Five years after rebranding itself, Jewish LearningWorks is refocusing its mission. In the process, the agency formerly known as the Bureau of Jewish Education has leased out three San Francisco buildings it owns to the Stratford School, and will soon move to a new San Francisco headquarters.
The organization, which for more than a century has trained and supported Jewish educators throughout the Bay Area, announced in a letter to the Jewish community this week that its work will become “more integrated, intensive and streamlined” under a new strategic plan that, it says, focuses on the needs of learners as much as those of teachers.
That plan includes an emphasis on working more closely with parents, as well as with educators. Said JLW chief executive officer David Waksberg in an interview: “The ultimate educator is the Jewish parent.”
Waksberg noted that while Jewish education during the 20th century was seen primarily as an instrument to ensure Jewish continuity from one generation to the next, the focus now should be “moving toward what is best for the learner himself, to help this person flourish as a Jew and as a human being.”
“We will be less interested in ‘engaging more Jews’ and more interested in advancing Jewish learning that enables students to deepen their impact on their families, their communities and the world,” said the letter from JLW. “We will do fewer things, and do them with greater depth.”
The changes mean JLW will cut some programs, such as one-time training sessions for teachers and Embodied Jewish Learning, and instead emphasize those that engage parents in teaching their children. Among those resources for parents will be DIY guides to creating celebrations for Jewish holidays and Shabbat.
Dana Sheanin, JLW’s chief learning officer, said the organization has picked four areas of focus: exploring Israel; engaging Jewish families; special needs inclusion; and Jewish education in a time of social division.
“The last one certainly is as a result of discussions we’ve been having with educators,” she said. “People are struggling with how to react to the national zeitgeist, how to talk to people with different ideas, how to engage from a perspective of Jewish values.”
Sheanin said JLW will soon inaugurate the first of what will be annual Bay Area-wide educator surveys to better understand what sort of help families need when it comes to their children’s Jewish education.
With programmatic changes underway, JLW will seek a new home. It will rent out the three buildings it owns on 14th Avenue in San Francisco, and operate out of another S.F. location in the city that has yet to be chosen, but one that Waksberg hopes will be closer to a BART or Caltrain station. He expects the move to occur around late September or early October.
Waksberg said the three buildings, including the site of the now-defunct Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy, will be leased for 15 years to Stratford School. Stratford, which has 20 campuses in the Bay Area and three more in Southern California, plans to open a preschool through fifth-grade facility on the 14th Avenue site in time for the 2018-2019 school year.
The rental revenue, which has not been disclosed, will be used to offset the loss of operating fund grants from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which has been changing its method of supporting local organizations.
The ultimate educator is the Jewish parent.
The 2018 fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2018, is the final year in which JLW will receive operating support from the Federation.
Federation spokesman Ilan Kayatsky said JLW will receive $198,503 in operating support from the Federation in fiscal 2018, versus $397,005 in fiscal 2017. In the last fiscal year prior to the two-year exit plan, JLW received $567,150 from the Federation in operating funds — about 25 percent of JLW’s operating budget — in addition to other program-based grants.
The Federation will continue to provide major support for specific JLW programs. Even with the cuts, Kayatsky said, JLW remains the Federation’s third-largest overall grantee with a projected total of $528,000 this fiscal year.
One of the JLW buildings had been home for 30 years to the Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school that closed in 2016 due to the poor health of founder and dean Rabbi Pinchas Lipner and a loss of financial support. JLW had been renting the building to the school for $1 a year.
The Hebrew Academy had another five years left on its lease, Waksberg said, but that expired once the school shut down. That left JLW with an opportunity it had not expected — the chance to lease out all three buildings.
JLW began discussions with leaders of the local Orthodox community about replacing the Hebrew Academy with another Jewish school — such as the Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School, a K-8 Orthodox institution in San Francisco. Those talks ended when an inspection revealed the building was in disrepair and not up to code for disabled access.
“There was an effort to try to utilize the building for another Jewish school; unfortunately the building was in very, very, very serious disrepair,” said Rabbi Joel Landau of San Francisco’s Adath Israel Congregation, who was involved in the discussions. “JLW officials were unable to make the building available even though they wanted to. They were sitting on a sinkhole, so that became less sexy so to speak.”
JLW said Stratford has agreed to a multi-million dollar commitment to repair the building as part of its lease, increasing the future value of the property to JLW.
“We did really deeply ask ourselves whether we should work hard to make that building a Jewish school or to provide the space for a Jewish school,” Waksberg said. “As a practical matter, that would have meant doing it at an enormous discount, and that would mean less resources for us to do our work. That would be privileging one school over all the others we try to serve.”
In recent years, JLW has focused largely on professional development courses for teachers (covering such topics as serving special needs children and expanding Israel education in the classroom), overseeing the Jewish Community Library (housed at the Jewish Community High School in S.F.) and managing the Kesher Family Concierge program,, which helps Jewish families in the Bay Area make connections with a range of Jewish institutions and community events.
Waksberg, 60, who is in his second decade at JLW, said the many changes reflect the organization’s progression toward more tightly focused Jewish education.
“We’re better off sharply defining what we have to offer. We’re not going to try to serve everyone,” he said. “We’re letting go of the turnstile approach. The outcome is less about the metric of how many families we engage, and more about how that engagement leads to a flourishing Jewish life for that family.”