Conference explores potential for day schools

Last weekend’s Ravsak/Pardes Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, “Moving the Needle: Galvanizing Change in Our Day Schools,” focused on ways to transform day schools at a time when external factors such as the economy and demography have negatively affected enrollment. 

Hebrew College President Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, one of three keynote speakers during the Jan. 19-21 event at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel, stressed that day schools are uniquely positioned in communal life to build future Jewish leaders. 

“Jewish day schools are perhaps the only Jewish institution in North America in which the value of general human knowledge and the growth and development of human beings … is so closely linked with Jewish learning and community,” said Lehmann, whose school is located in Massachusetts. 

During a two-hour discussion that kicked off a conference attended by more than 500 board members, educators, administrators, Federation professionals and others, Lehmann explored the needs of the 21st century student. He said that schools must aim to value five qualities — creativity, hybridity, particularity, spirituality and ethical audacity — but that these values must be coupled with an educator’s emphasis on Judaism’s most sacred text.

“Torah, and a community that values creativity and nurtures a strong sense of student advocacy, encouraging learners to take the risk of being creative, will appeal to our generation,” he said.

Showing an appreciation of his forbearers, Lehmann drew on words of leading Jewish thinkers, including civil rights icon Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Heschel’s “Israel: Echo of Eternity,” which calls for the “concept of spirituality as an education focus in our schools,” helped form the basis for one of Lehmann’s suggestions: that day schools ought to have a national summit on spirituality. Spirituality is a way, he said, to engage those families surveyed in the recent Pew Research Center’s report, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” who said that it is a belief in God, not observance, that turns them on.

In other suggestions, he said schools should operate a collaborative Web site and that their Israel programs should go beyond “twinning,” which entails an American school partnering with an Israeli school for learning opportunities.

 “We have to push the envelope to develop hybrid institutions with Israeli institutions … [with] common Web sites, blogs and collaborative communities of learning that will fully integrate our students and Israeli peers,” he said. “That is going to excite our students and parents. And it’s a hybridity that we uniquely can milk.”

Ken Gross, Milken Community Schools’ board vice chair, was one of the many local attendees who filled the first and second floor of the airport-adjacent hotel. He attended a set of sessions titled “Board Leadership Institute,” and said the importance of the board to a day school’s function should not be underestimated.

“I believe we are partnering with other people and together we are, in our small way, creating a better world,” he said. “We’re creating future Jewish leaders, we’re creating knowledgeable Jews who can make the decision when they are adults on how they want to practice.”

One of the discussions he attended was led by executive business consultant Ann Cohen, who did not sugarcoat the extent to which day school board members face challenges. From boards’ relationships with day school staff members to board members’ communication among themselves, Cohen offered tips to the dozens in attendance.

The conference’s main organizer, Ravsak, represents, develops programs for and advocates for approximately 130 schools across North America. Its partner, Pardes, serves as an umbrella organization for progressive Reform day schools.

“This year, when we thought of how to better focus on the needs of our network of schools, we invited Pardes to join us, as a smaller organization, but where the student bodies often feel similar,” said Idana Goldberg, associate director of Ravsak.

Attendees represented day schools from a wide spectrum of denominations.

The event featured more than 75 sessions over three days. Discussion tracts included “Small Schools and a Sustainable Future,” “Design Thinking and Adaptive Leadership,” “Tefillah: New Paradigms,” “Effective Technology, Effective Education,” “New Paradigms for Israel Education” and “Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom.”

For Rabbi Andy Feig, school rabbi at Sinai Akiba Academy, diversity was important. He said that a session focused on LGBT inclusion in schools was one of the highlights for him. 

Other local day schoold represented included New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) and Wise School (formerly known as Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School). One of the event’s presenters, NCJHS head of school Bruce Powell, led a talk titled “Head of School Support and Evaluation: How Do Our Jewish Values Inform This Critical Board Role?” 

Sometimes, conferences like these produce inspiration in unexpected places, he told the Journal.

“I would say 50 percent of the work at a conference like this goes on in the hallways, goes on in-between the sessions,” Powell said. “It’s the bringing together of ideas.”

On Jan. 19, outside the ballroom where Cohen spoke, vendor booths lined a hallway in the hotel lobby. Offerings were aplenty, from samples of custom-made kippot imprinted with school logos on them to famous children’s books translated into Hebrew. 

“That’s Jewish ingenuity,” said Leon Janks, Milken board chairman (and also a board member for TRIBE Media Corp., parent of the Jewish Journal) while at the booth for Klipped Kippahs. 

Janks was talking about the bobby pins sewn into the kippahs’ seams, but, with attendees bustling around him, he could have easily been referring to Ravsak and Pardes’ accomplishment: bringing hundreds of educators  together under one tent.