The Jewish world is converging on Philadelphia, with two big national gatherings happening this week and next.
Rabbi Micah Lapidus is logging plenty of frequent flyer miles between Atlanta and Philadelphia over a two-week period.
While much of Philadelphia is looking ahead to the Pope’s visit in September and the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, the Jewish world has two major events taking placehere in March.
The first was the National Jewish Day School Conference, a three-day gathering from March 8 to 10 at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. And on March 15, the city will host the annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Lapidus, a Reform rabbi who directs Hebrew and Judaic studies at Davis Academy, a Reform day school, is attending both.
Comparing the two conferences, Lapidus said the CCAR is “the home team,” while the day school conference covers “the breadth of the Jewish community,” featuring educators from Orthodox schools to pluralistic institutions.
The conference provides “an opportunity to connect with the broader field, see friends, get some new ideas, and also share what we’re doing in our school,” he said.
More than 1,000 people attended the day school conference, and more than 600 are expected to attend the Reform rabbis conference.
Among the noteworthy items slated to take place at the CCAR is the installation of the first openly gay president of the organziation, Rabbi Denise L. Eger, who leads Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles, and the unveiling of a new Machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook, which contains more inclusive language than the last edition released 40 years ago.
The Reform gathering will have a particularly strong focus on human rights this year, ranging from LGBT issues to anti-Semitism in Europe, said Rabbi Jill Maderer, an assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia who helped to organize the conference.
Of Eger’s installation, Maderer said, “We’re using that as an inspiration so that we can think about lots of different human rights issues.”
For many educators at the day school conference, the high cost of tuition was one of the most pressing issues. Locally, for example, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic school in Bryn Mawr, costs $23,000 a year at the middle school level and $29,650 for high school. At the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia, a new Orthodox institution in Bala Cynwyd, tuition is $19,500.
“I think the main challenge of almost 90 percent of the schools is financial, to keep enrollment coming and kids coming in,” said Yuval Miara, the director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at the Scheck Hillel Community School in Miami.
The conference featured three days of workshops and speakers, but many educators said they attended at least in part to meet old friends and for the informal conversations that happen at meals and in hallways.
For Miara, attending the day school conference this year was a homecoming of sorts. Originally from Philadelphia’s sister city in Israel, Netivot, Miara first came to the United States in 2000 and spent five years as a shaliach in Yardley at Abrams Hebrew Academy.
“When I came today and I landed in Philadelphia, my feeling was like I’m coming back home. I’m talking to you and I have tears in my eyes,” said Miara, who planned to visit Abrams during his trip.
Michael Bohm, the past president of Kohelet Yeshiva High School, a modern Orthodox school in Merion Station, attended the conference for the first time this year and was using part of his time to collaborate with other education leaders. He also said he sees fiscal responsibility as the most significant issue facing schools. Tuition now costs $24,000 at Kohelet.
He credited David Magerman, the local philanthropist and funder behind the Kohelet Foundation — which has made significant contributions to day schools in the area and was a sponsor of the national day school conference here — with helping to offset those costs through donations. But still, he said, “funding certainly is a big issue.”
Rabbi Yaakov Green traveled to Philadelphia from the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in St. Louis, for the educators conference because, he said, “the ability to network and meet so many Jewish educators from everywhere is not only very impactful but it’s inspiring.”
Green, the head of school at the academy, added, “When so many people are around, the king is glorified by the presence of so many subjects. The idea of being together for one cause — Jewish education — is pretty powerful.”