Aug 192016
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This summer, Jewish day school leaders unlocked new leadership skills at two programs of the Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This is the first post in a series highlighting thoughts on leadership and the Jewish vision and mission of day schools from leaders who attended with AVI CHAI sponsorship. Etan Dov Weiss is the Director of Jewish Life and Hebrew at the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School and attended the Harvard Art of Leadership (AOL) program. See below for a video filmed at Harvard where Etan describes the school change project he will be working on during this coming school year.

What have you been working on at your school?

I’ve been in my position for a year. I was brought in at a time when there was a significant change in leadership personnel and structure. This provided a great opportunity to work on systematizing, documenting, and updating handbooks. We also went through reaccreditation and completed our strategic plan. Our strategic plan focuses on professional excellence: creating a culture where people are excited to work, with revamped expectations, supervision and professional development opportunities. In Judaic studies, we are working on a full review and articulation of goals for our Hebrew program. We are considering questions such as: Where does the connection to the State of Israel go in the curriculum to be most effective, with Hebrew or Jewish history? What does that look like and what are the goals of the Israel connection piece, and of Hebrew overall? We are analyzing how to fill in curricular gaps and how we improve communication between teachers to make sure the work is in sync.

What are you personally focused on and/or passionate about?

My personal goal is to improve my leadership style and skills: finding a balance between efficiency, efficacy, and building trust. Especially since the whole leadership team and structure is new, I place an emphasis on building teams and trust, communication, and articulating where we’re going and the strategy to get there. I am also engaged in getting buy-in for this strategy, both internally to teachers and externally to community partners. My main focus is on knowing where my skill set lacks and how to then recalibrate a balance that works for me.

At the end of the day, though, the students are the focus. What keeps me up at night is the Jewish mission and vision of the school actually, and the passion and dedication to that. This is what I’m committed to. I want it to be optimally effective for each individual student, and this will only happen through creating changes and systems that will be long-lasting. At the same time, my child is in the school, and my child only gets one first-grade experience. So there’s a balance between recognizing that building relationships is key for long-term sustainability, yet wanting change to have already happened. As the sages say, “If not now, when?”

What is your vision for pluralism in your school’s Jewish life?

We tackled our vision for pluralism in our strategic plan – we are working on using the term ‘community’, which we think means more than ‘pluralism’. We recognize that there are 70 faces to Torah, as the Talmud says. Whereas I may have my own way, I also have to hear about the ways of others. Parents sometimes worry that their child will be exposed to other ways in Jewish day school which will end up taking precedent over their ways. What I’ve actually found from 10 years of working in Community day schools is that the child becomes the standard bearer of the parents’ ways and gets to show pride in how their family connects Jewishly. For instance, kids love to share how their families observe Shabbat. They never say: your family should do it the same way as my family. They just want to share. When you’re exposed to and challenged by different perspectives, it helps you feel more comfortable in your own. This helps the children reflect on: How can I be part of klal Israel, so I can build community? How does the community affect me?

I’m interested in a cultural shift for students where I want them to be there for each other. For instance, on Shabbaton, kids determine their own bunk rules as to how to do Shabbat so that everyone feels comfortable. It’s about learning to stand up for yourself and stand up for others. My ideal is for an Orthodox student to think of a Reform classmate: s/he needs this from me so as to feel fulfilled. Likewise, I want reform communities to say: We need a mechitza in the school for our Orthodox classmates. I want them saying this for each other instead of for themselves.

How does your day school intersect with the local community?

Locally in Minneapolis, we are pulling in the rabbis of synagogues and leaders of Jewish institutions to think about: What do you want from a Jewish day school? What is the distinction between skills you learn at synagogue and at Jewish day school? For instance, personally I believe that leining (reading from the Torah) is a synagogue skill. We need to clarify what is and isn’t our goal, and what are we not doing enough of to support each other? This is particularly true because we are a smaller community, with around 8-10 synagogues. The end goal is all about enhancing the Jewish mission. If we can partner with one another and be spokespeople to tell the story of the amazing work we’re all doing, we can increase enrollment and it will benefit us all.

Author’s note: Heilicher participated in “How Schools Enact Their Jewish Missions 20 Case Studies of Jewish Day Schools.” The case study exploring tefillah at Heilicher is available here.