Mar 132017
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In this previous blog post, I wrote about one trend in day school Jewish mission and vision that I observed at the Prizmah Conference: an emphasis on standards for different aspects of Judaic studies.

In this second post, I will explore a second takeaway from the sessions I attended: It is crucial for school leaders to make the case for and explain the goals of teaching Jewish studies at your school.

This idea came to a point at the session “Hebrew for What? Hebrew at the Heart of the Jewish Day School.” At this session, Dr. Jack Wertheimer and Dr. Alex Pomson reported on the findings from their soon-to-be-released research report (look out for it on the AVI CHAI website soon!). The study investigated why day schools across North America choose to teach Hebrew, what types of Hebrew they prioritize, and whether stakeholders are aligned in their perceptions of what is being achieved in their schools around Hebrew language study. Schools of all affiliations were studied through surveys of parents, educators, and students.

At the session, we looked at how different denominations ranked different reasons: for studying classical Hebrew, including for prayer, text study, appreciation of Jewish culture and tradition, feeling a part of a synagogue; and for studying modern Hebrew, for forming a connection with Israel/Jews around the world, brain development, feeling included in conversations, and more. Amongst other findings, it was brought to light that many schools could improve how they make the case for why it is important to learn Hebrew – and that a considerable minority of parents and students are unpersuaded. The schools where the perception of the success of the Hebrew program was highest were those that articulated clearly and strongly “why Hebrew? “

Though not discussed or covered in this study, I believe the lesson is applicable to other components of Jewish study and life at the school, including tefillah, kashrut policies, and more.

One approach to addressing the need to communicate your goals came from another conference session: “Leveraging Your Jewish Story for School Leadership,” with Jonathan Cannon and Alanna Kotler of Educannon Consulting. This session supported the larger conference theme of “The Power of Story” by suggesting that stories are a tool for leaders and should be built into leadership practice.  Leaders must make the case and galvanize constituents toward the leaders’ goals and storytelling is an effective technique because it is highly engaging, shows rather than tells, and gives a concrete and personal example.

The session explored how and why leaders tell stories through presenting the general motifs shared by the powerful stories that resonate with us. For instance, stories that resonate are those that point to a greater cause, or leave room for different interpretations. It reviewed the dominant story of charismatic and successful leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. (“There can be an interracial society for all”), what questions it elicited (“Can American society be integrated?”) and how it led to specific actions (sit-ins, directed letters to the president, etc.) and beliefs (about the ideals of America).

What if day school leaders could powerfully leverage their Jewish stories for school leadership? What if they could succinctly and effectively convey the “why” behind conducting Jewish studies, teaching Hebrew and living out Jewish life at day schools? Perhaps this could bring consensus and rally school communities around these crucial aspects at the heart of Jewish day schools.

In upcoming blog posts, Jewish day school leaders who attended the Prizmah conference will share their Jewish stories and what sparks made them into the Jewish educators they are today. Stay tuned!