By Heschel Raskas and Adinah Raskas
Those of us who are committed to Jewish day schools know that each year we will attend the annual dinner of the school. The dinners are an obligation, a fundraising, advocacy evening that usually are not very interesting and pretty similar from year to year. Some feature guest speakers others musical artists, student presentations, auctions.
Last year we were asked to be the honorees at the 75th Anniversary Gala of the Epstein Hebrew Academy (EHA) in St. Louis. Our connection to the school was obvious: We are both graduates as are our five children and several of our grandchildren. Six members of our immediate families have served as President of the school (including one of us, AR).
As we considered being the honorees, we asked ourselves: So many of the attendees are making a significant financial and volunteer investment in our school. Could we make the Gala itself be an evening that would celebrate 75 years and, more important, be an evening that would also inspire the school community to a greater future in the coming years? Could we identify a program that would engage those at the Gala such that they become closer to the school and deepen their commitment to the school’s future? We identified, planned and successfully executed such a program and want to share the experience with you.
What forum could help our school community think about the future? Very quickly we thought about TED talks, brief, powerful talks that stimulate thinking. As posted on ted.com, TED Talks are “Ideas worth spreading.” Stimulating a school community to think and talk about the many interrelated elements that impact school success could lead to innovation and collaboration that could brighten the future. Even more relevant, Ed talks, TED talks that focus on education, are an appropriate model. The range of topics in Ed Talks (see Edtalks.org) helped us understand how focused talks have the potential to drive extensive discussion within school communities and lead to new successful initiatives that have an increased likelihood of success.
We, the honorees, the Head of School and the school President, decided to make an Ed Talk the centerpiece of our celebration. What outcomes did we wish to achieve from our Ed talk? As a Jewsih day school in a Midwestern city with a Jewish population of approximately 55,000, certain distinctive outcomes were important.
We concluded that success would result in the school community believing that:
- Cohesiveness in vision and religious values can be the foundation for a school that can appeal to a wide range of parents and increase enrollment.
- A successful EHA will bring more people to live in St Louis with all its positives as a city.
- A school with emphasis on midot, observance, Torah text knowledge, excellent general studies is very important for the entire Jewish community of St Louis.
- A smaller community like St Louis can feel less isolated and benefit from some of the resources in the cohort of large city schools.
For our Ed talk, we needed external resources, nationally recognized educators: One person should be a thought leader with deep knowledge of day school education and specifically someone who focuses on elevating the quality of Jewish day school education. A second person should be a leading practitioner, a school professional leader who has succeeded in his school and has insights into the reasons for success. Fortunately two family friends were ideal for these roles: Dr. Erica Brown, Professor of Education and Director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University, and Rabbi Naftali Harcsztark, the founding Principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. When we called, Dr. Brown and Rabbi Harscztark each agreed to be part of the evening program
Our Ed talk at the Gala was a great success. We believe success was greatly enhanced because of extensive planning and rehearsal in advance of and on the day of the event. Weeks before the Gala we in St Louis drafted questions that we thought the moderator, our Head of School, could use for the dialogue to be successful. Our guest educators responded with feedback. There was much candid give and take. Then the day of the Gala we met for several hours, discussed in person what would be the best questions, the best flow of dialogue between moderator and panelists. We even revised the likely questions as we all sat together. We established a protocol to make certain that exciting, stimulating discussion between Dr. Brown and Rabbi Harscztark would be nurtured during the “Ed Talk.”
And the result: Amazing! Those in the audience became deeply involved. The 40 minute program flew by. The applause was incredible. And throughout the remainder of the evening we were approached by individuals of so many different backgrounds, those who have no connection to day schools, communal leaders and rabbis from a wide range of Jewish observance, parents from our school. Everyone said the “Ed” talk was terrific. Many different statements from the talk were cited by indivuals. Yet all of them said what a wonderful idea and experience. The energy of the evening is now being translated into renewed enthusiasm by school parents and members of the Board.
We encourage you to have an Ed talk at your school event. Pick the themes and speakers that are most timely for your school. Make the program of the evening substantive and important to your school’s future! Make good use of this once a year opportunity to engage your school community in thinking about and planning for the future.
And if you need advice about how to do it, contact us!
Adinah Raskas is a sociologist and St. Louis Jewish communal leader. She has served as President of the Epstein Hebrew Academy.
Heschel Raskas was Professor of Pathology and Microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine and subsequently President and CEO of Raskas Foods. He has served as President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and Treasurer of the Jewish Federations of North America and is a Board member of the Jewish Agency for Israel.