From the Board: My Story, Our Vision
I am delighted to be writing to you in this space as the founding board chair of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. It is my honor to share with you the vision and the values that guide our work, and my own story of how day schools have transformed me and my family.
Before that, though, I want to take a moment for hakarat hatov and thank each and every Prizmah staff member for the role they played in bringing us to this point. They have individually and collectively worked hard to build the five organizations that are combining to create Prizmah. Each of those organizations brought unique and important value to the Jewish day schools they served. If they had not done the hard work to build these important and effective institutions, we would not be here today.
A newly created Prizmah affords us the opportunity to change the landscape of Jewish day school education and, in my opinion, the landscape of the Jewish future. The work we are beginning here is not just for the Jewish day school families of today, but for future generations of students who will become the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.
We are working together to support strong, innovative, vibrant, outstanding Jewish day schools, and we are creating a model for the rest of the Jewish world—a model that many think is desperately needed. And we will do it with hard work, patience, creativity, and new ways of thinking as we move forward together.
Our values are easily stated:
1) We strive for the best possible secular and Jewish education for our children by supporting excellence in all facets of our schools and our organization.
2) We embrace and support all streams of Jewish practice. We will create a multidenominational organization that serves all schools where they are.
3) We value working together and will reimagine what it means to be “one Jewish people.”
4) We are committed to helping to build a strong, vibrant future of educated Jews grounded in Jewish values who are ready to lead the world to a better tomorrow.
So why am I writing in this space today? Thirty years ago, I found myself in a situation I never expected. After growing up in the large Jewish community of Detroit, in a very assimilated family, I found myself living south of the Mason-Dixon line in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a Jewish population of 3,000 people. When it came time to send our first child to preschool, I discovered that all of the preschools were church schools, except for the preschool at B’nai Shalom Synagogue Day School. I decided that if I was going to send my child to a religious preschool, it might as well be my own religion, and we could move her into public school for kindergarten.
We grew to love B’nai Shalom and its faculty, and the values they taught our daughter. We were astonished that she became so comfortable with Judaism—with the holidays, the calendar, the rituals, and with Hebrew. But I continued to wonder what we might be giving up in her secular education for all the time spent on the religious studies. And one day, my daughter Liz, who was probably seven years old at the time, looked up from the kitchen table when I walked in from a long day at work and said, “Mom, do you want to study Torah with me?” “Sure,” I said, and sat down at the table with her. It was then I realized that not only was she learning Torah, she was also learning to dissect and analyze language in a way that would serve her well in all her studies. At that moment, I got a glimpse into the brilliance of a Jewish day school education, and I must admit I was hooked.
Not surprisingly, we sent our younger two children to B’nai Shalom, and over time I chaired the Board of Directors twice, 10 years apart—once in a time of unprecedented growth, and later in a time of contraction. During my involvement at B’nai Shalom, I lived through a variety of problems that face so many day schools: problems recruiting great teachers, problems recruiting and retaining students, the need to work with families at different levels of observance and with different priorities, the growing need for scholarship funds, the need to strengthen math and science, the arts and sports offerings, the need to accommodate kids with special needs, the desire to make our kids fluent in Hebrew, issues of security, issues of governance, the growing need for volunteers in a diminishing pool, the desire for laptops and iPads, battles over hot lunches, and the never-ending demand for fundraising.
Through it all, I came to understand that the benefits far outweighed the challenges as I saw the results of our work: smart, confident, well-educated, treasured Jewish children who embraced and understood their Judaism and were proud to talk to their non-Jewish friends about what it means to be Jewish. Equally important, I have seen many of the kids we educated at our day school go on to take leadership roles in their Jewish communities when they went to college and in their new communities when they started their careers.
Nearly a year ago, I was invited to participate in a feasibility study for what was then known as NewOrg. At the end of the discussion, when I was asked whether I would be interested in being involved in the organization, I said no, I had “done day schools” as a day school lay leader. But then I read the business plan. I realized that what was envisioned was something much bigger than I had imagined: an organization that can strengthen and enhance day schools across the country and across the spectrum, to develop well-educated Jewish kids, knowledgeable and immersed in Jewish values, and prepared to be leaders in all different facets of our Jewish community. By harnessing the power and knowledge and experience of the five legacy organizations, across all denominations, we can create something truly unique and exemplary.
I was inspired, and I decided that I wanted to be a part of this transformation. And the more I delve into this, the more I learn, the more people I talk with, the more challenges and opportunities I see, the more excited I am. I hope you are too.
With best wishes of success for all of us,
Kathy E. Manning