MichaelBerger

Thanksgiving – The Power of Noticing

 Posted by on November 19, 2018 at 12:15 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Nov 192018
 

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy

By Michael Berger

For those in school, holidays set the rhythm of the year, from the programming and study in the weeks before to the actual vacation days off. Living as they do according to two calendars, Jewish day schools jump between Jewish and secular holidays, seamlessly enacting the dual identity of our students and families as Jews and as Americans or Canadians. After the chagim of Tishrei, we in North America turn to the next major holiday – Thanksgiving.

Although Thanksgiving is typically classified as a ‘secular’ holiday, we intuitively sense that it belongs to “both sides” of Jewish day schools. After all, gratitude is both an ethical good – we are taught to say “thank you” as soon as we learn to speak – as well as a religious imperative – we recite “modeh/modah ani” upon waking and say “nodeh lekha” (“we thank You”) in Birkat ha-mazon after food. Indeed, Saadia Gaon (10th c. Babylonia) wrote in his “Book of Beliefs and Opinions,” that the ultimate foundation of mitzvot was rational in that most are expressions of gratitude to the divine creator.

In spite of its universality, the notion of gratitude in each culture may have some nuances that are worth noting. In our everyday lives, saying “thank you” is considered common courtesy – you have done something for me, and I ‘pay’ for it with a thank you. It’s quasi-transactional, a reflexive quid pro quo: if our children ask for or receive anything, we teach them from a young age to say “please” and “thank you” automatically, without any thought. Focused on the self – I am doing the thanking – it discharges a debt, taking the gift or gesture as a given.

In the Jewish tradition, however, thanking – hodayah – comes from the very same root as admission – hoda’ah – or confession. Intrinsic to thanking is acknowledging that the other’s generosity drove the gift just given, not my right or entitlement. The person who is thanked is at the center of Jewish gratitude; I notice his or her kindness and admit – “confess” – how it exceeds what I deserve.

Thanksgiving in a Jewish day school should thus be about much more than mere courtesy. Of course, we should thank our teachers and administrators for all that we see them do, day-to-day, in the trenches. But in the spirit of our tradition, I would like to suggest that the run-up to Thanksgiving should also include noticing the many extraordinary things that go on in our schools by people we typically don’t notice, and which exceed what we expect and deserve:

  • the many unnoticed things teachers do, when they go above and beyond to help students who may be struggling, or who are looking for an additional challenge;
  • the custodians who, working before or after school hours, make sure our facilities are in an ideal condition that ensures safety and promotes learning;
  • the back-office staff who deal with technical, financial and communication minutiae every day, in a climate that increasingly expects instantaneous response;
  • the parent volunteers who come in to help in so many ways, throughout the school day and on nights and weekends, that contributes to the prevalent feeling of ‘family’ in our schools.
  • the many donors, and especially of the smaller gifts, who ensure our schools function, pay their bills and remain open for all students;
  • last, but not least, the lay leaders, and especially the board chair or president, who dedicate hundreds of personal hours to ensure that their schools have the financial and human resources to enact their mission, and that their schools operate properly and sustainably.

We who work in schools need to notice the many behind-the-scenes individuals who, in many untold ways, give so generously. Rather than consigning acknowledgement to a designated few, let’s find ways to help everyone, and especially our students, notice and appreciate what others do to make our schools work. This is one of the most important things we can do in educating them Jewishly.

It’s true that in some private schools in this country, there is a mood of entitlement by the students and families; for the tuition paid, they expect and demand a highly personalized, first-class education that serves their child’s interests. (See the bold 2017 letter by Trinity’s headmaster, John Allman, on precisely this point.) But Jewish day schools aspire to pass on the time-honored traditions of our faith and our people, and that includes “Thanks-giving” – or shall we say “thanks-noticing” – in a Jewish way.

For the last 25 years, the AVI CHAI Foundation has invested in many of these groups, “noticing” the hard work of teachers, leaders, staff, donors and board members, and creating varied programs that improve their skills and build their capacity. On this Thanksgiving, we want to invite the entire day school community to join us in thanking each and every one of them, in committing ourselves to notice their dedication, and acknowledge that their generosity far exceeds what we deserve.

The Jewish people, and its future, are in good hands. Let’s notice it.

Dr. Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation – North America.

Sep 262018
 

This piece is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.

By Michael S. Berger

For many Jews, and especially those who work in the Jewish community, Tishrei is essentially four weeks of uninterrupted holidays. Yet we naturally divide them into two pairs – the more solemn, reflective “High Holy Days” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a focus on making amends, and then the more festive, joyous holidays of Sukkot and then Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, recalling the divine protection our ancestors enjoyed as they wandered through the wilderness. After ten days of (hopefully) deep, inner work, the sudden shift to recalling how we were taken care of seems to be a non-sequitur at best, and a distraction at worst. Is this how to prolong the lessons learned between Rosh Hashanahand Yom Kippur?

As a program officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation, I think I may have stumbled on an answer.

Last month, I was reading through the anonymous evaluations to our Harvard principals program. The program, as it has evolved, asks a lot of participants. The week-long institutes are jam-packed with sessions, facilitated group conversations, and daily assignments. Moreover, since 2013 AVI CHAI has added an ‘overlay’ in the evenings just for the day school cohort, where the lessons gleaned at Harvard during the day are processed together and applied to the day school context. It is an intensive, immersive week of learning, reflection and deep thinking.

When AVI CHAI began sponsoring day school leaders at the summer institutes 20 years ago, for the sake of convenience we decided to have participants stay in a nearby hotel just a five minute walk from the program, and less than 10 minutes from the Harvard Hillel. This hotel was a five-star accommodation, but we felt it was worth the convenience of access to the sites of learning. Furthermore, we arranged with a caterer to provide high quality (and abundant!) kosher food whenever Harvard offered food to other participants, since very little kosher food is available in Cambridge. Feedback each year helped us learn what the needs of day school leaders were, and our staff worked closely with both Harvard and the hotel to make sure they understood this group’s needs, especially as the program became more intense, and there was little free time for the participants to handle these issues. In addition, we provided helpful information participants might like to know, such as ways to travel to and from the airport, cost of parking, and phone numbers of the Harvard Hillel for prayer times.

As I read through those post-program surveys a few weeks ago, day school leaders consistently commented on how much they valued having all their needs anticipated and taken care of. It’s not just the pampering, which is certainly appreciated. Nor is it their being on the receiving end of such attention, when they’re used to tending to others’ needs. It’s the fact that, knowing they will be nourished and their personal needs provided for, they can then free their minds and turn their attention fully to the learning. They can invest themselves in the sessions and honest, sometimes hard, conversations that challenge their assumptions and get them to re-think their strategies, policies, and the ways they lead. Such deep work is never easy, and AVI CHAI taking care of their personal needs frees participants to focus fully on the main goals.

More than once, we weighed options that might bring down the cost of these amenities, thus enabling us to sponsor more leaders at the summer institutes. But we always came back to the same conclusion – part of what makes the learning so powerful, and of such potentially lasting impact, is that the leaders can devote themselves 110% to the work while there. Aside from expressing our hakarat ha-tov (gratitude) to these leaders for their dedicated work, the “TLC” provided by AVI CHAI and Harvard staff elevated the likelihood that they would get the most out of the week of intensive learning and go back to their schools and improve the culture through more effective leadership.

Many funders are keen to invest substantively in our communal professionals, hoping to raise the bar of our most valuable human resources by immersing them in extended programs of self-improvement. At AVI CHAI, we have learned how important it is as well to ensure they are nourished in every way – physical, emotional, religious – if we expect so much of them. Such an approach may be more costly in the short-run, but there will be far more ROI if real change results.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Sukkot coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We certainly want adults to learn and to improve, to reflect on their past deeds and resolve to do and be better. However, we can’t forget that for that learning to last, adults must first feel physically nourished, emotionally protected, and generally taken care of so they can focus on self-improvement. Sukkot reminds us that the sense of not struggling to survive but being in a safe, worry-free place was first experienced by our ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness – a divine gift to carry the hard work of that first Yom Kippur forward.

Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation – North America.

Sep 172018
 

This article is cross-posted in eJewishPhilanthropy.

By Michael S. Berger and Leah N. Meir

For many Jews around the world, the past week has been intense. Rosh Hashana ushered in a period of self-evaluation and, hopefully, triggered an impulse to improve. In just a day or two, Yom Kippur, with its solemn intensity, will set the stage for the coming year – will we be better, will we avoid mistakes, will we not settle for the status quo and aim higher? ‘Tis the season for change, and most of us would prefer it be lasting.

This process of self-assessment and thinking about the future is no less true for institutions and organizations – will they achieve their goals in the coming year? Will they aim to be more efficient or effective? Will they, guided by their mission, better serve their constituents? Whether you’re a professional, a lay leader, or a highly invested funder of a Jewish institution, this time of year you’re also thinking about change.

Like individuals, institutions want their improvements to stick. Leaders and investors want to reduce the likelihood of backsliding and ensure that the changes are permanent. At The AVI CHAI Foundation, our focus for the last twenty-five years has been on strengthening and improving Jewish day schools and overnight camps, so that the Jewish education they provide is not only more effective and impactful, but enduring as well. In this season of planning lasting change, we would like to share a few lessons we’ve learned regarding how to promote and structure sustainable institutional change.

First, change is complex. Another similarity between people and organizations is that they are both complex: a problem is almost never the result of a single cause. Multiple factors may encourage certain negative behaviors or impede their correction. Trying to remedy or improve the situation will almost always be a complex process. Don’t be paralyzed by the complexity; take time to understand the forces at work, identify each, and appreciate how they interact.

Second, choose your levers carefully. Once you feel you have a good handle on the various factors producing the status quo, choose the best or most strategic lever for institutional improvement. Pick a change agent that has both the best chance of succeeding and of leading to next steps.

Thus, in 2003, to help day schools improve their Tanakh programs, AVI CHAI sponsored the Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks project at the Davidson School of Jewish Education (now called the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute). The initial target was, naturally, Tanakh teachers, who would be helped by “Tanakh educator consultants” (TECs), experts in the relevant pedagogies who would come to the schools a few times a year to work with teachers in implementing and adapting the newly-developed Standards and Benchmarks. However, an external evaluation after the program’s first three years showed that the Judaic Studies heads needed further knowledge in mentoring and overseeing their faculty members in order to successfully embed Standards-based teaching in their schools. It wasn’t enough for the school’s head of Judaics to be “on board” with the project; he/she needed to be the central player in the change effort. The Judaics head was “local,” knew the realities on the ground better than outsiders and could help the faculty collaborate on a more regular and consistent basis. Starting with the fourth year, the program shifted its focus to the Judaics heads and building their educational leadership skills, enabling them to support and train the Tanakh teachers in Standards-based teaching and learning. From that point on, schools enrolled in the program uniformly reported more consistent and lasting progress in achieving their goals.

Third, try to anticipate obstacles or potential headwinds. When structuring the change process, make sure to identify what other forces may be contributing to the status quo, or what might derail or obstruct change. Think how to avoid or work around those pitfalls, find ways to reduce their influence, or, if possible, recruit them into the change process. One example: since 2013, AVI CHAI’s summer leadership program at Harvard’s Principals Center requires participants to implement a change project related to the school’s Jewish mission the following year. Initially, we chose applicants whose projects aimed to make a major difference in their schools. But over the course of the following year, we came to see common features among those projects that succeeded, and those that stalled. For instance, if the participant’s project had either not been vetted by the other members of the school admin team, or a new head had arrived on campus who felt there were other, more urgent priorities to work on, it took a long time for the project to gain traction, if at all. On the other hand, projects in areas that were already determined to be priorities for the school, yet detailed plans had not been worked out, tended to make the most of the Harvard learning and progress impressively over the following year. After that year, we added several questions to the application that helped us learn whether the leadership at the applicant’s school was stable, and whether the project was already determined to be part of the school’s near-term strategic plan (in all cases, before accepting AVI CHAI sponsorship, day school leaders must get their heads of school or board chairs to sign a memorandum of understanding confirming the centrality of the proposed project). The result has led to a much higher percentage of school projects succeeding within the year-long framework of the program.

Lastly, build “scaffolds” for successful completion. In all settings, it is individuals who implement change, but as a rule, people in schools are very busy. Even well-intentioned people committed to change can be easily distracted or forced to attend to other, more urgent, assignments. Build into the program regular and consistent structures – weekly, biweekly or monthly check-ins, deadlines for updates, presentations to colleagues – anything that will create regular accountability and move participants along; Better Lesson, the program that helps teachers develop the skills for more personalized, differentiated instruction in their classrooms, has a virtual coach contact the teacher every two weeks to set goals and see how they’re progressing. This also helps with accountability.

All these lessons are, of course, interconnected, and so we applied the lessons we learned in one school improvement program to all others, where relevant: in the three programs mentioned above, over time we were able to identify when a school is “ripe” for that particular change or when it should wait; we came to know what criteria to look for in appropriate applicants; and all change programs have some structure built in to ensure accountability and steady improvement.

It would be wonderful if intensive, inspiring once-a-year experiences could produce lasting change. Outstanding Yom Kippurs would turn us around, and astonishing one-day workshops would move institutions forward by leaps and bounds. However, human beings, no matter how well-meaning and motivated, typically deal with what’s most urgent and then move on to the next pressing matter, leaving change uneven, incomplete, and prone to lapses and backsliding. The lessons above are some of the things we’ve learned how to help change stick around – something we all aim for.

One final thing: with change so complex, it’s also often slow, really slow. Quick solutions almost never work, and even backfire, precisely for the reasons we noted above. Make sure you give the change process enough time to take root, to make adjustments, and to assess. That means being patient – with colleagues, with institutions, and above all, with ourselves.

May we all be blessed with health, happiness, and enduring change in 5779.

Michael S. Berger and Leah N. Meir are Program Officers at AVI CHAI North America.

Partners in Learning: Investing in Lay Leadership

 Posted by on June 27, 2018 at 9:04 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Jun 272018
 

In our complex society, with its many varied and specialized occupations, we have come to expect ongoing professional development in a host of fields: medicine, law, accounting, and almost anyone who needs a license to practice. This makes good sense; any field where the stakes are high, and both subject matter and/or technique are constantly evolving, must demand that its practitioners stay as current as possible, ensuring that the public is best served. 19th century American educational reformers began to see teaching as another “profession,” leading first to the establishment of teacher seminaries (known as “Normal Schools”) to prepare teachers for classrooms, and then the licensing and certification of teachers, which included ongoing learning, first in the summers and then throughout the year, typically in the form of presentations and workshops. This is the model most of us know and expect of all our children’s educators, from classroom teachers to top-level administrators.

However, to a great degree this focus, while understandable, is misleading. It is tempting – and convenient – to view teachers as the individuals exclusively responsible for our children’s education. But we know that that schools are complex entities, and Jewish day schools, as private institutions, are also led by dedicated individuals who volunteer to serve on boards that govern the school. While professionals are indeed responsible for the critical day-to-day work of education, lay boards take the long view, setting the school’s mission, overseeing its implementation, and ensuring that the institution is properly resourced to realize that mission. Without doubt, these lay leaders are true partners with the professionals in making our day schools effective and sustainable.

Nevertheless, while their work is no less complex than the craft of teaching children, many assume that volunteers who are recruited to a day school board will naturally know what to do once they join it. To be sure, some lay leaders have some background or experience in fulfilling the duties of board membership, but such people are in short supply; most come to their board work eager to do what’s best for their school but unsure exactly how to do it. Moreover, most of these well-intentioned people have jobs, families, and other communal commitments, requiring their limited time to be used as effectively and efficiently as possible. Like teachers, lay leaders require some preparation and ongoing development if they are going to be successful partners with the instructional professionals.

For this reason, The AVI CHAI Foundation is investing in developing lay leaders in the following ways:

  • “Board Fitness,” a program launched last August by Prizmah, begins with a thorough survey, called the “Board Self-Assessment,” that asks all board members to anonymously rate their board’s performance on a wide range of board activities. The results, laid out in a clear, color-coded report, enable a board chair to get a good snapshot of current members’ views and perceptions. With the guidance of a certified Prizmah coach, the board chair works out how to use the survey results to trigger important and healthy conversations by the board, and to work out a plan for board development that will improve board performance in specific areas. The program’s initial cohort of 50 day schools, expected to fill in 18 months, filled in less than four. A new cohort is expected to be announced soon by Prizmah.
  • DSLTI, the Davidson School’s flagship leadership training program, now offers workshops and individual consulting for schools where program alumni are currently serving as heads. Board chairs, usually together with the head of school, attend one-day programs that review the basics of board governance and learn the elements that make up a healthy and productive lay-professional partnership.

Many philanthropists and community-minded leaders, who believe thriving Jewish day schools are a critical contribution to a vibrant Jewish future in America, are eager to help these institutions succeed. Intuitively, they offer to fund capital improvements, support scholarships for needy families, and invest in teacher and administrator development – all essential to raising the quality of the education Jewish children receive. However, our 25 years of experience in this field have underscored the equally important role lay leaders play in the success of any day school – a lesson other funders, such as The Legacy Heritage Fund, have also learned with its “OnBoard” program for all Jewish organizations. We are excited that other philanthropists are using their resources to address this need.

No school today would hire educators to teach and lead a school without also investing in their professional development. A school that invests equally in its board members will ensure that these two “partners in learning,” in shared harness, will lead their school to greater and greater success.

May 312018
 

As a foundation supporting Jewish day schools and overnight camps, AVI CHAI has always been eager to see the maximum number of participants enroll in our various professional development programs. “Filling the cohort” would obviously benefit a large number of institutions, thus increasing the impact of our philanthropy among Jewish youth. But cohort-based learning is not merely a matter of numbers. Early on, we learned that fashioning a group of professionals into an “intentional learning community” profoundly deepens the learning and enhances its durability.

Take, for example, the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education. The program includes two immersive, 3-week summer sessions and several 2-3 day retreats over the span of 15 months. While its curriculum on how to run a school Jewishly is extremely comprehensive, DSLTI works hard to create a learning experience rooted in the group. This is not just the familiarity bred by many shared experiences; the program’s leaders and mentors go about developing an “intentional learning community,” complete with its own norms (arrived at by consensus), a unique language and particular processes and rituals of learning. Taking advantage of the longer time frame, DSLTI gives participants the opportunity to reflect intentionally on every aspect of their own learning, from evaluating each session in real-time, discussing both the content and the learning strategies employed, and even developing new components, such as the “spiritual check-in” and book clubs. In this way, whatever is being presented or discussed each day depends less on the presenter and much more on the receiving group that, armed with its unique communal norms and attitudes, is able to take the material, work with it, probe it, digest it and then apply it in their actual contexts. Furthermore, the tightly-knit communities continue way past the end of the program, offering insight and support to one another for years.

The presence of intentional learning communities has become characteristic of many of the leadership development programs we support. Prizmah’s YOU Lead (originally “YU Lead” at Yeshiva University’s School Partnership) offers a year-long online curriculum for aspiring day school leaders, but incorporates two meetings together over the year to afford all participants the chance not just to meet face-to-face, but to form their “intentional community” that enhances and deepens the weekly learning that was either virtual or asynchronous. While many different platforms can support content-driven learning, and cohorts or affinity groups can certainly create a sense of camaraderie and shared interests and experiences, forming an intentional learning community does much to ensure the depth and sustainability of what is being learned.

Obviously, not every ‘intentional community’ is identical, but from our perspective, they do share several characteristics:

(1) participants taking the time to establish their own norms related to confidentiality; being present, engaged and prepared; and what sorts of responses will be acceptable;

(2) implementing those norms and determining consequences of failure to uphold them;

(3) developing a distinctive learning culture, which typically includes not only attitudes but ‘rituals’ and practices as well, that are rehearsed and respected;

(4) actively respecting, caring for and supporting one another’s learning and growth; and

(5) designing methods of inducting new members into the culture, thus ensuring its continuation.

Over time, we at AVI CHAI have seen these elements of intentional learning communities show up, to varying degrees, in virtually all of the most powerful professional development programs we’ve sponsored, be it in the study of Hebrew (e.g., TaL AM/iTaLAM, Bishvil Ha-Ivrit – formerly NETA-CET), blended and personalized learning (e.g., BetterLesson), or Israel education (e.g., Write on for Israel). Their power lies not only in what they unleash in participants during the program, but in the lasting effects as well.

This feature need not be reserved for programs external to schools. Indeed, many of the academically strongest day schools throughout North America work hard to develop their faculty into intentional communities, whether by department (e.g., Hebrew, Social Studies) or more broadly (e.g., all Judaic Studies, or whole school faculty). In the AVI CHAI-sponsored “Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks” project (now the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute), schools with several Tanakh educators deliberately form them into a working and learning community, incubating an effective culture for the development and implementation of curricular goals and how they will be achieved.

Aside from the benefits with respect to increased teacher effectiveness and improved children’s learning, these tightknit learning communities also help retain teachers who find great personal and professional satisfaction being in such an environment. And the virtuous cycle continues, as the intentional learning community attracts talented teachers to join the team and stay for many years. Over the years, I’ve visited several day schools that fostered such vibrant communities. When speaking with teachers, it doesn’t take long to discern this unique culture. It’s literally palpable.

Leadership development programs have figured something out that can and should trickle down to our schools. If schools are all about learning, it’s an activity we should want everyone in the building doing, not just the children. Of course, developing such intentional learning communities among staff demands the most precious commodity we have – time – but it will ultimately accrue to everyone’s great benefit. Leaders who’ve successfully fostered such communities among themselves are in the unique position to spread the wealth, implementing the methods they’ve learned and raising the tide for every staff member in their schools.

May 312018
 

As a foundation supporting Jewish day schools and overnight camps, AVI CHAI has always been eager to see the maximum number of participants enroll in our various professional development programs. “Filling the cohort” would obviously benefit a large number of institutions, thus increasing the impact of our philanthropy among Jewish youth. But cohort-based learning is not merely a matter of numbers. Early on, we learned that fashioning a group of professionals into an “intentional learning community” profoundly deepens the learning and enhances its durability.

Take, for example, the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education. The program includes two immersive, 3-week summer sessions and several 2-3 day retreats over the span of 15 months. While its curriculum on how to run a school Jewishly is extremely comprehensive, DSLTI works hard to create a learning experience rooted in the group. This is not just the familiarity bred by many shared experiences; the program’s leaders and mentors go about developing an “intentional learning community,” complete with its own norms (arrived at by consensus), a unique language and particular processes and rituals of learning. Taking advantage of the longer time frame, DSLTI gives participants the opportunity to reflect intentionally on every aspect of their own learning, from evaluating each session in real-time, discussing both the content and the learning strategies employed, and even developing new components, such as the “spiritual check-in” and book clubs. In this way, whatever is being presented or discussed each day depends less on the presenter and much more on the receiving group that, armed with its unique communal norms and attitudes, is able to take the material, work with it, probe it, digest it and then apply it in their actual contexts. Furthermore, the tightly-knit communities continue way past the end of the program, offering insight and support to one another for years.

The presence of intentional learning communities has become characteristic of many of the leadership development programs we support. For over 20 years, AVI CHAI has been sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two Summer Institutes at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education Principals’ Center. These weeklong institutes, studded with world renowned educational researchers and thinkers, quickly develop their own powerful learning cultures. When AVI CHAI’s Trustees decided several years ago that the Harvard program should focus more on lasting change at participants’ schools, we added nightly sessions for the day school leaders, facilitated by Educannon Consulting, to eat together, learn together, and establish their own discourse, their own language, and their own unique culture to piggyback on the much more diverse learning community established during the day at Harvard. And even though they are together only a week, these learning communities remain active for months, in some cases years, after they leave Harvard.

Similarly, Prizmah’s YOU Lead (originally “YU Lead” at Yeshiva University’s School Partnership) offers a year-long online curriculum for aspiring day school leaders, but incorporates two meetings together over the year to afford all participants the chance not just to meet face-to-face, but to form their “intentional community” that enhances and deepens the weekly learning that was either virtual or asynchronous. While many different platforms can support content-driven learning, and cohorts or affinity groups can certainly create a sense of camaraderie and shared interests and experiences, forming an intentional learning community does much to ensure the depth and sustainability of what is being learned.

Obviously, not every ‘intentional community’ is identical, but from our perspective, they do share several characteristics:

(1) participants taking the time to establish their own norms related to confidentiality; being present, engaged and prepared; and what sorts of responses will be acceptable;

(2) implementing those norms and determining consequences of failure to uphold them;

(3) developing a distinctive learning culture, which typically includes not only attitudes but ‘rituals’ and practices as well, that are rehearsed and respected;

(4) actively respecting, caring for and supporting one another’s learning and growth; and

(5) designing methods of inducting new members into the culture, thus ensuring its continuation.

Over time, we at AVI CHAI have seen these elements of intentional learning communities show up, to varying degrees, in virtually all of the most powerful professional development programs we’ve sponsored, be it in the study of Hebrew (e.g., TaL AM/iTaLAM, Bishvil Ha-Ivrit – formerly NETA-CET), blended and personalized learning (e.g., BetterLesson), or Israel education (e.g., Write on for Israel). Their power lies not only in what they unleash in participants during the program, but in the lasting effects as well.

This feature need not be reserved for programs external to schools. Indeed, many of the academically strongest day schools throughout North America work hard to develop their faculty into intentional communities, whether by department (e.g., Hebrew, Social Studies) or more broadly (e.g., all Judaic Studies, or whole school faculty). In the AVI CHAI-sponsored “Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks” project (now the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute), schools with several Tanakh educators deliberately form them into a working and learning community, incubating an effective culture for the development and implementation of curricular goals and how they will be achieved.

Aside from the benefits with respect to increased teacher effectiveness and improved children’s learning, these tightknit learning communities also help retain teachers who find great personal and professional satisfaction being in such an environment. And the virtuous cycle continues, as the intentional learning community attracts talented teachers to join the team and stay for many years. Over the years, I’ve visited several day schools that fostered such vibrant communities. When speaking with teachers, it doesn’t take long to discern this unique culture. It’s literally palpable.

Leadership development programs have figured something out that can and should trickle down to our schools. If schools are all about learning, it’s an activity we should want everyone in the building doing, not just the children. Of course, developing such intentional learning communities among staff demands the most precious commodity we have – time – but it will ultimately accrue to everyone’s great benefit. Leaders who’ve successfully fostered such communities among themselves are in the unique position to spread the wealth, implementing the methods they’ve learned and raising the tide for every staff member in their schools.

Apr 262018
 

A profile of Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School at Gann Academy, and incoming President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).

In the study of leadership, a debate has long raged whether leaders are born or made.  That argument is likely never going to be resolved, but two traits are commonly found in the most successful leaders: the avid and unending pursuit of one’s own growth, and the willingness to take risks.  These are the rungs of the “leadership ladder” – securing one’s footing on one rung, even as one stretches to grasp a higher one currently beyond reach – requiring one, in turn, to lift oneself and gain a new footing on an even higher rung.  This is especially true in education, which is why when The AVI CHAI Foundation turned its attention to Jewish day schools in 1994, it immediately began investing in multiple professional development programs for those in leadership and for those aspiring to it.

Rabbi Marc Baker, current head of Gann Academy in Waltham, MA is a great exemplar of such a leader – and the ladder.  Having majored in Religious Studies at Yale as an undergraduate, he realized the need to develop his Jewish literacy skills, and went to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for four years, first as a Dorot Fellow and then as a pioneer in the Pardes Educators Program, an AVI CHAI-funded 2-year program that trains individuals to teach Jewish texts in North American day school classrooms.  Marc then went to teach in what is now the Weber School in Atlanta, a pluralistic community high school, rising to the position of Director of Judaics and Student Life, and helping to innovate Judaics curriculum in the school.

Seeking to grow further, in 2005 Marc enrolled in the 15-month Day School Leadership Training Institute, a program of the Davidson School co-funded by JTS and AVI CHAI. This immersive program helps educators learn how to “lead Jewishly,” and develop the skills related to the four primary frames of leadership and organizational change.  While in the program, Marc returned to Gann Academy, Boston’s pluralistic high school, as an Associate Head of School, and that year became Head of School, succeeding its founding leader.  Marc has been there ever since, where he continued to seek out opportunities for professional growth – such as attending Harvard’s Principals Center’s Summer Institutes with AVI CHAI sponsorship – even as he stretched himself and his team with innovative experiments such as “Chanoch La’Naar,” a mussar-based spiritual growth program for his leadership team that he discussed in one of the very first ELI Talks.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIguy7GrJ74[/embedyt]

Marc has distinguished himself as a leading light of day school education in North America, and has been recognized both locally and nationally for what he has achieved, receiving the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Award in 2011.

The interweaving of professional growth and risks is the essence of “the leadership ladder,” and we are proud to have helped enable Rabbi Baker to ascend that ladder over the last two decades and positively impact so many students and colleagues. We wish him well as he continues his persistent climb, seeking newer and ever more challenging opportunities for personal growth, and assuming the presidency of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.

The leadership ladder – it is the stuff of dreams.  Ask our ancestor Jacob, or just ask Marc Baker.

Jan 092018
 

Berger 7-23-13eFor decades, studies have shown the critical role educational leaders play in the instruction and learning going on in their schools.  In both public and private education, leaders establish the culture that promotes every aspect of the learning enterprise: learning goals and curriculum, student engagement and achievement, teacher development and supervision, and ongoing learning and improvement for everyone in the school.  For many, the head of school is the CCO – “Chief Culture Officer” – setting the tone and tenor of the school and everyone involved in it, from students and staff to parents and board members.

When it comes to Jewish day schools, leaders have the additional responsibility of implementing their school’s Jewish mission, seeing to it that students develop robust and enduring Jewish identities, which includes both content knowledge and affective dispositions relating to Jewish texts, religious life and practices, Hebrew language, and the larger Jewish people with its center in Israel.

Investing in day school leadership has been a priority of the AVI CHAI Foundation since it turned its focus on Jewish education in 1994.  From early on, the Foundation’s goals were to increase the pipeline of leaders and to develop and strengthen the skills and tools of leaders currently serving in day schools.  Featured in this newsletter are our two earliest investments in principal training – sponsoring day school leaders to participate in weeklong summer institutes led by Harvard University’s Principals’ Center, and preparing a new cadre of day school leaders through the intensive, immersive experience of the Day School Leadership Training Institute at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Applications for Harvard will become available in February.

It is no secret that since AVI CHAI began developing programming in this area, the job of the day school leader has become much more complex – and stressful.  Enrollment and fundraising are relentless challenges constantly on the minds of day school leaders, and maintaining good relations with board members and within the community demand more and more of a leader’s attention.  Over the last two decades, AVI CHAI has sought to train and buttress leaders with a variety of other, more focused programs, reflecting the changing landscape and contours of day school education in 21st century North America.

While the Foundation’s philanthropic portfolio in leadership support has broadened, its fundamental commitment has remained constant – to prepare and develop a cadre of skilled, dedicated leaders who will lead strong day schools in the education and nurturing of Jewish students committed to their Judaism, to their heritage and to the Jewish People.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger

Program Officer, The AVI CHAI Foundation

Aim Higher: An Address to the DSLTI Alumni Retreat

 Posted by on December 14, 2015 at 11:06 am  No Responses »  Categories:
Dec 142015
 

We are pleased to share AVI CHAI Program Officer Dr. Michael Berger’s address to the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) alumni retreat currently underway in Florida. DSLTI, an AVI CHAI grantee, is a program of the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS. To date, nine DSLTI cohorts, including the one currently running, have included a total of 116 fellows. Read more about DSLTI here

Lighting Chanukah candles at the DSLTI alumni retreat

Lighting Chanukah candles at the DSLTI alumni retreat

We are ending Chanukah, which in many ways is a unique holiday.  In general, we try to beautify the performance of every mitzvah, what’s called “hiddur mitzvah.” Thus, we try and get an especially beautiful Etrog, purchase or make pretty challah covers or seder plates – all to adorn the mitzvah and make it look prettier.  However, only Chanukah lights has that requirement “built in,” as it were – the Talmud famously records three levels of the mitzvah:

1) At the most basic level, we light one candle per household.

2) The next level, called “mehadrin” – beautifying it – is that there be a candle for each member of the household.

3) The highest level, called ‘mehadrin min hamehadrin,’ is to have the number of lights change each night.  Beit Shammai has us starting off strong with 8 and then declining down to 1, whereas Beit Hillel has us starting more modestly with one and increasing to 8.

Why did the Rabbis institute this tri-level performance?

I’m sure there are many answers, but I think one possible explanation lies in the nature of the basic mitzvah.  If we examine the initial level – the mitzvah in its simplest form, we notice another oddity: the obligation is incumbent on the household.  In contrast, most mitzvot are on each adult Jew: we are EACH required to eat matzah at the seder, EVERY ONE of us must hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Megillat Ester on Purim.  But when it comes to Chanukah, the obligation seems to be on the household: ner ish u-veito.  Why? Because the Rabbis understood that the threat that the Maccabees fought against was not so much over sovereignty, but over Greek culture.  In many ways, Judaism was not being overrun by Greek soldiers, but by Greek beliefs, Greek attitudes, Greek priorities.  Certainly by the time of the tannaim, it was clear that Jews were going to be a minority within Greco-Roman culture for a long time to come.  A life according to the Torah, with God at the center rather than man, yet with man able to improve the world rather than be subject to fickle fate – this is what the Rabbis knew would be countercultural for a long time. Therefore, they conceived of a mitzvah that would focus on the household, that which encases the Jewish family that grows together under a single roof and passes on core values.  Lighting even one candle – the light of Torah and Jewish values – in the midst of the darkness around them is what we are called upon to do at this time.

However, that’s the minimum.  Creating that kind of household, against the stream of the world around us, is already a major accomplishment.  But the Rabbis said: strive for more.  Don’t content yourself with a Jewish household with one candle.  Try and light a candle for each member of your household – parents and children, maybe even grandparents and grandchildren.  The goal is not to have everyone share a single light, or live by the light of a single candle.  Our goal is that everyone in the household should be able to light his or her own menorah, his or her own light of Torah.  Imagine the beauty of such a household, where EVERYONE has a candle that pierces the darkness.  How impressive a home that is to come in to, and observe the brightness!

But the Rabbis said – “that’s not enough. Aim higher.”  It’s wonderful that everyone lights a candle, but no one should content herself or himself with just one candle.  The House of Hillel says: increase the light every night.  Add to it.  Don’t be satisfied with the minimum.  If you can build a household that not only has a light, that not only has a light for each person, but that is actually filled with individuals who ADD to their menorah every night, whose Judaism grows constantly – then THAT will be the ultimate victory, that will ensure that Judaism and Torah values endure in the face of Greek society and values, and even way past it.

In many ways, that is how AVI CHAI sees the day school leader – how we see YOU.  You are there to make sure that in your houses, in your schools, the light of Jewish values shines brightly.  However, the goal is not that these values sit in the mission, or in the curriculum, or in the faculty.  The aim is to have the light in each and every child – that each student in your charge is a candle waiting to be lit, who will go out into the darkness and illuminate it with Jewish commitments and values.  I think we all agree that would be a truly excellent school.  However, we don’t want you to stop there – we want you to stretch to the top of the ladder, to beautify the mitzvah to the UTMOST by aiming high and having each child not light only one candle, but continue lighting more and more candles as she or he grows up!  Think about what that would like!  Your school of 60, 100, 300 students, on the 8th day – and ALUMNI! – all together they will literally light up the world!

That, in a word, is AVI CHAI’s prayer and our blessing to you as Chanukah closes – that you use the incredible gift of DSLTI to lead your schools, your “households,” in such a Jewish way not only to light a single candle, not only to light as many candles as students, but to turn each and every student into a menorah that burns more brightly every night, while they’re in your schools but also thereafter.  If you are able to create and lead such schools, then the future of American Jewry will be equally bright.

Chag sameach and much hatzlahah/good luck in your holy work.