Remarks by Yossi Prager at Prizmah 2019 Conference

Zalman Bernstein, z”l; courtesy.

Thank you, Paul, and our dear friends who have toasted us, for the beautiful and heartwarming words. I am flooded with warm memories, and I will cherish this event for a long time. I would be speechless, but fortunately I prepared a speech in advance!

In fact, I prepared two speeches. First, I was going to talk about AVI CHAI’s founder, Zalman Chaim Bernstein zichrono livracha, his amazing business success, his Jewish journey from ignorance to observance, and his desire to have AVI CHAI spend his money in the lifetime of the Trustees he knew. You can read about Zalman in our letter in the program book.

Second I was going to describe the ways in which AVI CHAI invested $350 million in day school education in North America, part of $1.2 billion spent by the foundation globally. For that, you can see our exhibit in the Dream Lab.

Instead of telling you facts and details you can learn elsewhere, I want to share with you why I feel incredibly blessed in my work over the past 25 years and why I am so optimistic about the future. Hopefully, this will interest you, because you all play a starring role.

I have had far more than my share of extraordinary mentors and colleagues at AVI CHAI. I started at the foundation at 28 years old, just wet behind the ears in my legal career, knowing little about the fields of Jewish education or philanthropy. I will be forever grateful to Zalman Bernstein, for taking a risk on me, and to Buddy Silberman z”l, a Trustee who became my teacher, advisor and best advocate.

Fortunately, from the outset I had two amazing partners and lots of help from educators in the field. First the partners: Dr. Marvin Schick and Lauren Merkin. Marvin is a distinguished day school president and communal leader, who had prepared a book-length report for the foundation on day school needs. Lauren, a new Trustee and publishing executive, was ready to throw herself into the work. To give you a sense of Lauren’s creative and caring personality, she is the one who suggested more than 20 years ago that AVI CHAI send to every student who joins the day school system in high school a starter Jewish library – a box of Jewish books. We have now sent out more than 6,000 libraries.

Marvin, Lauren and I figured that the best way to learn would be to visit schools and gain information about needs and opportunities. Over two years, we visited somewhere between 100-150 of your schools across the country, in the metropolitan NY area and also in LA, Chicago, Florida, Atlanta, Columbus and more. The programmatic agenda we built, with the support of the Trustees headed by Arthur Fried and Mem Bernstein, was based on this learning from you.

I am happy to tell you that in addition to being educational, the school visits were often spiritual experiences. I remember one visit to a poorly-funded school in Brooklyn for students from the former Soviet Union. Rising above all of the financial and educational obstacles we learned about during the visit, we sensed – we experienced – a purity of purpose that gave us chills.

My personal inspiration continued as we got deeper into the work. I have been blessed to become colleagues and chevrutot (study partners) with Jewish educators and volunteers driven by a covenantal vision based on love of Hashem, love of children, love of Israel, love of Torah, and love of teaching. Let me tell you a story about the first time I cried on the job. Just a few of the people here were in the room then.

It was 2002, a year of terrible terrorism in Israel. AVI CHAI was funding an educator training program at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem that continues today. The program involves two years of Torah and pedagogy study followed by at least three years of teaching in North America. Two students in the second cohort of the program – Marla Bennet and Ben Blutstein – were killed in a suicide bombing in the Hebrew University cafeteria. Another student was injured. I didn’t cry then, even though my heart stopped when I first heard the news.

A few months later, I spoke at the program’s graduation in June. As I began, it hit me, suddenly and deeply, that every student in the program remained at Pardes after the bombing, committed to being in the State of Israel and committed to a career in Jewish education. That’s when I started crying – tears of hope and catharsis.

Over and over again in the past 25 years, I have been moved by your commitment and love. I have been inspired by the dreams you have shared; to paraphrase Dr. Erica Brown from last night, they are big dreams, about ascending a ladder to the heavens. You, in this room and beyond, have made it deeply meaningful for me to come to work, and you are my heroes. Please stand and give yourselves a round of applause.

I have also been blessed to see a paradigm shift in Jewish education in North America, which is now more professional, leading-edge, and child-friendly than many of the schools I visited in the 1990s. The changes have been driven by you: passionate and innovative educators, program directors, school leaders, teachers, volunteers and funders who believe that our students deserve the best.

I want to mention three areas of change:

1. In the past 25 years, thousands of principals and teachers have participated in training and mentoring programs that didn’t exist in 1994. On the curricular side, Jewish studies and Hebrew is no longer the poor stepchild. Today there is even competition among providers, enabling schools to select attractive materials most appropriate for them. These programs and options have been game changers.

By the way, our subsidy for principals to attend a Harvard summer program for principals emerged directly from our school visits in the mid 1990s, after we saw a certificate from the program on the wall of a principal. The next year we sent a few other principals as a pilot, and last summer the number of participants passed 500.

2. Second, facilities. In my time at AVI CHAI, over 200 schools have been constructed or renovated, giving tens of thousands of students each year more attractive, better-lit, happier school buildings. And with a groundswell of schools created in the 1990s, families today have more day school options than ever.

3. We all want not only learning but joy. When I visit schools today, in most cases I see smiling children deeply engaged in learning with one another and in small groups. Sometimes the students are actually teaching one another. Children in younger grades have access to fun software that supports their learning, and older students can retrieve much of the Jewish library online, hyperlinked to make the sources accessible in ways unimaginable when I started at AVI CHAI.

When I see the combined effect of the changes in training, curricula facilities and pedagogy, I see a field transformed.

As I count my blessings, I also count Prizmah. There is now a national day school organization providing conferences, services, networking and programs to the impressive range of schools represented here. Prizmah is still in its early stages, benefiting from the experience of predecessor organizations and their leaders: Pardes, PEJE, RAVSAK, the Solomon Schechter Day School Network and the YU School Partnership. Impressively, Prizmah has attracted an extraordinary board of directors committed to their local day schools and the national day school system; stellar professionals who pulled off this amazing conference and so much else; and a strategic plan that sets an exciting direction going forward.

I feel truly privileged to be on Prizmah’s board. I am so grateful to Ann Pava, founding chair Kathy Manning, Paul Bernstein and the whole team!

I also want to express my deep appreciation to the funders in the room who will continue to support the day school field in years to come. Day schools raise approximately $500 million annually to support their own operations. A much smaller sum is contributed to cross-school or national efforts, and the number of foundations involved in the regional and national work has grown considerably. I feel fortunate to see new programs and prizes develop, and I have been truly blessed to learn with and from thoughtful philanthropic partners passionately dedicated to the Jewish people.

And one sentence to my fellow staff members at AC, with more to come on a private occasion: I am so enormously grateful to you for being my partners and teachers, friends and family.

With friends, teachers and colleagues such as you all, inside and outside the foundation, is it any wonder that I have loved my work for the past 25 years?!

At AVI CHAI, we talk about our commitment to Jewish literacy, religious practice and the State of Israel. We know that these are commitments you share, even as you face daily cultural headwinds that we may not fully appreciate at the Foundation’s offices. You became Jewish educators not because it is easy but because it is hard – and very important. We know that you have the courage to be counter-cultural and the drive to compellingly interpret Jewish values and practices for modern ears. We know that you will persevere, and we have faith that in the long-term you will triumph.

Some observers of philanthropy argue that the most important legacy of a foundation is the organizations and programs that will survive and continue to benefit the community in future years. We are proud of many programs that will continue, but we consider our greatest legacy to be the thousands of leaders and educators who have participated in and benefited from our programs, ones who dream of ladders ascending to the heavens. We have confidence in the future, because we have confidence in you.

Next year at this time, you might paraphrase Yosef’s question in Genesis and ask “Ha’od AVI CHAI chai (“does AVI CHAI still live”)? The practical answer will be no. But the truest answer will be yes. The Foundation’s values and principles will survive through the continuing work of our grantees, through innovations not yet imagined that will be supported by funders here now and those who will come forward later, and through your dedication and perseverance.

We will always be grateful.

Thank you Prizmah for giving us this platform to celebrate together and for offering me the opportunity to deeply and sincerely expressing my gratitude to all of you!

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.