First North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference Underway

In a groundbreaking gathering representing collaboration and common purpose among Jewish religious streams, nearly 600 leaders and educators at Jewish day schools across the U.S. and Canada opened the first-ever North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference yesterday.

The three-day conference offers delegates sessions, workshops and networking opportunities underscoring and addressing common concerns and issues as Jewish day schools enter a new decade committed to transmitting Jewish knowledge, enhancing Jewish practice, ensuring a vibrant Jewish future and solidifying the foundation of Jewish day school education.

“This is a watershed moment in North American Jewish life,” said Dr. Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. “A collaboration among Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Community day schools represents a bright new light for Klal Yisrael. The debut of this conference proves that working across ideologies is possible and desirable. Jewish day schools remain the most significant venue for the advancement of Jewish life. This is why we are here, together.”

The conference, taking place in Teaneck, NJ, is a joint initiative of RAVSAK, the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools.

The theme of this debut conference is Thriving in a New Reality, underscoring 21st century challenges including economic uncertainties, government funding, demographic changes and teacher retention, but also opportunities, such as the promise of technology in classrooms, Jewish service learning, and social media to build educational communities.

Such challenges and opportunities cut across Jewish educational denominations, creating an opening for this breakthrough collaborative conference, officials said.

“Like all great institutions and organizations today, day schools benefit from the synergy that emerges when collaboration and creativity travel together with opportunities for sharing resources,” said Dr. Jane West Walsh, executive director of PARDeS. “The promise of increased synergy through collaboration, creativity and resource sharing was at the heart of every conversation that took place to plan this conference. The reality of this promise will emerge through the conversations colleagues will share while in conference sessions, in hallways, around vendor tables, at meals and network meetings.”

More than 60 sessions and workshops will focus on the provocative issues, ideas, challenges and opportunities facing Jewish educational leaders in 2010 and beyond, from effective fundraising and teacher development, to community collaboration and utilizing Web 2.0.

“This is a bold venture, signaling a new level of collaboration among the day school networks across the spectrum of Jewish life,” said Dr. Elaine Shizgal Cohen, executive director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association. “The level of attendance signals a hunger for collegial community among day school leaders and a readiness and openness to learn with and from each other across denominational lines.”

The North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference is sponsored by The Covenant Foundation, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, The Kohelet Foundation and several anonymous funders.

A full schedule for the conference, which runs through Tuesday, is viewable at the conference website.

update January 20: Tamar Snyder writing in The New York Jewish Week:

Day Schools Try New Ideas

In a keynote address on Tuesday, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, praised the collaboration among the day school networks, while also laying out the top three areas that need to be improved upon: inspiring heads of day schools, enhancing board leadership and achieving financial sustainability. “If we maintain our focus on these strategic priorities … 40 years from now, 2010 will be viewed as the moment for Jewish day schools,” he said.

At the conference, the Institute for University-School Partnership revealed recommendations for increasing day school affordability, based on research culled from a survey of 70 Jewish day schools representing a variety of denominations and regions. “One major reason day Jewish day school expenses have outpaced inflation is because … schools have increased the number of specialists,” a pamphlet outlining the findings reports.

… The Institute’s findings also revealed that only 25 percent of day school board chairs strongly agreed that they had developed a financial plan for the next three to five years. “We’re in an affordability crisis; not having long-range financial plans doesn’t make any sense”.