Sustainability by the Numbers

We cannot foresee the future but we can make the future.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

[The following is a text version of the speech Amy Katz delivered at the Recruitment & Retention Academy Summit in Chicago.]

In 1997, when a group of visionary philanthropists and Jewish leaders created the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education to grow the number of Jewish day schools in North America, they sought an antidote to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which highlighted growing rates of intermarriage and disaffiliation in the Jewish community.

In 2014, it is the Pew Report on the practices and beliefs of American Jews that has stimulated much debate, some hand wringing, and an evaluation of our communal priorities. What changes and adaptations will mark our Jewish life and institutions in light of Pew have yet to be seen. But this much is clear: The Jewish community is now deeply entrenched in the 21st century preoccupation with big data. We are now extremely reliant on data: to make decisions, track our success, better understand our constituencies, and demonstrate the power of our product.

Our Torah portion from last week reminds us that the importance of taking a census and knowing our numbers has its antecedents in our own tradition.

The Book of Bamidbar, translated into English as the Book of Numbers, begins with a counting of the Jews in the desert. This is the third counting of the people. The first took place when the Jews left Egypt, the second after the sin of the Golden Calf, and the third here following the dedication of the Tabernacle. The midrash explains that as a king counts the riches that are precious to him, so God counted the Jewish people who were precious to Him.

And so what are the stats? Four camps of Israelites, 12 tribes, 22,273 firstborn, 22,000 Levites, 603,550 Israelites – every one of them counted as individuals.

A close look at the parshah, or Torah portion, suggests that the raw numbers alone only tell one story; the true story, in fact the most significant data concerning the Jews in the desert, is not reflected in those numbers.

So let’s see if we can transport ourselves back there to uncover the real story.

Imagine the vast expanse of desert.

Now imagine 600,000 plus people, men, women, and children walking together toward a common destination. That’s what we might call a balagan. A disorganized mess.

The Torah describes the scene for us:

“The children of Israel encamped each person at his own banner – Ish al diglo – with the insignia of their father’s house – le mateh avotam – at a distance from the Tent of Meeting.”

We see 12 tribes, three on each side forming a square. In each quadrant, three extended families representing each of the 12 tribes, sons of Jacob. In the center, the mishkan, the holy Tabernacle, and flying high above each tribe, their flag – representing their identity – the insignia of their father’s house.

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, and the midrash, fill in the detail and illustrate the scene for us.

What were these: flags or banners?

Every division had its own color flag, the color of one being unlike any other. The color was the hue of the stone representing that tribe that was worn on the breastplate of the High Priest.

Each was embroidered or embedded with a particular image and a series of letters.

The image: the unique symbol with which their forefather Jacob had blessed them upon his death.

The letters: at first glance, random, but on closer look, together with the letters on each of the other flags, form the names of their forefathers, the AVOT, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

What did this kaleidoscope of color and regimented landscape symbolize?

You could say that each tribe’s flag represented their brand, their unique identity, their value proposition.

The color, like the color of the stone on the breastplate of the High Priest, reminded them of their spiritual core – a holy people bound to God.

The symbolic image: reflected their unique blessing from their grandfather and great-grandfather Jacob. It represented their potential.

The letters represented their history, their roots, and reminded them that they were bound to a common past with the promise of a glorious future.

Or, in the words of Mike Connor, their promise (fulfillment of the blessing), what they uniquely stand for (the color connected to their spiritual core), why they mattered (their ancestry).

But what about their destination, where they were headed?

If the pattern of encampment was meant to reinforce in the People their identity and their purpose, the way in which they traveled provided hints to their destination. This was not just a hike through the desert, an aimless wandering. There was a goal and that was the land of Israel. But how they got there would speak volumes about who they were going to be when they finally arrived.

For 40 years, they marched and camped in this manner. Every day. There was sense of order, a deliberateness to their travels. And we are taught that their campsite respected the dignity and privacy of their neighbor.

Theirs was a physical and a spiritual destination.

It was yet another step in the transition of 12 separate tribes, 600,000 individuals, into one strong community.

Like the Pew of today, the census told the numbers story, the encampment reflected who the people were and where their priorities lay, but it could not tell the whole story. It could speak of the present, reflect on the past, but it could not guarantee or foresee what the future would be.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who I had the privilege of hearing this past weekend, made the powerful point that we cannot foresee the future but we can make the future. The Jews in the desert were offered a blueprint for setting the course for their future and the future of the Jewish nation.

Your participation in this inaugural Recruitment and Retention Academy, the brainchild of Harry Bloom and other professional and lay leaders at PEJE, is your way of saying we can and we will determine the future of JDS education in North America. We have it within our power to grow our schools, ensure that all Jewish children have the possibility of a Jewish education, and position our schools for a vibrant, glorious future.

Your success depends on:

Having a plan so you know where you are headed, collecting and watching what your data say to you, being clear on your value proposition, ignoring all the negative talk about affordability and staying focused, and understanding the nexus between value and cost. Surveying your parents and alumni regularly, and remembering that tuition is the single most important source of revenue for your school.

Our success depends on:

Our ability to provide you with the skills and strategies honed over our 16 years of work with JDS. All our experience has taught us that the blend of learning from experts and from your peers, working together as a lay and pro team, and benefiting from outside expertise and coaching is key to adaptive change. This is our promise to you.

What is the future we envision? A future in which JDS will be destinations of choice for children and families across the denominational spectrum. A future in which all day schools will be filled to the brim with students. A future in which the Jewish world will recognize that the key to our Jewish future is educated Jews.

The lesson of Bamidbar is be proud to raise your flag up high, let’s march together toward our destination, and in the words of federation leader Barry Shrage, the Pew Study will be what it will be, but we will determine the outcome. Together.

Amy Katz is Executive Director of PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

cross-posted on the PEJE blog