When Rabbi Adam Englander arrived at a recent national gathering in Denver of Jewish day school and yeshiva educators, he had a good sense of what conference sessions he wanted to attend and whom he wanted to meet.
But it turns out that one of the most valuable benefits Englander experienced at the Prizmah educators conference were the serendipitous encounters he had with colleagues and the new opportunities for collaboration and creativity they presented.
As head of school at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, or HALB, in Woodmere, New York, Englander’s main focus usually is what’s happening at his school, not elsewhere. But at the conference he met with two colleagues with whom he shares a leadership coach, they created a WhatsApp group chat for sharing ideas, and Englander soon walked away with a new idea for a dynamic workshop to run with his leadership team this summer.
“Already just from this group I have an amazing idea,” Englander said. “That kind of good stuff can happen where you might meet someone who is like, ‘Oh, yeah. I have the same problem as you.’ Now you are connecting with some principal from San Francisco whom you’d never have met in a million years.”
He added, “Day school leaders really need to take the time and energy to invest in themselves, and their own growth.”
“Creative Spirit” was the theme of the conference in January organized by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, the national network organization that was created several years ago through a merger of five different day school organizations. The conference in Denver drew more than 1,000 professional and lay leaders from over 200 Jewish day schools and yeshivas across North America. It was the third-ever iteration of Prizmah’s national conference.
With tens of thousands of students spread out over hundreds of schools across the continent, day schools have become laboratories of creativity: for learning, for Jewish action, even for tackling societal challenges.
“Jewish day schools are inherently creative places,” said Prizmah CEO Paul Bernstein. “The exceptional level of shared optimism and imagination around the bright future of Jewish day schools was palpable at the conference. Day school leaders clearly share a belief and innovative determination in the opportunity to grow enrollment in the next decade — by promulgating the value proposition of Jewish day school, ensuring a pipeline of excellent educators and addressing the challenge of affordability.”
A salient example of creativity in action is how day schools adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic, not just adjusting to remote learning and figuring out how to return to classrooms safely, but in reconfiguring teaching approaches to suit different kinds of learning.
“Because of schools’ creativity, and because of the way that different stakeholders in schools — from administrators to teachers to parents to students — were able to work together, they solved these brand new problems we hadn’t seen before,” Bernstein observed.
Another area of tremendous creativity is how Jewish schools are managing the challenges of affordability: Day schools are almost entirely privately funded, tuition is a barrier for many families, and yet tuition fees alone are insufficient to cover costs. In recent years, some schools have adapted innovative and flexible fee models, from setting tuition based on a fixed percentage of a family’s income to using Jewish community grant funding to cap tuition for new families.
Much of the conference was devoted to ideas for the future of Jewish day school education, covering everything from curricula to leadership to finances. One main area of focus is recruiting and retaining quality educators and school leaders.
Debra Skolnick-Einhorn, head of school at the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School in Washington, D.C., who spoke on a conference panel about professional development, said she believes the key to better educator retention is improving compensation and benefits, providing more opportunities for professional growth, and expressing more gratitude toward staff.
Tal Ben-Shahar, an American-Israeli bestselling author who teaches about the psychology of leadership, spoke at the conference about the importance of investing in leaders.
“It’s important to focus on self-care for the teachers, invest in people in the field,” Ben-Shahar said. “It’s critical to treat teachers well, keep them involved, treat them as professionals, and value their opinions.”
John D’Auria, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of four books on leadership, spoke about how great leaders focus on mutual learning — getting colleagues to share and learn from one another — rather than top-down leadership. It’s an approach embodied by many day school curricula, which focus on collaborative and experiential learning.
At the conference, Lisa Kay Solomon, Louie Montoya, and Ariel Raz from Stanford University’s d.school K12 Futures team offered an art project dubbed Hall of Descendants where participants could create a portrait and message for future children and educators.
“While we can’t predict the future, we know it’s going to be filled with a lot of uncertainty, complexity and tensions that we can’t solve,” Solomon said. “The hall creates a relatability to that distant time travel and a sense of responsibility about what we might do today to serve that future descendant.”
Brad Phillipson, head of school for the Jewish Community Day School of Greater New Orleans, said he found the Hall “a powerful exercise in prioritizing the values with which I most closely identify, personally and professionally, and in contemplating the world I want to pass along to future generations — through our students, through my child, and, indirectly, through what my students, and my daughter, will teach their children.”
Tal Grinfas-David, who led a session at the conference on creative leadership and Israel, said it’s important for leaders to take risks. More often than not, she noted, leaders can be “risk averse to placate, to take safe pathways.”
Grinfas-David, who is vice president of outreach and pre-collegiate school management initiatives at the Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education, turned to Israeli history for examples of leadership that educators could emulate.
“What I wanted them to see was examples of courageous leadership and risk taking and where that could lead,” Grinfas-David said. “Hopefully, they see that leaders of Israel have had to strengthen the future of the state regardless of the circumstances, just as the school leaders need to leave behind a legacy of a stronger institution.”
Bernstein, Prizmah’s CEO, said that the recent gathering underscored how important collaboration is to Jewish education — and that regardless of location or denomination, colleagues have a lot to learn from each other.
“What we are seeing is that when Jewish day school leaders come together, whether you are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, pluralistic, or nondenominational, whether you are from the Southwest or the Northeast, from the U.S. or Canada and beyond — there is so much more that unites than divides,” Bernstein said.
Prizmah’s next conference is planned for February 2025.