Age and Wisdom: How RAVSAK’s PEP Project Is Helping New Heads of Jewish Day Schools

by Dr. Elliot D. Spiegel and Lynn Raviv

The prospect of retirement is a complicated one. It elicits a sense of relief but also regrets, excitement as well as unexpected nostalgia. Many want to ensure, as they pass into retirement, that their skills and expertise, honed by many years of service, can still be utilized.

We, both recently retired heads of Jewish day schools, having collectively invested over 90 years in professional service to the Jewish people – one in a large, vibrant community and one in a small but no less vibrant community. In thinking about our early days as heads of school, we recall how very difficult they were. In the early 1970s, day school education was at the beginning of its period of growth and expansion and many new schools were in locations that were isolated from traditional centers of day school education. Day school leadership in those days was, for the most part, a sink-or-swim endeavor: one came to know, and ideally master, headship slowly over time, in professional (and sometimes personal) isolation. Without a ready support network, we operated in a bubble. Regrettably, despite the growth of leadership support programs for Jewish educators, many new heads of school today experience this same sense of isolation.

Thus, we were thrilled when we were asked by RAVSAK to join their innovative Head of School Professional Excellence Project (PEP), matching highly successful and experienced Jewish day school leaders (called Deans) with newly minted, wonderfully talented and highly motivated Jewish day school heads (called Fellows) for a year of one-on-one coaching and mentoring.

We had the same thought: if only this project existed when we were starting out! Our wistfulness turned to motivation, as the prospect of sharing our experience with more junior colleagues just setting out upon their leadership work, of continuing our work as a guide and mentor, as well as learning with respected colleagues who also serve as mentors, was both exciting and meaningful. The goal is to empower mentees to move ahead, take risks with our support, and gain leadership skills that strengthen their ability to carry out the mission of the school.

RAVSAK’s strategy was at once simple and nuanced. First, they noticed how many heads of school are at or near retirement and wondered what could be done to preserve the wisdom we have acquired over the years. Next, they noted the relatively short average tenures of day schools heads, despite a number of pre-service and in-service management training programs, and wondered what could be done to help strengthen these key communal leaders in-situ. Their solution was to create, through PEP, something of an intergenerational knowledge transfer that empowers rising stars with field wisdom, craft knowledge and a critical new support. At the same time, the program invests in those of us late in our careers, helping us channel what we have learned and enabling us to continue to serve the community.

Through PEP, we have developed a genuine relationship with the Fellows, one that allows them to be open and honest to discuss the issues that are difficult, unclear or frustrating, as well as those that are thrilling, inspiring and heart-warming. The Fellows know that we have been there, that our empathy and sympathy are genuine. More importantly, the experience that we bring to the conversation can be transformational. We are not giving them the answers; rather, we help them to find the solutions that they are most capable of uncovering and successfully implementing. They can discuss their challenges in a safe place and take the time to ponder their options with someone who likely faced similar hurdles.

We eagerly await each session to tackle the new ideas on the agenda proposed by the Fellow, but primarily to hear of the successes based on the last conversations. To hear a stronger confidence in their voice and know that this professional is gaining capacity and growing in the position is the most rewarding.

There are no words for the feelings of pride and accomplishment as each Fellow hones their craft. There is also a sense of nostalgia as we think back to when we started working as day school Heads and what a difference this kind of program might have meant to early professional development. We are grateful that we, at the conclusion of our work, can provide guidance and support to new Heads of RAVSAK schools at the beginning of theirs.

We feel honored to be able to continue to be engaged in some of the most important work in the Jewish world: that of Jewish education, specifically the opportunities provided by a Jewish day school. By experiencing Jewish life on a daily basis, these students become educated about the history, meaning, and tradition of Judaism. They study it, absorb it, live it and will carry this deep understanding into the world at large and into the leadership positions they will one day occupy. And, when they become the next generation of Jewish leaders, we hope there will be programs like RAVSAK’s PEP to help guide them to even greater heights.

RAVSAK’s Head of School Professional Excellence Project is underwritten through generous funding of the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation and an anonymous donor.

For more information, please contact Cooki Levy, Project Director, or visit: