From the Board: Inspiring Jewish Day Schools

The theme for this issue of HaYidion is Jewish inspiration. As I sat down to write this column, I was overwhelmed with the effort to select just one example of inspiration from my Jewish heroes, Jewish history, our sacred texts or the remarkable story of the Jewish people. Clearly there are just too many good choices.

Then I began to think about my Prizmah journey over the past six months: all the communities and schools I have visited with our CEO, Paul Bernstein, all the teachers, students, and parents we have talked with, and incredible teaching we have observed. And I realized that my Jewish inspiration today comes from those students, teachers, schools, communities and all the generous donors who understand that the key to a strong and vibrant Jewish future is outstanding, nurturing, accessible Jewish day schools.

Since August, Paul and I have visited wonderful Jewish day schools of different sizes and affiliations and met with educators and day school supporters in West Hartford, Baltimore, Boston, Metrowest, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We’ve met students brimming with enthusiasm as they explained the intricate inventions they created in their school’s cutting-edge maker spaces with the guidance of dedicated science teachers. We walked through a group of excited high school boys singing with gusto to celebrate their achievement of reaching their 316th mitzvah. We watched middle school students using new computer technology that allowed each student to progress through difficult math problems at their own pace. We saw kindergarten students joyously singing in Hebrew and acting out the words of their song.

We listened to a headmaster explain with pleasure how his high school students created multiple morning minyans to accommodate everything from traditional practices to feminist approaches to prayer, making sure that all students could find meaning and beauty in Jewish prayer and ritual. We talked with parents, board members and community leaders about the success they are achieving in creating great schools, new funding models and in some cases unbelievable success in raising endowment funds to make day schools accessible to all students. There is no question that many day schools are facing significant challenges, particularly in the area of financial accessibility, and to some these challenges seem insurmountable. But we have seen what can be done when a community comes together to support their schools and their students, as well as the impact a few determined and dedicated leaders can have. I have been inspired by the passion and devotion of those we have met, those whose dedication to Jewish education and the Jewish future motivate me to work even harder for the success of Prizmah.

In December, I was privileged to attend two remarkable events that celebrated laudable achievement in the Jewish world. In San Francisco, I attended the retirement celebration of Chip Edelsberg, the CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation. Under Chip’s leadership, the Jim Joseph Foundation has invested heavily in Jewish education, including Prizmah and our recent Prizmah conference. Listening to leaders from across the Jewish community describe Chip’s visionary leadership and the impact he and the Jim Joseph Foundation have had was inspiring and made me hope that others who attended that auspicious gathering will emulate Chip’s devotion to Jewish education.

The very next day I attended the 27th Annual Jewish Educator Awards Luncheon in Los Angeles, presented by the Milken Family Foundation with the BJE (Builders of Jewish Education), a beneficiary agency of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. As articulated by the Milken Foundation Chairman, Lowell Milken, and Executive Vice President, Richard Sandler, “The goals of a Jewish day school education [are] more vital than ever to reinforce and perpetuate the intellectual, spiritual and ethical values of the Jewish people.” The Milken Family Foundation created the Educator Awards “to dramatically expand the support and recognition for teachers, administrators and other education professionals…”. At the luncheon, we were privileged to learn about the four extraordinary educators who were honored, first watching the videos of the school assemblies where the teachers were surprised with their awards. Not only did we get to see the astonishment of the award winners, we got to observe the joy and pride of the students who watched their teachers being honored.

I am energized by the work that is going on in the field and among our Prizmah staff. Everywhere I visited, I heard from educators that our Prizmah programs are helping heads of schools improve their skills, admissions directors refine their recruitment plans, board chairs improve the governance and fundraising efforts, and educators create networks where best practices are discussed and shared.

Finally, I am inspired by the dedication of our board members, who continue to give generously of their time and resources. I want to thank Ann Pava, Lisa Coll, Michael Bohnen, Yehuda Neuberger and Brad Klatt, who put together valuable visits to their communities for Paul and me and took time out of their schedules to accompany us on our visits. I want to thank all of our board members for attending our recent board meeting in New York, where we spent considerable time working on creating a strategic plan for Prizmah that will help us meet our goal of helping schools with educational excellence, financial vitality, and expanding the field of day school education. If we can help schools inspire Jewish students with a deep love of education and knowledge of Jewish history, values and ritual, we will have achieved our ultimate goal of ensuring an inspired Jewish future.

Kathy Manning
Jewish Inspiration