By: Michael Berger
As a program officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation specializing in leadership programming, I always look forward to the summers. From late June to late July, I shuttle between three programs that AVI CHAI has been privileged to support for several years: RAVSAK’s Project SuLaM; JTS’s Davidson School’s Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI); and two Harvard Principals’ Center’s Summer Institutes – one for veteran school leaders (Leadership: An Evolving Vision), and one for recent or aspiring leaders (Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership). It is a hectic, but incredibly rewarding four weeks.
Each one is unique. The 6-day sessions at Harvard bring together mostly public school educators from around the country and even the world to learn from world experts on education and instructional leadership. Participants are divided into smaller groups that process the presentations with the help of trained facilitators, and the 10 day school leaders, dispersed among the other participants, often discover they have much in common with public school principals from Texas or Connecticut.
DSLTI is a 15-month program, co-sponsored by JTS and AVI CHAI, that brings together 15 recently appointed or aspiring day school leaders to learn about the various systems of a Jewish day school and how they are interrelated. Led by a team of five highly talented, seasoned mentors, the program offers a unique window into the thinking of a day school leader, and the duration allows a special relationship to develop between mentor-mentee and among the members of the cohort themselves.
Project SuLaM (an acronym for Study, Learning, Mentoring) offers 15-18 leaders from Jewish day schools (mostly community day schools) a kind of crash course in Jewish living and learning. It is intended for leaders who feel they would like to learn more about Judaism in order to lead their schools more Jewishly. Personal odyssey and professional growth fuse as five mentors representing the spectrum of Jewish life lead sessions and mentor participants as they continue their learning during the intervening year; some participants stay on for Phase II where the leaders consider what was learned over the 11 days in each of two summers and how best to apply them to their schools.
Yet in many ways, they are all very similar. The programs are incredibly intensive experiences, often beginning early in the morning and lasting until the evening, when participants must then turn to homework. They bring participants out of their physical and personal comfort zones, requiring them to be away from their families and immersed in learning with colleagues, many of whom they don’t know. And finally, the programs each create safe spaces for leaders to take risks, to stretch themselves, to examine their assumptions and their practice and consider how to improve.
In this way, these leaders remind me of the upcoming holidays – Rosh Hashana and Yom Yippur. These day school heads and principals take their “days off” to learn new ideas and new ways of doing things; to reflect on their practice and beliefs and frequently question that which is comfortable or routine; to become a member of a reflective community that is nurturing yet challenging at the same time.
To me, these experiences have all the elements of those holidays that center on teshuvah, repentance. And I am literally left in awe of these leaders who choose to take the harder road, the riskier road, the more challenging road in order to grow personally and professionally. We should all be proud that our schools are led by such individuals, that our children have the opportunity to meet and learn from these inspiring individuals.
Yes, these four weeks are my personal Days of Awe – two months before the Jewish calendar says they are to arrive.
Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation