Unlocking the Potential of Jewish Day Schools

Screenshot: Private School Review

By Paul Bernstein

There is nothing like Jewish day schools. They inspire and nurture young people, prepare them for remarkable and meaningful lives, and enable them to truly thrive. Fundamentally, our schools drive the trajectory of Jewish knowledge, identity, community, and leadership.

Today, approximately 90,000 students attend mainstream North American Jewish day schools, in addition to many more in Charedi and other yeshivas. That’s 90,000 young people learning, exploring, growing, and excelling in general and Jewish academics. These students are developing into healthy and well-rounded individuals, charging out into the world steeped in Jewish values and buoyed by an enriched Jewish identity that will last a lifetime.

Strong Jewish day schools create strong Jewish communities. Great Jewish day schools attract professionals who lead our communities with vision and optimism. The lay leaders and parents who serve on Jewish day school boards prioritize Jewish values and learning, building blocks that have served our people for generations. How can we unlock the potential of the inherent link between communities and Jewish day schools to secure a strong Jewish future?

The Torah portion this week includes Jacob’s famous ladder dream where he is promised that, like his father and grandfather, he will have innumerable descendants. Perhaps the very next day, Jacob approaches a well covered by a heavy stone and sees Rachel. With apparent superhuman strength, Jacob moves the stone, water is drawn for the flock, and the great love story takes off. The moment he sees Rachel, the vision of progeny from the dream encounters the very real presence of a woman who will become his partner in fulfilling that dream. This fusion of vision and reality releases extraordinary power. Jacob mustered his strength not because he saw the rock, but because he literally saw the future.

Those of us who see Jewish day schools as critical to our Jewish future must follow Jacob’s example. There is no shortage of challenging stones facing Jewish day schools. And there is no one school, one community, or one leader with all the answers. Instead, our strength, our ability to move the rock comes when we harness vision and reality alongside our colleagues and peers.

Building on the decades of experience from the five founding organizations that merged to form Prizmah, and informed by hundreds of individuals and schools who participated in interviews, focus groups, and surveys, Prizmah has just released our five-year strategic plan entitled B’Yachad/Together: Towards a Vibrant Future for Jewish Day Schools. Together, we begin shaping the next chapter for Jewish day schools.

This is not a strategy for Prizmah on its own. Our blueprint is built from an understanding of that deep and powerful school-community connection – the stronger our schools are, the stronger our communities, and vice-versa. Today’s Jewish day school students, and those who follow in their footsteps, are precious resources.

We believe greatest impact can be achieved by: 1) deepening talent, 2) catalyzing resources, 3) accelerating innovation, and 4) networking to learn.

By deepening talent we mean empowering professional and lay leaders to grow their schools as vibrant centers of learning and Jewish community. Talent drives excellence. Through board self-assessment services like Board Fitness or the recently launched pilot of day school lay leaders at the Kellogg School of Management, lay leaders deepen their ability to serve their schools. Through cohort programs and customized support, heads of school and other professional leaders advance and stay engaged.

Catalyzing resources means generating revenue and supporting schools to secure the funding they need to flourish. Most schools generate roughly 75% of their revenue from tuition, with the gap filled by annual fundraising and, for increasing numbers of schools, income from endowment. Prizmah makes a compelling national case for supporting Jewish day schools and builds powerful funder networks, as we are doing today at the inaugural Day School Investor Summit in Miami. We partner with schools and communities to build endowment funds, key for sustainability and successful affordability initiatives. In the last ten years, thanks to efforts like Prizmah’s Generations program and communal efforts in places like Montreal, Greater Metrowest New Jersey, Los Angeles and New York, school endowments are now in excess of $500 million throughout North America.

Educators are natural innovators. By investing in innovation, Prizmah fosters sparks of creativity and creates a space for promising new ideas to shine, attract the attention of funders, and be scaled and adapted for broader application. We nurture a culture of experimentation, in the classroom and in the board room alike.

All of this happens when we come together, activate a network of networks, and enable school leaders to harness the power of connecting. We believe that when we learn together, grow together, and create together, schools are destined to thrive. In that spirit, I welcome conversation about our plan and Prizmah’s future direction.

Like our ancestor Jacob, the “superheroes” of the day school story are those who understand the power of combining vision with reality. They are the lay leaders who volunteer endless hours, the educators who dedicate careers and the best of their abilities, the funders who invest substantial resources and encourage others to do the same, the community visionaries who prioritize day schools. Our superheroes are the optimists who take on the hard work of bringing out the very best in our children and building a Jewish future. Together, b’yachad, that future is vibrant and inspiring.

Paul Bernstein is founding CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.