HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The Hidden Reflection: Board Leadership and the Shaping of School Culture
I spent five years as an associate rabbi in a large congregation. Somewhere around my third year, the executive committee of the congregation decided that too many board members were disconnected from the congregation’s lifeblood despite being charged with fiduciary responsibility for it. They sent a letter to the board announcing that board members would henceforth be expected to demonstrate their leadership by, minimally, showing up to services on a regular basis.
“A board that studies Torah together will make wiser, more compassionate, more thoughtful policy decisions.”
One gentleman who had been on the board for decades and who was strictly a High Holy Day Jew, sent back a letter which was short and sweet. It read: “Is this sufficient commitment for you?” Enclosed was a check for $50,000 (which was this individual’s annual pledge to the synagogue). The letter and check were received by the synagogue’s leadership with a smirk, a shrug, and quiet acceptance.
Of course, very few Jewish schools or other non-profits would be prepared to jeopardize the support of angels who make our work possible through their generosity. And yet, a question remains: what does it say about an institution when seats on its board of directors are reserved for people who do nothing more than write a check? What are the messages conveyed by how our boards function and what is expected of them?
The fact is that in the setting of Jewish institutions, the way a board operates is a reflection of an organization’s culture and in turn influences that culture—whether we are aware of it or not. So we might as well be very aware of it.
All Jewish institutions—and Jewish day schools are certainly no exception—have important financial, legal, policy, and other “business” matters which must of course be the board’s purview. And yet, if these important technical details come to be the sole focus of the board, then a disconnect inevitably arises between the board and the institution it is governing.
Nowhere does this potential tension stand out in starker relief than in the context of a Jewish day school. Because the central mission of schools concerns the education of children, adult board members may be particularly susceptible to acting as if their work on the board is somehow separate from the culture of the school itself.
Day school boards might consider asking themselves some of the following questions. In each case, start by assuming that the culture of the board and the culture of the school are mutually reinforcing phenomena that have subtle but real impacts upon one another.
What are the school’s core Jewish values? If your school has a mission statement or a code of ethics or behavior for students, does the board hold itself and its behavior to the standard articulated by them? A board which fosters or tolerates interactions that would not be acceptable in the classroom or the faculty lounge will be far more likely to make decisions that in turn lead the school itself astray from its values.
Does the board study together? Leadership is about integrity—and for the leadership of an institution devoted to Jewish learning, integrity means engaging in regular Jewish learning together. A board that studies Torah together will make wiser, more compassionate, more thoughtful policy decisions. This means more than a three-minute d’var Torah at the beginning of meetings. Boards of Jewish schools should be learning in an ongoing way, both Jewish study and the study of leadership trends and techniques.
Does the board feel like a community? One of the great strengths of Jewish day schools is their success in creating a sense of community that many liken to an extended family. This can be reinforced or contradicted by the board’s culture. Does the board have fun together? Do board members care for each other in the way that we hope students and their families do? Are Jewish holiday and life cycle celebrations part of the discourse and relationship among school leaders?
What does the board “training” consist of? How are board members’ responsibilities communicated to them? How are new board members welcomed? Are board members “mentored” or thrown into “trial by fire”? How does this training connect back to the school’s mission and core values?
What is the atmosphere of board meetings and functions like? Is it Competitive? Supportive? Tense? Collaborative? Reflecting high standards? Boring? Spiritual? Whatever it “feels” like to serve on the board, that feeling tone will be subtly reflected in both the board’s policy decisions and in the way students, staff, and faculty relate to those decisions.
Would students in the school be proud at how the board conducts itself? This might be the ultimate test. Boards might consider how they would lead differently if there were a child from the school present. If that’s hard to imagine, then consider actually inviting a student or a group of students to at least part of a board meeting. It will be a strong statement and an important reminder of the interconnectedness of a school and its lay leadership.
The relationship of a board to the school it governs is an integral, reflective one. The reflection is sometimes hidden. But we must shed light on it, for only then can the light be reflected in the glow of Torah in our children’s eyes.
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