Are We Amidst a Day School Identity Crisis?

By Alanna Kotler

A great deal has been written about school leadership and the importance placed on a leader  to know his/her story, to be authentic, to articulate his/her values. In her most recent book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown encourages leaders to “show up” in a way that manifests their values. “Because that is integrity – choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them” (Brown, 189). The respect for a leader hinges on these essential parts being maintained throughout his/her tenure at a school. When a leader changes what he/she believes based on the issue at hand, then the faith of his/her followers and the respect for that individual wanes. I have seen it in the institutions in which I have worked. It can be frustrating to work for a leader who doesn’t have a strong sense of his/her own personal values about education, children and learning. It leads to impulsive decisions that are not rooted in articulated beliefs about the direction of the school. It can also be frustrating as a parent if a leader changes how he/she manages a situation (a child’s class placement, a discipline issue) based on wanting to placate or please those involved as opposed to making a decision based on a set of core values. 

Rabbi Dr. Yossi Kastan, Head of School at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, addressed this issue several years ago in his eJP article Core Leadership where he argued that leaders must know and hold to their values and ones that don’t experience a kind of “identity theft” when making important decisions. He writes: 

How many people in your organization and community know what you stand for (beyond the initial interview/search committee)? How many constituents have repeatedly heard your values? Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak writes: “You become what you repeat. Repetition is consistency. Consistency is predictability. Predictability is reliability. Reliability creates opportunity.”

He goes on to argue that transparency is showing your truest self as a leader and although not all community members will agree with every decision that is made, “they would hope that we (the leader) is acting consistently with our consistently articulated beliefs.”

So what if we took this same concept about individual leaders and apply it to our institutions, to the Day Schools in which these leaders lead. As in, do our institutions hold to their core values and identity when making a decision or do they change and morph when necessary to keep the calm within the community? And what impact does this “flexibility” have on a school, its faculty and families? Many would argue that the times are a-changin – kids are different, the world is different and have you heard that there is more technology these days? Schools are forced to be on the cutting-edge in every way, to be all things to all people, to move with the times. And I commend, whole-heartedly, each and every leader who is at the forefront of decision-making; it is not an easy position. However, at what point does a school (not just the leader) have to stop and think, “Do our core values support this decision?” 

As mission-driven institutions, day schools live in a space between the secular world and the world of Jewish values and practice. Each school’s mission draws upon a set of Jewish values that likely falls under a specific denomination/movement (i.e. reform, conservative, modern orthodox, orthodox, pluralistic – I realize that there are subsets of each of these as well). When writing the mission, the school leadership integrates parts of the school’s Jewish practices to help guide decisions on how students should dress, learn in Judaica classes, daven, eat and interact with technology. A few years ago an article was published discussing the difficult decision two Modern Orthodox schools faced regarding female students who wanted to wear tefillin during davening – a practice that had not been done at either school before and a practice that potentially wouldn’t fit with the schools’ Jewish identity. Each school came to a different decision despite the fact that they both aligned themselves with the same Jewish movement. Does this present a problem for the Jewish community? In other words, if two schools who align themselves with the same beliefs around Judaism, come to two separate conclusions on the same issue, will this affect how we view the core beliefs and values of a school? Are these schools “showing up” in a way that aligns with their core values? Did one school experience a sort of “identity theft” or was the decision to move with the times seen as a way of being progressive and accepting? 

These questions grow out of my own experiences working and being part of day schools where the grumblings of “what does our school believe in or stand for” have grown louder. It bubbles up around small and large questions (both within secular studies and Jewish practice): Do we think tracking students in elementary school is a good idea? What type of students can we support? Are men required to wear kippot when they walk into the building? (I have heard this question from leaders in both Modern Orthodox schools and pluralistic schools).  If we allow a woman to wear tefillin can she do it in a mechitza minyan or only a women’s minyan? And, how do we feel about a women’s minyan? I recognize that there is a spectrum of Jewish practice, but at what point do certain decisions fall under choosing comfort over courage? Schools can’t always bend with the times. Sometimes lines have to be drawn. Sometimes families have to be told “no.” The world is changing, but if we continue to move the needle in our core values within our Jewish institutions then the identity of who we are as Jewish day schools is sacrificed. And that may be a crisis we can’t come back from. 

Alanna Kotler is a Lead Consultant with Educannon Consulting. She works with Jewish Day schools and leaders across the country focusing on curriculum auditing, development and implementation as well as leadership coaching.