Reimagining and Reenergizing the Jewish Day School Leadership Ecosystem

By Deborah Court

How can Jewish day school leadership be re-imagined, revitalized, re-energized and repaired so that schools can find the educational leaders they are so desperately seeking?

More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle wrote that there are “five states of mind by which we reach truth …  These are science, art, practical wisdom, intuitive reason, theoretical wisdom; of these the first, fourth and fifth are concerned with knowledge alone, the second and third with practice also.” This generous landscape of kinds of knowledge could well act as guiding principles for educational systems and professional training programs. It does not; we often shortchange practical wisdom, not providing avenues for its development and not valuing its worth. Lee Shulman reformulated Aristotle’s concept of ‘practical wisdom’ for the field of education as the ‘wisdom of practice,’ which includes a complex blend of content knowledge, experience, skills, values, theory and disposition. It is not book knowledge, though it certainly includes that. The wisdom of practice is wisdom – not a word to be used lightly – about what to do and how to do it, for the good of those involved and for the attainment of worthwhile ends.

Successful school heads possess immense practical wisdom, wisdom grown from experience. This is probably the greatest single resource we have for improving Jewish day schools, yet it has never really been mined. The task of day school leadership, as we know, is great. While choreographing the complex dance of students, parents, boards and funders, religion, politics and community, some day school leaders thrive, finding their vocation and moving their schools forward year after year. Others fall by the wayside, never quite finding their stride, moving from school to school and perhaps leaving the profession, their potential never fully realized.

Several leadership programs that have been introduced over the years have been of considerable quality; yet, leadership training remains uneven. We need to learn from the years of funding and implementing these disconnected components and find our way towards engineering a more systemic approach. It should be possible to approach the day school leadership challenge holistically by integrating diverse elements in order to introduce coherence to the field of day school leadership and address the whole day school ecosystem. Successful school heads, those who navigate the waters year after year, are the right people to launch deliberations about this new approach.

An exciting and absolutely unprecedented initiative in day school leadership is currently underway. The newly created Jewish School Leadership Enterprise is generously funded by Lillian and Moshe Tabacinic and Evelyn and Dr. Shmuel Katz of Bal Harbour, Florida, pro-active Jewish day school lay leaders, and led by Stuart Zweiter, former Head of the Lookstein Center and a former day school head, and Jan Morrison, Co-Designer and Director of STEM Learning Ecosystems and Founder and President of Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES) and a former private school head. This enterprise is spearheading a new way to look at and conduct leadership recruitment, training and ongoing support.

To this end, thirteen highly successful day school leaders, possessed of a treasure trove of practical wisdom, are engaging in the task of re-imagining day school leadership. Such a group has never before been assembled. This august gathering represents a wide ideological and geographical span:

Nora Anderson Carmel Academy, Greenwich, CT
Ariela Dubler, The Heschel School, New York, NY
Steve Freedman, Hillel Day School, Farmington Hills, MI
Tully Harcsztark, SAR High School, Riverdale, NY
Shana Harris, Bialik Hebrew Day School, Toronto
Yaakov May, Yeshiva Tifereth Moshe, Queens, NY
Amanda Pogany, Luria Academy, Brooklyn NY
Bruce Powell, de Toledo High School, Los Angeles
Naomi Re’em, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, Washington DC
Zipora Schorr, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Baltimore
Ari Segal, Shalhevet High School, Los Angeles
Adam Shapiro, Golda Och Academy, West Orange, NJ
Susie Tanchel, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, Watertown, MA

The group has convened twice to date, once in October 2018 and once in February of this year. At the October convening, the group was joined by a select group of lay leaders including:

Sandy Cardin, Shusterman Foundation
Hana Gruenberg, UJA-Federation of NY
Evelyn Katz, Bal Harbour, FL
Shmuel Katz, Bal Harbour, FL
Manette Mayberg, Chevy Chae, MD
Yehuda Neuberger, Baltimore, Md
Jack Rahmey, New York, NY
Arnee Winshall, Boston, MA
Larry Ziffer, Baltimore, MD

The Head of School group continues work on-line and will meet again in the near future to finalize a blueprint for implementing this pioneering and potentially ‘game-changing’ initiative. At their first meeting they formulated six components of the ecosystem that need to be addressed:

  • Creating and enhancing the profession, including established shared professional standards;
  • Getting people into the system, including attracting people from youth movements and from other professions;
  • Designing a professional trajectory, including creating multiple access points to the system, and providing beginning and ongoing support;
  • Continuing growth opportunities, including partnering with some existing programs and creating Centers of Excellence;
  • Retention, including creating effective communities of practice to alleviate professional loneliness;
  • Board effectiveness and training.

At the recent convening these elements were refined and developed. Discussions included the importance of cultivating leadership within the school for the benefit of the field at large, and ways to do this, and creation of a Playbook, including case studies, as a tool for learning within a deliberative environment. Model schools, Centers of Excellence, would be visited by cohorts and their coaches within communities of practice. Authentic collaboration with existing organizations like Prizmah, Leading Edge and others, would support these processes and leaders’ professional growth. Explicit recruitment in the broad Jewish community would engage the community in growing the field and help create excitement about this important profession.

We often hear how difficult it is to be a day school head. We do not hear enough about how this challenging, complex, demanding profession is an opportunity for incredible creative fulfillment and the building of a life of meaning. We need to attract and retain more people with leadership ability and to support them as they gain experience and build their own practical wisdom. The Jewish School Leadership Enterprise continues its groundbreaking work towards this goal.

Deborah Court is a Professor of Education at Bar Ilan University, the former Director of The Lookstein Center Principals Program, and a former Jewish Day School Head.