A Report on AVI CHAI’s Strategy_Lab or A Freezeframe Moment in the Early Stages of a Front Flip

by Susan Kardos

On July 21, I wrote an eJewishPhilanthropy blog post about AVI CHAI’s foray into different types of activities in these, our sunset years. I developed a gymnastics metaphor and compared a back flip (which may be scary at first, but where you can always count on seeing the whole landing) and a front flip (which is scary during most of the second half because the landing is blind). I explained that AVI CHAI has mostly liked to flip backward – engaging in high-impact activities, where we knew we could stick the landing. Our spend-down, I posited, requires some more courageous – and risky – forward flipping. While we continue to support our signature and newer programs to enhance the Jewish content and character of Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps, we have also expanded our grantmaking portfolio to include activities which we believe – in the case of Jewish day schools, for example – maximize the possibility of a strong and sustainable Jewish day school field. One of the primary examples of this is our investments in building the capacity of some core institutions that serve the Jewish day school field, such as the Davidson Graduate School of Education, RAVSAK, and the Schechter Day School Network. Discussion of these forward-flipping efforts will be the subject of an upcoming blogpost. I also discussed in some detail, as a single concrete example, our Jewish Day School “Strategy_Lab,” which took place for 2.5 days last week in New York City.

The purpose of the Strategy_Lab was to bring a diverse set of people together and engage – intensively and immersively – with the problem of Jewish day school affordability and sustainability. Our hope was to learn together about how school leaders, agency and foundation professionals, and lay-leaders understand the problem and how they think about solutions. We wanted to learn together about what is being done locally, regionally, and nationally and what this group thought ought to be done. We wanted to give people (including ourselves) the opportunity to “workshop” ideas that they had been considering in their own settings and perhaps utilize the group genius to imagine new approaches.

The work was masterfully facilitated and deeply engrossing. We spent a total of 23 hours together collaborating, questioning, and creating. In the night hours we ate, slept, checked in with our families, checked email, and played around – in our heads – with questions, comments and ideas we heard during the day. The dance of the days was beautifully choreographed and purposeful; the language was wise and melodic; the physical space was radiant blues and purples; the soundtrack was both playful and penetrating. And these are not metaphors. We experienced as many as 10 hours a day in a high school gym as if we were transported into the center of a poem. Seriously.

So what am I talking about? Forty-six people participated in the 2.5 day event. The whole event. No leaving early, no coming late. No cell phones. No email. We could have had 146 participants or even 1046, and we could have targeted participation within a certain region or sector or school type. But we didn’t. We kept it under 50, and we tried to compose as diverse a group as we could. We entered the room and took off our figurative hats (actual kippahs stayed on) and became part of a living laboratory designed to distill questions, pose hypotheses, mix solutions, test ideas, and imagine new realities. We moved between small groups and larger groups; we journaled quietly and built 3-D models; and we consulted theory, research, and the lived experience of the people in the room. We participated in activities that helped us remember the past, understand the present, and imagine the future. We said old things in new ways and new things in old ways. And we listened. And we listened some more. And we tried to flip forward.

So what was the “outcome”? Some of us joked that when the Lab first started we felt the kind of thrill and angst a camp color-war captain experiences when she gathers all the seniors together after dinner and has one night to make 2 murals for color-war Sing, write 3 songs, figure out how to teach the songs to the entire team (half the camp), and assign everyone a role in the Apache Relay. It was that kind of electric. And that kind of electric requires some buzzing and then some time for the circuits to cool.

But here is where we are right now: The Lab did not unearth a secret, magical, game-changing solution that will make Jewish day school affordable, sustainable, and top-flight across the board. But there were ways of understanding the problems and language for expressing those perspectives that was fresh. There was clear articulation of current efforts and there was energy for and scrutiny of new possibilities. We are currently pouring over approximately 150 pages of notes, transcripts, photos and videos to help us make sense of the experience and the content. And the interpretation our small AVI CHAI group comes up with may be different from the sense-making of other participants.

Our first serious level of analysis is determining thematic categories within which most ideas fit (and there were dozens of ideas that were put forth throughout the Lab). While we framed the Lab around Affordability, Sustainability, and Learning, we understood that almost all of the ideas fit in to one of four organizing concepts: (1) the quality of the connections and relationships among sub-communities and institutions at the local level; (2) the coordinating, synthesizing, assistance and advocacy role of a national entity; (3) the possibilities of old and new tuition and revenue models; and (4) the need to upgrade and modernize the educational experience for the 21st Century. Our next step is to continue to work within this conceptual framework to understand and assess the many ideas that fit within each. We hope that other participants are doing the same, and we invite them to share their own experiences and analyses. We intend to continue to process the Strategy_Lab and its implications for our work as transparently as possible.

While the Lab (intentionally) was short on cookies and excess sweets (our facilitator insisted!), it wasn’t short on energy and inspiration. In my previous blog post, I used Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s gold medal winning floor routine to make a point about the need to take risks and push 100% when you have one last chance to achieve your dream. At the end of the routine, Raisman whispers to herself a subtle and breathy: “wow.” (Yes, you can see it in the video, and yes, that’s reason enough to indulge yourself and watch it again!)

The question is, what will we all whisper to ourselves when our Hava Nagila stops playing? I hope it’s a thrilled and humbled – and maybe even surprised – “wow.”

Susan Kardos is the Senior Director, Strategy and Education Planning at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog