Modeling Safety, Respect, and Equity in Day Schools

By Paul Bernstein

As the male CEO of an organization that serves Jewish day schools, institutions which are predominantly staffed by women and which are committed heart and soul to a vibrant Jewish future, and as an ally in the strongest sense of the word, I read the Safety Respect Equity Coalition study, We Need to Talk and felt galvanized. Both personally and in terms of the work I do in my organization and field, I take to heart the report’s recommendation that “men must take an active role in preventing and addressing victimization in ways that extend beyond seeking forgiveness.”

Some of my first steps at Prizmah have been easy and some even predated the release of the report: we organized anti-harassment training for our staff and our board with Fran Sepler, a nationally regarded employee relations consultant, and other experts. We have updated Prizmah’s staff and board policies around sexual harassment in our employee handbook. We offered trainings to school leaders, led by Fran and by Shira Berkovits of Sacred Spaces.

Changing culture, though, takes more than first steps; it is truly much more like a marathon which requires intention, endurance, and a keen understanding and appreciation of the course that lies ahead. Jewish day schools know this all too well, because a successful school depends on the construction of a deliberate culture.

Schools are accustomed to the ongoing need for professional development and training, one significant way in which they influence their institutional culture. Whether for accreditation purposes, a union requirement, or just good practice, schools invest in the education of their educators. But we need to expand and prioritize educator and staff training to include topics related to safety, respect, and equity, and explore providing relevant training to board members and parents as well.

Most importantly, school is a place where, ideally, all the adults recognize that every day and in every action they are serving as role models. In a field predominantly staffed by women, children perceive first-hand whether respect is accorded, and how. Stephen Sondheim put it clearly:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn

In classrooms, on the playground or sports field, in board rooms – countless environments at schools are ripe for modeling the kind of relationships and communication that ensure all members are treated fairly and with respect.

As I scan the horizon I see examples across denominations where school leaders create communities of deep respect and where there are established policies and practices for situations such as reporting and investigating inappropriate behavior. I also see ways to promulgate those leading practices, and to enable schools that may not yet meet desired standards to improve. And through partnerships and collaboration, we can reach beyond the sphere of day school education.

Prizmah and the Foundation for Jewish Camp are pleased to embark on a two-phase project, generously funded by a grant from the SRE Coalition, to capitalize on our institutions’ trusted relationships with day schools and camps. Our first task is the creation of a self-assessment tool utilized by Jewish day schools and Jewish overnight camps to establish a baseline of how day schools and camps currently operate in the spheres of lay/professional relations, decision-making, and modeling safe, respectable, and equitable workplaces at every level. It is our hypothesis that this assessment process will also bring forward leading practices in training, protocols, and standards. Phase two of the project will enable our organizations to promulgate those standards and protocols and create resources that are customized for the needs of schools and camps.

In titling the SRE Coalition’s report “We Need to Talk,” the authors echoed the need to start a difficult conversation. Indeed, we do need to talk, because by engaging in dialogue we can actually make change happen. Too often the words “we need” are followed by astronomical dollar signs, or far-reaching and ambitious strategic plans. To address issues of safety, respect, and equity, our first step is straightforward: We need to start the conversation.

Paul Bernstein is CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.