Leadership Lessons in the Time of Corona from URJ Heller High

By Rabbi Loren Sykes

In the early hours of Sunday, March 15, we made the decision to send the students of URJ Heller High: The Isaac z”l and Helaine Heller High School in Israel (formerly known as NFTY EIE) back to their families in North America. From the start of the semester at the end of January, we hoped that we could avoid this moment. However, the challenges of keeping the students in school at Kibbutz Tzuba grew as we learned more, and COVID-19 developed into a global pandemic. By Tuesday, all eighty-seven students and our chaperone were back in North America with their families after departing on an El Al charter flight hastily put together by two Jewish high schools, one gap year program, and our staff.

The last week of February through March 17, 2020, was one of the most intense periods I have experienced as a Jewish professional and educator. Based on feedback from students and parents, from conversations with our leadership, and from our own evaluation, we faced this challenge well and the outcome was positive. While evaluating my role in handling the situation, I found that the leadership skills I acquired over the years in different organizations and settings served me well in dealing with COVID-19. Most of these skills were learned as a camp counselor. They were nurtured by mentors and role models who taught them explicitly in staff development classes and implicitly by living them every day. They are common sense skills that I go back to again and again both in my daily work and in dealing with tough situations. I share them here just as my teachers, colleagues, and friends shared and cultivated them with me over several decades.

Seek Clarity, Not Certainty

Certainty is impossible in rapidly changing times like these. Clarity, however, is not. Early on, we established three principles that would inform our decision-making during this crisis. We would keep the students and continue running the school in Israel if and only if:

  1. We could ensure the health, safety, and security of our students.
  2. We could run the school at our normal high level of excellence.
  3. We could remain in compliance with government directives and restrictions in Israel and North America.

These core principles provided the clarity of purpose that guided our decision making both while working to keep students in Israel and when deciding to send them back to North America.

Surround Yourself with Great People

Leadership that surrounds itself with sycophants is doomed to fail. Because we are responsible for other people’s children, “failure is not an option!” Fortunately, my predecessor, a legendary educator, bequeathed to me a great team. With time, I was able to add a few other talented people. We would not have succeeded in navigating the COVID-19 crisis as well as we did were it not for a terrific leadership group with diverse skills and perspectives. Had I tried to do everything myself, things would have been missed, multiple issues and avenues would have been ignored, and mistakes would have been made. 

Be the Calm in the Eye of the Storm

As an undergraduate, I served as Shabbat Gabbai of the JTS egalitarian minyan. When I first started in the job and there was a problem, I would scurry around the room to solve it. After three weeks, Rabbi Simon Greenberg z”l called me outside and said, “Mr. Sykes, if you scurry around like you do, people will think there is a problem and will get nervous. Walk slowly and with a smile and people will feel confident that you have everything in hand.” I consistently try to embody the advice of Rabbi Greenberg z”l. In this crisis, it proved itself once again. Calm, along with some timely humor, reigned. This was vital to maintaining an atmosphere of collegiality and clarity of purpose at each major decision-making point.

Communicate Clearly, Honestly, and Often

During the period leading up to the decision to send our students back to North America, we made it a priority to keep our community, students and parents alike, apprised of our thinking. By being upfront and communicating in a clear, frequent, honest, and jargon-free way, we created significant trust with all our constituents and stakeholders. This was crucial when, in less than two days, we had to change direction and go from reassuring everyone that we could continue to run the school at Kibbutz Tzuba, to letting students and parents know that everyone would be going home the next day. Had we been vague, silent for long periods, or appeared to be obfuscating in any way, families would have lost confidence, taken matters into their own hands, and brought their students home in chaotic ways that would have added stress to everyone. Instead, parents and students were partners who, despite disappointment when the time came, understood and supported the decision.

Make Change Part of Your Culture

URJ Heller High has undergone major transformations throughout its nearly sixty years. As a result, I inherited a school with an ethos of embracing change thereby enabling us to nimbly adapt to new conditions. Rather than closing our doors for the rest of the semester, we became an online school. In less than a week, we transitioned our Jewish history and general studies to live online classes. Our dean of general studies coordinated training sessions for our faculty with experts in the field and provided extra support to faculty members who were late adopters of technology. He built a class schedule that attempted to balance multiple time zones, teaching hours, and student needs. Modern spoken Hebrew classes will start up after Passover.

We also moved our informal activities and student support online. Our madrichim (counselors) have put together informal activities for students, ranging from discussions about TED Talks to yoga to cooking classes – all of which are now taking place online. They are also checking in on every student each week. Our student care staff continues to work with those students who needed or now need additional emotional support.

Treat Your Staff Well

Even in the best of times, it is easy to forget that institutional success is dependent upon a committed, dedicated, and excellent staff. In crisis situations, forgetting and leaving them out is even easier. How staff members at every level are treated shows the true values of Jewish organizations. We should view and relate to our staff not only as employees but as a valued constituency.   

Throughout the decision-making process, we intentionally included voices from different parts of our staff in discussions. We shared with them what we would be telling students and the families. As a result, faculty, madrichim, and staff felt that they were valued members of the community. When we pivoted to become an online school, our staff was ready and willing to make it happen.

We are also holding staff meetings online not only to monitor the progress of online classes but to provide support to staff members as well. We are checking in on them to listen and provide whatever individual support they may need. We do this for altruistic reasons. It is the right thing to do. We also have an institutional interest. Those of us in leadership positions in the Jewish World must remember that the COVID-19 crisis will end. When it does, our staff – from faculty to logistics, from madrichim to support staff –  will be ready to continue investing themselves in our organizations if we continue to support, invest in, and communicate with them during the crisis.

Final Thoughts

The trust and confidence we built up with our families, students, and staff have translated into concrete success. Eighty-four of our eighty-seven students are continuing their general studies courses with URJ Heller High, with eighty-six of eighty-seven continuing their Jewish history classes. This is despite multiple time-zone challenges that require our West Coast students to wake up at five a.m. for class and our one student living in Hawaii to wake up at three a.m. Despite complicated hours for teachers, all our faculty members are teaching for us. Although there are occasional technological challenges, students and faculty report positive learning experiences. Students are joining online extracurricular activities and appreciate the ongoing support they are receiving from the faculty, administration, and madrichim.

The positive outcomes we see are the direct result of our successful decision-making and communication process, as well as the leadership skills described above. They are essential for the long-term health and success of the school, our administration, faculty and our staff.  Even more importantly, they are crucial for students. First, they provide familiar, supportive peer, counselor and faculty connections for students for what may be an indeterminate and extended period of isolation. Second, shifting school quickly to live online sessions provides routine and structure when it is easy to lose all sense of day and time. Finally, and most notable, they allow us to continue to help our students take the next steps on their Jewish journeys, expand their knowledge of Jewish History, improve their ability to speak modern Hebrew, and deepen their connection to the People, the Land, and the State of Israel.

Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Director of Israel Immersives for URJ/Youth and, since January 2016, has served as Principal of URJ Heller High: The Isaac z”l and Helaine Heller High School in Israel. He made Aliya six years ago and lives in Jerusalem. He was a 2006 recipient of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.