Jewish Day Schools Dare to Dream

Courtesy: JCDS-Boston’s Jewish Community Day School (eJP archives)

By Paul Bernstein

“It is truly the best of times, and the worst of times.” So reads the opening of the recent Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) report about “Challenges and Opportunities on the Jewish Day School Landscape,” prepared by Rosov Consulting.

All too often, when the topic is Jewish day schools, it is the “worst of times” conversation that dominates. The 1,100 passionate, determined, optimistic educators, administrators, lay leaders and donors who attended the Prizmah Conference in Atlanta this week – all believers in Jewish day schools – are acutely aware of the sacrifices that so many families have to make to access the kind of quality Jewish and secular education we strive to offer.

Indeed, “sacrifice” is all too familiar an idea related to Jewish day school education. We talk about families struggling to save for college while paying tuition, schools allocating funds to financial aid instead of investing in a new science lab or arts space, fundraisers channeling support to the annual fund to stay alive, instead of building a school’s long term stability through endowment.

Many people ask: is it worth the sacrifice? In the modern era, we too often view the idea of sacrifice negatively.

At the Prizmah Conference, just as the weekly Torah portion opened the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra with its focus on sacrifices, we understood the idea differently.

After traveling to visit more than 100 schools across North America since Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools was founded, I have met so many wonderful educators, administrators, and lay leaders. I have seen inspired and happy students benefiting from the best education offered. I have seen the rays of light that show what is possible, and why we also talk about “the best of times” for Jewish day schools.

Making a sacrifice, in the truest sense of the word, is not negative. Sacrifice is an inherently positive, optimistic act. We are not truly giving something up; ideally we are engaging in sacred dialogue, gaining a precious relationship. Sacrifice is a sign of closeness, remembering the Hebrew korban – from the same root as to draw near, lehakriv. When we make a sacrifice, it is to become closer to something we feel is important, to stand in relation to something we want to approach.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls sacrifice “the choreography of love.” We are willing to make sacrifices for what we love. In contemporary societies, people’s willingness to make sacrifice has arguably grown thin.

What is it today that we love enough to be worthy of sacrifice, that we want to draw closer to?

Is it to draw nearer to God?
Is it to connect more deeply to our children?
Is it to strengthen our community?

What role do Jewish day schools play that makes them such a hub of so much sacrifice?

They enable us to do all three – to feel closer to God, to connect to our children, and to build the kind of communities that will sustain us over generations.

In a world where love-as-sacrifice is being forgotten, the sacrifice to provide a deep Jewish education is more important than ever. Sacrifice for Jewish day schools brings priceless returns.

Pirke Avot 5:14 describes four temperaments of those who study in a Beit Midrash, praising above all the one who “goes to learn and also acts.” Learning and action are inseparable. It is not just showing up or bringing an item of value as a sacrifice, it is then following that step with the actions one learns there. If we understand sacrifice as a form of communication, the charge to take action is the response to our making an offering, the behavior that befits a sacred relationship.

Every day in the day school world, thousands of families, professionals, and lay leaders make sacrifices and take action for a strong Jewish future, and the future of the society we live in.

One example of this is happening in the West Hartford, CT community. Prizmah’s Board Chair, Ann Pava, together with her husband, Jeremy, have spearheaded the unification of two schools, The Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford and the Hebrew High School of New England (which the Pava’s founded in another act of inspiration over twenty years ago) into one, strong pre-school through 12th grade school. They are also leading a bold move in tuition assistance to make the school accessible to all, coupled with a focus on educational excellence. Sacrifice, for Ann and Jeremy, is a wholly positive and optimistic approach to what they value most. It is inseparably linked with action.

Redefining sacrifice as an expression of belief and love, together with the tens of thousands of day school supporters across North America, we are poised to break out of the old models or the perennial blinders of our busy day-to-day lives.

At the Prizmah Conference, we invited the participants to “dare to dream”, to dream about what might be possible for their schools. Together, they grappled with their challenges, and learned from each other’s successes. Conversations covered all topics of day school significance, with a focus on the core issues identified by schools, which drive Prizmah’s strategic direction – how to deepen talent for day schools, catalyze the resources for growth and affordability, accelerate educational innovation, and create powerful networks that enable day schools to learn and grow together.

Conference keynote speaker, George Couros, author of “The Innovator’s Mindset,”  challenged us to “make the positives so loud, that the negatives are almost impossible to hear.” Hearing the positives from educators, as they shape a bright future for their students, tells us that it truly can be “the best of times” for Jewish day schools.

Paul Bernstein is Chief Executive Officer, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.