Oct 232019

Cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

By Tony Proscio

Zalman Chaim Bernstein, entrepreneur, financier, philanthropist, master of research, lover of books, seeker after knowledge, violator of norms, died on January 6, 1999, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, of complications from lymphoma. He was 72. A philanthropist and iconoclast, he was the creator of the giant asset management firm Bernstein & Company (today AllianceBernstein) and was a Ba’al Tshuva who had recommitted himself to Judaism in his 50s. Apart from the colossal wealth he had created, for himself and many others, and the towering enterprise he had founded, he left behind a philanthropic legacy, including a foundation called AVI CHAI, dedicated to his own deeply held vision of the future of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Preserving that vision from later distortions was one ambition that never wavered in the 15 years he chaired and directed the work of AVI CHAI. Time after time, he proposed amendments to the foundation’s by-laws to ensure that the board would adhere to his direction and continue to function as it had under his leadership, and that it would continue, after his death, to be led by people he had chosen and who were close to his thinking. He continued to be haunted by the cautionary stories in which foundations had departed from their donor’s wishes as trustees gradually replaced the founder’s world view with their own.

His first line of defense against that fate was to populate his board with people who, he believed, would remain faithful to his intentions. Though he recruited trustees widely and sought out candidates with markedly different backgrounds and perspectives, he was also careful to choose people with whom he felt a close personal chemistry, whose essential values were close to his, and whose commitment to preserving his vision seemed firm.

Yet even with them, the trust went only so far. He made certain to reserve controlling authority on most issues to himself and to a tiny inner circle of Members (the Executive Committee) – initially himself as sole Member, then later adding his two closest philanthropic confidantes: Arthur Fried, former managing director of Lehman Brothers and later the chief executive of Yad Hanadiv, and Samuel J. Silberman, a prominent Jewish philanthropist and longtime president of Consolidated Cigar Corp. Near the end of his life, rather than designating any sitting trustee to replace him as a Member upon his death, he instructed that his wife, Mem, be his successor as both Member and trustee. Though she had not previously had any formal role in the foundation, her role in her husband’s life, her loyalty to him, and her understanding of his ambitions and world view trumped that lack of experience.

At least twice during these first 15 years, Bernstein also considered what could have been the ultimate protection against mission drift: spending out the endowment and ending the foundation before future leaders could take it off course. In 1992, soon after AVI CHAI’s sixth birthday, he suggested to Fried and Silberman, at a meeting of Members, that they consider “dissolving the foundation at the death of the last trustee who served with” the donor. The idea of time-limited foundations, set to close during the donor’s lifetime or soon thereafter, would gain traction among emerging philanthropists in the coming years. But for reasons not disclosed in the meeting’s minutes, the Members rejected it. Instead, they decided to recruit another board member, “young enough to outlive the current trustees,” who would have plenty of time on the board to become steeped in AVI CHAI’s culture.

That approach was consistent with Bernstein’s other core principle for the running of his foundation: He wanted it to be driven by its trustees, “actively directing the foundation in the pursuit of its mission.” Trustees with such a depth of involvement in the foundation’s work would be less likely to deviate from its founding spirit and would be more personally invested in its success. “The members of the Board are involved not only on a policy level,” he wrote in his first five-year report, “but also in project development.” The idea of an engaged, committed, and long-serving board of trustees functioned, at least in Bernstein’s mind, as a prime defense against mission drift.

Yet the idea of setting an end-date surfaced again four years later, at another Members’ meeting. Once again, the board concluded that “the foundation’s mission is ongoing, and we shouldn’t fix a terminal date for its activities.” Still, both discussions, in 1992 and 1996, ended on a note of unease, as if the Members remained anxious about the long-term risks but were reluctant to contemplate ending such a young and still-evolving philanthropy – one whose mission could never be achieved in a single lifetime, or even a few generations. At both meetings, they pondered alternative legal arrangements, such as an outside auditor or supervisor who would scrutinize the board’s decisions for any deviation from the donor’s intent. These arrangements were likewise tabled, but the question appeared never to be fully settled.

Although Bernstein himself rejected the spend-down option at least twice, he did so only in the expectation that some kind of external authority could eventually be empowered to audit or regulate the choices of future trustees. In private conversations late in his life, recognizing that this sort of “mission policeman” was neither practical nor strictly reliable, he told Fried and others that a sunset might well be his preferred choice. Ultimately, this preference was fulfilled when, five years after Bernstein’s death, the board did decide to limit the foundation’s life and bring its grantmaking to a close by a date certain (originally it was 2027; after the losses in the 2008 financial crisis, the board moved the sunset to 2020).

At the time the decision was made, in 2004, there were only three trustees, out of a total of 11, who had not been personally screened and approved by Zalman Bernstein. As this is written, there are just two such trustees. All three of the inner core of Members are Bernstein choices: Arthur Fried, Mem Bernstein, and former publishing executive Lauren Merkin. Although Arthur Fried played a critical role in initially recruiting most of the trustees and bringing them to Bernstein’s attention, the AVI CHAI board remains, at its core, the creature of its donor, and largely a team of designees who spent years practicing their leadership of the institution under the donor’s gaze.

Yet even a board of hand-picked trustees with a bedrock of common values must sooner or later grapple with issues and choose among options that never confronted the donor, and on which he left no guidance. In practice, as AVI CHAI’s executive director for North America, Yossi Prager, pointed out, “the trustees almost never asked ‘WWZD (What Would Zalman Do?).’ Decisions were made by reference to the mission statement and the principles he set forth in his lifetime, but it was almost never framed as a question of what he, personally, would have decided.” It was, in fact, reasonable for trustees to conclude, from the way they were chosen and from the kind of intellectual jousting that Bernstein always seemed to crave, that a slavish imitation of his own methods and style would not have made him happy.

AVI CHAI trustees speak cautiously, and with humility, about their success at preserving “donor intent” in their management of the foundation. It is a value broadly and deeply shared among the board members. But how confident can they be that Bernstein would have been satisfied with their effort?

On one hand, as one trustee put it, the question almost answers itself: “He was never satisfied with anything, including his own work. Some things he thought were good, some not so good; but nothing was ever good enough.” On the other hand, the question is unanswerable. Even in his lifetime, times and circumstances changed; opportunities came and went; today’s bold initiative became tomorrow’s tepid disappointment, while something entirely different was arising to take its place. To drive the foundation in accordance with Bernstein’s own wishes, it would be necessary to know how those wishes would have adapted to a constantly flowing stream of issues, experiments, and choices.

It is not surprising, then, that the board ultimately took the surest course to prevent AVI CHAI from drifting too far from its founding vision, principles, and methods: spending out the endowment and closing the foundation within two decades after Bernstein’s death. That would ensure that his mostly hand-picked board had the last word, and that time and memory would have little chance to dim the vivid set of purposes with which the enterprise began. As Bernstein told Fried and others that a sunset might well be his preferred choice, that preference will now be fulfilled.

Excerpted from a forthcoming book documenting the history of The AVI CHAI Foundation by Tony Proscio.

Tony Proscio is a writer and consultant to foundations and national nonprofits. From 2013 to 2019 he was associate director of Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society. 

May 172019

By: Lisa Micley

Four years ago, we were offered the opportunity and the challenge to create a program that would provide online Judaic studies courses to Jewish day schools across North America.  The opportunity was exciting. We knew our expertise and experience was us up to the task; the Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.) has provided online General studies offerings to public and independent school for almost 25 years. The challenge with this specific project, however, was daunting because of the numerous questions we faced: How could we create a community of learners among Jewish day schools with differing goals and missions?  How should we decide which courses to develop and offer to these schools?  How could we best meet the needs and requests of the schools while ensuring that we follow our own best practices, and articulate those practices to the schools?

As in all educational initiatives, we had to clarify our goals first so that we could begin working towards them. Our mission defines us as a community of Jewish day schools working collaboratively with The Virtual High School to develop and deliver high quality online Judaic studies courses to day school students throughout North America. Our Advisory Board helped us clarify our goals and understand the varying needs of schools, and the potential and possibilities for online courses in those schools. Our courses would enhance the curriculum, fill in gaps, enable students to learn with educators from other schools, provide students with the opportunity to study with students in other Jewish day schools, differentiate learning, and solve scheduling challenges.  We were excited and ready to create this unique and powerful learning community for students and teachers in North American Jewish day schools.

The Online Judaic Studies Consortium (OJSC) aspires to be the bridge between educators, scholars, students and communities.  As program director, I have visited more than 35 schools in the past four years and met with several hundred Jewish educators to learn about schools’ needs and to share our model and program with them. I have learned a great deal from these schools and their educators who share their vision with me. Through OJSC, educators connect with their peers with similar interests and approaches, while schools come together around a particular initiative or course.  It is a real privilege to visit so many schools and see firsthand the incredible learning communities that have been created.

The OJSC’s biggest success was the development of the course Preparing for Life on Campus:  The Complexities of Jewish Identity and Israel, developed in collaboration with the Jewish Day School Collaborative, Milken Community High School, and Rabbi Alexander S Gross Hebrew Day School.  Our goal was to create a course that would be a meaningful and honest educational experience that would prepare student for what they might find on a college campus in this realm. Civil discourse is a mainstay of all interactions in the course and students are empowered to speak their minds and to listen respectfully to others. Students have reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other students on this topic. We also hope to hear from them that this course helped them maintain a strong Jewish identity as they thrive in college.

Courses dealing with Israel are the most requested to date and, consequently, we have four courses in our catalog on the subject. Courses that deal with Jewish history and Jewish values also are highly requested, and we have developed several courses that are interdisciplinary and integrate Jewish values into other subjects. Schools use these courses as electives for their students who enjoy the variety in the subject matter and the change of style in the learning.

In answer to the questions I posed at the beginning of this blog, I can say with confidence that the best way to develop a community of learners among schools with differing goals and missions is to provide a supervised, nurturing atmosphere for the students, with a focus on the needs of each individual.  Once that is in place, we communicate often with the schools and work with our teachers to understand the varying needs of their students, just as we do in the face-to-face classroom.  We offer information to the schools about the course and course developer so each school can assess which courses are appropriate for its community.  Our decisions about which courses to develop are based on significant input from schools. We always seek input and I encourage anyone reading this to weigh in with thoughts and requests for courses you would like to see available online for your students.  Our commitment to honor our own thoughts about best practice in the online space continues to impact our work with schools and inspire us to share what we have learned as we listen to what the schools need and want.  The conversation is ongoing and the community is growing. We hope you will want to join in and help us to create something incredible.

Lisa Micley is the Program Director of the Online Judaic Studies Consortium.

Growing Teacher Leaders the RBT Way

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May 072019

By: Amy Wasser

We are excited to hear about the progress with Research for Better Teaching (RBT), first reported on here on the AVI CHAI blog. RBT, a professional development organization dedicated to improving classroom teaching and school leadership, is partnering with Prizmah: The Center for Jewish Day Schools to model teamwork among educators in Jewish day schools, while using data to inform student learning. Read on for examples of the work!

The Middle School STEM team at Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis is working closely together to discuss ways to differentiate for students in the classroom. The teacher team has been able to stay in touch with the student’s growth and progress in real time, analyzing formative assessments and discussing the process of realizing when students don’t know as much as they thought they should. The support of the STEM teacher team is a key resource for meeting the needs of more students more of the time. Teachers are also seeing real growth in how they learn from each other.

Denver Academy of Torah has seen an increase in collaboration and communication between the teachers who are on the teams. This results in more robust conversations about student achievement and student work, which has impacted the learning in the classrooms. In the past, there was not enough dialogue between members of the faculty about students, and in particular about how a certain student learned. Now we see the faculty teams looking at student learning from a growth mindset position; the child can achieve if we give them the tools, if we see the child from different perspectives (ie: various teachers), and if we implement strategies that work for that child.

At Rodeph Sholom in New York City, a Judaics teacher team is looking at how they can improve on understanding what they each teach in their classroom and how that will impact learning for students as they progress through the program. The teachers are meeting on a regular basis to ask questions of practice and implementation and how the curriculum is received by the students in their classrooms. When they see a disconnect, they are able to correct it together and make the learning stronger across the program. This team will continue this collaboration to include implementation of similar learning targets and strategies for enabling student growth at an individual pace, while seeing synergies in the curriculum. As the teams get used to their protocols, they see that they are strong content resources for each other and that not only is the student learning being impacted, but so is the creation of stronger curricular units. The educators are able to see the units in a new light, starting with the over arc of the theme, then establishing a narrative for the process of establishing the content and finally including the skills they want as part of the outcomes. The team meetings will allow them to determine gaps in the program bases on assessments and the meeting of the learning goals. The focus on building this team is also key to establishing trust among colleagues.

All of these strategies build teams that enable a healthy culture of inquiry, exactly what RBT strives to create.

Amy Wasser is Director of Field Advancement, Prizmah Center for Jewish Day Schools.

Yitro: The Shabbat Experience

 Posted by on March 26, 2019 at 3:17 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Mar 262019

In this post and its accompanying photos, Teri McGuire from the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) reflects on the third seminar of the fourth cohort of the Yitro Leadership Program, which is funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation. The program works with associate and assistant camp directors, with the goals of strengthening their leadership skills, with emphasis on their identities as Jewish leaders, in order to enhance Jewish culture and experience at camp. The program creates a strong network of peers for continuing collaboration and learning. More information about the Yitro program can be found here.

By: Teri McGuire

“I want to hear, somebody pray. I want to hear, somebody pray. Down in the valley, and over yonder, I want to hear somebody pray.”

The words of this song reverberated through the otherwise non-spiritual space of the Doubletree Hotel as twenty-six individuals who had never prayed together before sang them out. Looking around the circle it was apparent: most had never sung this song before, but they were learning it – together.

That is how the Shabbat experience of our Yitro cohort began, bringing participants with different backgrounds, beliefs and knowledge-bases together with a unified goal: to explore new aspects of our Jewish personal and professional selves.

Together we engaged in learning, prayer, and social programming that made us think, question, and laugh. We could try to describe to you the impact these 25 hours had on the group, but Yitro fellows say it better.

I am inspired that other professionals in Jewish camping are thirsty for further Jewish learning, and inspired to continue pushing myself to learn.
– Julia Chatinover (Camp Ramah in the Rockies)

I want to bring the same ruach from our Shabbat together to my own Shabbat practices back home.
– Elliot Shiner-Cahn (Camp Zeke)

After the Shabbat experience with Yitro, I’m going to focus more on how I show up Jewishly at camp and how I can continue to learn from the cohort on ways to do this.
–Amy Coran (Camp Pembroke)

Although we all have very different ways of observing Shabbat, it is incredible how much every camp values Shabbat in their community. Yitro gave me the opportunity to experience and learn about everyone’s special Shabbat time at camp!
– Bette Amir-Brownstein (B’nai B’rith Camp)

This was the first time we’ve ever spent Shabbat together and it felt like we’ve been doing it for years. As a result I am thinking about how the power of community and taking chances can lend to powerful new discoveries and connections.
– Simcha Cohen (Herzl Camp)

There is a proverb that teaches “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” Our Shabbat experience together went by so fast, but it took our group to new heights, ones we never would have been able to reach had we not gone together.

Mar 132019

This is part three in a three-part blog series from The iCenter for Israel Education, sharing its approach to working closely with day schools and camps to create effective Israel education experiences for learners.

By: Dvora Goodman and Aliza Goodman

At Camp Pembroke

In our previous posts, we introduced the idea of a holistic approach to Israel education and described the process of implementing this approach in both day schools and camps. Now, we explore what day schools and camps can learn from each other and how they might sustain their success into the future.

How this Approach Plays Out in Both Settings

At first glance, the work that The iCenter does in Jewish day schools seems different from the work we do in Jewish overnight camps. And in some ways it is. The settings of schools and camps are clearly different, with differing expectations about how the students or campers will engage with the materials and experiences.

But, while the work we do is framed differently for each setting, designing meaningful Israel education, identifying learning opportunities, and assessing needs are all key elements of The iCenter’s approach, regardless of educational setting. Educators in both schools and camps understand the importance of the environment in shaping and reinforcing the learning experiences, the need for thoughtful staff training, the invaluable opportunity to build meaningful relationships with Israelis, and the powerful role arts and culture play in Israel education. Introducing educators to our holistic approach strengthens what they are doing in all of these areas and helps them achieve positive outcomes with their learners.

The Best of Both Worlds

Our work in both settings shows just how much day schools and camps can teach each other. We challenge school educators to think about the experiences they create for their learners in and out of the classroom. We challenge camp educators to be intentional about their educational programming from summer to summer and to look at the whole experience that a camper has with Israel from the time they are young through their time as staff members.

Schools Learning from Camps

Our work in iNfuse with day schools benefits from many of the resources that we developed through our work with Israel @ Camp. Recently, a school looking to strengthen its experiential programming around Israel through a series of retreats for 7th-11th grade looked to our Israel @ Camp “Israel program database” for ideas around content and method. For example, a program known as “The Amazing Autograph Race” is an active exercise that blends the red carpet experience with Israeli history and culture by challenging students to collect the autographs of as many Israeli heroes as possible. In the process, they learn about important personalities in Israel’s history and present-day. This activity was developed for camps to facilitate as an evening program and it is perfect for a school retreat.

In addition to the program database, The iCenter developed and distributed sets of Israel Resource Cards for use in camps. We found that counselors’ perceived lack of knowledge was a barrier to them running fun and educational programming with campers around Israel. The Israel Resource Cards changed that–by supplying them with basic knowledge on easily accessible cards that can be used in numerous ways, such as games and other activities. Although we developed the cards specifically with camps in mind, other educators, including those in day schools, have jumped to use them in their settings. They have been used in schools for piquing interest of the students, for reinforcing past learning, for introducing new material, and for assessing knowledge or understanding. They are also being used to engage staff in thinking about their relationships with Israel and in beginning conversations around Israel education. Thousands of sets of cards have been distributed across North America and beyond, and they continue to be a useful tool for camps, day schools, and beyond.

Camps Learning from Schools

This “Best of Both Worlds” relationship goes both ways, as camps can learn from successes in school settings as well. In our second blog post, we described The iCenter’s work around setting learning outcomes. The next step of that work in a day school setting is to ensure that the curricular and extra-curricular components related to Israel are aligned with these outcomes, and that students’ learning and connections made with Israel deepen from grade to grade. For some camps, we’ve adapted this approach, working with their leadership to develop a curricular framework using themes and goals for different units at camp. At one camp, the process of choosing outcomes led to the development of a list of Ikkarim (core principles) that now guides all their educational decisions moving forward. Then, the camp articulated broad themes for each unit that would capture the interest of campers at the different ages, deepen their learning, and help them advance their core principles. For example, one of the Ikkarim is “Ahavat Yisrael,” the desire to foster strong, personal connections between campers and Israel. Focusing on this principle, the youngest campers will deepen their relationships with Israel through an exploration of Zionism and the yearning for Israel that led to the early pioneering movement. A couple of years later, as those campers move into a different unit, “Ahavat Yisrael” is explored predominantly through Israeli arts, culture, and music; the following year, that love is fostered through embracing multiple perspectives as campers begin to ask themselves deeper questions related to their connections and understandings of Israel.

Fresh Eyes Helps Both Settings

In both settings, challenging schools and camps to examine long-standing “traditions” through the eyes of learners has proved incredibly helpful. At one camp, educators realized that the Israeli geographic locations used as names for places in camp had been around for so long that their significance was lost to campers and staff alike. Campers genuinely did not know why the lower part of camp was called “Kinneret” and why the camp hill was called “Galil.” They developed a camp-wide activity to address this, having campers research the names of places around camp and then film short videos to introduce those places to their parents on visitors day.

A discovery in a school had similar impact. As part of the iNfuse process, school educators are encouraged to walk around the school looking through the eyes of the students and noting where Israel is “seen.” Several of the schools realized that some of the long-standing “Israel images” around the school had “faded into the background” over the years; students were walking around and not noticing them. Paying attention to how the school environment supports the Israel learning led to regular rotation of what was on the walls, tuning the students in regularly to the various Israel-related posters and artifacts now hanging prominently.

Finally, many day schools and camps offer Israel experience trips to their learners. For, both, the most challenging part of planning an Israel experience is not the experience itself; rather, it is integrating the experience into the rest of the learning experiences, whether at school or at camp. We help leaders in both settings ask some difficult questions: what are we doing in the years, months, and days leading up to the experience that prepares our learners for their trips? And how do we help them – both on the trip and beyond – integrate their learning into their everyday lives? By seeking answers, the Israel experience becomes a powerful tool for reinforcing things they have already learned and lays the groundwork for future learning.

When camps and schools are eager to learn from each other and to engage in deep planning and visioning about Israel education across their settings, their learners benefit from an exceptional, holistic experience. The iCenter encourages educators in all settings to think creatively and to never miss an opportunity to engage learners in meaningful Israel education. It can happen almost anytime, anywhere.

If you are interested in learning more, please visit or contact Aliza at

Feb 262019

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.  As part of the application process that begins today, we are featuring 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. Applications for Harvard Summer 2019 are now open, deadline March 15! See here for more details.

This week, we hear from Rabbi Yehuda Fogel, Associate Principal for Limmudei Kodesh, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, New York.

Rabbi Yehuda Fogel
AOL 2015
Associate Principal for Limmudei Kodesh, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, New York

When I started teaching middle school limudei kodesh (Judaics) in 2006, I thought I had faced my greatest challenge – classes full of pre-teen and young teen boys learning Chumash and Gemara.  Fortunately, I was among several helpful colleagues who were master teachers, and I learned so much from them, to the benefit of my students.  But my leap into administration in 2013 broadened my view, and I realized that as positive as our students’ experience was each year, the three-year division experience was not truly integrated or coordinated.  My goal was to develop a comprehensive Judaics curriculum for our middle school, and so in 2015 I excitedly went to Harvard to help me achieve that goal.

It goes without saying that the Harvard presentations were incredible, the learning groups stimulating, and the AVI CHAI cohort unparalleled.  Within a day, I was convinced that something great would come from this, but I could not have anticipated how it came about.  While I went to Cambridge presumably to learn about curriculum development, to my surprise my plan emerged from two totally other presentations – one on professional learning communities (PLCs) and the other on the use of data – that educators from Texas and New Jersey in my Harvard group shared with me and how they used them to coordinate curriculum at their schools. With Jonathan Cannon’s help, I went back to my school determined to do something big.

And big it was.  Returning to HALB, I shared the ideas with our most veteran and experienced Judaic Rabbis and we developed a step-by-step plan for implementation. We started organizing PLCs by electing veteran Rabbis to lead each grade’s team, adding to their visibility and prestige. Then, we worked on shifting our instruction towards a data-driven model.  This novelty required daily collaborative meetings in which I participated.  Initially, I set the schedules and agendas of the meetings, guiding the coordination of skills and concepts across grades and tracks, but over time, the faculty began to take on more and more responsibility.  Discussion of curriculum led to the Rabbis to develop and assign standards, which in turn led naturally to analysis of their pedagogy.  Now our teachers seek out and share teaching techniques, materials and methodologies that help students achieve the specific goals laid out in the curriculum’s clear and detailed standards. Lastly, the synergies within the PLCs are a delight to observe, as more experienced teachers share their teaching with their newer colleagues, and younger teachers introduce 21st century technologies to more veteran teachers.

The focus on data organically led to changes in grading. Instead of overall grades in a subject, students are graded on each skill or concept.  We worked closely with an educational software company to develop a standards-based gradebook appropriate for our students, in which students can see almost nightly how they are doing and where they might need help on specific skills and plans for them so they can develop those skills. Students (and their parents) are grateful for knowing where to focus their energies, and teachers are thrilled to be able to offer individual students either additional support or modified curriculum or assignments based on their individualized strengths and challenges – not to mention having a tool to more accurately analyze their own teaching.  Without a doubt, the vehicle of regular, collegial and collaborative PLCs created an environment that enabled the turn to data to be so effective at our school.  Any other top-down approach I know would have taken many years more.

This transformation, nearly complete after three full years, is groundbreaking for our school.  Whereas Judaics faculty used to meet rarely, now they all – veteran and novice teachers alike –eagerly look forward each week to working within their PLCs to study the data and advance student learning.   At the same time, all students – regardless of skillset or training – now enjoy the limmudei kodesh learning much more because they know where they are succeeding and they know where to put the emphasis for growth.  It’s a win-win for everyone- and all from conversations I had with teachers from Texas and New Jersey one day at Harvard.

AOL 2015 Jewish Day School Cohort

The author’s Harvard cohort

Feb 142019

Rabbi David Saltzman, Principal and Tefilah teacher at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, is a participant in Jblend Boston, a partnership between AVI CHAI and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). The program works with 8 Jewish day schools in Greater Boston as a regional cohort to advance personalized learning in their schools individually and collectively. Learn about how Rabbi Saltzman has worked toward his goal of using his Tefillah class as an incubator for self-paced experimentation, and what he has learned along the way.

Cross-posted from the BetterLesson Blog

By: Romain Bertrand, BetterLesson Senior Manager of Innovative Learning Experiences

As a former teacher and now as an instructional coach and the Senior Manager of Innovative Learning Experiences at BetterLesson, I continue to be fascinated by the idea of figuring out ways to give students more control over the pace of their instruction, while continuing to create the conditions for a meaningful collective learning experience.

This year, I have the privilege of working with Rabbi David Saltzman who is the Principal and Tefillah teacher at Maimonides Elementary School in Brookline, MA. David has been a teacher and an administrator for more than 20 years. You can read more about David here. He and I share the same passion for Self-Paced Learning —  the idea of giving (almost) complete control of the pace of a learning progression to students, while supporting them to leverage their mistakes as learning opportunities via 1:1 or small group teaching. When David and I began our work together this year, we set a goal to use his Tefillah class as an incubator for self-paced experimentation. Halfway through the year, we reflected on what he has learned so far and what he can share with other educators interested in a similar quest. Our reflection is shared below.


Romain Bertrand (RB): How would you summarize what you have been experimenting with in your classroom this year?

David Saltzman: I decided to transfer the content and assessments of my 5th grade Tefillah class (“prayer” in Hebrew) completely online. Students can access and learn the material in my Google Site, sharpen their reading skills and self-assess their progress at their own pace.

RB: What led you to want to do this?

DS: I am a firm believer in student-directed learning. The teacher should facilitate and guide student exploration and experience, but ultimately, students should have the ability to learn at their own pace, create their own products that demonstrate understanding, and decide how they want to work and with whom. Students should also be able to determine how well they think they know the content or have mastered a skill. Lifelong learning includes self-assessing and being able to determine when it’s time to start a new topic or challenge. When students feel in control of their learning in these areas, they will be more engaged, motivated and willing to learn and work.

I had taught a Tefilla class to 5th graders for seven years and I found that I was not reaching all students. Some students were mastering the content quickly while others were taking longer and not everyone was engaged at all times during direct instruction. Because of these hindrances, not everyone was able to deepen their understanding about Tefilla, develop their thinking skills in order to better appreciate prayer, or participate in class discussion. I was determined to create a Tefilla class where students would be engaged, be able to work collaboratively, and be excited to come to class. I also decided that I wanted a class where everyone would demonstrate mastery. In order to accomplish these goals, I moved the class to a self-paced structure, leveraging my Google Site.

RB: What impact has this shift had on your students?

DS: Students now look forward to class and they are excited about learning Tefilla. They are engaged almost 100% of the time and I am collecting much more data about what the students are learning and thinking. I believe this has helped further their knowledge about Tefillah and their appreciation of the prayer experience in a more profound way. They also learn how to use the Google suite of tools by using docs, forms, slides, and draw in order to answer questions and demonstrate and share their learning through electronic products.

Students also self-assess their own progress and knowledge. It gives them ownership of the learning and lets them feel that they are in control of their own pace class.

Here is what it looks like in my classroom on any given day:

Video of Students in Action:

I was also curious to hear from my students so I asked a colleague to interview a couple of them and gather their feedback.

Here is what they had to say:

RB: What strategies and resources would you like to share with other educators interested in a similar journey?

DS: The main platforms for me are Google sites and Google classroom. My students watch videos through Prezi, Googleslides, Animoto, Pow-Toon and other sites. They are assessed through Google forms, Quizlet and other online programs. The students work at their own pace on the Google sites and find the material mostly in Google classroom.

I also use Google forms, docs, slides, and draw for students to demonstrate their learning.

I used BetterLesson’s Progress and Mastery Tracking strategy to develop this student tracker. My students use it to track their progress, self-assess and record their actual assessment data. It is important to me that they do both: self-assess and demonstrate mastery.

Finally I have created and started testing with my students this “You Can Teach Tefillah!” google doc. It is inspired by BetterLesson’s Mastery Map and Standards Based Peer Tutors strategy and its ultimate purpose is to encourage my students to volunteer their teaching or mentoring to support others once they have self-assessed at a level 4 (Ready to teach this concept to someone else).

RB: What are some changes you anticipate trying to make moving forward to improve upon your system?

DS: I would like to work with small groups more in order to discuss concepts at a deeper level with some and unscramble confusions with others. At the beginning of the process, I had to spend more time supporting them one-on-one to become comfortable with the different tech tools and a different form of learning. The idea behind the “You Can Teach Tefillah!” google doc is to support my students in learning from each other more while I meet small groups. It is still taking time to hold at this point and I am curious to see where it goes.

RB: As a principal, what advice would you give teachers and leaders who would be interested in growing self-paced practices in their classrooms?

DS: I think for leaders the key resides in your willingness to create a culture of experimentation and innovation in your building. Ask yourself: “What could I do to make my teachers feel comfortable and safe to try innovative practices?”. We are working on fostering this culture right now at Maimonides Elementary School and we are starting to see the benefit of this shift. For example, a colleague has asked me to support him this Spring in building and testing a prototype of a similar system for his classroom.

For teachers, if the shift to a complete self-paced curriculum feels scary, do not hesitate to start small and test the idea on one lesson or one unit, maybe toward the end of the school year, so that you have time to reflect afterwards and determine if you would like to scale your idea up in 2019-2020. Start small, and gradually expand and improve.

Feb 122019

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.  As part of the application process that begins today, we are featuring 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. Applications for Harvard Summer 2019 are now open, deadline March 15! See here for more details.

This week, we hear from Lisa Schopf, Middle School Director, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C.

Lisa Schopf
Middle School Director, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C.
AOL 2016
The Secret to Making Professional Development Stick

How often has this happened to you?  You attend an amazing professional development experience, and get all inspired to apply the new ideas and practical advice in your own school.  You get back, climb on to the fast-paced treadmill of school, and those great new approaches remain in your mind or in your notes.  No serious change follows, and those great new programs you had wanted to start never take root.  A few months later, we remember our initial passion and regret the lack of follow-through.  If only we had had just a little more time or more support to make those best intentions the new reality.

AVI CHAI’s Harvard program for day school leaders gets that.  It helped transform and elevate my participation at the Harvard School of Education’s Art of Leadership (AOL) program, so that the seven days of learning and inspiration in Cambridge had an enduring impact on its participants well past that one week at the end of June. Being part of a day school cohort that met regularly, and then having the benefit of a year-long structure with access to solid, experienced mentors, made all the difference.

I took part in AOL in the summer of 2016.  I was in the midst of creating a new middle school at our school, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, and was very eager to learn from the experience and insights of others.  Certainly, Harvard offered a rich program of diverse classes and seminars. Each session provided practical lessons and inspirational messages, encouraging us to formulate a clearer understanding of our leadership style and to develop important skills.

However, what really helped this week stand apart from other professional development opportunities was that it had a built-in system for making sure that the learning and the inspiration would endure. First, the day school cohort members met each night to reflect on the learning, discuss how they could “bring it home” to their own schools, and share ideas. I learned so much from the experiences and insights of other day school administrators in my cohort.  Second, we each came into the program with an idea for a specific innovative program or approach that we wanted to develop further. I had a plan in mind for a weekly Scholars Forum in which our students would engage in a study of a contemporary issue, enriching their learning through working with experts in a variety of fields and by delving into Jewish texts to connect our sacred texts with contemporary contexts.  Meeting with Jonathan Cannon, our day school cohort’s facilitator, over the course of the week helped me further concretize the plan as he encouraged me to explore logistical issues in schools and contemplate big picture considerations.

We left the week-long program with a commitment to pursue the initiative we designed and with a structure to ensure it happened in focused and realistic ways.  We were encouraged to calendar the programs we planned and to produce write-ups of our programs, in what turned out to be an iterative process.  Acknowledging that our initial plans would likely need refinement from the early blueprints we had, Jonathan Cannon and his colleague Alana Kotler met with us regularly by phone to support the implementation of our plans. This is essential. Having this ongoing support and multiple opportunities to express my plans in writing and in consultations with them helped me clarify my thinking and adjust the plans for Scholars Forum.

The results have been amazing.  Our program has a clear structure, even as each year we take on a new subject of study. The four constants are:

  • engaging with a contemporary issue of relevance to our students;
  • delving deep into related Jewish texts which deepen our understanding of the subject;
  • involving experts to extend our learning and join with us in our studies;
  • and working on a student- directed and student-created project that helps us connect and contribute to others.

These elements have become the hallmarks of our program. Last year, the 6th grade students – our inaugural middle schoolers – created a documentary, complete with archival photos and footage, and interviews of past staff and alumni, for our school’s thirtieth anniversary.  It was so well done, we rented out a local theater and premiered it for the entire community!   This year, the students are creating a scavenger hunt of civil rights in DC to share with schools visiting the DC area for a middle school or high school trip.

All this came from a vague idea I had going to Harvard three years ago.  Through this remarkable program for day school leaders, that idea was transformed into concrete action that established a template that I expect to endure for years to come.  I encourage you to seek out and make the most of this exemplary summer program. And when you’re done, please write me at about what you learned and what you will bring back to your own schools – I’m always eager to learn!

Sixth graders at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School.

Feb 062019

This is part two in a three-part blog series from The iCenter for Israel Education, sharing its approach to working closely with day schools and camps to create effective Israel education experiences for learners.

By Dvora Goodman and Aliza Goodman

Photo courtesy of The iCenter

In our last post, we introduced a holistic approach to Israel education and described part of the process of implementing this type of approach in day schools and camps. In both of these settings, this approach requires teamwork–between Israelis and North Americans, between school/camp leadership and educators/counselors, and among educators/counselors themselves–each bringing to the team their unique relationships with Israel, and an understanding that nearly any experience can be an opportunity for Israel education. In this post, we dive deeper into the process of setting goals and share examples of learning outcomes, demonstrating how both goals and desired outcomes guide schools and camps in making programmatic decisions.

Everyone Should Ask “Why?”

Although most schools and camps are actively engaged in Israel education to varying degrees, the educational leadership in these settings rarely takes the time to articulate why they are doing it. Yet, this why is crucial because it keeps leadership teams driven and focused on their educational priorities. It serves as a “north star” for making educational choices, ensuring strong and integrated learning experiences. This why serves as the basis for the development of a vision–an aspirational statement, a specific articulation that will guide educational decisions about Israel, create shared language among educators, and be readily translated into learning outcomes. Going through a process of visioning challenges the leadership and educators to address key questions such as: What do we mean by the term “Israel?” What is the significance of Israel in the context of the school or camp’s larger vision? What is the significance of Israel to Jewish life in general? All of these questions clearly connect back to the big question of why? 

Connected to a vision are learning outcomes. These are understood in this context as general overarching statements articulating the important ideas that we want our learners to grasp over time. They are meant to be expressions of the vision in measurable and observable ways. For example, a vision might include the following sentiment: “[Our graduates] will be conversant in the history, politics and culture of the modern state of Israel and understand its complexities. They will know that life in Israel is not homogeneous or single minded – that it is a beautifully woven tapestry with the colors and textures of many kinds of people from different backgrounds.” One learning outcome connected to this might be, “Learners will encounter and experience modern Israel as a complex and evolving nation with multiple narratives.”

How are We Going to Get There? Alignment of all Areas of Israel Education

Articulating a vision and selecting a few targeted learning outcomes helps a school and a camp make decisions – both in the short term and in the future – about what the educational experience will consist of and how success is measured moving forward. A vision and learning outcomes also help ensure that all aspects of the educational experience are aligned and work together to propel them toward shared goals. As part of our process, we work closely with schools and camps to identify areas where Israel can be brought in anew, and to make sure that the areas where Israel already exists are aligned with the vision for why Israel is important for the learner’s experience in the first place. This is the “real work” of strengthening and infusing Israel throughout an educational program.

For example, a school we worked with identified one of its overarching learning outcomes as, “Students will have the tools to engage in productive dialogue about Israel, considering multiple perspectives.” When the educational team went back and looked at what they were teaching year to year, they realized that there was no way they would be able to achieve this outcome without making changes. This was because the Israel that was being presented – until that time – reflected only one perspective. Committed to this aspect of their vision, the team is now engaged in a close examination of the materials being used in the classroom and beyond at all grade levels to ensure that they are, in fact, representing multiple perspectives and encouraging students to explore them.

As another example, a camp we work with identified one of its learning outcomes as, “By engaging in current, relevant learning about Israel, campers and staff will understand that Israel is complex and evolving, and that their own life long relationship with Israel may also be complex and evolving.” Through this articulation, they realized that previously the Israel that was being explored by staff and campers was the same each summer and did not challenge them to deepen and evolve their relationships with Israel. This has led them to develop a curricular framework that includes broad themes for exploration at different age groups in camp, each one inviting staff and campers to re-examine their relationships with Israel in new ways. As they go through this program each summer, they will learn more and continue to understand Israel’s multifaceted nature.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series in which we explore what day schools and camps can learn from each other and how they might sustain their success into the future.

If you are interested in learning more, please visit or contact Aliza at