Uncommon Conversations at NAJDS 2015

By Deborah Fishman

This week, more than 1,000 Jewish day school educators, lay leaders, and administrators are gathering in Philadelphia for the North American Jewish Day School Conference 2015: Uncommon Connections. With a tagline of “Schools, systems and success,” the conference set out to “unleash the power of the multiple systems that comprise our Jewish day schools.” What is this power, and how can it be unleashed? In a system where everything is interconnected, the key – according to speaker Dr. William Isaacs at the conference’s beginning – is to find the leverage points. From a more metaphorical perspective, he quoted Michelangelo, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.”

Arguably, the greatest power of Jewish day schools lies in their Jewish mission – their ability to engage students, families, and the larger community around their unique and compelling vision, and to create graduates who are poised to enact that vision in the world. While immersed in the day-to-day pressures and realities of day schools, it can be hard to examine your school’s mission and vision at the higher level of what is essential, what is superfluous, and where the leverage points are to effect change.

Luckily, this conference provides opportunities to help leaders think from a fresh perspective. For instance, a series of sessions entitled “Uncommon Conversations” are intended for “those who wish to imagine new possibilities and new ways of thinking about perennial challenges” to engage in “systematic and no-holds-barred, unapologetic unraveling of all of the major assumptions that people currently take for granted.” While at times difficult, these conversations have indeed been evoking rich dialogue striking at the essence of Jewish day school.

Here are some of the issues I heard discussed:

  • Working with Stakeholders: Dr. Jack Wertheimer and Dr. Alex Pomson led an uncommon conversation based on their recently released project, “How Schools Enact Their Jewish Missions: 20 Case Studies of Jewish Day Schools,” now available here on the AVI CHAI website. Representatives from three schools featured in the case studies discussed challenges they have faced in sustaining their Jewish missions and how they have addressed them. One persistent theme was the struggle of juggling and meeting the needs of diverse stakeholders, including parents and lay leaders and also rabbis and others in the community’s larger Jewish ecosystem.
  • Serving the 21st Century Jewish Community: Five alumni of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) brought often unspoken issues to conversation in a blog post series accessible here, also discussed in a session led by DSLTI Director Dr. Ray Levi. Titled “Where Is the 21st Century Jewish Community and Where Are Jewish Day Schools?” Rabbi Marc Baker’s post discussed whether change is needed for Jewish day schools to best serve today’s non-Orthodox Jewish community. Continuing with that theme, Dr. Peg Sandel posed the question, “What are we doing to ensure our schools embrace, attract, and serve our entire community?” And Rabbi Micah Lapidus’ post discussed spirituality as “A Missing Priority in Jewish Day Schools” whose implementation may help do just that.
  • What Constitutes an “Excellent Education?” Jonathan Cannon, Dr. Eliezer Jones, and Tikvah Wiener facilitated a conversation entitled, “Let’s Assume That All Our Assumptions About Day School Education Are Wrong.” Jonathan Cannon shared that, despite all of the challenges that exist in financial sustainability and enrollment, the overwhelming majority of day school leaders he has spoken with list Hebrew teaching, Judaic/Israel studies, and tefillah amongst their top-priority areas to improve.

These are significant issues that affect the successful enactment of day schools’ Jewish visions in the world. Discussing them as deeply as is taking place at the conference takes courage and honesty.

Yet, what if we treated them not as challenges, but as leverage points with the potential to positively transform the Jewish day school system? Consensus-building amongst diverse stakeholders could build relationships that strengthen not only the day school community, but the larger local Jewish community as well. New ways to make day school education more relevant to 21st century North American Jews could ignite students’ curiosity and lifelong connection to the Jewish tradition. Daring to dream and reimagine the Jewish day school operating model could invigorate Jewish educators and leaders and inspire the Jewish community as a whole.

Such uncommon conversations will hopefully generate the bold thinking needed to galvanize the Jewish day school system and unleash its true power. In his presentation, Dr. Isaacs quoted Gandhi, “My life is my message.” This is surely true of the 1,000+ conference-goers whose dedication is so evident – and with that, anything is possible.

Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications at The AVI CHAI Foundation.