"It may be on the smaller side, and we do have a long way to go, but we definitely have a day school movement," said Rabbi Josh Elkin, executive director of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).
The audience of 600-plus day school advocates responded with thunderous applause during the joint luncheon, which brought together attendees from both the PEJE's Donor Assembly and the Leadership Assembly at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City on Feb. 3.
Elkin touched on some of the problematic issues facing day schools: affordability, teacher retention, donor and student recruitment. The way to overcome these difficulties, he said, is through collaboration.
Like college graduates looking to make career contacts, many of the professional and lay day school leaders, major philanthropists, Jewish Federation leaders and Jewish endowment fund representatives attending the PEJE Leadership Assembly portion, the first of its kind in the United States, took time out to network.
The cross-denominational Leadership Assembly brought together people from various aspects of the national day school community to promote cooperation between religious movements and address universal challenges. While much of the conference consisted of lectures and workshops, many participants admitted that networking was a key reason for their attendance.
"For the most part, the conference has confirmed things I know," admitted Carl Mandell, head of school for Solomon Schechter Day School in West Hartford, Conn., who attended the leadership portion. "The most valuable components came after the workshops because I had opportunities to meet people from other schools."
Dana Gibson, president of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy board of trustees in Overland Park, Kan., said he often feels alone in his quest to improve and maintain day school education.
"Kansas is isolating," he said. "We need this contact with other [advocates] because we're facing the same issues."
Like those who share his passion in big and small cities alike, Gibson said that the Reform movement's lack of interest in developing day schools is a key challenge. Conference workshops offered suggestions on how to make a case for day schools, techniques the educator hopes use in his hometown. Meeting experts like Richard Lewis from the Schusterman Foundation's Small Communities Program from Vestal, N.Y., also provided him with a sense of support.
Marcy Goldberg, the development chair of a new day school opening in Chicago next fall, came to the conference to learn about the fundraising her school will need to embrace during its first year and beyond. Goldberg says that the sessions gave her the opportunity to learn about some innovative fundraising techniques -- and meet others who have found them successful.
Ilene Reinfeld, principal of Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village, sat in the hotel lobby, relaxing after a day of intense workshops amid the hustle and bustle of cross-country attendees rushing to the airport.
"It's been a long time coming for an event like this," said the educator, commenting that the encouragement for collaboration is greatly needed.
In addition to hopefully coming up with viable solutions, Elkin feels the conference sends out a message.
"The way that this meeting is cross-denominational makes a statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," he said. "Working together with their federations and endowment funds, day schools can have a deep interaction and confront the greater challenges on the day school agenda."