand teacher concerns and priorities through surveys, exit interviews and teamwork on key decisions.”

FJA participates in a teacher mentoring program from the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education of Brandeis University. Erika Badour, chair of the mathematics department, heads the program and pairs new teachers with seasoned professionals for two years. Throughout the year, there is programming devoted to teacher development in addition to weekly development time teachers get every Wednesday morning.

More than five years ago, when some parents protested the board’s makeup and election process, Reed said, “The school became very resistant about standing up to scrutiny and letting parents say their piece.

“The Jewish way is to question and question and question some more and have healthy disagreement. There has been no healthy disagreement and open discussion with parents for a very long time. There needs to be a more open partnership and communication with parents.

“Rabbi Cohen takes meetings; he listens to what people have to say and says he’s for change, like the S.T.E.M. lab they so desperately need, but I have not seen a lot of progress yet on a variety of key issues.”

Into The Future 
At 176 students, FJA’s student enrollment is the lowest it’s been in several years, down from 225 in 2014-15, for example. This year’s breakdown is 39 freshmen, 38 sophomores, 45 juniors and 54 seniors.

“FJA continues to consistently admit between 50-55 percent of Hillel Day School’s graduating eighth-grade,” Cohen said, adding that Hillel is FJA’s main feeder school. “Over the last two years, however, we have graduated some of the larger senior classes (in the upper 50s) while registering smaller freshman classes as a result of smaller Hillel classes.

“After this year, Hillel’s class sizes are larger and we look forward to an increased number of Hillel applicants committed to the benefits of a day school education.”

Cohen says enrollment from each denomination and the affiliated temples and synagogues has remained relatively steady. Now, he says, the school is taking a closer look at public school families — how to engage and inspire this segment of the community.

“We have made it a top priority to reach out and collaborate with our educational partners — clergy, synagogues, temples and youth groups — to ensure that the families and children of the Detroit Jewish community have an understanding of the unique educational and developmental opportunities FJA can provide them.”

Parent Nancy Reed said, “The school is now looking to position itself for longevity. In my opinion, I don’t believe students are drawn to the school because of Judaic studies and Hebrew; you need to give students a high school experience and put time and money into the sports program and S.T.E.M.

“FJA students do amazingly well in college and at getting into college,” she said. “None of my kids had a hard time transitioning to college. With the extra studying for the extra Judaics classes that students are required to take, they knew how to budget their time.”

Sider points with pride to the school’s recent ranking as the fifth best private school in the state based on SAT/ACT scores, quality of colleges students consider, student-teacher ratio, private school rates and more. Niche.com compiled the list from the U.S. Department of Education, Niche users and the schools directly. FJA earned an A+ rating.

“The [Reform issue] is history, not news,” Sider said. “This is the story.”

Student government vice president George Victor, a senior, uses one of Genesis Lab’s laser cutting machines.
In FJA’s new S.T.E.M. facility, called Genesis Lab, Virtual Reality equipment allows students to explore the world without leaving the room. The lab was funded through a Davidson Foundation grant.
Rabbi Harold Loss
Frankel Jewish Academy, housed inside the JCC in West Bloomfield, has state-of-the-art security. FJA’s Federation allocation was covered by an anonymous donor for a third year, so the money it would have received has gone to improve security at other Federation organizations.
Bill Sider
Seth Korelitz
Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

FJA Continues To Forgo Allocation
Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield has returned its Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit annual allocation, approximately $145,000, for the third year.

“Due to a generous contribution, Frankel Jewish Academy did not take an Annual Campaign allocation, as it has been able to meet its financial strategic plan for FY 2017-18, allowing funds to be redirected toward vital community needs,” states Federation’s more recent Allocation Report.

However, the school still receives monetary assistance. This fiscal year, FJA received $259,554 from the Shiffman Family Tuition Assistance Fund, $20,227 from the Centennial Fund gift for day school scholarships and $14,330 from the Jewish Education Trust, according to Linda Blumberg, Federation’s director of planning and agency relations.

“This is vital,” FJA President Bill Sider said. “Ten years ago, 31 percent of students were on tuition assitance; now it’s 57 percent. It’s a real challenge.”

Blumberg confirmed that no other agencies had returned allocation money this year.

And, she reconfirmed what she said in a JN story in June 2016 that the only other instance she can remember was in August 2014, when Jewish Family Service gave part of its allocation to JVS to help with housing assistance and financial counseling during the flooding in August 2014. JFS had received additional funds from FEMA and was able to help JVS.

“We are blessed with a donor who is giving us our share of the Federation allocation so Federation can use the money for security issues,” Sider said. “We are fully engaged with Federation; it’s a win-win situation.”

Head of School Rabbi Azaryah Cohen agrees. “Our partnership as a Federation agency remains as strong as ever. We continue to count on Federation and, I believe, Federation understands the crucial role FJA plays in the stability and sustainability of our Jewish community.

“The funding decision is entirely up to the donor and is an arrangement the donor has made with FJA and the Federation. It is up to the donor to evaluate where funds are most needed and how the community, rather than just one institution, could best benefit from this generous gift.

“We are fortunate here; we put a lot of energy into safety and security and continually audit our procedures. We’re not sure all institutions in the city can. It’s important if funds are available [to help] because this is a critical priority.”

In its most recent annual report, Federation spotlights its Community Security Program, established in 2006. The report cites the Anti-Defamation League about how the number of U.S. incidents has risen dramatically in recent years and that Jewish institutions are generally targeted more frequently for hate crimes than any other group.

It also states that Federation created a three-point plan that increased training and communication about security for children, faculty and parents at all Jewish day schools; approved a series of grants to pay for equipment and technology; and hired and deployed armed security officers at each of the day schools and at Tamarack Camps.

— Keri Guten Cohen, story development editor

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