The fall is approaching. Back to school sales are in full swing and the countdown to the first day of school and kick-off to football season has begun! Big Ten football fans are a special breed. As an alumnae of THE Ohio State University (OSU), Buckeye Pride is deep – as the saying goes we “bleed scarlet and grey” (Michigan fans, you can stop reading now ☺) You are not just a student or graduate of OSU, you are a member of the Buckeye Nation. So, what can Jewish day schools learn from Big Ten football?… SPIRIT MATTERS!
#1: Create school spirit that permeates the entire community. Ruach (spirit) for your Jewish day school keeps the school in the hearts and minds of the community. It creates its own relevance, it stretches deeper than academic statistics, and it screams out loud to the world “ANACHNU PO: WE ARE HERE AND WE LOVE OUR COMMUNITY!”
Right, left, traditional, liberal, whatever and however we identify as Jews, the message to our communities and to our children must be strength in spirit.
At Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, where I raise my children and invest my professional life, we emphasize the importance of school spirit at every grade level, throughout the parent body, the teachers, staff, and out in the community. Our modest sized school with just over 150 students and 35 faculty and staff is bursting with spirit; a pride which is the driving force for our growth not only as a community day school (with a 17% enrollment increase this year) but as a visible and vibrant Northern Virginia Jewish community.
#2: Sustain a unique and defining institutional culture. As a community, we invest millions of dollars on outreach, trying to engage those who seem unreachable. We offer free trips, free books, free food, anything to get them in the door. It’s not enough to just walk through the doors and show up at an event; day school requires real commitment (not just financial), which means the experience must be more than a school, more than an education; families must see their day school as essential to their Jewish community connectedness and the social life of their family. For this to be successful, it can’t come just from the professionals who run the school. We must elevate the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) to GOLD status! The PTO is the school’s truest ruach partner and the parent volunteers are key stakeholders of student retention and the development of new donors.
#3: Wear your spirit, loud and proud! My children have had OSU spirit wear in every size from newborn on up. We’ve been indoctrinating them with Buckeye pride since birth. Day schools must champion this same pride.
Sports networks love to highlight outrageous Big Ten fans with unique team merchandise, body painting, hair dying and they refer to it as FOOTBALL FEVER, why? Because spirit is contagious! So too at Gesher JDS we strive to create contagious spirit. We produced a smile-project video that shows nothing but dancing around our school called HOW DO YOU GESHER GROOVE? We show up at community events wearing our signature purple fleeces (even when it’s much too warm out), we pass out purple baseball hats and water bottles emblazoned with our logo and new this year, we have an online SPIRITWEAR store where fans of all ages can order everything from hats and t-shirts to scarves, bags and flannel pajama pants. It’s not just school pride you’re selling, it’s community pride.
#4: Overwhelm them with joy they never forget! For Jewish day schools to thrive we must create a feeling of overwhelming spirit and joy that begins from the moment prospective families walk through our doors and lasts for the years after they graduate. Students, parents, grandparents, alumni, Jewish Community leaders, donors, even local Jewish families who for one reason or another didn’t choose day school for their children, they too need school spirit. One of my best friends did not attend OSU, but football season comes and she’s right there with us, head to toe in spirit wear, cheering on the Buckeyes and even singing our fight song. Why? Because it surrounds her with joy. The joy that comes from school spirit translates directly to the joys of family, friendship, and community.
Maya Angelou said, “People forget what you say, they forget what you did, but they never forget how you made them feel.” If you want to rev people up like OSU, stop justifying the relevance of day school, stop digging through demographic statistics – just go out and share your spirit.
Jennifer Scher is Director of Development at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia where she lives with her husband and three children.