HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

From the CEO: Scaling the Mountain Ahead

by Paul Bernstein, CEO, Prizmah Issue: Remodeling

In the world of mountaineering, there are three rules: It’s always further than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks. I have never imagined being able to climb a mountain, an achievement I believe to be beyond my capabilities, my stamina and, to be honest, my vertigo. And yet there are many extraordinary people who scale the peaks, many of whom perhaps at one time felt as I do, as if such a challenge is beyond their reach.

Is grappling with Covid like climbing the proverbial mountain, farther, taller and harder in every dimension? If it is, then I am confident that leaders and educators in Jewish day schools and yeshivas are able mountaineers. They conquer the daily challenges and will emerge on the other side of this crisis stronger, prepared for a changed society, and able to demonstrate more than ever the value of a Jewish day school education. The Covid crisis unleashed creativity and innovation intrinsic to our schools. The immeasurable value of community, support for the whole student, and deeply ingrained Jewish values—all essential features of what our schools provide—are being recognized in new ways. Jewish day schools stand tall on every dimension.

I know that right now, teachers and school leaders may struggle to see the end of this arduous climb, and the daily struggle to fulfill a school’s mission can feel overwhelming and unending. Each day, I hear more examples of the courage, determination and inspiration of our educators, and I thank each and every one for your leadership and commitment to provide the very best experience for every student.

Yet to fulfill our schools’ true potential, we need to begin looking beyond the mountain directly in front of us and prepare for the next heights to be scaled. We must dare to imagine a future beyond Covid. As we begin to do so, how might we build on our experience in crisis to inspire what might come next?

A recent McKinsey report on the future of the K-12 education system argues that “reimagining education after the Covid-19 crisis involves recommitting to what we know works and reshaping for a better future.” A central feature of recommitting to what works is a focus on people, delivering the core skills and instruction each student needs. And reshaping, according to McKinsey, includes harnessing technology to improve access and quality, supporting children holistically, as well as rethinking school structures.

The research suggests that Covid has not completely disrupted the core educational exchange: “While greater use of technology in education may be inevitable, technology will never replace a great teacher. In fact, a single teacher can change a student’s trajectory.”

A successful future, therefore, starts with people. Building on what Prizmah and many others do to deepen talent in Jewish education, there is more we can and should do together, to recruit, motivate, support, inspire and retain the best educators, invest in new models of training and development, and make roles in professional and lay leadership fulfilling, manageable and sustainable. And we need to focus on how to nurture the next generation, in Judaics and Hebrew, in general studies and in leadership.

Recommitting to what works with a focus on people needs to be blended with a commitment “to move beyond existing approaches to embrace more radical innovation.” Technology is, by definition, central to radical change; the challenge is not “just to adopt new technologies but also to incorporate them in ways that improve access and quality.” Building on our current experiences deploying diverse educational technologies, we are already finding ways to strengthen the quality of learning, provide online access to teachers and pedagogical experiences previously out of reach, and to offer greater and more effective differentiation to advance and include every learner, no matter how their learning styles and needs differ.

“Reshaping for a better future” also means “supporting children holistically. … Educators play a critical role in helping children learn how to become effective citizens, parents, workers and custodians of the planet.” Here we have the opportunity to invest in building on day schools’ existing strength in serving the whole child. Additionally, the core values of community and fundamentals of Judaism position day schools to excel in a world that needs each individual to discover his/her unique strengths and build connections for the greater good.

A final challenge as we reimagine education after Covid-19 is to “rethink school structures.” The world of business is coming to terms with the realization that Covid-19 has changed how people behave across every aspect of their lives. This matters to us as we create or adapt systems to address our current and future students and families. The possibilities are manyfold, from physical classroom transformations, to alternative tuition models that make schools more affordable and sustainable, to ways in which we might reconfigure the mix of schools in our communities to meet the needs of the rising generation and to address significant demographic changes.

We are at the beginning of exploring what might be possible, and I know that it may seem impossible right now to contemplate these questions in the midst of what each school faces day to day. When one mountain is facing you, it is hard to imagine the next one. At Prizmah, we are with you in tackling the immediate questions, seeking to support your climb so that we may all, God willing, come through this terrible period. And we are preparing to chart the journey forward with you, into our next, vibrant chapter in Jewish day school life.

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This issue examines how schools are adapting to the challenging circumstances of conducting business during the Covid-19 pandemic. Articles explore ways that school leaders are managing to organize stakeholders in a crisis; that schools are collaborating with each other and internally as a community to strengthen all systems; that educators are reinventing Jewish education through these exigencies by using online tools and shifting their pedagogies. Authors seek to find changes in the present that may have lasting value for a future, post-Covid reality.

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