Are you considering applying to attend the AVI CHAI experience launching at The Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education this summer? Here is another guest post from a past participant describing how her participation has galvanized school improvement centered around her school’s Jewish mission and vision.
Helena Levine, Donna Klein Jewish Academy
In the summer of 2013, I was one of several Jewish day school leaders to attend the Harvard Summer Institute “Leadership: An Evolving Vision,” as part of AVI CHAI’s newly revised yearlong program of school improvement. Without a doubt, this experience launched profound transformation on every level: on me personally and professionally, and on my school organizationally.
The program was intense and inspirational. In addition to an exceptional program run by top Harvard professors, our small group of Jewish day school leaders met regularly. We quickly bonded, as we were the first group tasked by AVI CHAI to take what we learned at Harvard to develop and begin implementing a yearlong project that would enhance the Jewish mission and vision of our schools. As a community day high school principal, responsible for the students’ larger academic program and environment, I must admit that I, along with others in the group, was unsure what sort of project would meet the program’s lofty ambitions. Through the sessions with my day school colleagues and the guidance and support of our gifted mentor, Jonathan Cannon, I realized that I needed to think not about a narrow, focused project, but to think as broadly as the scope of my educational leadership: orienting both the secular AND Judaic programming of our school, the Donna Klein Jewish Academy, by its Jewish compass.
My project was inspired and driven by the three pillars of The AVI CHAI Foundation’s mission: promoting Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood (“LRP”) among all Jews. After Harvard, I decided my project’s goal would be to integrate these three ideals into all facets of our high school. Using the leverage of the program’s yearlong framework, I explained to the faculty over several meetings in the fall that their support and participation was essential to bringing a Jewish perspective to the school program. Over several months I explained how our school’s mission was aligned with that of AVI CHAI, and that they were invited (not required) to take an increased and active role in living out that mission more robustly and fully at our school.
What resulted was surprising but incredibly inspiring: this plan gave permission for individual faculty members across the spectrum of subjects to bring LRP into their classrooms where in the past they felt they could not. For instance, a history teacher now felt licensed to bring in Jewish history more integrally to the study of European history, and the science teacher, who isn’t Jewish, integrated Israel as a full unit into her environmental studies curriculum. The excitement and sense of liberation on their part was remarkable, and frankly a relief. As a group, the many faculty who felt prepared and qualified to participate decided to put together a shared Google document where they could share ways LRP was being integrated throughout the school. I continued to guide faculty dialogues and encourage ongoing documentation. While I knew this would be a multi-year project, Harvard taught me the importance of focusing initially on faculty buy-in and launching the initiative with the willing teachers. We are now in the second year of our effort to make the Claire and Emanuel G. Rosenblatt High School at DKJA a stronger Jewish high school, and all are on board.
The organizational transformation was, not surprisingly, accompanied by professional and personal transformation. I came back a stronger leader, with more skills of leadership but more importantly with a clearer vision that better aligns with AVI CHAI’s mission. As I reflect back on this incredible experience, it helped launch a trajectory of growth for me to take on even greater challenges and responsibilities. I have since been appointed as the new Head of School at DKJA where I continue to incorporate LRP into the fabric of our entire K-12 school, a logical extension of the work I did in the high school.
At this point, I have been incredibly fortunate to have three AVI CHAI-funded programs help me at three critical junctures of my professional career: RAVSAK’s Project SuLaM introduced me to the core values of LRP and helped me incorporate them in my life and work; the yearlong program begun at Harvard raised my leadership to a new level of reflection, planning and implementation; and most recently, RAVSAK’s Head of School – Professional Excellence Project has supported me as I began my school headship this year. Like all day school leaders who hope to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, I aspire to continue learning and growing, for as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said long ago, “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”
Helena Levine is the Head of School at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy, Boca Raton, FL