From Jewish History to a Day School Board

Memory, as it relates to the Jewish people, has always fascinated me. My favorite college courses were a yearlong series that focused on Jewish history, beginning with an understanding of ancient prehistoric civilization and continuing on through a study of Judaism until the early Middle Ages. These classes brought to life the transitory nature of humanity. I developed an overwhelming sense of pride at how, during each period of transition, Jewish leadership maintained a connection to the foundational theology and practices of the preceding generations and simultaneously found room for new interpretations of text and religious expression. Projecting modern-day lingo onto these periods of history, we could say that in each of these phases our leaders masterfully executed a three-step process.

1) They relied on organizational memory to inform their decisions, preserving the essence of our religion and the visionary leadership that came before them.

2) They recognized when it was necessary to pivot and did so in a way that maintained a connection between the people and their past.

3) They onboarded the Jewish people to new iterations of religious expression and practice, which ultimately created the tradition of “Jewish collective memory”—memory that lives within the tension of the recollection of the past and the action of the present.

 

Why a Board Needs to Know Its History

What I learned in these classes has stayed with me in both my time as a Jewish professional and as a member of Gross Schechter Day School’s board of directors. This year, in my work on the board, I took on the challenge of co-chairing our school’s newly reconvened governance committee. Immediately it became apparent that our first initiative should be to capture Gross Schechter Day School’s collective memory in a way that would allow us to use the knowledge of the past as a component of what informs our decision-making process in the present.

We recognized that, unlike the model leadership presented to us in Jewish history, we were falling short of capturing the essence of the school’s founding and transmitting that essence as collective memory to our new leadership. We also recognized that, with each transition of leadership, we were caught in a cycle of “one step forward, two steps back.” By failing to preserve organizational memory, new leadership had little on which to build effectively going forward. And as a component of this, we found that our record keeping was far from succinct or accessible and lacked a sense of ownership. Our documents were scattered between staff and past lay leadership, making it hard to locate important records relating to discussions or materials.

My co-chair, our board chair and I convened a committee of six present and past board members who represented a spectrum of leadership experience. We outlined a compelling agenda for the group with three aims:

1) Create a board orientation that includes a presentation about the school’s founding and history. The goal of this presentation was to provide not only historical context but also an emotional connection to the history.

2) Increase our focus on detailed and accessible record keeping as a way to honor the history of the dialogue and decision-making processes in board conversations.

3) Create an easily accessible board manual to preserve organizational memory and guide leadership during times of transition while still leaving space for new voices to have ownership over the work of the board.

 

Preserving Organizational Memory

To tackle our first objective, we reached out to one of our key stakeholders who is well versed in our organizational memory. The stakeholder we chose has been both a member of the staff and a parent, and is a current lay leader and grandparent. Her presentation created an emotional connection between our board members and the passion that fueled the work of the school’s founding members. It also highlighted the transitional moments in our school’s history, showing how during each time of transition our school relied on collective memory to stay true to our essence while embracing the visionary work of our staff and lay leadership. At the end of the presentation, our board members felt poised to take on the work ahead of them, inspired by the history that came before them.

We made sure to keep this presentation in a newly created folder in Google Drive that is shared among our board members and staff. The folder contains all important documents utilized in board meetings and by committees, as well as minutes and agendas. By sharing these files between lay leadership and staff, we streamlined our record-keeping process and ensured more accuracy by avoiding duplicate versions of documents. Furthermore, this system allows for constant editing and updating, making it possible to capture the decisions of this year’s board and easily adapt the documents to the edits of next year’s leadership. We also created an executive committee folder where we save minutes from executive sessions of both the board and the executive committee, as well as creating a space to initiate brainstorming documents.

 

Encoding Our Processes

Lastly, we began creating a board manual, which includes:

1) Governing and policy documents

2) Guidelines, timelines and templates for board evaluation processes

3) Guidelines for board nominations

4) Job descriptions for each of the committees of the board

5) Guidelines for best practices in partnership with staff

6) Our board expectations contract

The governance committee worked on all of these documents. More experienced committee members brought their expertise and ownership of organizational knowledge to the work, while newer members assessed the documents for clarity. It is our hope that the detailed documents in this manual will make it easier for new leadership to begin the “real work.” Furthermore, we hope that having concrete outlines of the foundations of board and committee work to hand to potential new leadership will streamline the process of lay leadership recruitment.

Judaism teaches us that preserving collective memory takes effort and organization. We must be meticulous in our record keeping and thoughtful about how we capture history in a way that transforms it from a two-dimensional document into a whole-body experience that can be incorporated into one’s sense of self. At Gross Schechter Day School, we’ve found a way to create space within our boardroom for new ideas and opportunities that help us pivot when necessary. Simultaneously, we acknowledge that a strong sense of self, anchored to our history, helps us better assess whether our decisions moving forward bring us closer to, or farther from, our essence.

My greatest joy in my work on the governance committee this past year has been helping to create systems and procedures that assist us in living within this delicate balance and embracing the tension of collective memory—the same balance and tension that inspired me years ago in my Jewish history classroom.

Author
Kate Milgrom
Issue
Organizational Memory
Knowledge Topics
Governance
Published: Fall 2021