HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Developing Leadership Competence and Commitment: Project SuLaM

by Todd Clauer Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership

RAVSAK’s Project SuLaM is an example of a leadership program that cultivates the “whole leader”: it develops leaders’ understanding of and commitment toward Jewish tradition, while providing ongoing mentorship in Jewish school leadership. SuLaM serves as a model that schools should look to as they groom their own leaders.

One of the most fascinating realities of the books of Bereshit and Shemot is the constant flow of drama that infects the lives of our ancestors. There always seems to be a crisis looming that places the world and the Jewish people in imminent peril. Jewish day school leadership today seems no different: the storm clouds of an imminent crisis put all of us on high alert, as we try to head off any threat to the long term prosperity of the Jewish people.

To be fair, many of the issues related to leadership in Jewish day schools are the same as those faced by educational leaders in all segments of compulsory education. The pressures to be more focused on the “service” component of helping students and families are rising, while simultaneously the imperative to pay for rising health care costs, the repair of aging buildings and more expensive technologies and programs conflicts with enormous budgetary constraints. Despite this reality, I believe that quality training and professional development opportunities are helping substantially to educate, inspire and better equip Jewish educational leaders of today.

Twelve years ago my current school hired me as a math teacher. Despite my growth in responsibility over the years, I realized that no matter my work ethic or motivation, I was viewing Jewish education through an undeveloped set of eyes because I had not received any formal Jewish education nor did I have training as a Jewish educator. After eight years in the school, I could follow and participate in daily Shacharit services, help my first grader with Hebrew reading, and trace the main themes through the five books of Moses—but I could not come close to feeling like I could play a role in shaping an integrated programmatic view of how we operate as a school.

Two and a half years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to New York City to join a cohort of 16 other Jewish educators from all over the United States in RAVSAK’s Project SuLaM (Study, Leadership, and Mentoring). My participation in Project SuLaM has significantly impacted my capabilities and competencies as an educational leader, which has translated into a significant impact on my school and its students.

SuLaM pairs experienced educators with individual mentors and seasoned teachers who have significant experience in understanding Jewish texts, history, rituals and, most importantly, how Jewish day schools can maximize student growth and learning in serving the missions of our schools. The two-year fellowship program provides intensive learning experiences in two successive summers followed by the ongoing implementation of projects within our schools that are to enrich the Jewish experience of our communities.

As an outgrowth of my work in SuLaM, I have been able to contribute significantly and meaningfully to my school and its curriculum. In Year One, I helped to create a mini-Hebrew/Yiddish dictionary that was placed online to help parents and staff to learn and understand the myriad expressions that are used by Hebrew and Jewish studies staff to describe the richness of Jewish life and rituals. I also was able to re-envision the purposes and goals of our middle and upper school minyanim in collaboration with other Jewish studies teachers and our Judaic head of school. These changes, of which we are quite proud, have led to a positive paradigm shift which has both increased the knowledge and skills of our students while opening up new spiritual pathways.

In Year Two of SuLaM, I assembled a team of administrators and a board member who helped guide the entire school and community through a process by which we created the “Profile of a Graduate” for our K-12 school by integrating ideas of alumni, parents, students, teachers, administrators, board members and community clergy. All of this work was an outgrowth of my time with SuLaM; it was directly connected to my own learning and increasing knowledge of Jewish text, ritual and history.

SuLaM and similar Jewish day school leadership training opportunities underscore the importance of developing more knowledgeable and relevant educational leaders in Jewish day schools, training that could easily be carried through individual schools and communities. In my first job at a secular boarding school, I had the good fortune to have many tremendous mentors and role models. A head of school once talked about leadership as the intersection between commitment and competence. Commitment, he surmised, was based on a passion and a drive to understand the mission and values of a school as well as to connect with parents, students and teachers in meaningful and ongoing ways. Competence was the ability to successfully handle the individual tasks in a teacher’s or an administrator’s daily life.

I believe that this model of leadership still holds today and that both elements are fundamentally and equally important for Jewish school leadership. Therefore, schools and boards should focus significant energy in developing leaders who continue to grow in their commitment and competence.

We live in a time when some still are in search of “perfect” educational leaders. These men and women are often expected to display excellence in an unrealistic number of domains, including as (a) scholars who possesses the knowledge to understand the complexities and challenges of a dual-curriculum community day school; (b) instructional experts; (c) staff mentors and evaluators; (d) people who connect everyone in the community to a common vision of the school; (e) kind, caring individuals who relate well to children; (f) fundraisers; and (g) financial gurus who understand how to maximize tight budgets and limited resources.

Rather than defining competence and excellence by unrealistic expectations, why not define competence as having a clear command on several fronts, but a commitment to develop and grow and to find allies to round out everything that has to be accomplished to serve the school’s mission? This kind of commitment requires a shared leadership model within schools where teachers and administrators continually engage in discourse to re-focus their energies on the most important tasks of meeting a school’s mission.

The experiences I had with Project SuLaM, my colleagues, and the excellent guidance of my teachers and mentors dramatically and influentially increased my level of commitment while building up my competence as an educator in a Jewish day school. Thanks to these experiences, I am able to envision a more complete picture of the richness that can be created in our schools through strengthening Jewish life and facilitating a positive Jewish self-identity for our students.

When G-d chose Abraham for a mission to be a light unto the world, the choice was made, in part, because Abraham was committed to the ideal of being a righteous, compassionate and visionary father of a people. Moses was no different: once he took upon himself the mantle of leading the Jews from Egypt, he put everything into his role as leader. His evolving commitment allowed him to develop the competencies needed to help the Israelites make their way to the Promised Land and to become the people G-d hoped we would become.♦

Todd Clauer is dean of students at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, where he runs the college guidance office, teaches upper school mathematics and physics, and oversees an egalitarian minyan. He can be reached at tclauer@hbha.edu.

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Attending the Crisis of Leadership

Day school leadership, especially headship, confronts all kinds of crises: regular school crises, driven by finances or parents; short tenure (averaging 2.5 years); limited pool of qualified applicants; and an impossible workload with little room for family life. These articles analyze aspects of the problem and offer remedies that professionals and lay leaders might implement in their schools.

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