Board Chairs: Leading With Meaning, Leading With Confidence

Let all those who occupy themselves with the business of the community do so only for the sake of heaven, for the merit of their ancestors will sustain them and their devotion, too, will endure forever. Pirkei Avot 2:2

Many years ago I came across a book by Gerald B. Bubis titled The Director had a Heart Attack and the President Resigned: Board-Staff Relations for the 21st Century. First I laughed at the title, and then I ordered the book immediately. For the first time, I had just become president of a local Jewish organization. And although, thank God, our director did not have a heart attack and I (as president) had not resigned, I understood the sentiment all too well. As the new board chair, I was facing an issue that at the time seemed insurmountable, and I couldn’t help but think, “They didn’t teach me in school how to deal with this!”

I know many people are like me, successful in their careers and leaders in their respective fields. They are passionate about the Jewish community and their children’s day school. When asked to become chair of their school’s board, they think about the time commitment, they consider some of the challenges of the position—but their love and passion convinces them to take on the responsibility. Perhaps they even say to themselves, “What could be so hard?”

I’m happy to report that the insurmountable problem was solvable; I was just too new and inexperienced to know right away how to move forward. By the time I became board chair of my day school a few years later, I was certainly better educated. But quite honestly, I felt like I went to the school of hard knocks and, like many before me, learned on the job.

I learned that leading with meaning takes vision and strength. It takes political savviness and patience. It takes humility and transparency. It takes optimism. It takes infusing Jewish values in every decision made, which is not always easy to do when a crisis occurs during your term. And most importantly, it takes building positive, honest and professional relationships with your board, your head of school and the school community—who are, of course, also your friends, relatives and neighbors, further complicating matters.

I also learned that there is no such thing as a natural born leader. Leadership is learned. Even the most dynamic personalities have a lot to learn as they step in to lead a new community.

In the past, the Jewish day school field has had many wonderful coaching and professional development opportunities for heads of school, and I remember longing for my own coach and mentor. Unfortunately, mentoring and coaching for lay leaders, and in particular new day school board chairs, was not common.

Until now!

In Prizmah’s recently published strategic plan, the first area of focus is Deepening Talent. We know that talent, both lay and professional, drives excellence in Jewish day schools. For the first time, Prizmah will support board chairs with coaching and mentoring opportunities similar to those for heads of school. We will continue to promote strong governance and accountability practices across the field, and we will connect school board chairs to enable them to learn from one another. We will help schools grow the talent pipeline through best practices in succession planning so that educated lay leaders join boards and committees. We will train our lay leaders to articulate a compelling case for supporting Jewish day schools and to build powerful fundraising networks to support their schools and the field.

Learning on the job will no longer be a lonely, one-person affair for any incoming board chair. I’m envisioning a new world, with Prizmah’s multifaceted support, where every day school president feels confident, educated and strengthened during his or her term. I see them leading their schools and communities with meaning and inspiration.

I hope I have been able to do this for the field, even just a little, as I finish my term as Prizmah’s board chair. As I welcome and pass the baton of leadership to our incoming chair, Yehuda Neuberger, I wish him hatzlachah, and I promise to provide any support and mentoring he’d like as we move forward. I offer my heartfelt thanks to the entire board and staff of Prizmah for their support, and for their hard work, devotion and generosity to the organization and to the field.

And to the field, there are no thanks big enough to express my gratitude to everyone who is engaged and committed to Jewish day schools. It is day schools that will strengthen and secure our Jewish community for generations to come—and we value your partnership in this most holy endeavor.

Ann Pava, Board Chair
Deepening Talent