Top 10 Lessons I have Learned as a Principal in Schools with a Broad Religious Spectrum

top10By Rabbi Maury Grebenau

I have now been principal in two schools which, while both Modern Orthodox in denomination, had a student population from a wide range of Jewish religious backgrounds. At both schools, in addition to our Orthodox students, we had students who identified as Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated. Some families were even anti-religious in their outlook and were in the school to avoid the public school system, make sure their children learned Hebrew or just because it was conveniently located. This presented significant challenges in setting policy and articulating the mission. When a majority of families and students do not fully subscribe to the school’s mission in their own life choices, how does the school create a culture which supports the school mission and moves the agenda forward? Over the combined eleven years I have worked in both schools, a playbook of sorts developed. Through my own personal growth as a leader, advice from other school leaders and trial and error, a number of guiding principles emerged. Here are the top ten principles which I found to be most helpful:

  1. Define your terms – “Orthodox” can be a scary word for many non-Orthodox families. A school has to be clear about what is meant practically by the term “Modern Orthodox.” In addition to sharing the mission statement of the school, have clear policies written up and try to identify questions which come up frequently. Spend time with staff on the answers to these questions so that they are prepared.
  2. Sell the school for what it is, don’t try to water it down – Some stakeholders reflexively want to try to “hide” the Judaics for the less religious families in PR materials or tours. I have found that, aside from being disingenuous, this is not effective. Explaining the real benefits of textual analysis and learning Talmud will be much more compelling to people than ambiguous terms like “Jewish values.” Get into the specifics of the curriculum and consider offering classes for parents to give them a taste of the value.
  3. Mission appropriate students are critical – While mission appropriate students is a must, the level of religiosity or affiliation of students is not necessarily indicative of how closely they will support the mission. I have seen very religious students with a lack of interest, or even an antagonistic attitude, towards their religious identity, as well as unaffiliated students with a lot of passion and interest. Look carefully at your application/admission process and make sure it includes identifiable points at which you discuss the mission with prospective families to ascertain their fit.
  4. Get the right staff, especially for Judaic studies – Staff also need to be mission appropriate. Listen carefully for their approach to teaching and interacting with all types of students. Describe your school’s diversity to them, ask them why they want to be in your school specifically and listen to their answer. Make sure they have a temperament and background which positions them to recognize where students come from. How will they approach teaching material which some students will not be practicing?
  5. Decisions must be mission based – No matter what, someone will disagree with any decision you make, so decisions must be based on something you are proud of and truly think is the best option. If a leader is confident that their choice stems from their responsibility of working towards the best educational experience of all students then this logic can be presented to parents even if they don’t agree. When a leader makes decisions based on the squeakiest wheel, they are not doing their job and also open themselves up to the ire of those who did not complain as vociferously.
  6. Consider how to help students and parents with the situation without trampling the structure and rules – Be flexible when possible, without being so flexible that the sense of structure and mission are diluted. If you show parents a real desire to see what you can do for them and follow through when you can, they will be more receptive when you have to hold firm.
  7. Invest time in forging relationships with, and understanding, all members of your constituency – There is nothing wrong with meeting with smaller focus groups which represent only a specific perspective within the parent body. People appreciate getting individual airtime and understand they are just one voice. Having a meeting with a group of parents who share a religious concern can be very helpful, regardless of whether they want the school to be more religious or less so. Spend the bulk of the time asking questions about what concerns them and what the school can do to address the concern. You can also put the school’s policy in the context of the mission and explain where you are coming from but the goal of the meeting is for them to feel you have heard them. Tell them you appreciate them taking the time to speak with you, and that you will consider options and get back to them. Of course, making sure you really do have meaningful follow up is critical.
  8. Give thought to how decisions will be perceived by specific groups – This doesn’t mean you need to change the decision based on how it will be received, but you do need to be ready for the reaction. There are a number of ways to help gauge, and even minimize, the reaction on touchy subjects. It is helpful to get buy in first by approaching a few influential parents or board members to get their thoughts on the best way to approach this issue. Finding ways to “leak” the information before you officially announce things to the entire community can sometimes dull the reaction since people won’t be blindsided by the news. Invite others into your thought process by saying things like, “I am thinking about this but I am worried that … does that make any sense? Ask for their input in avoiding potential issues.
  9. Consider special programs, classes etc. which would only appeal to certain groups – At times there are events, classes and other programs which can appeal specifically to a certain group. As long as the event is not at odds with your mission or your educational values then this can be a great way to show that you value members of your community. However, there are times when the suggested idea will go against your values. I had a situation where a group of parents wanted to have an extra Judiac class which would take place during prayers (the students would daven early in the morning in their local synagogue instead of joining the school prayers). A number of families were advocating for this option so that their children would be more prepared for high schools with more intensive Judaic studies. The result was that our own prayers were anemic and we were not teaching all our students how to approach prayers. We discontinued the class, in light of these issues.
  10. Visit other schools – There is a lot of wisdom in the educational world about dealing with all the issues we face every day. It is worthwhile to try and visit other schools any time you are traveling and even to make specific trips toward this goal. Networking and speaking with other administrators is very helpful but nothing will give you a sense of a school like a visit. Once you have seen the school functioning you can ask more directed questions about their own process and challenges.

These suggestions are rooted in the idea that a school should be mission driven and honest about what it represents. A school which seeks a broad religious population should be welcoming and inclusive without losing their sense of purpose, trying to be all things to all people. In this way, a school can serve a broad swath of the Jewish population while still being true to the mission of a specific denomination.

Rabbi Maury Grebenau earned a BA in mathematics, a MS in Jewish Education and rabbinic ordination all from Yeshiva University. He is currently the principal of Yavneh Academy of Dallas, a Modern Orthodox high school. He was previously the principal at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, a Modern Orthodox day school in Northern California’s Silicon Valley.