AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Harvard Learnings in Action: From Dr. Sarah Levy, Denver Jewish Day School

Posted by: Guest

January 22, 2019

In 1997, The AVI CHAI Foundation began sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two week-long summer institutes at The Principals Center, a division of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Many of the 566 participants who have attended since then found the institute to be among the most transformative professional development experiences of their careers.
Beginning in 2013, the Foundation built upon the Harvard experience with a specific focus on helping leaders enhance their schools’ Jewish mission.  This involved adding several components to the program, including evening sessions at Harvard, coaching, check-ins throughout the following year, and networking with one’s cohort.  In advance of the application process that begins in early February, we will feature various alumni who will share their own stories and how this program helped them achieve their goals.  Hopefully, this will give those considering applying a taste of what’s possible within the context of this incredibly catalytic program.
This week, we hear from Dr. Sarah Levy, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School.
Dr. Sarah Levy
Director of Jewish Life and Learning
Denver Jewish Day School
AOL 2017
When the announcement of the Harvard program for Jewish day school leaders arrived in my inbox, I was immediately intrigued.  The application asked us to share what projects we were working on to enhance the Jewish mission of our school.  For me, that was easy; as director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School, a K-12 community day school, I was working on several such projects, but my work on tefilah (prayer) stood out as something with which I could use some support, guidance, and, frankly, some inspiration to ensure it went well.
Improving tefilah was high on our K-12 school’s agenda. We wanted to develop a tefilah program that is engaging and relevant to our 21st century students; one that teaches skills, fosters emotional dispositions, but also provides space for students to make their own meaning.  The truth was, I had already done a lot of advance work for a new plan for tefilah at our school, having conducted a listening tour, read the relevant research, and reached out to different schools about their programs. I had more data than I needed, and I just needed to take that next step and form everything I’d learned into something that would help Denver JDS shed the negative connotations of “tefilah” and make it an important part of our program. Harvard’s “Art of Leadership” (AOL), together with the day school framework, seemed like a great place to do that; I just wasn’t sure exactly how that week would help.  I knew my day school colleagues would understand my project, but what would Harvard professors or public school leaders, most of whom had no idea what tefilah was, be able to contribute to my plans for improving prayer at Denver JDS?
To my surprise, the answer turned out to be: “quite a bit.”  Dramatic and significant change at schools always demands a lot of faculty, students, and parents, and I had to learn how to be the leader who can effectively shepherd people through this process.  For example, in one of the first sessions we explored “adaptive” versus “technical” challenges and considered various leadership styles and when to use them.  Without doubt, my tefilah project was an adaptive challenge that would require specific leadership styles. In another high-impact session, we looked at getting to the root of why systems are reluctant to change, naming our big assumptions that lead us to struggle with change. I came to understand how many of my faculty, students, and parents had major assumptions regarding tefilah and why many struggled with change. Other sessions such as exploring cognitive biases and making better use of data were, not surprisingly, highly relevant to my tefilah project, and to other Judaic initiatives I was contemplating. Lastly, those school leaders from around the world with no knowledge of tefilah, nevertheless, all had experience working with students of different ages and diverse faculty to introduce new programs in various subjects, and their insights helped me reflect constructively on my own situation.
As anticipated, the ‘day school overlay’ was a tremendous benefit.  Each night we would gather to process the day and consider how to apply what we’d learned to our own day school settings, making our learning less overwhelming and a whole lot more applicable.  The facilitation and personalized mentoring by Jonathan Cannon and Alanna Kotler, coupled with the support and encouragement of my cohort’s very active WhatsApp chat group, really helped me get broad buy-in and successfully implement my tefilah project – a “Zman Kodesh” program for our Upper Division. (Feel free to contact me about it!)
While I went in to the program with a specific and focused goal, I am amazed how much I learned sitting at Harvard during the day with 150 school leaders from around the world, and with 17 day school colleagues each evening.  In fact, everything I do now at Denver JDS – improving our Hebrew program, building our Judaic studies scope and sequence, or just helping my Jewish day school be the best it could be – I relate back to what I learned at my Harvard sessions, from my group members, and from my day school colleagues – with whom I am thrilled to be in almost daily contact, a full 18 months later!  If I am able to have a lasting impact on my school, I owe a great deal of that to what I learned at my week in Cambridge.

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