Grabbing the Baton

By Gail Norry and Ann Pava

Imagine a world where Jewish day schools have the resources they need to be affordable to all. Imagine a world where the across-the-board excellence of our schools attracts families far and wide, and where the ranks of day school philanthropists overflow the largest rooms for Jewish communal gatherings.

Imagine a world where Jewish day schools are the first choice for families.

We believe in making this vision a reality and know that there are many throughout North America committed to this vision as well. We know that there is simply nothing as effective and impactful as Jewish day school. And many of us were together in November for the first time in twenty years to get started.

When the inimitable Mem Bernstein, Chair of the Board of The AVI CHAI Foundation, gave us the signal, with hearts pounding, we took our mark. Like the first runner in a relay, she held out the baton and made sure we were ready to grab it. It was a room of over one hundred Jewish day school philanthropists from across North America, and we were exuberant.

In competitive track and field, there is a defined area where baton-passing can take place, called “the relay zone.” In many ways the recent Prizmah Day School Investor Summit was a twenty-four hour relay zone. We are still in that zone in a way, and remain ever more committed to the challenge of ensuring that Jewish day schools have what they need to thrive. That starts with more day school funders and committed leaders.

Those who joined us at the Summit arrived with enthusiasm and a sense of joy. Being a Jewish day school philanthropist can sometimes be lonely. Some of us are funding local schools in very significant ways, sometimes without a strategic connection to the bigger picture. In chairing this event, we asserted that the day school movement is too important for our supporters to feel isolated.

Any one who was in the room for Mem’s speech felt anything but a sense of isolation. Hearing her speak formally (a rare occurrence, she conceded), knowing that she was sharing and revealing her heart, was extraordinary. In the past twenty-plus years, The AVI CHAI Foundation has invested over $325 million in building and supporting the Jewish day school field. When Mem said “you can only pass a baton to a teammate,” we knew what our team needed was more members. Wherever there are day schools, there are passionate day school supporters who can come together and literally change the course of our Jewish future. Now is the time for these and other philanthropists to join us in this critical work.

Summit attendees were asked to think hard and creatively. How can we invest more strategically in our day schools at the local and national level? What might be the “next big thing” that will keep our schools vibrant and vital? What national initiatives can Prizmah, the only central address for Jewish day schools, foster to address challenges like affordability and excellence? How can school-community and other partnerships yield even greater impact?

We learned from Paula Gottesman from MetroWest New Jersey and Joel Siegel from Montreal about new models for community-wide day school endowment support. We studied the ways PJ Library and the Foundation for Jewish Camp have leveraged local and national partnerships to scale their initiatives nationally and make a transformative impact. We started to imagine what the next leg of the run could look like for Jewish day schools.

And to tie this all together, we officially launched B’Yachad, Prizmah’s strategic plan for Jewish day schools, which focuses on deepening talent, catalyzing resources, accelerating innovation, and networking to learn. This roadmap for making lasting impact will serve the day school field towards greater sustainability. This roadmap prioritizes our team and challenges us to find, recruit and mobilize more believers in the power of Jewish day school.

Truth be told, the Summit was just the beginning, a stimulus that builds momentum in terms of relationships, ideas, and connections. It has left us with a renewed sense of optimism and a confidence that, as Mem put it, “we have been on the same team for a very long time.” The next big ideas that will propel the day school field forward are on the verge of hatching. We can achieve so much more together than we can alone, and we are a team that is strengthened by growing our numbers. Join us in this race for our Jewish future. Oh, yes, Mem, we are ready to grab the baton.

Gail Norry is a Prizmah board member and chairs its Development Committee. She is a Vice President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and has served in multiple national leadership roles, including Chair of National Women’s Philanthropy and National Young Leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America. She was the founder and co-chair of OROT, a special needs initiative in Philadelphia’s Jewish day schools.

Ann Pava is Chair of Prizmah, a past Chair of National Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federations of North America, and the founding President of the Hebrew High School of New England. She serves as a Vice President of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and on the board of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women.