Re-digging the Wells of the Day School Field
By Deena K. Fuchs
When I joined the AVI CHAI Foundation, a little more than 18 years ago, one of the first events I participated in was a Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) Donor Assembly. It was a well-received effort to bring together very significant donors from day schools from around the country and to celebrate them as a group. That year – its first – featured a tour of PEJE co-founder and funder Michael Steinhardt’s personal zoo. As you can imagine, the experience left quite an impression on this young and novice foundation professional.
For sure, the menagerie and the lavish setting left an imprint. But 20 years later, what I vividly remember were the people who were there. Each and every participant at the assembly had made their local Jewish day school a priority in their giving. They understood the value of their day school to their family, community, and to the Jewish future. I remember feeling that I was part of something big.
Over the years, PEJE convened a few more Donor Assemblies, which slowly evolved into Leader Assemblies, as attendance shifted away from funders to school professionals. The conferences were a highlight of the day school field calendar; it was important for both professional development and networking opportunities. Those conferences became the highly acclaimed North American Jewish Day School Conference, a partnership of the handful of organizations that served the Jewish day school field. It was that successful conference partnership that ultimately yielded a merger of the five separate day school organizations, in 2016, to become Prizmah: Center for Jewish day schools. The day school field looks quite different now than it did in 2000.
A few weeks ago, I returned from the first ever Day School Investor Summit, convened by Prizmah. I am still on a high. Yes, the setting was beautiful. Who doesn’t want to spend two days in Bal Harbour? And yes, the people there were all dedicated to their local day schools; the collegiality in the air was palpable. It was a celebration of the people in the room and an acknowledgement that they have done some pretty amazing things for their schools and communities. But it was more than that.
Through sessions and meetings designed to share creative philanthropic models, it offered the participants an opportunity to both be inspired and to inspire each other. Through group text learning and interactive sessions, it afforded them the opportunity to learn and to teach. And through provocative and inspiring presentations from field leaders, including Mem Bernstein and Randy Zuckerberg, and a presentation of the Prizmah strategic plan, it generated a deep sense of accomplishment and possibility.
And, yet, the cynics and not such cynics could accurately point to the fact that here we were once again, 18 years later, still talking about the same things – making the case for a day school education, how to make day schools more affordable and sustainable, and how to make them institutions of academic excellence.
In his remarks opening the second day of the Summit, Rabbi Marc Baker, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and former Head of School of Gann Academy, shared an insight from the weekly Torah portion that, for me, effectively closed-down the critique.
He recounted the fact that Isaac re-dug the wells that his father Abraham originally dug, explaining that this re-digging is the essence of the Jewish people. It requires a deep humility to recognize what those before you have done and accomplished and to see the value of their enterprise. And, it challenges us to revisit and reconsider and recreate. The wells might be the same; but the water that flows through them will always be new and fresh.
So, now, 18 years after the first donor assembly, the field convened again. We celebrated the work that was done before. We inspired each other and, in so doing, we re-dug the wells of the day school field. In our re-digging, we unearthed innovations in day schools across the country, we unpacked new paradigms for effective lay leadership, we revisited messages on day school impact, and we surfaced new philanthropic models for day school investment.
By re-digging together we collectively put forth the promise that the fresh water in these “new / old wells” will provide the nourishment the day school field needs. This time around, I may no longer be the same novice foundation professional, but I am feeling a part of something even bigger.
Deena K. Fuchs is Senior Director of Strategy and Partnerships at The AVI CHAI Foundation.