Introducing: The Jewish Day School Collaboration Network

by Maya Bernstein and Rabbi Ed Harwitz

In his eJewish Philanthropy post last month, Toward Creativity: A Theological Goal for Jewish Education, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann raises the question of the overarching purpose of Jewish life. He argues, “Judaism calls on the human being, and the Jew in particular, to emulate God’s creative nature and to become a creative being.” He then explains that “if we take this theological proposition as a fundamental goal of Jewish living,” it becomes a “necessary focus of Jewish education.” Meaning, our institutions of Jewish education need to foster and train individuals to achieve the ultimate purpose of Jewish life, in this case, they must help train people to “tap into and unleash individual and communal creativity.”

While we are not convinced that creativity is the ultimate goal of Jewish living, we do agree with Rabbi Lehmann that it is a necessary tool toward achieving the array of potential answers to the questions that face us as a community: What does it mean to live a Jewish life in the 21st century? What does it gift us? What does it demand of us? And we agree that it is critical that we think very deliberately about the concrete links between the relationship the next generation will have with Jewish life, and the environments of growth we foster for them. This is no small challenge, and we could benefit, as Rabbi Lehmann suggests, from increased creativity as we tackle it.

It is in this spirit that UpStart Bay Area and The Jewish Education Project, funded by a generous grant from UJA Federation of New York, are collaborating to bring creativity tools to a group of Jewish day schools in the NY Metropolitan Area. Starting in December, teams within and across schools will explore the methodology of Design Thinking, and use it as an instrument for building school leadership. Through this shared experience, school leadership will become better equipped with creative, innovative tools and mindsets to address and develop solutions to major strategic challenges that confront Jewish day schools today.

This initiative emerged from discussions between The Jewish Education Project and a group of leading day school educators in New York. Given the impactful and often transformative experiences that they received through day school leadership programs, these professionals expressed a need and desire for advanced opportunities for professional collaboration, resources for shaping their school cultures and platforms for sharing and spreading success across the field.

The Day School Collaboration Network is an experimental response to these needs, designed to complement and leverage experiences already provided to professionals in their day school leadership programs. A distinguishing feature of the Network is the role of participating day school professional leaders, for they serve as partners in establishing its goals and design. This unique collaboration includes four sectors: the leadership in the day schools; a communal agency and networked non-profit, represented by the Jewish Education Project; the Jewish innovation sector, represented by UpStart; and the secular world of leadership and social entrepreneurship, represented by experts such as Marty Linsky from Cambridge Leadership Associates, and UpStart’s design team of Ben Grossman-Kahn at Nordstrom’s Innovation Lab, Ela Ben Ur formerly of IDEO, and Maureen Carroll and Melissa Pelochino of Lime Design.

As we embark on this process, we will seek to embrace the mindsets of the Design Thinking methodology, which align organically with Jewish educational values:

  • Action Oriented – the belief that it is in our hands to provide exceptional schools for our children
  • Human-centered – the belief that it is the children, their families, and the teachers who are at the center of this process, and who have invaluable wisdom to contribute
  • Deeply collaborative – the belief that our diversity of perspectives and opinions strengthens us, and helps us be more effective
  • Experimental – the belief that it is better to tackle challenges than not, and that failure is a critical component for learning and growth, and
  • Optimistic – the belief that when dedicated, passionate individuals put their minds to something, wonders will ensue

We look forward to sharing our learning, our accomplishments, and our “fail forward” moments with the broader community, and to generating more dialogue and creativity as we seek to answer our shared questions and create new paradigms to address them.

While each of the schools involved in this pilot might have a different answer to the broad question of the purpose of Jewish education, and how it connects to the purpose of Jewish life, we believe that a creative approach – one that listens deeply and truly to the experiences of the students, teachers, and parents connected to the schools, one that challenges us to think differently and expansively, and one that pushes us to align our shared values, and explore our differences – can only benefit our community as a whole.