Training Future Jewish Leaders

What are the challenges for Jewish leaders in assuming this responsibility, and how can training better prepare them for it?

[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of Leadership.]

Cheryl Finkel has a unique perspective on the day school field. Having served for 20 years as Head of School of the Epstein School in Atlanta, she understands Jewish day schools from the “inside.” Now, as an independent consultant working to advise school heads, board leaders, federations and foundations in Jewish educational leadership, she is examining the field in the bigger-picture. Cheryl was also involved in the formation of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), a professional development program at the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS. DSLTI trains and supports a cadre of heads of school who exemplify Jewish values and are committed to developing them in the next generation.

In this video, Cheryl reflects on topics in the area of day school leadership. As you watch, consider:

What issues is the leadership of a school or institution capable of solving with sufficient training and other resources – and what are they not? This question, which came up in the development of DSLTI, raises the importance of expanding ones perspective from individual institutions to looking at systems. A perceived lack of local leadership may in fact be best addressed on a global level. For example, the question of where to find quality teachers and leaders may be most effectively addressed system-wide rather than by an individual school or institution.

What skills do leaders need – and is it really possible for them to have all those skills? Day school heads are always at the edge of their comfort zone because the job requires more expertise than any one person could possibly have: in child development, performance management, budgeting and finance, marketing, and above all communications and relationships. Other fields surely require their leaders to have a similar breadth of expertise in a plethora of areas. What is the best way to prepare and train leaders for environments in which so many skills are required?

What is the responsibility of a Jewish leader to model Jewish behavior and values? A day school head should be an exemplary Jew, someone passionately engaged in the Jewish project. What are the challenges for Jewish leaders in assuming this responsibility, and how can training better prepare them for it?

What is the best educational approach to develop Jewish leadership? Cheryl discusses DSLTI’s constructivist approach, which encourages learners to discover their own answers through asking questions to which there are many fruitful responses rather than one that is correct. This approach is used in approaching secular as well as Jewish topics. For instance, one question to explore might be: How is what you do going to enable the students and their families to live a meaningful, committed, knowledgeable Jewish life? To what extent do you subscribe to this educational philosophy? What other educational approaches might be helpful to emerging leaders?

We encourage you to reflect on these questions and others raised by Cheryl in this video [above] on leadership, Jewish leadership, and leadership training for our communal institutions.

Cheryl R. Finkel is an independent leadership consultant working in Jewish day schools advising school heads, board leaders, federations and foundations.

For eight years Cheryl was senior consultant at PEJE, and before that served for twenty years as head of the Epstein School, Solomon Schechter School of Atlanta. She is presently Senior Mentor in the JTS Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).

Cheryl holds an AB in English from UNC, an MA in Teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also a recipient of The Covenant Foundation’s award for Exceptional Jewish Educators.

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  1. Cheryl Finkel’s voice is one of experience and wisdom. Her observations about DSLTI are informative and her insights into the value–and limitations–of head of school professional development instructive. Thank you, Cheryl.

    What is puzzling to me, candidly, is the continued conspicuous absence of effective governance and board development as an essential component of supporting and enhancing day school performance–including that of the head of school. Highly accomplished leaders like Cheryl Finkel enjoy (earn!) highly successful tenures as heads of school in some significant measure because they craft very productive working relationships with their Board of Directors. In my opinion, we need to hear from these professionals and their lay leader partners about the principles and practice of effective day school governance.

    There is a vast literature on governance, for sure, but little that codifies a set of empirically grounded practices that can become the basis for what I believe is critically needed Board training and development.

    Frankly, I have seen too many cases of highly skilled educational leaders who are shining examples of what Cheryl calls “exemplary Jews” fail abjectly because of inept governance–no matter how well intentioned that governance may be.

    Day school headship is challenging work. So, too, is day school governance. Orchestrating the two to achieve harmony is daunting, yet necessary if we are to establish enduring institutions of learning.

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