In the Issue: Organizational Memory

Organizational Memory

“Most of the time, when I remember, it is others who spur me on; their memory comes to the aid of mine and mine relies on theirs.” Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory

 

We tend to think of memory as something intensely personal and individual. After all, our memories form the mental furniture that bedecks our minds. Our oldest memories—of our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends, playgrounds and parks, toys and pets—lie at our emotional core. Subsequent experiences layer on memories charged with lessons, constructing understanding, shaping our behavior and attachments. Our memory makes us and not someone else.

Yet if we focus on memories as separators, we miss the essentially social nature of memory. Halbwachs, a mid-20th century French sociologist, coined the term and established the study of “collective memory.” In his view, memories are created and preserved—memorialized—by groups: families, social classes, religions, etc. As in a Venn diagram, a person’s memory consists of the overlapping of the various social contexts that person inhabited over the course of a lifetime.

Schools are certainly one of the most powerful generators of collective memory. Just think of all the memories that we share with our schoolmates from the past, shaped by our schools. First day of kindergarten. Graduations. Plays. Class trips. Sports teams. Favorite teachers. Major projects or papers. The list is endless, and the superfluity, the enormous abundance of recollections and associations stemming from our schools, are, apart from the explicit curriculum itself, a vital means that schools employ for influencing children’s lives long into the future. Jewish schools layer countless Jewish experiences upon the school’s memory weave, and Jewish traditions root those memories in the fertile soil of our ancient history.

Articles in this issue consider schools’ organizational memory from multiple perspectives, sifting the celebratory and challenging, the pliant and the obdurate. The first section presents leaders who have molded organizational memory toward their strategic or policy goals. Katz shows how the upheavals of Covid gave permission to alter beloved programs in ways that amplified their power and educational value. Grebenau and Sufrin offer a strategic roadmap for new heads to consider a school’s history and culture as they seek to make signature changes. Maayan advises of the value of institutional forgetting, warning that school history should not become an imprimatur for inaction. Binder finds inspiration in the Torah for the role of forgetting in our education and school leadership. Winshall and Goldfein draw upon their own and others’ experiences as school founders to offer an arc of founders’ impact on the school.

The second section looks at ways that stakeholders can work with and derive benefit from aspects of a school’s organizational memory. Milgrom describes how boards can incorporate the history of the school, the board and its policies into its training processes. Gordon guides student activities coordinators in ways they can update programs that are much beloved but no longer so successful. Wolf discusses the vision of her school’s founders and its continuing guidance for their admissions practices. Silver portrays the use of art to bridge Judaism’s long memory with school and student memories, and Grinfas-David lays out the principles behind an Israel education that creates powerful, lasting school memories. Schopf and Skolnick-Einhorn write about a school-history project that engaged students in the transformative pedagogy of “uncoverage.”

In this issue’s school spread, “Celebrating Memory in Our Schools,” schools present programs that showcase their history and create new memories. The final section features ways that schools preserve memory. The first two articles focus on archives. Krasner, at work on a history of Jewish day schools, advocates for their importance (and laments their frequent absence); Bernardo-Ceriz delivers suggestions for compiling one at your school. The next pieces present backward glances at a school that closed, from two former students and two staffers. Our last items come from a large school in Australia: Rutland delves into the school’s history and its influence on the school today, and Ezzes describes a major school contest that grew out of, and empowers students to reflect upon, that history.

We at Prizmah wish you a year full of positive new memories that grow organically from the memories that your school has cultivated before, whether your school has been around for one year or a hundred.

From the CEO: Drawing Nourishment from Our Sources

Organizational Memory

When Jewish day schools and yeshivas first opened in North America in the early part of the 20th century, they were mostly situated in large urban centers of Jewish population. As Jewish immigration grew and rising socioeconomic advantages made private education an option, Jewish day schools became an increasingly popular choice for families, who wanted to ground their children in Jewish text and values without sacrificing a high-quality secular education.

That instinct remains, and we saw the range and number of schools grow beyond early Orthodox roots, now attracting families of all denominations in communities of all sizes. Wherever they have grown and thrived, our schools have delivered on their promise to nurture Jewish identity and prepare generations for active, knowledgeable community and Jewish engagement. While growth in numbers in recent times, at least pre-Covid, was not consistent, the essence of what attracted families to Jewish day schools is solid and has potential to drive further growth.

Our schools are about planting seeds and nurturing deep roots so that what grows bears fruit and spreads its branches for many years to come. We aspire to the vision of Jeremiah (17:8):

He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream: it does not sense the coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh; it has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit.

The “waters” that Jeremiah describes are both literal, sustaining a growing tree, and figurative. To be planted by water is to be situated close to sources of sustenance. Schools do this themselves by connecting students to their roots and creating living Jewish environments. Schools are also strengthened when they grow alongside sustaining resources.

Prizmah was formed five years ago, and our founders were driven by the vision of an organization that would sustain healthy schools. We build on the proud history of day schools, as well as the contribution of our five founding organizations. While not exactly an irrigation company, we take seriously Prizmah’s commitment to making it possible for schools to access what they need to thrive: talented leadership, innovative education, as well as the financial and other resources they need. The Prizmah Network is our delivery system, one that draws from what is already flourishing, shares those successes across schools, and feeds expertise and perspective across the diverse field. Wherever day schools plant themselves, Prizmah brings support and connection.

Memory, and Jewish memory in particular, turns our attention to our roots. The stories of our ancestors and the history of our people are formative and critical to establishing a common base. Imagination and creativity, the skills with which we confront new realities and unexpected challenges, point us toward the future, to branches just emerging. Our schools, of course, look both backward and forward, toward our roots and toward the new blossoms.

Here at Prizmah, we remain firmly committed to empowering our Network. Our schools never cease to yield fruit, and as a stream that meets schools wherever they are planted, we care deeply about the roots as well as those emerging branches.

From the Board Chair: Great Opportunities; Working Together

Organizational Memory

I became board chair of Prizmah on July 1. At that time, day schools and yeshivot across North America had recently ended a school year like none other, and they were already looking ahead to what some called the “new normal,” where the idea that Covid would “end” near term was seeming less and less realistic.

It was the best time to take on the leadership of an organization that is all about Jewish education and the promise that day schools hold for building the next generation of active community members and leaders. Thanks to my predecessors in the chair position, Prizmah is well on its way to fulfilling the vision of its founders. Prizmah believes, unabashedly, that the future is bright for our schools, especially if we all remain committed and continue to work together.

The spirit of optimism with which I enter my leadership tenure comes directly from what I have seen and heard about in the schools themselves. The old sense of competition that too many schools felt towards each other has been replaced with a realization that collaboration equips schools to face and overcome many challenges stronger, even challenges as enormous as a global pandemic. The value of Prizmah’s network has never been more highly valued.

Three years ago, I retired from practicing mergers and acquisition law at a major international law firm. My motivation was personal: I wanted, among other things, to be able to devote energy to charitable endeavors and, in particular, the cause of Jewish education. Having now served on the Prizmah board for a number of years, I feel that the network-based approach will unlock the potential for stronger and more stable schools. In M&A law, we often talk about win-win situations, when both parties benefit from a deal. Prizmah creates win-win opportunities for day schools, which, hopefully, will ultimately lead to stronger Jewish communities.

As I begin my tenure, I would like to extend two invitations. One, to schools that have not yet joined Prizmah’s network, now is the perfect time. By becoming part of Prizmah, by being willing to share your experience, you open up the door to gain immeasurably from the experiences of schools both similar and different from your own. Two, for schools already in the network, please share more. Share your challenges and successes via a Reshet group, share and discuss best practices with your peers, participate in Prizmah’s surveys and, through Prizmah, in DASL (Data and Analysis for School Leadership). Even more personally, please share with us what else Prizmah can do to increase our value-add.

Finally, I recommend that you take advantage of the many gatherings that Prizmah organizes, on topics central to the day school mission. Our highlights for this school year include the Head of School Retreat and the Day School Investor Summit, both key events taking place in February 2022.

We at Prizmah look forward to enhancing our working relationships with day school leaders and investors as we continue our efforts to build a strong Prizmah that supports our precious schools. Things are looking up—enrollment growth is reversing a decades-old trend; schools are collaborating more than ever before; momentum is building on solving the affordability challenge; and many more people are aware of just how deeply excellence and affordability are linked. There has never been a better time to believe in Jewish day schools. Please help us make our collective dreams come true.

Tradition and Disruption

Organizational Memory

As Tevye sings in the opening bars of Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition” has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. The same is true for Jewish day schools: Long-standing school rituals—receiving a first siddur, Purim carnivals and model seders—bind generations of students through shared experiences.

But what happens when crises such as the corona virus pandemic disrupt the curriculum? Certainly, educators everywhere adapted to maintain school traditions; in Jewish schools, who hasn’t participated in a Zoom Havdalah ceremony? But once they’ve adapted to a “new normal” and perfected, by trial and error, new versions of old standards, and the crisis subsides, should schools go back to the way programs ran before the pandemic?

Perhaps disrupted learning has led to innovations that ought to become part of the bedrock going forward. Perhaps the changing needs of even a high-performing school can lead to improved educational and experiential outcomes for students.

Such is my experience at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, where I became head of school in July 2020. Hillel has a long and venerated history as a jewel in Detroit’s deeply affiliated Jewish community. Since its founding in 1958, the school has served over 3,000 students from across the Jewish religious spectrum with an engaging general and Judaic studies program. Graduates go on to master their chosen fields and become leaders in their communities, locally, nationally, in Israel and in other parts of the world.

 

Trial by Covid

At the outset of 2020, I set myself a goal for my inaugural year: to “meet, listen, ask questions and learn,” and to interact with as many constituents as possible. Quickly, that goal was supplanted by another: to safely provide in-person instruction even as Covid-19 raged.

The school calendar loomed before me and heads of school everywhere. How would students and their parents celebrate time-honored traditions such as the second grade Torah Party, the fourth grade Rosh Chodesh service and bnai mitzvah aliyot? In past years, our teachers had worked tirelessly to teach tefillah and Torah skills; first grade parents and grandparents had lovingly decorated siddur covers; our music teacher had rehearsed gradewide performances for weeks.

Families filled the gymnasium, students sang out loud, and teachers helped with costume changes. How would all of that go on without visitors and close contact? Similarly, in general studies, how would our public-facing project-based learning units such as the second grade shuk, where students learn economics and sell their wares, and our sixth grade Shark Tank, a design-thinking competition complete with judges, proceed?

Our school’s leadership team surveyed the conditions in which we would have to operate, with social distancing, masks and plexiglass, and determined that while the physical landscape was going to be much altered, the spiritual essence of our programming would remain. In the face of the anxiety and isolation wrought by the pandemic, we would redouble our efforts so that students, including those learning remotely, could achieve their educational goals and cultivate their Jewish identity. Furthermore, we would ensure that our larger school community could share in the milestones that are integral to a Hillel education.

 

Recreating Special Programs

The following principles guided our planning:

All programs would be executed in accordance with our Covid health and safety protocols.

The structure of the in-person program would be replicated as closely as possible for our remote students and their parents.

The programs should be joyful, a celebration of our students’ general and Judaic studies education.

To frame the creation of programs, we asked the following questions:

What is the ultimate purpose of this program?

What are the learning targets?

What parts of our traditional, pre-Covid program must we keep?

What does this disruption free us to do that we might not have done in past years?

In the case of our first grade Siddur Party, the goals remained intact. Students learned the weekday Shacharit service in class, led a service for their parents and received their own siddur. But the presentation of the siddurim changed. Rather than produce a show for a large gathering, each class held an individual program outdoors for 30 to 40 guests.

Parents responded favorably to this change. They appreciated the intimacy of the moment, and took advantage of a new opportunity to participate like never before. They each approached their child and delivered a special brachah that they had written for the occasion. A similar format was followed for our first graders who were learning remotely. As an added benefit, teachers gained extra class time in lieu of rehearsals.

Our revised sixth grade Shark Tank Project also resulted in improved outcomes that we could not have anticipated prior to Covid. Previously, small teams of two to three students had worked together to identify and solve a problem through the creation of a prototype: a flip-flop with a closed toe for winter walking, or an eyelash curler that also applies mascara. In the lead-up to their product presentations, you would find students spread out throughout school, polling staff about their ideas and practicing their public speaking skills with the adults around them. The team then would pitch their products to a live panel of judges, who would decide whether or not to invest in the entrepreneurs and their ideas.

But during our 20-21 school year, we switched the format of the Shark Tank presentations. Our students sat six feet apart in a classroom to listen to all of the pitches, while our judges watched via Zoom. This switch introduced our students to many more ideas than they would have otherwise been exposed to, and also improved their attention to detail and active listening skills, as well as rallied the grade together around a shared experience.

As I write this article, we at Hillel are preparing for a third Covid school year. Operationally, our plan is in place, and we know how to handle any disruptions that may occur. While it saddens me that our children will need to learn yet again in the shadow of a global pandemic, I also am heartened that many of their experiences could be as rich or even richer than those that came before them.

Leadership Transition and Institutional Memory

Organizational Memory

When a school is experiencing a leadership change, the community can be pulled to one of two extremes. People can be so enamored with the idea of change that they are not sufficiently circumspect about new ideas, or they may look for a steward who gives the impression (or is given the clear directive) that nothing will change. The same extremes exist regarding the new leader’s timing: Implementing immediate change before understanding the school community is irresponsible, but waiting too long before presenting a vision means the leader may lose the momentum for change that new leadership can bring. New leaders must embrace the paradox of respecting the past by taking into account the institutional memory and demonstrating their leadership simultaneously and almost immediately.

How does a new leader transition effectively? This question applies to all types of leadership including the head of school, board president, principal (Judaic or general studies), the department head or director of a target area such as student life, innovation and the like. Each of these leaders has to face the paradox of past versus future, institutional history versus needed change, culture-infused customs that are part of the brand versus those that need to be introduced or changed. How does a leader “hit the ground running” strategically to lead sustained change and create a legacy?

 

Culture and Institutional Memory

In The First Ninety Days, Michael Watkins suggests a research-based approach to address the transition phase for a leader. He recommends strategies that address institutional memory, culture and strategy, identifying wins and creating the foundation for sustainable leadership.

Building this foundation really begins when a leader goes through the interview process for their new role. The first step is taking the opportunity to assess the school and its culture objectively. When a leader comes from outside the school, this process is complicated because much of their information is secondhand and from subjective sources. They may not hear about the school’s issues and challenges in a transparent or objectively honest way.

To counterbalance biased reporting, aspiring leaders need to do their research and speak to multiple stakeholders in the school constellation, reaching out to those who are not included in the interview process. Finding opportunities to speak informally with teachers, students and parents will help get a sense of the school’s successes, challenges and history. Opportunities to see the regular operational running of the school (such as classroom visits and interacting with students at recess or lunch) should be included in any visit to the school. Many of these same steps can be helpful to an internal candidate, giving them opportunities to present themselves as a leader and collect critical feedback about the school.

As they begin their tenure, new leaders should invest in creating personal relationships (appropriate to role) with faculty, via small group chats and one-on-one conversations. When a new ECE director was taking over after a highly qualified prior director who was not able to create a positive faculty culture, Boruch suggested this type of individual meetings to listen, build trust and gather helpful perspectives. A parallel strategy for a new leader is speaking to former leadership to understand the context and history before addressing current situations with roots in the past. In his first year in a new leadership position, Maury spoke to a former head of his school who helped illuminate some of the issues he was experiencing.

Knowing institutional history can help shape an understanding of the current school culture. The new leader must determine the factors that will help guide the decision of how much to honor these aspects of the institution’s history and how quickly, and in what way, to introduce change. Watkins defines culture as “a set of consistent patterns people follow for communicating, thinking, and acting, all grounded in their shared assumptions and values.”

He describes a culture pyramid where some layers are easily visible while others are hidden. The shared language and symbols are most visible to the outsider. Examples of visible aspects of culture are logos, common expressions, dress, office space or classroom setup and hall displays. It is essential, according to Watkins, to invest in these visible symbols and learn how to use them.

Beneath the surface layer of visible symbols are norms that can be less explicit. They may include how meetings run in the school, how to support and encourage new initiatives, how people gain recognition in the school and more. Finally, there is the invisible culture layer that includes areas like who has the power, who are the heroes and what are the minhagim/customs that can never be touched. Identifying these layers contributes to a powerful map that can guide a new leader in deciding what aspects of historical memory should be embraced, what should be left alone, what can be changed over time, and what can be prioritized for change within the first 90 days.

 

Internal vs. External Hire

How the new leader joined the school is an essential consideration. An external candidate coming into the school will likely have more of a challenge in quickly understanding the school’s culture and building trust and strong relationships. However, they may have an easier time establishing themself as a leader since they enter with a clean slate. Internal promotions will have the opposite challenge: They will need to change their self-perception to allow themselves to be an authority and may need to establish themselves as supervising former peers. As these different types of leaders decide how they will navigate the tension between change management and respect for history and current culture, they will need to consider the unique challenges of their trajectory into their role.

At times, it can be beneficial to look back at some of our Jewish leaders and observe how they addressed similar challenges to the ones we face. We find several leadership transitions in Tanakh, including Yehoshua’s from Moses’s servant to commander who leads the Jews into Israel, and Elisha’s from Eliyahu’s disciple into his successor during the period of the kings.

These two leaders approached their new leadership differently. Yehoshua was to lead as mesharet Moshe. His entire leadership was built on emulating and continuing Moshe’s role. The symbols he used and his style were a copy and extension of what Moshe had begun. Yehoshua can be compared to a leader being promoted from within. He was promoted from within the ranks and therefore had the advantage of knowing all the levels Watkins refers to in his culture pyramid. He knew how the people worked, what God’s expectations were and what Moshe would have done in most cases.

On the other hand, Elisha requests pi shnayim merucho, “double the spirit” of Eliyahu, his mentor. He asks to have extra power and the ability to bring an added vision to the role of prophet leader. He could be an example of a leader being chosen from the outside. Eliyahu “recruited” him in the fields. Elisha would need to understand and learn what prophetic leadership of the Jewish people entails and build on that for him to be successful with his decision to take a more creative approach to his leadership.

 

Stages of a School

Watkins also introduces a model to determine the stage of development of an organization so new leaders can calibrate their approach appropriately. He outlines five stages: start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment and sustaining success. Each of these stages is recognizable in the Jewish day school world. For example, a new leader may be taking the reins when a school is launching (start-up), as a school transitions from a long-time stable leader (sustained success), or after a school has experienced outsized growth as the community expands (accelerated growth). Each of these stages suggests a nuanced approach to visioning, managing change and relating to institutional memory.

As a principal, Maury experienced two head of school transitions in the same school. One head of school took over as the founding head of school retired, and second head of school began when the school had merged with another local day school. Although both leaders were navigating how to lead the same institution, they were at different stages that significantly impacted how they approached institutional memory.

The leader who was taking over for a beloved founding head of the school needed to exercise caution about change. He needed to find ways to make needed changes while showing respect for the school’s culture and history. The second leader had a very different challenge. In some ways, he was taking control of a startup as this newly merged entity was just beginning. On the other hand, each previous school had its own culture that he needed to consider when crafting his vision for change.

Considering the stage of a school’s development when taking on a new leadership position is not limited to school heads. Divisional leaders also can consider the stage that best describes their part of the school and how that should influence their approach.

 

Strategic Considerations

When a new leader begins a position, whether at a new school or through an internal promotion, they need to consider the history and culture of the school as they formulate their first steps. Laying out the plan of what they will change and how they will do so must be grounded in consideration of their school’s stage, the prevailing culture, their predecessor and their trajectory.

In addition to deciding what must change, how to lead that change is also critical. As a head of school, Boruch would ask administrators three questions when they were preparing to implement change:

Does my change align with the larger school strategic plan?

How have I sold this to my constituents who will be experiencing it? (Is there buy-in?)

Is this a priority for me to enact now?

As these plans take shape, they should be communicated to their constituency groups as part of the new leader’s introduction. For example, Independent School Management (ISM), a research-driven school consulting organization, suggests that new leaders meet with the faculty right as they begin their role. At this meeting, they should explicitly communicate back to teachers the concerns they heard from the faculty as well as share the values and beliefs that will inform their work, their leadership style and potential initial changes they will make.

The transition period for a new leader has an outsized impact on a leader’s effectiveness. The success of a leader frequently depends on how much they invest in the initial transition. An incoming leader needs to take steps to get to know as many stakeholder groups as possible and use these opportunities to listen while articulating clearly their respect for the past and their excitement for a great future built on past accomplishments.

A leader must demonstrate vision and leadership true to who they are while humbly leaving room for others to partner in the future vision. Finally, a new leader must be deliberate and strategic about how much and when they introduce change and the degree to which they honor institutional memory to successfully build their legacy from the first day on the job.

The Importance of Forgetting

Organizational Memory

In such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

At its best, memory helps us sustain greatness, ensures that we learn from our mistakes, and allows us to build upon past success. However, at its worst, memory is one of the greatest barriers for transformational change that is essential for the sustainability and growth of our organizations.

Memory ties us down to structures that limit creativity: a school schedule that we have accepted because it’s always been done that way, a curriculum we’ve used for many years, a development plan that wastes more money than it raises.

The greatest innovators of our time have been those who dared to forget, to abandon the collective memory and to try something new. They are known as “disruptors.” Instead of always asking, how has it traditionally been done, what method have we used before, they look outside the box. It is precisely their freedom from memory that has changed the most basic paradigms. In today’s world, they have brought about new ways to access knowledge, to communicate with others, even the ways we make purchases and access entertainment. Things I never imagined as a child are simple aspects of how we function today—because innovators were courageous enough to shed their memory and engage their creative imagination.

Memory prevents us from trying again when an idea didn’t fly the first time around. We hesitate to try a risky, non-traditional style of teaching, like overnights for younger kids. We give up even approaching a donor who once said no, forfeiting money for a specific effort that didn’t appeal to donors a few years back. We are afraid to try something, even though it has great potential, because it didn’t hit the target the first time around.

Memory keeps us from making necessary staff changes that could be the key to moving our schools forward. How many times have we been reluctant to be honest with a faculty or staff member about their lack of fit with the organization because they are perceived to be the key to institutional memory, or the one that alumni remember from the good old days? We fear a severed relationship with the alumni because one employee holds those bonds, whether or not that employee is helping the school fulfill its mission.

Most critical of all, memory keeps us from making important existential decisions for our organizations. In their book Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey liken our reaction to the prospect of change to an immune system fighting off disease. In the past 20 years, how many small day schools have floundered and closed rather than try a radical approach like merging with other institutions? They fear the loss of their sacred identity. They resist joining up with others who are different—to the point that they resist their way out of existence. But what they fail to see is that the other group may have strengths that they lack and in turn may benefit from aspects of the flailing school. Together, both institutions may be able to form a single entity that is much healthier and more dynamic than either one could be on their own.

The school I lead was formed in 2012, the product of a successful merger of a Reform day school with a Schechter school. Today the school is a thriving, pluralistic day school, twice the size of its legacy schools combined, with enough students for sports teams and robust social opportunities. But in 2010, proposals for a merger were met with adamant resistance by members of both school communities. I reacted like the others, holding on to the past and unable to envision the future.

The biggest barrier to our merger was not logistical or financial. It was our memory: our resistance to reimagining what we knew, and envisioning not loss, but opportunity. Even after we decided to merge, memories of the old clouded our ability to see the future. Locked into the mindset of denominational schools, we saw ourselves as a combination of Reform and Conservative. It took years, and the fresh eyes of a new director of Jewish life, to teach us to imagine that being a pluralistic school could be an asset.

I remember well the excitement I had when I heard him talk about the value of pluralism. This new paradigm was something we could be enthusiastic about? It was an asset? When we remembered, we engaged our minds in all that we lost; we mourned for too long. It kept us from dreaming forward. When we gave ourselves permission to forget, all of a sudden we were able to see, to salvage our institutions and to thrive.

What would day school education look like if we cast aside memory? We tell our students when they make bad choices that they get a fresh start every day. We nourish the innovator inside each of them and teach them to recalibrate, rethink and reiterate when their first version doesn’t solve the problem. We teach them that anything is possible, and they should dream big. Day schools would be well-served if we lived by our own advice.

The questions day school boards and leadership teams should be asking are, What would need to be true in order to make this change? What could we gain from reimagining our institution? What seems impossible but would be our dream? We should be engaging in exercises of the imagination that stir creativity and innovation. I am curious about what we might create if we could just forget for a few minutes and break free of the structures that we have grown used to. If we could suspend our memory and engage our brains in creative dreaming, we may be able to take our missions to a much higher level.

During our holidays, we are tasked with remembering our past. Rosh Hashanah is even called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, for God and for us. Surely, memory can be an asset; we should not discount the value of reflecting on where we have been and how our past has shaped our present. But we must not allow our memories to keep us from doing the important work of growing, transforming and being open up to opportunities of the future. In order to accomplish that work, forgetting can be as important as remembering.

Forgetting Leaves Space for Learning and Growth

Organizational Memory

To understand memory, we must acknowledge the vital role of our physical brains. As educators, we are blessed with caring for children during the most precious stages of brain development. Memories are formed when there are strong connections between neurons. The act of forgetting has often been understood to be a passive act. However, scientific research over the last decade is beginning to uncover that our brains were also built to forget. Memory ensures we are grounded in life and our understanding of the world. Forgetting, on the other hand, allows us to move forward. If we remembered every detail of our lives, we would have difficulty moving forward.

Memory is so integral to Judaism that we find the word “zachor” appears nearly 200 times in the Torah. A clue that forgetting can also have a positive value is found in Devarim 24:19: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you do.” This mitzvah depends on an act of forgetting which accrues benefit to others.

As we begin a new school year, we have an opportunity to be inspired by the value of forgetting. Not the forgetting we perceive in the passive sense, but the forgetting that gives us space to learn and move forward on a strong foundation of memory. At this time of reflection, we have an opportunity as educators and leaders to pause and reflect on how forgetting may be key to learning and growth—

In the classroom: Where does the act of forgetting play a role in students being able to form identity?

Around the board table: How can boards honor some of the forgotten traditions that have left space to embrace the world we live in today?

In the headship: How it is possible to move on from moments of pain and difficulty and have the strength to continue focusing on building a strong future?

Let us take a moment to ponder how both remembering and forgetting can play a healthy role in the strength and permanence of our Jewish day schools.

Schools and Their Founders

Organizational Memory

Founding a school requires vision, leadership and resources. There are certain things that founders bring that may not be unique but are critical to the success of an institution, both in its founding and in its continued success. The vision sets out the aspiration that motivates those who are involved in founding a mission-driven organization to dedicate the tireless energy required to get it off the ground. It is this vision combined with passion and persistence that fuels such an undertaking. As founding leaders of schools in Boston and Northern California ourselves, we have interviewed founding heads and board chairs of several day schools to explore both the initial qualities of successful founders and the roles that those founders play in the school even after they depart.

 

In the Beginning

As an organization takes shape, the founding leaders are the ones who shape the mission and set in place the culture. Each of those with whom we spoke reiterated that “culture eats strategy.” A strong culture is developed through intentionality and repetition. Throughout our many conversations, the recurring lessons that emerge are the importance of being intentional every step of the way, of saying what you mean and doing what you say, and of setting the culture in place from the beginning. These critical elements serve as a cornerstone on which the future is built.

When a school is being founded, there is no history, there are no graduates or results to point to. How do you recruit students and their families when you are starting out? It is the story of what is possible that captures the essence, values and the culture you intend to create. Bruce Powell, the founding head of de Toledo High School in West Hills, California, recounts the power of telling the story. He talks about how painting the picture of what is possible is more compelling and important than going over the details of the program and the curriculum: “Tell the story and be the story.” It is here where founding leadership plays such a key role.

In the case of a school, the partnership that forms between a founding board and its founding educational leader sets a tone and enables that story to be told to attract those first chalutzim, pioneer families, students, staff and board members. Lay and professional leaders do best when they work as a team, each playing a particular and complementary role. The founding educational leader sets the culture in the school while the founding lay leader/s sets in place the governance and philanthropic culture.

The benefits of a team also can be found within the professional and lay structures. For example, Michael Bohnen shared that when Gann Academy was founded, there were two key board leadership positions partnering with the founding head, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann: the founding chair (Bohnen) and also a founding president. He focused on external relations, including philanthropy, while the president focused on the fiduciary and governance aspects of the board.

 

Growth

Founders launch schools, but how do they adapt for success beyond the startup phase? Interviewees argue for the importance of maintaining a founding mission that prizes both eternal and adaptive values. Founders should model this balance as they lead with passion, artfully delegate and ultimately make way for new leadership. In addition, as was pointed out by Joel Pelcyger, founding head of Pluralistic School One in Santa Monica for more than five decades, leaders need to balance humility with the courage to lead: “Don’t make yourself the center, but you need to be a presence, too.”

The school’s mission, that driving force that inspired the founders to open a school, provides direction as a healthy school embraces change. Mariashi Groner, the founding head of Charlotte Jewish Day School for over 30 years, stresses the importance of being open and flexible to curricular change while maintaining a strong commitment to the mission of the school. She moved to Charlotte to make Judaism accessible to any Jew. She discovered that creatively engaging children was the way to make this happen best, and it remains her passion guiding all that she does.

It is important to understand that organizations, like people, go through developmental stages and have different needs at different times. Some schools begin with a small group of dedicated lay leaders who then recruit a professional to actualize the institution. Some are started by educators with a vision for the teaching and learning environment they want to create who then recruit the lay leadership. The division of labor may begin with one set of boundaries, but as the school grows, the lines of responsibility can shift often and rapidly.

Arnee remembers acting as interim head of school, interim admissions director and interim development director (in addition to cleaning the bathrooms). Other board members acted as business managers and marketing directors along the way. Making sure that there are clear expectations and a clear delineation of responsibilities is key to a successful partnership.

Establishing and maintaining a culture of ongoing reflection, clear communication and clear delineation of roles pay dividends when founding professionals and lay leaders serve an institution over many years. As founding head for over two decades, Dean and his lay partners credit the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) for insisting on this in their formative years. This lesson proved more valuable than any grant or any particular individual. A cultural commitment to process and reflective practice has guided the best work at the school.

 

Maturity

On the other hand, without a process and an openness to change, there are certain elements that can impede the growth and success of an institution beyond the founding phase, to which both founders and others who are in leadership roles must pay attention. As one founding board member pointed out, it is important to remember that even the founding chair gets only one vote. If you stay on the board for an extended period of time, there is always the chance that others will be inclined to defer to you and your status, but it is up to you to model the humility of being just one voice. In addition, a founder can either hinder progress, be resistant to change and new ideas and leadership, or can foster an adaptive, generative culture and growth mindset.

As a school matures, there is always a question as to the role of the founders. At Arnee’s school, JCDS Boston, the board made the decision that she would have a permanent position on the board as founding chair. She aspires to adhere to the principle of one person, one vote, while finding ways to earn her place on the board. Others who have remained on the board of the schools they helped to found affirm that a key role they play is as archivist and historians, able to link the past with the present and the future, guardians of the mission and the culture. In addition, we understand the importance of not only continuing to support the school financially but also helping enthusiastically in the development efforts. Our role as school champions sends a strong message about our continued confidence and belief in the school and demonstrates allegiance and commitment over time.

Intentionality about leadership transitions is vital to maintaining a dynamic relationship between the mission and change. Mark Shpall, who was a founding staff member at two-decades-old de Toledo High School, successfully transitioned into the headship five years ago, following Powell. While many schools go through difficult shocks during such change, Shpall credits his smooth transition to the intentionality of their process for change, and how vital it was for the board’s leadership in this area.

As Shpall shared, “The board has, since the school’s founding, been process- and mission-oriented, allowed professional staff to lead operations, and, aligned with this spirit, committed to innovation and change as part of its mission. They committed to having two heads of school for an overlap year and cultivated their relationship with me, understanding they were getting someone very different in style to the founding head. They wanted that, and I needed time to adjust to a very new role. And the school supported me further through my enrollment in JTS’s Day School Leadership Training Institute Program (DSLTI), which prepares new heads for success.” Like de Toledo, the leadership at PS 1 has similarly recognized and invested in intentionally planning the leadership transition by staffing up as Joel Pelcyger prepares to end his tenure.

By maintaining a relationship with those who have played leadership roles in establishing a school and guiding its growth, a school can contribute to its continued success and strength. As one founding board chair observed, transitioning those past leaders into advisory roles provides the current school leadership, lay and professional, with access to wisdom, expertise and financial support from those who have demonstrated their commitment to the institution and are invested in its success. Of course, while the founders potentially have much to offer, nevertheless boundaries must be clear and new leaders empowered to lead. Their greatest legacy lies in leaving the school in good shape and good hands.

Commentary: School Memories, Yesterday and Today

Organizational Memory

To be sure, everyone has a capacity for memory that is unlike that of anyone else, given the variety of temperaments and life circumstances. But individual memory is nevertheless a part or an aspect of group memory, since each impression and each fact, even if it apparently concerns a particular person exclusively, leaves a lasting memory only to the extent that one has thought it over—to the extent that it is connected with the thoughts that come to us from the social milieu.” Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory

 

Audrey Walz, alumna, parent and kindergarten teacher

Fuchs Mizrachi School, Beachwood, Ohio

New experiences often generate powerful memories. When I walked into the school on my first day of ninth grade, I did not realize just how much the next four years would impact my future in so many ways.

As a new student to the atmosphere of Torah and Judaic study, I was immersed in a new way of life. I distinctly remember, at first, feeling inadequate in my Torah learning skills, unsure I would ever be able to fully understand and keep up with what was going on around me. It was not until my Chumash teacher reassured me with her thoughtfulness and warmth that I felt at home. She spent extra time making sure I was not behind, encouraging me to keep pushing myself, not because I needed to do well in school, but because that was the commitment that I made to myself.

This distinct memory guided me on a path that shaped not only my life, but also my future in choosing where to raise my children, the same community that helped make me into the person I am now. I wanted my children to be surrounded by the same support and encouragement I was able to receive, to create their own memories and achievements. As an educator, my memories have propelled me to want to be the person who, in turn, will be able to help other students feel the way I was made to feel during my time there.

 

Esther Shavitzsky, alumna and parent

Beren Academy, Houston, Texas

I grew up attending a small Jewish private school, where the student body was made up of students from different neighborhoods, synagogues, nationalities and levels of religiosity. As a student, I never felt a sense of competition or struggle because of my background. Just the opposite, our differences were celebrated, even just among my peers. I remember my mother coming back from Mexico, where much of my family is from, and bringing back candy for my friends, making sure there was a kosher symbol so that everyone felt comfortable. Many of the students were unfamiliar with the candy, something that was readily available in my house. On weekends, non-religious kids would stay over for Shabbat at observant classmates’ homes, and respect for religious practice was always maintained.

I am proud to say that the nonjudgmental environment has continued to flourish among the student body to this day. My girls are growing up to learn that families practice Judaism differently and that families as a whole may look different. In a world where competition and adversity is rampant, having an environment where my kids can feel safe and free of these hardships is relieving and heartwarming.

 

Professor Jonathan Weissman, day school alumnus and parent

Hillel School, Rochester, New York

Having attended a Jewish day school, my memories as a child, and even as a parent, have been greatly shaped by it. Learning about Judaism from an early age, in a formal setting, gave me the structure and showed me the importance of my religion. What it means to be a Jew, what is expected of me as a Jew, and other important concepts were part of me since my first day as a student. When I think back to my youth, I was able to take what I learned in school and apply it to life each and every day. Learning about the Jewish holidays in school and celebrating with my family are some of my fondest memories!

Now that I’m a parent, those memories are rekindled, as I get to be to my kids (along with my wife) what my parents were to me. I get to share the wonderful things they learn in school and bring it to life with them just as my parents did for me. Instead of being asked what I learned in school, I am the one asking the questions. The memories of the responses and interactions create a new dimension of my schooling, coupled with the schooling of my kids.

From Jewish History to a Day School Board

Organizational Memory

Memory, as it relates to the Jewish people, has always fascinated me. My favorite college courses were a yearlong series that focused on Jewish history, beginning with an understanding of ancient prehistoric civilization and continuing on through a study of Judaism until the early Middle Ages. These classes brought to life the transitory nature of humanity. I developed an overwhelming sense of pride at how, during each period of transition, Jewish leadership maintained a connection to the foundational theology and practices of the preceding generations and simultaneously found room for new interpretations of text and religious expression. Projecting modern-day lingo onto these periods of history, we could say that in each of these phases our leaders masterfully executed a three-step process.

1) They relied on organizational memory to inform their decisions, preserving the essence of our religion and the visionary leadership that came before them.

2) They recognized when it was necessary to pivot and did so in a way that maintained a connection between the people and their past.

3) They onboarded the Jewish people to new iterations of religious expression and practice, which ultimately created the tradition of “Jewish collective memory”—memory that lives within the tension of the recollection of the past and the action of the present.

 

Why a Board Needs to Know Its History

What I learned in these classes has stayed with me in both my time as a Jewish professional and as a member of Gross Schechter Day School’s board of directors. This year, in my work on the board, I took on the challenge of co-chairing our school’s newly reconvened governance committee. Immediately it became apparent that our first initiative should be to capture Gross Schechter Day School’s collective memory in a way that would allow us to use the knowledge of the past as a component of what informs our decision-making process in the present.

We recognized that, unlike the model leadership presented to us in Jewish history, we were falling short of capturing the essence of the school’s founding and transmitting that essence as collective memory to our new leadership. We also recognized that, with each transition of leadership, we were caught in a cycle of “one step forward, two steps back.” By failing to preserve organizational memory, new leadership had little on which to build effectively going forward. And as a component of this, we found that our record keeping was far from succinct or accessible and lacked a sense of ownership. Our documents were scattered between staff and past lay leadership, making it hard to locate important records relating to discussions or materials.

My co-chair, our board chair and I convened a committee of six present and past board members who represented a spectrum of leadership experience. We outlined a compelling agenda for the group with three aims:

1) Create a board orientation that includes a presentation about the school’s founding and history. The goal of this presentation was to provide not only historical context but also an emotional connection to the history.

2) Increase our focus on detailed and accessible record keeping as a way to honor the history of the dialogue and decision-making processes in board conversations.

3) Create an easily accessible board manual to preserve organizational memory and guide leadership during times of transition while still leaving space for new voices to have ownership over the work of the board.

 

Preserving Organizational Memory

To tackle our first objective, we reached out to one of our key stakeholders who is well versed in our organizational memory. The stakeholder we chose has been both a member of the staff and a parent, and is a current lay leader and grandparent. Her presentation created an emotional connection between our board members and the passion that fueled the work of the school’s founding members. It also highlighted the transitional moments in our school’s history, showing how during each time of transition our school relied on collective memory to stay true to our essence while embracing the visionary work of our staff and lay leadership. At the end of the presentation, our board members felt poised to take on the work ahead of them, inspired by the history that came before them.

We made sure to keep this presentation in a newly created folder in Google Drive that is shared among our board members and staff. The folder contains all important documents utilized in board meetings and by committees, as well as minutes and agendas. By sharing these files between lay leadership and staff, we streamlined our record-keeping process and ensured more accuracy by avoiding duplicate versions of documents. Furthermore, this system allows for constant editing and updating, making it possible to capture the decisions of this year’s board and easily adapt the documents to the edits of next year’s leadership. We also created an executive committee folder where we save minutes from executive sessions of both the board and the executive committee, as well as creating a space to initiate brainstorming documents.

 

Encoding Our Processes

Lastly, we began creating a board manual, which includes:

1) Governing and policy documents

2) Guidelines, timelines and templates for board evaluation processes

3) Guidelines for board nominations

4) Job descriptions for each of the committees of the board

5) Guidelines for best practices in partnership with staff

6) Our board expectations contract

The governance committee worked on all of these documents. More experienced committee members brought their expertise and ownership of organizational knowledge to the work, while newer members assessed the documents for clarity. It is our hope that the detailed documents in this manual will make it easier for new leadership to begin the “real work.” Furthermore, we hope that having concrete outlines of the foundations of board and committee work to hand to potential new leadership will streamline the process of lay leadership recruitment.

Judaism teaches us that preserving collective memory takes effort and organization. We must be meticulous in our record keeping and thoughtful about how we capture history in a way that transforms it from a two-dimensional document into a whole-body experience that can be incorporated into one’s sense of self. At Gross Schechter Day School, we’ve found a way to create space within our boardroom for new ideas and opportunities that help us pivot when necessary. Simultaneously, we acknowledge that a strong sense of self, anchored to our history, helps us better assess whether our decisions moving forward bring us closer to, or farther from, our essence.

My greatest joy in my work on the governance committee this past year has been helping to create systems and procedures that assist us in living within this delicate balance and embracing the tension of collective memory—the same balance and tension that inspired me years ago in my Jewish history classroom.

Balancing Tradition and Innovation in Student Activities

Organizational Memory

The concept of organizational memory often challenges a student activities department. Student life and co-curricular programming serve as the vehicles that create student memories and school traditions. Current students and alumni can connect over stories of epic color wars breakout, school shabbatonim and trips, wacky-themed chagigot, and shared memories from programs that make their school experience special and unique.

But what happens when specific programs and school traditions are no longer successful? Perhaps the school body has grown to where it is not sustainable for seniors to have the same leadership opportunities on Shabbaton that worked when the school was smaller. Or school culture has shifted, and students are no longer interested in staying after school for what used to be a popular Chanukah activity. A yearly grade sleepover may have become logistically challenging to staff and no longer achieves its educational goal of class bonding.

How can a school honor beloved programs that no longer speak to the current student body and preserve unique traditions, while staying creative and innovative?

Here are some successful practices that can help with navigating this challenge.

 

Change the form, keep the essence

Find the essence of the program that made it special and reapply it elsewhere.

In one example, in the past, having a grade of 40 seniors take a leadership role in programming on a school shabbaton was a wonderful and much-anticipated tradition. Now that the senior class has doubled in size, it is much more difficult to find leadership opportunities that feel authentic and meaningful.

Here, it can be helpful to single out which part of the leadership experience was most meaningful to students and repackage it. The tradition may have been leading sessions or running a tisch, but the experience was more about interacting with younger students and setting the tone. One can reframe this experience by adding more manageable opportunities for seniors to interact with each grade during the shabbaton or by expanding the definition of senior leadership, as a general responsibility to be friendly and bring the ruach during tefillah and dancing.

In a different example, a schoolwide color war feels tired and limits the number of educational themes used for the program. Students do not feel as much accountability or investment representing a general team over their grades. Switching color war to competition by grade will raise levels of student engagement and add a much-needed boost of energy. However, students will lose the highly valued opportunity to meet and befriend others outside their class. In this situation, the experience of creating opportunities for inter-grade friendships can be separated from color war and moved to a different co-curricular program during the year, where that can be the primary focus and goal.

 

Modeling reflection

Faculty and students are more likely to support program changes if the school culture already includes reflection and evaluation. On a grassroots level, student activity directors and administrators can model this with student leaders, naming times when the students pause actual planning of programs to think critically about what is working and what needs to be tweaked. Faculty meetings and student leadership training also can integrate this type of reflection. When students are evaluating if their programs meet their goals, they will be much more on board with programmatic changes done on a larger scale.

 

Student agency and choosing your battles

As much as possible, a student activities department should include students in the reflective process. Seeing our students as stakeholders and bringing a wide range of their voices on board will create buy-in and minimize resistance. Being transparent with students, asking what they think is working and listening to their feedback creates partnerships across the school. Students then serve as ambassadors to their peers, explaining why the school made specific changes.

At the same time, including students means hearing them when they say the price of changing a program will be too high or that we have it wrong about the need to update a school tradition or activity. Building trust with student leaders ensures student support for change, avoiding an “us versus them” situation where students feel the school is taking away what made their experience special.

When meeting with students, it is essential to acknowledge the loss that will occur with some of the programming changes. Naming the loss validates student concerns and allows the conversation to shift to all the opportunities for growth that now exist. Students leave with the message that things will be different, but keeping an open mind will allow student programming to get even better.

It is also important to step out on the balcony and look at how any programmatic switches impact the entire year. Even if more than one program needs updating, picking your battles will go a long way concerning the impact on student morale. For example, if you are making switches to color war, it is probably not the best idea to make considerable changes to how the student government operates in the same year. Students should feel excited about the innovations taking place and that they have actual agency in the process.

 

Staff training and fresh eyes

Ultimately, keeping programs relevant and exciting needs a highly trained team. Being able to do reflection well and be intentional about programming requires thought, time and practice. If a school is willing to invest in professional development for its teachers, it needs to do the same for its student activities staff.

Additionally, it needs a paradigm shift of viewing student activities the same way “Understand by Design” considers curricular choices in a classroom. We do not teach material or run programs to check them off a list but to meet specific educational goals, which may change year to year.

Finally, building a balanced team is crucial. Student life teams need to include veteran voices knowledgeable about the unique organizational memory of the school and the beloved traditions and programs that make the student experience unique. Adding fresh eyes and outside talent to the team introduces original and new ideas to the reflective process and catches the programs no longer meeting department goals.

Balancing tradition and innovation, organizational memory and change, is an ongoing challenge for schools and student activity departments. It requires reflection, sharing new practices and adjusting the scale when one pendulum is shifting too far. In the end, constantly taking the temperature of student programming allows us to ensure we meet our goals of excited, engaged and connected students.

 

Memory in Admissions: Living by Our Founders’ Vision

Organizational Memory

Almost 30 years ago, after their daughter Karen graduated from Harvard, Drs. Jean and Jerry Friedman had a vision. They felt the need for a coeducational Modern Orthodox school in the Los Angeles area based upon the teachings of Harvard psychology Professor Lawrence Kohlberg. Dr. Kohlberg believed that his theory of moral development could be realized in a school setting and help to develop students able to use moral and ethical reasoning as a path to a well-rounded education. Being an observant Jewish family, the Friedmans researched Jewish day schools. They discovered that one area in which Jewish day schools were falling short was mentschlichkeit—guiding students who not only had stellar Jewish and secular educations but also the ability to go into this world as respectable moral and ethical human beings.

When Dr. Kohlberg started to try to persuade Dr. Friedman to start a school, he felt that, as a real estate developer, he and his wife had no qualifications to do so. Yet from their passion and further education in their late 50s and early 60s, earning doctorates in education, Shalhevet was born: a Modern Orthodox educational institution that taught boys and girls the same curriculum, integrated and valued alike Judaic and secular studies, and was committed to developing the girls as leaders.

Shalhevet” means flame. Just like the Ner Tamid in the synagogue is always watching over our precious Torah, our “flame” will never burn out, watching over, teaching, and enriching the lives of Modern Orthodox students. To me, holding steadfast in our mission to uphold our school’s original premise is essential in our past, current, and future success.

A successful organization never forgets how it started and where it came from. That memory is an integral part of carrying out the mission set forth for Shalhevet. No doubt, staff and faculty will change, new and modern ideas will come to the forefront of decisions being made about curriculum. But at the core of Shalhevet, we will always recollect the basis upon which the Friedmans started this school.

As we attempted to apply Kohlberg’s teachings, our school asked: How do you teach a student to be a moral and ethical part of everyday society? Is it a class that can be taught? Is it taught every year of high school or just one semester? In developing this idea, the school’s leaders developed a concept of the school as a Just Community.

Each week, the entire student body, faculty, and staff get together to discuss important issues in a town hall. Town hall, just as the Friedmans envisioned, is run by students, and facilitated by faculty. The agenda chairs bring ideas to be discussed to the faculty, and we teach the students how to have good and strong conversations in a safe environment. The topics range from vaccine mandates to political parties, religious freedom to school rules. To live the life of a moral and ethical member of society, we strongly believe that students need to learn to exercise their beliefs from a young age. Just Community sets us apart from other Modern Orthodox educational institutions and is truly an enormous component of our curriculum.

Students who are interested in our school come from five feeder schools in the Los Angeles area. We take about 60 students each year and turn away close to half the applicants. Our top priority is to accept students who understand our mission, embrace it and will thrive here. Our admissions committee looks at all the documentation we have on our applicants, recalls our meetings with them and does our best to ensure that the applicants are aligned with the mission of our school and would thrive in the special environment of communal conversation that is essential to our culture.

We hold a town hall for our prospective students to give them a flavor from the very beginning of this central school experience. We want them to know that it is a sacred time—without cellphones and individual chatter—for collective thought. It is a time for young men and women to share their ideas with one another, to challenge each other and the faculty. It is a time to carry out the mission envisioned by the Friedmans so many years ago, the centerpiece of an incredible education for 30 years.

It was also exceedingly important to our founders that acceptance to Shalhevet never be based on the ability of families to pay the full tuition. We pride ourselves on accepting students solely on their ability to succeed with our rigorous dual curriculum, their values matching those of the school, and their desire to be a part of the community. Today, our annual campaign raises funds to help award over $2 million each year toward tuition assistance.

Each step we take in the school evokes the centrality of the founders’ vision and is a fundamental part of every admission decision we make. Just as so much of Judaism is built on remembering where we come from, so too at our school, we always remember.

Art and Study, Memory and Torah

Organizational Memory

At the end of each academic year, the graduating senior class at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield, Illinois, selects a quote that serves as the cornerstone for the graduation ceremony and speeches for that year. Looking through the quotes from the 18 graduating classes in the history of our school, we journey through modern Jewish thought, Talmud, the Tanakh and Western literature, a rich tapestry of the education that students receive inside these walls.

During the summer of 2019, we installed a new art exhibition going up the main stairway and snaking back in the second stairway. Climbing the stairs, students, faculty and visitors walk by translucent windows, each one featuring the class year, the theme for its graduation, and the name of our school at the time (it was Chicagoland Jewish High School from its founding in 2001 until 2016).

This exhibit exemplifies the goal of sharing the collective memory of the school, while simultaneously connecting students to their individual memories during their own high school years. Whether people are new to the building or are veteran students, when they see that our walls are lined with Torah and great works of Western literature, they see that the culture of the school is built on a shared language and vision. The work of sharing the collective memory of the school parallels the work that we strive to do each day in classrooms, of fostering critical thinking, deep care and love of texts, and empathy and vulnerability among classmates.

Our teachers often note that “words are a translation of experience.” They are the lens through which we explore the world. The quotes from each graduating class exemplify both the spirit of our school as a whole and the character of each individual class. When they see these quotes, returning alumni are transported back to the classes where they studied these works. Whether graduates studied in the rented synagogue space during the first six years of our school’s history or in our current building, whether they graduated with CJHS or RZJHS on their diplomas, these texts unite our school community in a shared purpose and shared memory.

 

Jewish Learning and Memory

Sharing memory is an act of sharing creation, one of shared love of both the texts we read and also the community that we build in that learning process. The learning lives on because of the bonds that the students develop both with the text and with the community in which they studied it. Fittingly, creation marks the highest level of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy, a creation of memory and relationship, both with text and among the learners in a classroom and school.

In his book Zakhor, Yosef Yerushalmi famously draws a distinction between Jewish memory and history. In The New Jewish Canon, Alexander Kaye summarizes Yerushalmi as follows: “History, in Yerushalmi’s definition, is a record of things that happened and presuppose both contingency and human agency in its account of the world. Memory, by contrast, is an understanding of events through the lens of mythical narratives and (at least in the Jewish case) prophetic portent. Whereas history seeks facts, memory asserts meaning. Whereas history is found in the archives and preserved in works of scholarship, memory is transmitted by the liturgy of ritual of holy communities.”

While the distinction sometimes presents a false dichotomy of priorities in Jewish education, as I and many others find great meaning and even holiness in combing through archives and examining history, the framework is quite helpful in framing what to prioritize. He memorably suggests that “the Holocaust has already engendered more historical research than any single event in Jewish history, but I have no doubt whatever that its image is being shaped not at the historian’s anvil, but in the novelist’s crucible” (98). Here he emphasizes how the legacy of the Holocaust will live on most by the way that the stories are told, both through the literature that it engenders and the rituals that are enacted for communal commemorations.

How much more is this sentiment true when fostering active love of Jewish learning and Jewish living. Our learning must reach toward transcendence and meaning, of conversation and deep connection between people, individuals and the text, and introspection about a life of faith. Fostering classroom environments that engage core questions of existence, leading with empathy, vulnerability and deep care, creates ties within the classroom and well beyond it, as well, living memory into the future.

 

Windows Outward and Inward

The medium of featuring the quote on translucent windows also speaks to the Talmudic mandate that all prayer spaces must have windows:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “A person should only pray in a house with windows, as it says: ‘And the windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem’ (Daniel 6:11).” (Brachot 34b)

Rashi notes that “looking out at the heavens and seeing the grandeur of the created order subdues the heart to God.”

But in addition to allowing the worshipper to look outward, windows also are important because they let light into the room. Windows ensure that we are ever present to the events of the world, allowing them to be a part of who we are as learners and as Jews. But it is not that we just read the news and we watch the trail of headlines on our phones. In a prism, light enters one end and refracts to create a rainbow of new light.

In his book Attuned Learning, Elie Holzer quotes Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg that “the similarity of panim [face] and p’nim [inside] reflects the intertwinement of the external and the internal, the seen and the concealed. Panim also carries a relational meaning: its root consonants can also form the verb lifnot el — ‘to turn toward,’ ‘to face,’ or, in a broader sense, ‘to address’” (126).

In the ideal sense, that is what our learning does: It fosters memory and relationship. We engage the world around us through the language of our texts. Light comes in from the outside, and throughout our learning, we have a new language to speak about a specific situation.

Like the windows that are required in a prayer space, these are the windows of our beit sefer, our school, our beit midrash, our house of study. Light shines in through windows, and our words of Torah travel out of them as well.

But there’s another character to windows. They are translucent, allowing light to pass through them, and also reflect objects or people in front of them. In this way, as we climb the stairs, we see visually what we can feel intangibly: We are reflected in the words of Torah. It is a living metaphor.

The words of Torah are a part of you. And you are a part of them.

This is a message for all who enter our building, teachers, students, alumni and guests alike. The words bring together the community in shared learning, memory and purpose.

Creating Collective Memory Through Israel Education: A Roadmap to Success

Organizational Memory

As eighth graders in their finest conclude their graduation, music comes on, and they rush to hand their diplomas to family and mount the risers that have held so many graduates before them. “Shir Yisraeli” blasts from the speakers, and they sing in Hebrew as they dance with coordinated motions, explaining the song to non-Hebrew-speaking audience members: Despite our diversity, each of us is a song of Israel.

Before the first chorus, their older siblings make their way through the aisles to join them on stage and demonstrate that even in high school or college they have not forgotten the lyrics and movements. Proud parents, grandparents, teachers, board members and friends are on their feet, clapping and singing along with the transliteration and translation on a screen above their heads and in the program in their hands. Younger siblings watch this cacophony of glee in awe and anticipation of their own day.

Such rituals and customs do not materialize magically; they are the product of deliberate collective memory building around Israel education. Five vital ingredients foster a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, not only through religion, but also through nationhood and connection to the Land and State of Israel:

They are inclusive of all ages and backgrounds.

They repeat at key moments of shared joy or trauma, in celebrations and memorials, throughout the year.

They include shared experiences and visions for Israel and the Jewish nation’s past, present and future.

They are couched in best practices in Israel education, from deep appreciation of historical context to critical analysis of primary sources. In the graduation example, “Shir Yisraeli” is first taught in a sixth grade Israeli poetry unit about the challenges and successes of waves of immigration (aliyot), the housing crisis and austerity of Israel’s first decade, and the stereotypes and inequalities that each immigrant ethnic group has faced.

They are immune to changes in administration and faculty, persevering because they retain relevance and meaning for the community and for individual identity.

But collective memory around Israel education involves more than multisensory, habitual experiences, just as memorial services are not enough to learn about the Holocaust and candles, sufganiyot and dreidls are insufficient at Chanukah for remembering Jewish strength, perseverance and continuity in the face of Hellenism and the potential loss of national identity. Good education must take a holistic and systematic approach to culture, community and learning. The following roadmap, with concrete examples based on research and experience, is replicable for schools seeking to cultivate indelible Israel learning opportunities year-round.

 

Vision, Mission, Values and Beliefs

Key documents that describe who you are, why you exist and what’s important to you should include not only obligatory language about a love of Israel (Ahavat Yisrael), but also operational language that can direct educators to construct learning objectives and can give parents and other stakeholders a window into Israel learning. Too many teachers understand teaching a love for Israel as presenting only positive aspects of Israel to create a mythical ideal rather than a nuanced approach to the challenges of a modern Jewish democracy yearning for final borders and normalized relations with its neighbors. Critical graduates call this the “falafel approach” and feel it leaves them unprepared for meaningful conversations on campus, with some claiming that teachers “lied to them” Don’t teach about the heroes of Israel; leaders and trailblazers are real people with faults. Do describe the Israel-related content and skills your graduates will possess.

Operational language about Israel education sets a tone for your school culture and can help attract and retain highly qualified teachers. For example, all faculty, not just Judaics teachers, should know they are expected to integrate Israel into all subjects where appropriate and applicable, including science, social studies and literature. The benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to education are well documented, yet most day schools relegate Israel education to a sliver of Judaic studies or Hebrew classes Interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and helps students recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity and appreciate ethical concerns). Significant learning takes place when teachers incorporate a range of skills from different subjects, not only about the content, but also about the process of learning how to learn.

Curricula should reflect the real world, which is complex and not organized into neat subject areas. Most students’ Hebrew ability levels do not enable them to access primary source documents and historical artifacts to analyze Israel’s history, politics, economy and culture, nor is such understanding the goal), so good Israel education cannot take place solely in Hebrew lessons.

There also should be an explicit expectation that teachers check their political biases at the threshold of the classroom to serve as facilitators of critical thinking instead of influencers and that they help learners become critical consumers of information and bias Such language in your documents can spill into hiring interviews, professional development opportunities and daily best practices that create safe spaces for learners. Too many teachers feel free to share polemics and impose their political leanings on students but can’t be fired because they have been at the school so long that their classes have become institutions and collective memories of their own. Great education is about establishing norms of critical thinking; courageous leadership empowers great teaching when key documents reflect these practices, when messages are consistently communicated and when the community sees the values in day-to-day practices.

Operational language in key documents should be examined with faculty annually and their implications reviewed for initiatives. This habit ensures collective understandings and agreements for the role of Israel education in the school culture. Teacher-led Israel committees, peer observations of Israel lessons and Israel book clubs ensure continuity and cultivate shared ownership while modeling lifelong learning.

 

Language, Symbols and Climate

If Israel education is a core value of your school, visitors should feel, see and hear it in the first 10 minutes on campus. Schools should convey that Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people and that revitalizing Hebrew was not the labor of one man, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, but of a nation seeking to re-establish itself in Eretz Yisrael. Sing the Israeli and US anthems each morning. In hallways and gathering places, post Israeli street signs of Zionist leaders with QR codes that link to their biographies and legacies. Instead of bells at the end of periods, play modern Israeli songs. Showcase student work in both languages on bulletin boards. Greet guests at the front desk in both languages.

Informal spaces also convey the core values of the school. Have students ask Israeli counterparts what games they love at recess and place a gaming station on the blacktop where students can learn the rules of those games. Erect a gaga court and have older students teach younger ones. Play Israeli songs and offer folk dancing. In the school garden, explore Israel’s scientific agricultural approaches, from hydroponic towers to drip irrigation, and plant species grown in Israel. Use the harvest to cook Israeli recipes. In the library, display books about the history, culture, politics, economy, environment and innovation of Israel. In halls, display student artwork inspired by Israeli artists. Ask Israeli delegates (shinshinim) to maintain and rotate the interactive display in a dedicated Israel space. In an environment infused with Israel-rich experiences, students imbibe the value that modern Israel is a part of our collective identity.

Symbols convey collective meaning. For younger learners, go beyond the Israeli flag. Study the symbols of organizations that support social and medical needs. Research images and symbols on Israeli currency. Do projects on the insignias of army branches and divisions that use flora and fauna. Research the symbols of Israeli cities, towns and agricultural settlements. Older students can use the logos of start-up companies to explore how Israeli innovators are solving the problems facing their generation; then they can create their own prototype for a start-up with a mission, vision and symbol or an image that reflects their own identity and connection to Israel.

Sophisticated learners can tie together symbols, places, events and cultural diversity, such as the windmills of Yemin Moshe with settlements outside ancient walls, the lion of Yosef Trumpeldor with the end of World War I, the Bahai Gardens of Haifa with the religious rights of minorities, and Sde Boker with Ben-Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom. Analyze Zionist posters in context or learn about the many memorials (andarta’ot) in Israel, then select an Israeli person or event to memorialize on campus with a full design proposal.

 

Rituals, Ceremonies and Norms

The Jewish calendar has maintained our collective memory through centuries of exile and persecution; your school calendar can serve a similar function by including Israel events throughout the year. The Yoms and a maccabiah (Israel-themed color war) are standard; adding Sigd and Mimouna informs diversity. November offers an opportunity to teach about Yitzhak Rabin, the U.N. partition vote of 1947, U.N. Resolution 242 and Sadat’s visit to the Knesset in 1977. This year, look back 30 years to the Persian Gulf War and the Madrid Peace Conference, and consider whether the conditions then and now were ripe for fruitful negotiations. After the Tokyo Olympics, examine Israeli sports and their significance, from the Munich massacre in 1972 to Tal Brody saying “We are on the map” with the 1977 European basketball championship, and from Olympic champions to international soccer feats. Use timelines of Israel to find the events to include each school year.

Don’t be afraid to create Israel-themed events, such as a night of dancing and Israeli wine tasting for parents or a Shark Tank show in which local Israeli business leaders judge student pitches. Add a shiriyah where each grade performs one Israeli song for the school community, based either on a theme, like songs of peace, or an Israeli artist, like Naomi Shemer. Calendar creativity ensures that Israel is taught year-round in meaningful ways and gives everyone at school the planning time for the best outcomes.

 

Tools, Trips and Storytelling

A good curriculum guide ensures that Israel is taught in each grade, with enough specificity that a new teacher can pick up where the previous left off and with enough spiraling in sophistication to prevent unnecessary repetition or gaping holes. It also communicates to new and prospective parents how you approach Israel studies.

Nothing beats a school trip to Israel as the culmination of years of learning, but lasting memories don’t come from mere tourist trips. Fill each day with activities that connect history, peoplehood and land with individual and collective identity. Just as we yearn to hear from Holocaust survivors while we can, we must hear from Israel’s storytellers about how they experienced key events and each generation must pass on these stories. Schools should cultivate relationships with diverse guest speakers who can share firsthand accounts and can connect Israel experiences to today’s learners. Teaching others helps one become proficient, so have students practice Israel storytelling to younger learners.

Our collective understanding and transmission of Israel’s past help us build a better future for each generation; that is the imperative of veshinantam levanecha and midor ledor. Telling powerful narratives via inaccurate, laden language, or via deliberate omissions of key historical moments threatens to reshape our collective history and memory and is an existential threat to Jewish identity. We must tell our own history with primary sources and build a safe and rich environment for the next generation to become Israel-literate, comfortable with complexity and nuance, and competent to analyze new events and sources.

 

Moving Donor Plaques

Organizational Memory

When you remodel your campus, what happens to all of the donor plaques from the existing space?

One of the most exciting initiatives that I was involved in as head of school was remodeling our campus. We gutted buildings, dreamed big and created a beautiful new learning community. What I did not take into account as we were knocking down walls was that each of those walls and door frames had a plaque on it with the name of those who donated to this existing building. I quickly went around salvaging each plaque (as I was not convinced we had a good accounting of this list from before my time at the school) and sat down to decide how to assure this important part of the school’s legacy was sustained.

 

Before the Project

Bring your past donors into the new project; even if these are families that are no longer in the community or connected to the school, be sure they know about this exciting remodel and how their legacy will be preserved. Alert them with a letter, describing how this new environment will enhance the school’s ability to meet the needs of today’s families. Include a message from the architect and designer that lays out the physical space and how it connects to your educational vision.

Send each one a picture of their plaque on the existing wall before demolition to assure that they know exactly how it was written. Be clear that their donations and support will not be forgotten and will be included in the new buildings. Let them know the plans for the area that they gave to in the past (an art room, Judaics classroom, a mezuzah or office space). I had a donor who was a pediatric urologist and always sponsored the bathrooms.

 

During the Project

If donors are local, invite them to watch the progress. Have one or two times during the course of the construction when they can stop by and see the excitement. Learn about their history with the school (especially if you are not familiar with it) and gauge what might still excite them.

Discuss your plans with them for how their names will be visible on the new site. Show them a mock up of the new donor walls (or whatever means you will use). Be sure to check with them how they want their names inscribed on the tributes. It is not uncommon that families have gone through changes since the original donation was made; divorces, deaths and other life events might alter how the donor wants their name preserved on the new “wall.” In the case of a divorce, be sure to check with both parties so that all names, if they desire, of the original donation are included in a respectful manner.

Be prepared for some to be disappointed or even upset about this change. A donor may have specifically wanted their name on the science room that no longer exists and will not be happy to just have their name on a random wall. Be ready with alternative solutions. Perhaps there is a new space dedicated to science, and their name can be included with a new donor’s name along with appropriate dates. Perhaps there is a space in the new building that speaks to them where they would like their name to be. However, it is my experience that with the right outreach, most past donors will be excited the school is growing and that their names will still be part of the school history.

 

Upon Completion of the Project

Send the past donors a photo of their new “spot” and thank them for their role in bringing the school to where it is today. Have an alumni student write them a note as well as a current student: the gift that keeps on giving. Have this all in one envelope.

Celebrate! Invite the past donors to the dedication of the new building and recognize them publicly. If possible, make it available on Zoom so those who are out of town can feel a part of the event. Set times to give tours for the past donors, and you might even cultivate renewed relationships and interest in supporting the school.

Highlight the new wall of honor with current and past donors’ names in an upcoming publication. And, keep in touch with all of the donors, letting them see how the new environment is enhancing the school they know is such an important part of the community.

Uncoverage: Empowering Students to Become Part of History

Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn
Organizational Memory

As a doctoral student at Brandeis, Deborah and her classmates were encouraged to design “readings courses” around topics of interest that weren’t otherwise available in the curriculum. As is sometimes the case, the one willing to do the legwork gets to chart the course, and so Deborah dragged her classmates—and their professor, Jonathan Sarna—along for a ride in a semester of Readings in Jewish Organizational History. The class read some snoozers that slogged through institutional history, decade by decade, president by president, but the students left with some core takeaways that stuck:

You cannot understand how or why an organization functions the way it does today without understanding its origin story, evolution, core myths, history and leadership structures.

Knowing an organization’s history enriches and deepens our connection and capacity to humbly lead, change and grow an organization.

The most powerful organizational histories are those that show rather than tell the stories.

The use of primary sources, including artifacts, interviews, memoirs, documents and media, deepens the engagement at the time of research and of sharing that research with a wider audience.

The research process has the power to build transformative relationships and connections that enrich the researcher, the consumer and the institution.

The experience reinforced the power of uncoverage, a pedagogy that emphasizes the transformative impact of student discovery in learning history. At our school, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, part of the core teaching philosophy in founding a middle school is uncoverage’s empowerment of students to discover and uncover through the use of primary sources, meaning-making through these modalities, building a connection to who and what came before them, and a commitment to those who will come after. As happened when students created a documentary in honor of the school’s 30th anniversary, the process of uncoverage can have a transformative effect on the student themselves and on those whose stories they uncover.

 

The Work of Uncoverage

Our school’s 30th anniversary coincided with its inaugural middle school class, presenting an opportunity to look both back and forward. In the process of creating a documentary to commemorate this threshold moment, students engaged with one central idea: how the stories we tell and the memories we relate create our identity and help illuminate not only the past but the path ahead. To begin our study, we examined Judaic texts about commandments to remember and considered the way our tradition elevates and amplifies the role of storytelling as core to translating our values and maintaining our heritage. For this class in particular, looking back as we forged a new future for our school felt timely and critical.

As the students immersed themselves in boxes of artifacts, they found certain central keys to our identity emerge. In the letters, photos, yearbooks, newspaper articles the students examined, they saw certain themes emerge, including our school’s commitment to empowering students’ voices and impact, fostering collaboration among teachers, students and our families, and cultivating an authentic interactive pluralist community. Through their interviews with families who helped found our school, the students learned about how parents took a leap of faith and stuck by their vision for a school even when uncertainties abounded. They learned how the families knew that joy in learning would come from being together with their teachers and friends and in uncovering the relevance of their learning to their own lives.

Our sixth graders met with alumni who were the first graduates of our school’s elementary school and understood through their reflections that the years spent at our school were looked upon with the warm nostalgia for a time when they felt whole, cared for and part of a family within our school. They met with former and current students who came to our Jewish day school with different backgrounds and practices but with a unified commitment to being part of a meaningful and intentional Jewish community. In these interviews and through their research, the students saw a story emerge that helped them understand the ways the school they learned in and were helping to grow was itself formed and then formed its own students.

 

Finding Themselves in the Story

Over the course of our work together to recognize and celebrate the milestone of our 30 anniversary, we discovered a critical facet to the value of sharing our story with others and with ourselves at institutional milestones of celebration. The students experienced how telling the story of our school helped us to truly understand what we were celebrating at our anniversary. And then we realized something that deepened our understanding of how to mark these moments. Our students not only learned the story, they became part of our school’s continuously unfolding narrative.

In marking milestone moments and celebrations, schools should certainly help students, teachers and families learn their story, but it is essential that the students themselves see their part of their story. Students should not only take in the organizational memory of a place that helps form their early identities and experiences, they should take part in creating the memory, the story, the record of what the school is and will become.

When our students created the documentary, they worked as archivists, researchers, interviewees, filmmakers, audiovisual technicians, editors and ultimately, storytellers. When we celebrate highlight moments of culmination and commencement in our schools, we should create and amplify opportunities for our students to uncover, share and see themselves as part of that very story and understand that they will be the authors of its next chapters.

 

Making History

Perhaps one small chapter of our story about making the anniversary documentary can best reflect the power of becoming part of the stories we tell ourselves. In rummaging through boxes of artifacts early on in our process, a student found a speech written almost 20 years prior by a sixth grade student named Ezra. In 2001, Ezra delivered the speech before a local zoning agency to advocate for a particular location to serve as our school’s home when we were in search of one.

This same student then had the opportunity of interviewing Ezra, now an adult working in DC. He came to be interviewed by our student researcher and was presented with the typewritten copy of the speech he had written so long ago. Awash with surprise and nostalgia, Ezra marveled at the fact that we found this speech that he had last seen when he was in sixth grade, and more importantly, that the school that had empowered him to speak before the zoning agency was now empowering its students to be at the helm of the entire documentary project. He had played a part in the school’s history and in helping to carve out its future, and the students who made the documentary were doing the very same thing in their own way.

When our students premiered the documentary at a red carpet event at a local movie theater, they shared these stories of the process, showed the film, answered questions and presented the school with the movie poster they created for the film they made. They told the story of our school’s first 30 years, and became central figures in our continuing journey.

You can view the documentary here.

Honoring a Veteran Teacher

Organizational Memory

No, she’s not retiring,” a refrain said repeatedly as Friedel Jewish Academy in Omaha, Nebraska, asked people to join the committee to plan the celebration of a beloved teacher’s 30 anniversary of working at the school. So much was the concern that people might misinterpret the meaning of the celebration, that a logo was created using the tag line “30 Years: Cheers to the Next Decade and Beyond!”

Denise Bennett joined the staff of the school as her first full-time teaching position out of college. She grew up in a small town in Nebraska, and the multiage classrooms at the day school reminded her of her own schooling. She has served as the school’s general studies teacher for the older grades all these years, currently teaching fifth and sixth grade.

The celebratory event, attended by hundreds of community members, began with a proclamation from the mayor of the City of Omaha:

Whereas, Denise Bennett has dedicated her teaching career to the students at Friedel Jewish Academy, and

Whereas, The Friedel Jewish Academy, its staff and students, follow these guiding principles: Love of Learning, Love of Torah, Love of Israel, Repairing the World and Love your Neighbor...

Denise Bennett Day was declared on May 24, 2018. (She jokes that she likes to think of it as an annual event.)

For each of her sixth grade graduating classes, Denise has written a song that honors the individual strengths of each student. This vocal tribute to the graduates is sung by the school’s faculty at the annual graduation ceremony. For the Mrs. Bennett Celebration, a song was written to honor this phenomenal educator. It was sung to her by more 40 Friedel alumni, called up to the stage by name and graduating class year, among hugs and tears as they greeted Mrs. Bennett, seated in the middle of the stage.

From there, Denise was joined on the stage by a group that included four of the heads of school and 14 of the school’s presidents over the course of her tenure. This group presented her with a message of congratulations on behalf of the governor along with a certificate of appointment as an admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska.

If you remember elementary school geography lessons, you are probably thinking, “Navy? In Nebraska?” The Great Navy of the State of Nebraska began in 1930 when Governor Charles W. Bryan went on vacation and Lieutenant Governor T. W. Metcalfe took over the affairs of the state. Acting Governor Metcalf wanted to do something to honor his friends, so he created the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska and appointed his friends as admirals. Since then, Nebraska admiralships have been bestowed on many notable Nebraskans, with stated requirements for appointment as follows: “Admirals in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska are individuals who have contributed in some way to the state, promote the Good Life in Nebraska, and warrant recognition as determined by the Governor.”

The evening’s celebration closed with a video montage of Friedel alumni, including the entire graduating class of Denise’s inaugural year of sixth graders, sharing the life lessons they learned from her that they’ve carried with them since childhood.

In promoting the event with alumni and the Omaha Jewish community, we offered the opportunity for people to contribute to the newly created Teachers’ Wish List in honor of Denise and the other wonderful teachers at Friedel. Donations from the event provided for new iPads for the whole school, funded field trips and added equipment to our innovation lab.

Longevity, Legacy and Love of Learning

Organizational Memory

How does a community celebrate the retirement of a beloved head of school, the hiring of a new head of school who is also an alumnus, and 75 years of Jewish pluralistic Jewish day school education during a pandemic?

This is the question we grappled with this past year. Early in the planning we agreed that our gala, which would be the transitional celebratory event, would be in person. We decided to move the gala from the spring to the summer, hoping that we would be in a safer place re: Covid, and indeed, in early summer, it seemed we would be. However, by mid-July it became clear that our August gala was in jeopardy. Deposits had been paid, plans were made but our medical advisory committee warned that feeding and celebrating with that many people was too risky.

With weeks to go to the gala, our team worked around the clock to pivot once again. We would no longer be serving food or drinks, we would use our turf field and separate guests, we would shorten the program, but we would celebrate together because we have so much to honor.

This September 11, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy will mark 75 years since it opened in 1946 in Philadelphia as Akiba Hebrew Academy, the nation’s first pluralistic Jewish secondary day school. Our school’s founders envisioned a school where Jewish adolescents would experience a dual curriculum of secular and Jewish studies, prepare for leadership roles in the Jewish community and the community at large, and come together to study their common heritage, living Jewish values in a pluralistic and mutually respectful setting. Throughout our 75-year history, we have grown and changed with the times without losing sight of our essential heritage and mission.

Philadelphia is somewhat unique in that many people who grew up in the area stay to raise their children or return to the area while their children are school-aged. At Barrack, we currently have 70 legacy students whose parents or grandparents went to our school. We are pleased that we have alumni on staff, including our new head of school, Rabbi Marshall Lesack, ‘97, and myself, ‘91.

Our Akiba/Barrack alumni community is strong and proud, with nearly 3,000 alumni around the globe. This year, our gala celebration featured presentations by five of our outstanding alumni: Rabbi David J. Wolpe, ’76, bestselling author and Newsweek’s most influential rabbi in America; Chaim Bloom, ’00, chief baseball officer for the Boston Red Sox; Jamie Geller, ’96, bestselling cookbook author and chief media and marketing officer at Aish Global and CEO of Kosher Network International; Dr. Leah Lande, ‘89, pulmonologist for Main Line Health and Barrack chief medical advisor; Josh Shapiro, ‘91, Pennsylvania attorney general, and Jake Tapper, ‘87, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent.

Our honoree was Sharon Levin, who spent the past 35 years leading and teaching and who is retiring after most recently serving as Barrack’s head of school the past 10 years. Sharon is also a past parent who embodies so much of our history and is connected to 35 years of alumni, past parents, faculty and lay leadership. Our gala commemorated our school’s history and, most importantly, celebrated the people who have been our school’s greatest point of pride and success.

As the rain began to fall, our gala came to an end. Guests made their way off the field to their cars, and we were grateful that we were able to share a remarkable evening together. This past year has taught all of us that even our best, well thought out plans are vulnerable to change. Nonetheless, as we look ahead at our 75th year, we will continue to celebrate Barrack’s proud legacy—our teachers and students, past, present and future.

Planning Ahead for the Big 5-0

Organizational Memory

Since coming to Posnack Jewish Day School, I have had the great privilege to preside over many celebrations and anniversaries. Each commencement, school opening, and anniversary milestone yields new insight into the place and importance of Jewish day school education in the life of American Jewish communities. Having just begun our 47th school year still mired in the pandemic, I have lately been looking ever more hopefully to our school’s upcoming 50th anniversary. As we get closer, I am going to keep in mind three things, a kind of three-step plan, that I have learned over the years to be essential for marking community milestones.

Step 1: Be inclusive. At its heart, a school community is a family. As with any family simchah, there are many pieces and personalities to manage. From an organizational standpoint, one of the most difficult aspects is making everyone feel invested. For the celebration to be a success, the organization must engage all generations, from the newest school family and faculty member to the founders. Our school has had its share of galas and ribbon cuttings, but we have also used less formal, more inclusive projects to increase engagement across the board.

Step 2: It’s not all about raising funds. Most organizations use big milestones as a way to build endowments and start new capital campaigns, but let’s be honest, no one remembers a capital campaign. They only exist in our institutional memory in very abstract ways. The tangible results are far more visible, and so, more memorable.

This creates a different set of challenges that take us back to step one. The goal for fundraising for major milestones should not only be a number. The goal should be getting every member of the school community to give, from major donors to those who can support a campaign at their comfort level. I cannot begin to count how many times I’ve heard things like, Why should we focus on people who give $180 when we should be focusing on people who give $18,000?

The answer is, you need to do both. First, not giving kavod to the $18 or $180 donor might make them feel less valued, and they may reconsider any future commitment to the school community. Second, that $18 donation could be the start of a supportive relationship that leads to future support well into the future. Galas and VIP receptions are great, but so are PTO ice cream fundraisers and challah bakes, so why not do them all? Jewish day schools cannot survive without successful fundraising campaigns, but if it’s only about development office success and not communitywide success, it won’t be much of a celebration.

Step 3: You should have fun. What was the best part of the last simchah you attended? Was it the speeches? Probably not. Celebrations are about creating joy. The more joy, the deeper the memories. Reaching a milestone, whether it’s a commencement or an anniversary, requires hard work, dedication and often sacrifice. Now it’s time to let ourselves enjoy our accomplishments.

As in step one, the key here should be to engage the community on every level. There will be ceremonies, and receptions and maybe a commemorative volume of essays. The trick here is to both recognize our past and make new memories for our future. Posnack School, for example, has exceptional performing and visual arts programs. We will certainly call on our amazing art educators and student artists for help during our 50th anniversary. We may also call on our alumni artists, some of whom have gone on to careers in the performing and visual arts, for a 50th anniversary arts “homecoming” retrospective.

Fulfilling these three steps can be a difficult balancing act that few organizations can do perfectly, but as one school community, there is nothing we cannot do together, including celebrating an incredible 50th anniversary celebration.

Forging School Memories

Jason Feld
Organizational Memory

I confess that for most of my 15 years as a Jewish educator, I found Yom HaAtzma‘ut (Israel Independence Day) programming to be underwhelming and educationally reductive. That changed three years ago. I challenged my faculty to think beyond the blue and white decorations, the falafel lunches, and instead reimagine Yom HaAtzma‘ut at our school as a transformative experience to impact our students’ Jewish identity for years to come. What emerged from that meeting was the NYHS Masa: a schoolwide, multiday experience, which, despite challenges posed by the pandemic, endures as a signature school tradition and continues to evolve and enrich our school culture in countless ways.

Hebrew for “journey,” the NYHS Masa is intentionally modeled after the trek that thousands of Israeli high school students share each year. It’s an annual Zionist tradition dating back to the early chalutzim, pioneers. The program is designed around a holistic construct of avodah atzma‘it, independent work. These tasks require planning, focus, persistence and chavayot, authentic experiences. A primary goal is the development of chevratut, the deep, meaningful bonds borne of powerful shared experiences.

Leadership and interdependence are central to the Masa experience. Months before the actual journey, student-leaders and faculty advisors plan every detail. Countless tasks are then delegated to smaller working committees made up of students and staff. The initial planning creates gradewide engagement and ignites a sense of early excitement that grows as we approach Yom HaAtzma‘ut.

The NYHS Masa formally begins with a student-led, citywide ceremony. The event transitions our Seattle Jewish community from Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, to the joy of Yom HaAtzma‘ut. Through these leadership roles, students learn to act with confidence and competence. They experience the solemnity and sanctity of these modern Jewish holidays, as well as value newfound skills to serve their community.

Following the ceremony, the focus turns to the outdoors, daring us to leave our comfort zones. The daily routine of most high school students is confined to due dates, grades and screens. The vast beauty of nature inculcates a sense of awe often absent from modern daily life. Activities such as hiking, rafting, setting up camp, preparing meals and sleeping under the stars establish a relationship of mutual trust amid the beauty of Washington’s wilderness and, in a social context, free from preconceived dynamics and norms.

As the journey continues, the school community shares spiritual meaning and a very practical need for sustained cooperation. The Masa introduces us to the realm of the sacred, where the ego succumbs to a unique space of collective interests not only in survival, but absorbing the vast beauty of nature. These shared experiences can create a momentary glimpse of what our ideal chevrah could be. This collectively experienced inspiration becomes a motivating vision for establishing a stronger and more meaningful school culture, building a brighter future.

Upon our return home, everyone is inevitably quite dirty and beyond tired. But beyond that, there is a feeling of intense joy. Such feelings of accomplishment are made all the more meaningful because of the unspoken bonds of being part of a true chevrah. It is in these moments where our best selves find our most potent expressions. This enduring legacy of the Zionist spirit will surely continue to nourish and strengthen our small Jewish high school nestled in the upper reaches of the Pacific Northwest.

In Search of Our Story: Jewish Day School Archives

Organizational Memory

I recently read a fascinating book by Laura Arnold Leibman titled The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects. As the name of the book suggests, Leibman reconstructs the lives and experiences of Jewish women through an analysis of quotidian objects like commonplace books, silver cups, ivory miniature portraits and family silhouettes.

Museums often showcase ritual items like Torah finials and kiddush cups, but Leibman explains that popular conceptions about what is remarkable and important are a reflection of a wider phenomenon in which women’s voices and lived experiences are frequently silenced. These often-unconscious values are reflected not only in curatorial decisions but also in archives. Indeed, Leibman’s masterful reconstruction of Jewish women’s lives through objects, which involved a breathtaking amount of detective work, was necessitated in part by the sparse paper trail.

Leibman’s book reminded me of my current book project, a history of the Jewish day school movement in the United States. Just as women’s lives have been traditionally devalued by historians, archivists and curators, so too have educators often been overlooked. This seems ironic since schooling is a nearly universal experience in the United States, certainly since the passage of mandatory education laws. Likewise, most parents will attest to the central role that schooling plays in their families’ day-to-day lives: organizing their calendars and their social networks; focusing interactions between parents and children; serving simultaneously as a source of anxiety and a validator of self-worth.

And yet, historically speaking, we know very little about Jewish schools and other educational spaces, particularly about the process of teaching and learning. The artifacts that do exist, such as yearbooks, student newspapers, school projects and recordings of siddur parties and model seders, are more likely to be found in people’s attics or basements than in archives. Perhaps some of this is attributable to the feminization of the education profession. Likewise, with a few notable exceptions, experts have often overlooked the experiences of children when documenting people’s lives. Even with the more recent emphasis on “bottom up” social history, histories of childhood are few and far between.

Whatever the reasons for the silence of the archival record, educators themselves have often been unwittingly complicit in the lack of focus on preservation. Teachers and administrators tend to be present-minded, an orientation that is reinforced by the immediacy that pervades school life as well as the field’s sometimes unhealthy obsession with faddism. I recently visited with a newly retired master Tanakh teacher who sadly reported to me that he left over 50 years of lesson plans, projects and teaching ideas with his successor, only to learn that they had been unceremoniously dumped in the trash shortly after his departure. Did the recipient of these materials conclude that he had nothing to learn from the retired teacher’s decades of experience and penchant for creativity?

Then there is the tragic story I was told about a veteran Jewish educator stricken with inoperable cancer who cleared her entire home office into a dumpster because she didn’t want her husband to be saddled with the chore of sifting through her papers after she was gone. Perhaps some educators have internalized society’s devaluation of teaching and assumed that few would be interested in the documentation of their professional lives.

Prior to the pandemic, I visited one of the earliest Jewish day schools in the country, a pioneer in Zionist, Orthodox education, and learned to my horror that the records of the school’s early decades and the writings of its visionary principal were literally washed away during Hurricane Sandy. When I asked why the records were relegated to cardboard packing boxes and left on the basement floor rather than being donated to a local or national archival institution or even secured on an upper floor in fireproof filing cabinets, there was no coherent answer. I don’t think the school’s leaders were intentionally negligent, but historical preservation was not uppermost in their minds.

This is a shame, because the growth of the day school movement over the past century is one of the most important trends in American Jewish life. The archival record can shed light on the individuals who built and sustained these schools and the young people who spent most of their waking hours on their premises. An individual school’s records help to flesh out this wider Jewish educational phenomenon, while documenting the mobilization of a local community. Preserving a school’s history is also a way of connecting its present to its past. Documenting continuity and change over time simultaneously emboldens continued innovation while rooting a school community in core values and a shared narrative.

Some history-minded schools have used occasions like significant anniversaries to engage in preservation efforts. Consider, for example, Salanter Academy of Riverdale’s 50 Stories program, which was launched to coincide with its 50th anniversary. Likewise, I was recently contacted by a high school senior who was digitizing back issues of her school newspaper, dating as far back as the 1950s. These schools are ahead of the curve.

Happily, there are also a few archivists, like Sean Martin at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, who have made it their business to solicit materials from local Jewish educational institutions. Similarly, there were a few visionary educators like Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, founder of the Ramaz School, Louis Newman, principal of Barrack (né Akiba) Hebrew Academy and an early director at Camp Ramah Wisconsin, and Shulamith Elster, head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, who recognized the historic nature of their contributions and had the foresight to preserve their papers. Sometimes it is a historically minded stakeholder, like the remarkable Torah Umesorah official I met in southern New Jersey, who makes it their mission to save what others are prepared to discard. But these are the exceptions. Far more common are the stories I shared above. The historical records of tens of schools (and countless teachers) have been claimed by floods and fires, as well as more mundane occurrences, like relocations to new facilities. I know this because I’ve spent the past few years hunting down primary sources that will help me tell the story of Jewish day schools.

After spending a significant amount of time in basements, attics and in one case, a bathroom closet, I decided that it was imperative to launch a day school history preservation project. In cooperation with Brandeis University’s Archives and Special Collections department, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education is in the process of developing a collection that will house records from day schools across the country and the organizations that serve them. We are looking for gifts from individuals as well as institutions and already have begun to receive materials from teachers, administrators and day school alumni. With sufficient funding, our hope is to digitize select older records, photos, yearbooks and more, where privacy concerns are not at issue, and make them available to the general public.

Our intention is to create a public-facing website dedicated to educating the wider community about the history of the day school movement, where some of these digitized documents and photos will be featured along with timelines, maps, oral history videos and a blog. We are inspired in part by the trailblazing work of Naomi Seidman and the online Bais Yaakov Project, which is dedicated to preserving and digitizing material related to the founding and development of the Bais Yaakov girls education movement. If you haven’t surfed the Bais Yaakov Project, you should check it out.

There is some urgency to this day school archives project. Scores of schools were created in the decades before and after World War II, and their founders have passed from the scene. Even those schools that were created since the 1970s are on the verge of losing their history to the passage of time. A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet with two of the founders of a leading liberal Jewish day school in the Midwest and engaged in an edifying discussion about the impact of the Six-Day War and changing public school demographics on their decision to found their school. But I wasn’t as lucky tracking down the prime movers behind an East Coast school that was founded the same year. The last of the founders, in her early nineties, succumbed in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. Her historical memory and the records she might have had the foresight to preserve are likely irretrievably lost.

There is no reason why readers can’t take the initiative in preserving their own school’s history. If you are interested in discussing the possibility of donating materials to Brandeis University’s Jewish Day School Archives Project, I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].

If the prospect of donating materials to Brandeis (or sending us your digitized records) does not appeal to you, perhaps you can explore a donation to a local historical society or organizing a school archive. (Creating a school archive and donating materials—or digitized copies—to Brandeis need not be mutually exclusive.) A school archive project can be a marvelous way to engage older students in exploring the history of their school and their wider community. It is also an effective means of introducing them to how history is preserved and written. With any luck, one or more of the students will emerge from the project with the mission and the drive to rectify the silences in the archival record.

In Search of Our Story: Jewish Day School Archives

Organizational Memory

I recently read a fascinating book by Laura Arnold Leibman titled The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects. As the name of the book suggests, Leibman reconstructs the lives and experiences of Jewish women through an analysis of quotidian objects like commonplace books, silver cups, ivory miniature portraits and family silhouettes.

Museums often showcase ritual items like Torah finials and kiddush cups, but Leibman explains that popular conceptions about what is remarkable and important are a reflection of a wider phenomenon in which women’s voices and lived experiences are frequently silenced. These often-unconscious values are reflected not only in curatorial decisions but also in archives. Indeed, Leibman’s masterful reconstruction of Jewish women’s lives through objects, which involved a breathtaking amount of detective work, was necessitated in part by the sparse paper trail.

Leibman’s book reminded me of my current book project, a history of the Jewish day school movement in the United States. Just as women’s lives have been traditionally devalued by historians, archivists and curators, so too have educators often been overlooked. This seems ironic since schooling is a nearly universal experience in the United States, certainly since the passage of mandatory education laws. Likewise, most parents will attest to the central role that schooling plays in their families’ day-to-day lives: organizing their calendars and their social networks; focusing interactions between parents and children; serving simultaneously as a source of anxiety and a validator of self-worth.

And yet, historically speaking, we know very little about Jewish schools and other educational spaces, particularly about the process of teaching and learning. The artifacts that do exist, such as yearbooks, student newspapers, school projects and recordings of siddur parties and model seders, are more likely to be found in people’s attics or basements than in archives. Perhaps some of this is attributable to the feminization of the education profession. Likewise, with a few notable exceptions, experts have often overlooked the experiences of children when documenting people’s lives. Even with the more recent emphasis on “bottom up” social history, histories of childhood are few and far between.

Whatever the reasons for the silence of the archival record, educators themselves have often been unwittingly complicit in the lack of focus on preservation. Teachers and administrators tend to be present-minded, an orientation that is reinforced by the immediacy that pervades school life as well as the field’s sometimes unhealthy obsession with faddism. I recently visited with a newly retired master Tanakh teacher who sadly reported to me that he left over 50 years of lesson plans, projects and teaching ideas with his successor, only to learn that they had been unceremoniously dumped in the trash shortly after his departure. Did the recipient of these materials conclude that he had nothing to learn from the retired teacher’s decades of experience and penchant for creativity?

Then there is the tragic story I was told about a veteran Jewish educator stricken with inoperable cancer who cleared her entire home office into a dumpster because she didn’t want her husband to be saddled with the chore of sifting through her papers after she was gone. Perhaps some educators have internalized society’s devaluation of teaching and assumed that few would be interested in the documentation of their professional lives.

Prior to the pandemic, I visited one of the earliest Jewish day schools in the country, a pioneer in Zionist, Orthodox education, and learned to my horror that the records of the school’s early decades and the writings of its visionary principal were literally washed away during Hurricane Sandy. When I asked why the records were relegated to cardboard packing boxes and left on the basement floor rather than being donated to a local or national archival institution or even secured on an upper floor in fireproof filing cabinets, there was no coherent answer. I don’t think the school’s leaders were intentionally negligent, but historical preservation was not uppermost in their minds.

This is a shame, because the growth of the day school movement over the past century is one of the most important trends in American Jewish life. The archival record can shed light on the individuals who built and sustained these schools and the young people who spent most of their waking hours on their premises. An individual school’s records help to flesh out this wider Jewish educational phenomenon, while documenting the mobilization of a local community. Preserving a school’s history is also a way of connecting its present to its past. Documenting continuity and change over time simultaneously emboldens continued innovation while rooting a school community in core values and a shared narrative.

Some history-minded schools have used occasions like significant anniversaries to engage in preservation efforts. Consider, for example, Salanter Academy of Riverdale’s 50 Stories program, which was launched to coincide with its 50th anniversary. Likewise, I was recently contacted by a high school senior who was digitizing back issues of her school newspaper, dating as far back as the 1950s. These schools are ahead of the curve.

Happily, there are also a few archivists, like Sean Martin at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, who have made it their business to solicit materials from local Jewish educational institutions. Similarly, there were a few visionary educators like Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, founder of the Ramaz School, Louis Newman, principal of Barrack (né Akiba) Hebrew Academy and an early director at Camp Ramah Wisconsin, and Shulamith Elster, head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, who recognized the historic nature of their contributions and had the foresight to preserve their papers. Sometimes it is a historically minded stakeholder, like the remarkable Torah Umesorah official I met in southern New Jersey, who makes it their mission to save what others are prepared to discard. But these are the exceptions. Far more common are the stories I shared above. The historical records of tens of schools (and countless teachers) have been claimed by floods and fires, as well as more mundane occurrences, like relocations to new facilities. I know this because I’ve spent the past few years hunting down primary sources that will help me tell the story of Jewish day schools.

After spending a significant amount of time in basements, attics and in one case, a bathroom closet, I decided that it was imperative to launch a day school history preservation project. In cooperation with Brandeis University’s Archives and Special Collections department, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education is in the process of developing a collection that will house records from day schools across the country and the organizations that serve them. We are looking for gifts from individuals as well as institutions and already have begun to receive materials from teachers, administrators and day school alumni. With sufficient funding, our hope is to digitize select older records, photos, yearbooks and more, where privacy concerns are not at issue, and make them available to the general public.

Our intention is to create a public-facing website dedicated to educating the wider community about the history of the day school movement, where some of these digitized documents and photos will be featured along with timelines, maps, oral history videos and a blog. We are inspired in part by the trailblazing work of Naomi Seidman and the online Bais Yaakov Project, which is dedicated to preserving and digitizing material related to the founding and development of the Bais Yaakov girls education movement. If you haven’t surfed the Bais Yaakov Project, you should check it out.

There is some urgency to this day school archives project. Scores of schools were created in the decades before and after World War II, and their founders have passed from the scene. Even those schools that were created since the 1970s are on the verge of losing their history to the passage of time. A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet with two of the founders of a leading liberal Jewish day school in the Midwest and engaged in an edifying discussion about the impact of the Six-Day War and changing public school demographics on their decision to found their school. But I wasn’t as lucky tracking down the prime movers behind an East Coast school that was founded the same year. The last of the founders, in her early nineties, succumbed in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. Her historical memory and the records she might have had the foresight to preserve are likely irretrievably lost.

There is no reason why readers can’t take the initiative in preserving their own school’s history. If you are interested in discussing the possibility of donating materials to Brandeis University’s Jewish Day School Archives Project, I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].

If the prospect of donating materials to Brandeis (or sending us your digitized records) does not appeal to you, perhaps you can explore a donation to a local historical society or organizing a school archive. (Creating a school archive and donating materials—or digitized copies—to Brandeis need not be mutually exclusive.) A school archive project can be a marvelous way to engage older students in exploring the history of their school and their wider community. It is also an effective means of introducing them to how history is preserved and written. With any luck, one or more of the students will emerge from the project with the mission and the drive to rectify the silences in the archival record.

How to Create an Archive

Organizational Memory

The Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), the largest repository of Jewish life in Canada, is a community-based archives located in Toronto. The institution was established in 1973 to ensure that the archival evidence of the Jewish experience in Ontario was properly preserved for the benefit of the community and for those wishing to research and explore the Jewish Canadian context. Our records document the community’s earliest days in the province in the mid-nineteenth century to the present day and span all segments of the community’s history, including family life, civic participation, philanthropy, institutional activities, arts and culture, and business endeavors.

 

Historical Records

Following the establishment of cemeteries and synagogues, much of Jewish Ontario’s communal activity during the late 1800s and early 1900s was the creation of Jewish schools and places of study. The transmission of knowledge, customs and practices through formal and informal education was a requisite for transporting and sustaining Jewish traditions in the “new world.” This ensured that subsequent generations of Jewish Ontarians would hold an appreciation for their religion and culture and that young people would understand the unique character of their Jewish identity as a minority group within a white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon hegemonic society.

In the early years of the OJA, school records documenting this formative period were acquired from former teachers, administrators and board members, who saw fit to “rescue” the historic records after their schools had outgrown their premises, merged with other schools or ceased to exist altogether. Often the donors of these records were directly connected to the schools through synagogues, partner organizations and ideological movements under which many of these early schools were established.

Thankfully, these donations often contained the complete administrative records of the earliest schools in Ontario, whether they were Talmud Torahs or cheders, day or supplementary, religious or secular, Zionist or socialist, or a complicated mix of them all. The records included meeting minutes of the lay leadership, correspondence files, marketing and promotional materials, pedagogic and curriculum development materials, finances, ephemera, student and teacher files, and audiovisual records.

School records also were acquired from former students, as part of their personal papers. In these instances, rather than documenting the operation of the school, the records documented the individual experiences of the attending student but was limited by what they chose to retain into adulthood. In a similar fashion, the OJA received records documenting Jewish students in the public school system, sometimes at schools that were situated in neighborhoods that were almost exclusively Jewish in composition.

 

Contemporary Challenges

While the OJA still acquires important records documenting Jewish education through donations of personal papers, this strategy is inefficient when looking at the current recordkeeping situations at modern Jewish day schools. The increasingly bureaucratic nature of school administration means that the OJA can no longer simply rely on the enthusiasm of one or two founders or lay leaders to shepherd in these important collections. Toronto alone has 25 Jewish day schools serving over 10,000 students from kindergarten through high school. The strength and robustness of the Jewish educational sector is impressive but creates real challenges when acquiring school records. Archives must rely on the active participation of the schools as partners in the archiving process.

Today, the administration of school records is much more regulated, since most (but not all) Jewish schools are no longer supplementing a public school education, but rather are following the regulatory guidelines set out in their jurisdictions, in this case, the Province of Ontario. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the historic value of the school’s records is readily understood or appreciated by the custodians of this material. It is not until important anniversaries or dedications are being celebrated that school administrators come to appreciate their archives or curse the last staff person who threw them away.

School records hold value beyond the operational and the celebratory. They reveal some of the fundamental underpinnings of a community: How do we teach our children about who they are and what we value as a community? Past research conducted at the OJA on the history of Jewish education in Ontario has focused on topics ranging from the role of the Board of Jewish Education in setting pedagogic direction to the experiences of Sephardic students in Jewish day schools to the thorny debates of the 1950s on the transition from Yiddish to Hebrew instruction. Research inquiries like these have been aided by the various school records held at the OJA. Without these records, seminal moments in Jewish education would be unverified, or worse still, unknown. Jewish education and the decisions made by administrators, parents and students run parallel to the ebbs and flows of the community and illuminate everything from changes in pedagogy and instruction to trends in secular education, to domestic and global politics.

Today’s context will pose new questions for scholars. What records will they have to consult? How can Jewish schools ensure that the information they hold in their school archives are preserved and available for study? Here is some practical advice for modern school administrators on how to prepare your school records for deposit at an archive.

 

Start Now

Often, schools wait until critical moments to begin thinking about their archives. Administrators are busy with their daily work and assembling an archive is, justifiably, the last thing on their mind. However, construction projects, celebrations, office reconfigurations and staff changes are pressure points when records are gathered or tossed. Avoid those moments and address your archives now. Many schools find that the summer is a great time to start assembling their archives and often seek student or volunteer help to do so.

 

Find a Suitable Home

You may be tempted to hold onto your school records, just in case. This is a common impulse, especially with records that are deemed private or sensitive. But maintaining your own archives is not simply a matter of finding an adequate storage closet. Archives and archivists are educated professionals, adept at navigating various pieces of legislation (such as those related to privacy) on a daily basis.

Archives also have proper storage space and climate conditions and, most importantly, room for growth, something that is at a premium in most schools. Archivists assist researchers with complicated inquiries and are knowledgeable about other heritage intuitions that can aid in research. Answering reference inquiries from the public would inevitably become an onerous administrative task. By housing your records at a proper repository, you are ensuring that they receive the professional long-term care that will preserve them into the future and will open them up to the broadest base of researchers. With digital records, this is even more important given the complexity of digital preservation and ensuring the long-term accessibility of digital files.

 

Work with the Archives

Working with the archivist, asking questions and accepting guidance will ensure that only the records with the most informational value are retained. Rarely do archives want everything you have to offer. The archivist can lead you to the most important high-level records, such as board minutes and policy documents, and away from the late slips and payment requisition forms. You will then discover the pleasures of throwing out the rest!

 

Make it Easy on Yourself

Archives like original order. The order in which the records were created or maintained provides important context. Don’t feel the need to reorganize everything—it does more harm than good. Keep records that have been filed together, boxed together. Keep the event photographs in their original envelopes. Any identifying information that already exists, whether it’s on the file folder or the back of a photograph, will help the archivist when the records are deposited and will help the researcher when they are ready for consultation.

 

Embrace the Digital

Perhaps the question we receive most often is what to do with all those digital files. Do we want those? Of course! They hold informational and historic value just like the paper records. Most (but not all) archives have digital preservation systems in place and are equipped to acquire, store, preserve and provide long-term access to digital files. The archivist will be able provide guidance on the best method of transferring the digital files as part of the larger collection of records. As with paper records, it is important to identify all the storage locations, decide what files have the most informational value and maintain the original order so that later, one can understand who created the records and why.

 

Celebrate Your Annals’ New Home

It is mistakenly thought that once records are at the archives, they are locked up, never to be seen again. The reality is that historic records begin their secondary lives at the archives. No longer are they needed solely for operational purposes. They now act as a living legacy to be consulted, understood, interpreted and reinterpreted.

At a community archive like the OJA, records never sit in isolation. They are in constant conversation with other organizational records, school records and personal papers, and it is this bond between collections that provides the broad framework required for researching and writing Jewish communal history. How fitting that school records serve to document the very role that Jewish education plays in the transference of knowledge from one generation to the next.

The School Lives On

Organizational Memory

Where Questions Are the Answers

Jesse Turk

 

Judaism is a religion made up of questions and answers, she’eilot with multiple teshuvot. So often in Jewish education, rabbinic and talmudic studies focus on the answer. We look at the layers of answers that may hide beneath the simple answer, all the way to “secret” answers, or the true meaning behind different Jewish laws. The process of asking the question itself, though, is intrinsic to being Jewish; the very act of asking it is how one actively engages and wrestles with their Judaism. This question-asking exercise is a continuous and at times tenuous engagement, especially in academic settings where teachers also have lesson plans to get through, points to make, tests to prepare for and of course parental expectations to meet.

At South Area Solomon Schechter Day School, the emphasis on that dynamic question-asking was never allowed to fall by the wayside to simply get to the point. The point was the process. The Schechter mindset allowed students to fully engage rather than just memorize and recite. The school focused intently on meeting individual students where they were at in their educational journeys, both Judaic and secular, and supporting growth on their terms.

I remember feeling that mission put into practice when there was space made for any question in regards to a Jewish text in a Rabbinics or Bible class as well as humanities classes—even the ones that other educators in other institutions might dismiss as irreverent or beside the point. What if getting off topic or pushing into “dangerous territory” actually got us to a better point?

At Schechter, Judaism was at once an ancient tradition, a source of ageless pride and an evolving, relevant part of our current lives. We were empowered to contribute to that evolution, even if just for ourselves, through pushing back against what didn’t make sense to us or discovering new ways of understanding a tractate or verse, even if it might not have been what sages and commentators agreed (or more often disagreed) upon.

With this foundation of dynamic questioning instilled in me by the time I graduated—a foundation that welcomed an ever-shifting point of view—I had a toolkit at my disposal to dissect and think critically about my growth as a young Jewish person, forming an identity. This foundation became essential as I’ve moved through different stages of life. At each stage, I’ve held my Judaism, the one I continue to consistently interrogate and rethink, close to my heart. Schechter inculcated me to take many perspectives at once and to accept all perspectives as valid and as part of the conversation.

There is endless value in living life with that principle, not the least of which is making all who are a part of our faith feel welcome and seen. That is a legacy Schechter has left with me, and I’m sure many others who made their way through its bustling hallways from the time it opened its doors to the time they had to shut.

 

 

The Welcome Desk

Rita M. O’Brien

 

As the receptionist, I felt I had an important role in welcoming folks to our school once they were inside the vestibule. My perch was surrounded by an oversized half-moon style desk. I knew many of our visitors were parents interested in enrolling their children, and I wanted their first impression to reflect the family environment our school fostered.

I felt greeting our families and ensuring every interaction was positive and personal strengthened our connections. I enjoyed learning about our families’ histories and encouraged the parents and children to share stories of how they lived and who they were.

I wanted our enrolled and prospective students to feel comfortable. There was an ever-growing collection of small wind-up toys stretching the entire length of the reception desk. The toys calmed the anxious and entertained our delighted preschoolers and middle schoolers as well. I was the recipient of numerous wind-up toys over the years, and when our school closed I gave away pieces from the collection to appreciative students.

The front desk was also home to the school pet, Dagh, a Betta fish. Dagh lived longer than his species’ life expectancy, and I was convinced he thrived on the attention from the kids.

It was important to me for the student body and the many teachers and support staff to feel special within the walls of the school. If you were a staff member celebrating your birthday, you were greeted by a 9 x 11 sign on the front desk, wishing you yom huledet sameach, with a personalized word or two. During the day, many birthday wishes were directed your way. I posted a word of the day (WOD) and its definition, resourced from a list of SAT common words. Students passing by the front desk between classes were encouraged to employ the WOD in conversation with the intent of strengthening their vocabulary skills.

Many memories were made and friendships forged during my dozen years at the school. I understood my role as the first contact when entering our school was potentially influential. Head of School Jane Taubenfeld Cohen was a leader and role model in encouraging me to expand my traditional administrative responsibilities.

I thrived in my humble role as the ambassador of our exemplary place of learning. Our school’s loving, nurturing environment created a space where all were welcome to succeed according to their own capabilities. The evidence we achieved this goal is measured by the testimonies of the children, most now young adults, who often post on social media their reflections on their special time at our extraordinary day school.

One would be hard pressed to duplicate our formula for an all-inclusive educational model. Hard work, dedication, luck and our belief we all were performing God’s work united my coworkers and me in our daily mission.

 

 

Educating with Compassion

Sarah Raykhtsaum

 

When I’m asked what led me to teaching, I immediately think of the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School. My nine years at SASSDS deeply shaped the teacher I’ve become. This will be my fifth year teaching in the New York City public schools, and the invaluable lessons my Jewish day school has taught me live on in my classroom.

At Schechter, school leaders led with genuine compassion. That compassion set the tone for the teachers, parents and students. At Schechter, it didn’t have to be explicitly named because it was so embedded in our school culture from the top down. When my students face real emotional challenges, I often think about what the school leaders at Schechter would’ve done. I try to choose to lead my classroom from a place of empathy, putting myself in the shoes of my administration, my students and their parents when making decisions in any predicament. Because that’s how I felt that my Jewish day school approached helping students in difficult situations.

Another lesson I took with me from SASSDS is the importance of teaching each child as an individual—or, as Jane Taubenfeld Cohen once told me, teaching the child, not the subject. I remember hearing a lot about special education programming at Schechter, but I didn’t think much about it in the moment. Now as a teacher, it’s devastating to watch children with learning needs fall through the cracks because of pressures to meet academic standards. It made me think about that approach, teaching the child at their own pace rather than obsessing over an arbitrary standard of content knowledge, and how it would encourage a growth mindset in students who often feel defeated. I know that the appreciation I have for special educators and the importance I give to meeting each student where they are at as individuals is something that was instilled in me at Schechter.

As a student at SASSDS, one of the things I appreciated most in the moment was that school was so much more than just school. At Schechter, the community was bonded by Jewish values and Jewish history. Even though New York City public schools are much larger and a lot more diverse, I found that I can still strive to inspire many of the same values in my students: curiosity, compassion, a sense of belonging and a commitment to learning our community’s histories. As a history teacher, I want my students to come away with a breadth of content knowledge, but I also strive to make them feel the way I felt as a student at Schechter—part of a community that cares deeply about them. They should feel that they have the power to be drivers of positive change in their communities.

 

 

“There are places I remember... in my life, and some remain”

Sandi Dunn

 

When I entered that special and holy place for the very first time, I was greeted by Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, head of school. Within minutes, I was surrounded by a few of the middle school students, including the daughter of a founding family. Miriam Kriegel, a camper at the Jewish summer camp I had attended and worked at for many years, excitedly told Jane that I could help with the music and plays and would be a welcome addition to the school and its arts programs. Jane and I exchanged ideas and concluded that I could be involved in that year’s Zimriyah and the play. Little did I know the impact that Jane’s kind offer and my decision would have on me and the next 13 years of my life.

The arts were already an established part of the innovative and unique program that Jane had envisioned and brought to life. The Israeli teachers were beloved and well respected for their integration of traditional and modern Hebrew songs into the fiber of the school. The students sang Hebrew songs with authentic Israeli accents and enviable fluency. Ken Faria, the general studies music teacher, was already a legend at Schechter with his approach to teaching young children and his appreciation of both vocal and instrumental music. He created an orchestra and jazz band that produced several CDs, masterfully accompanied the full-length productions, performed at a variety of community venues, and sparked the interest and enthusiasm of parents, community musicians and other day schools.

I was in awe of the talent and passion at our school and the heights to which we would strive in our pursuit of excellence in creative arts programming. Jane lovingly created a program called L’Chaim: Celebration of Life, with students interviewing and honoring Holocaust survivors, including her own father, Nat Taubenfeld, z”l. Our Makhela (choir) had become known in its own right, performing poignant songs and musical pieces as part of Boston’s yearly Holocaust commemoration at Faneuil Hall and an original cantata as part of the 2001 L’Chaim. This experience led us to establish a deep connection with a school in Whitwell, Tennessee, which undertook a project about the Holocaust made famous in the movie Paper Clips. I will never forget that experience and what the students and entire community gleaned from our collaboration.

Our school still retains a Facebook page that keeps memories fresh and people connected. One evening, Jane and I shared a question about songs from our many Zimriyot; suddenly, the page was flooded with memories of songs from former students, staff and family members. Such joy, so many ideas, songs from each grade and year, and countless memories gushed forth. The school’s community spirit was brought to life once again. The songs and plays would continue to spark individual and collective memories and would help to guide us through our transition from pain to perseverance, from sadness to sunshine. A favorite Zimriyah song, “Shemesh,” continues to ring out with its boisterous refrain and shout out of hands reaching toward the sky.

We are happy to individually and collectively share our memories and blessings as an organization with those whose schools suffered a similar fate. We remain dedicated to the preservation of the memories that took us through the many years when our beloved school was still blossoming into the time when our tagline “Our Children, Our Legacy” lives on in song and spirit.

Facing the Future and Organizational Memory in Sydney

Organizational Memory

Moriah College is the largest Jewish day school in Sydney and is still very much influenced by its history. Indeed, the figure of Abraham Rabinovitch, its founder and dominating personality until his death, continues to loom large. As one enters the grounds of its magnificent campus, opened in 1993, one follows the Rabinovitch History Wall through the center of the campus. The school grounds display the names of donors on the various buildings. All were Holocaust survivors who succeeded in spectacular ways after arriving in Sydney with nothing. In this way, memory is infused throughout the school. The school maintains an archive with a professional archivist to ensure that its memory is well tended.

 

Origins

The beginnings of Moriah College, initially named the North Bondi Hebrew School and Kindergarten, are important as part of this organizational memory. In March 1942, a small group of dedicated men, who were dissatisfied with the state of Jewish education, met in the schoolroom of the old Central Synagogue in Sydney’s eastern suburbs to discuss the establishment of a Talmud Torah. This initial meeting, which took place as Hitler’s “Final Solution” was being implemented in Europe, was to be the precursor of Moriah College.

Within a few months, Abraham Rabinovitch, inspired by Rabbi Hans Elchanan Blumenthal, a German Jewish refugee, had purchased a property in Bondi. This campus has remained the location of the Moriah College Preschool until the present day.

Born in Tsarist Russia, Rabinovitch managed to leave in 1914 and arrived in Brisbane via Harbin in China in 1915. After World War I, he moved to Sydney, where he became a property developer. Having no children of his own, he dedicated himself to the Jewish community and Jewish education. He invited Rabbi Blumenthal to be principal of the new school. They were considered to be “the mother and father” of what became Moriah College.

At the school’s opening in February 1943, a moving address was given by Rabbi Blumenthal, who, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, was acutely aware of the historical significance of this undertaking at the most tragic time in Jewish history. The Sydney Jewish newspaper, The Hebrew Standard of Australasia, reported:

The reason why in this solemn moment of consecrating the new school, he [Blumenthal] recalled to mind and also wished to recall to the mind of those present, the saddest reality of the present time, the unspeakable agonies of European Jewry. Let us silently remember them, all those who over there on the other side are experiencing the full brunt of mysterious Jewish suffering, and all centers of Jewish learning that are lying in ruins. A young pupil wrote recently from a distant country: “At the moment when so many Jewish centers had to close down, you have to open a new one at that end of the globe.” Whilst not as assuming as to believe that we are already striving for that goal, we must feel that we are “on the way” and that we must do our share.

For Blumenthal, the opening of the kindergarten was only the first step toward “our unshakeable aim” to build up a Jewish day school. He believed that Jewish learning must rank as the “foremost in value when our very national existence is impugned through the greatest physical disaster that ever in our history had befallen us.” There is no doubt that Rabbi Blumenthal’s hope has been realized, while its Holocaust legacy is still strongly felt within the school.

 

Tensions

However, Rabinovitch was a complex character. His vision, tenacity and generosity led to the provision of a range of Jewish institutions in Sydney. Although he devoted energy and money to the causes he espoused, problems arose with his leadership. He acted in a dictatorial manner, appointing boards, arguing with them and putting pressure on those who did not agree with him to resign.

When Rabinovitch was elected board president of the new school, he built a like-minded team of Orthodox Jewish men, largely from East European backgrounds. His vision for the school was to maintain a strictly Orthodox approach and the team supported this vision.

As headmaster, Rabbi Blumenthal soon came into conflict with Rabinovitch over the nature of the leadership of the new institution, so their partnership did not last long. Blumenthal sought to recruit students from the broader Jewish community, which was largely non-practicing Orthodox, but he failed to find support from the school’s lay leadership. Within a year, he had resigned as headmaster. In his letter of resignation, he stated, “I feel that I have really exhausted the scope of my abilities in Sydney being unable to develop things further under the prevailing conditions.” Even though he offered to teach for a further term, until a replacement head was found, his resignation was accepted immediately by the board.

Reflecting later about his resignation, Blumenthal wrote:

Whereas I strove to achieve a scope which would include the entire community for each group of Sydney Jews, Rabinovitch was thinking of a separate parochial institution limited to people of his persuasion. Since he purchased the building out of his own pocket and also paid for most of its activities, his opinion overcame my own.

In February 1944, Rabbi Blumenthal left Sydney for a position as rabbi of the Elwood Synagogue in Melbourne, and later he moved to South Africa and finally Israel.

In the chapter “Rabinovitch Years in Retrospect” in my history of Moriah College, If You Will It, It Is No Dream: The Moriah Story 1943-2003, I wrote:

From the beginning, the philosophy of the school was strictly Orthodox, but most of pupils came from non-observant Jewish homes as the school aimed to reach out to all Jewish children. While there were some children whose families kept kashrut and Shabbat strictly, they were the minority. Catering for both groups of children was difficult.

As Rabbi Jacob Katz, the director of Jewish studies, described it:

With the children from religious homes, I had no problem increasing their knowledge of Judaism and they appreciated it because it was like enlarging their home life. The difficulty with the other children was not so much the imparting of knowledge but the teaching of Jewish practice which was not in line with their experience at home. I never succeeded in solving that problem. However, I tried ever so hard never to cause a rift between the children and their home. That would have been the greatest pedagogical blunder.

In addition, many parents were not interested in “advancing their children’s knowledge of Jewish studies” because of the fear that they might become too Jewish. Rabbi Katz did try to run some parent education programs but he found that he had to be very careful not to alienate non-observant parents.

This issue has remained one of the major problems for the Jewish education program at the school. Since the initial conflict in 1943 between Rabinovitch and Blumenthal, the school board has remained loyal to Rabinovitch’s vision. Moriah has remained a Modern Orthodox School. Compulsory prayer is held every morning, with these sessions being run on Modern Orthodox lines. From Year 7, boys and girls are separated. The Jewish studies lessons are also placed firmly within the Orthodox framework.

Yet the majority of students come from non-Orthodox backgrounds. In GEN17, the recent quantitative survey of Australian Jewry, David Graham and Andrew Markus found in their preliminary findings that there has been a shift from the Orthodox/Tradition streams to the progressive or secular. In terms of different aspects of Jewish identity, only 46% of those surveyed stated that “Believing in God” was very or fairly important; 36%, prayer; 34%, observing Halakhah; and 31%, studying Jewish texts.

These findings match other parts of the Jewish Diaspora world, but indicate a disconnect between Rabinovitch’s vision, the Moriah ethos and the reality of the situation in the community. In its vision statement on the website, the College states:

Moriah… maintains and promotes among its students an awareness of and a feeling for Jewish traditions and ethics, an understanding of and a positive commitment to Orthodox Judaism and identification with and love for Israel…

Moriah College is an independent, co-educational Modern Orthodox Zionist Jewish school, which prides itself on providing the highest standard of Jewish education.

Thus, Rabinovitch’s legacy for “a positive commitment to Orthodox Judaism” so clearly embedded in the College’s current ethos creates a challenge for the future.

 

The Holocaust

At the same time, the GEN17 found that “Remembering the Holocaust” was the element that received the strongest reaction, with 95% of respondents believing that it was very or fairly important. This connects to Blumenthal’s moving words when Moriah was founded.

Holocaust memory went through different phases. When the school was founded, the Holocaust was not taught even though most of the students were children of Jewish refugees who arrived before the war or of Holocaust survivors. At the same time, funds from the Claims Conference in the 1950s and 1960s were crucial for Moriah’s economic survival.

When I introduced a course in modern Jewish history in 1976, this was the first time the Holocaust was taught in an Australian Jewish day school. One element of the Year 10 Jewish history program was to make the Hans Kimmel Prize (see sidebar) compulsory. As most of my students were children of Holocaust survivors, and their parents had never spoken to them about their experiences, they turned to me with concern: “How can we ask our parents about the Holocaust?” I had not realized what a radical step this was, but in the end most did, and later they were grateful.

As mentioned, many of the buildings are named after survivors, and in some cases their loved ones who perished in the Shoah. This applies to the Hugo Lowy Synagogue, named after the father of Frank Lowy, a shopping center magnate who arrived in Sydney with nothing and became one of the wealthiest men in Australia. Hugo Lowy perished when he left the train at Auschwitz, having been deported from Budapest. When he refused to give up his tallit and tefillin, he was beaten to death. (His story is memorialized on the school’s website.) Frank Lowy’s sons David and Stephen, who live in Sydney, have dedicated themselves to the school, and Stephen’s wife, Judy, currently heads the Moriah Foundation, established in 2011 to provide student scholarships and fee assistance to families who need this support. Thus, the legacy of the Shoah continues to pervade the school and the community.

There is no doubt that Moriah College continues to be molded by its organizational history. It values its history, as seen in its sponsorship of the publication of The Moriah Story, which they invited me to write to mark its sixtieth anniversary; the Rabinovitch Walk, and its archive. Yet this historical legacy also means that Moriah faces challenges in the twenty-first century. If the shift away from Orthodox/Traditional identification continues, it will result in a clash between the past and the future of the school.

Student Essays on Modern Jewish History

Organizational Memory

When graduates of Moriah College are asked to reflect on their most meaningful experience in their study of Jewish history, one answer is predominant: Hans Kimmel. This 10th grade roots project is steeped in the pedagogical concerns of the College’s educational leaders and embodies aspects of its historical and organizational memory.

Conceived in 1975 by Holocaust survivor Sophie Caplan, the Dr. Hans Kimmel Essay Competition in Contemporary Jewish History was named after a Jewish communal firebrand, an Austrian refugee who transformed the democratic character of the Jewish community. It was her desire to perpetuate his memory that inspired Caplan to create a prize that privileged the study of modern Jewish history, an era that had been glossed over in a classroom full of second-generation Holocaust survivors. Empowered by educators to confront and document the past, the prize was standardized by Suzanne Rutland as a mainstay of Year 10 coursework, which continues to this day. From 1985 to 2016, the Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) sponsored the prize, and Caplan herself was present at award ceremonies. To this day, students are required to review the historical context of the prize and a biography of Kimmel as part of the initial research phase for the project.

Over time, the nature of this project has shifted. Rutland noted that the prize was often a source of “moving Holocaust memoirs,” in which students interviewed their ancestors and presented harrowing stories of survival. However, because of shifting demographics, it has become more diverse in presentation and representation each year. While prizes are still awarded, the meaning of the project today is invested more in students’ individual pursuit of history, taking custodianship over aspects of their heritage and empowering students to understand their roots. The project now accepts a variety of submissions, with last year’s cohort creating woven family trees, musical arrangements and mixed-media art among volumes of written and authenticated testimony. Since 2016, the school has likewise included a Moreshet Moriah option for students wishing to explore the organizational memory of the College, through key figures, as a focus.

These shifts have not come without their own challenges. In the past, prize-winning essays were only nominally collated and archived by the school, with the bulk of preservation being accomplished by the AJHS. However, in recognition of the immense historical value of the material, Moriah has recently begun to archive each student submission on site—no minor task given the intake of 150 projects (in various formats) every year.

Hans Kimmel is, in the author’s view, more than a project or a prize. The original intent, addressing personal or sensitive areas of modern Jewish history, has been preserved, even as the project has expanded to incorporate the many stories that make up the College, from those who resisted Apartheid to others who fled Islamic lands. Covering such a broad scope of communal history within the school setting conveys the potential of the roots project to serve as a confluence of different forms of memory, chronicling the collision of an educational institution with the brunt of familial and communal trauma.

Spotlight: OM in HR and Ops at Prizmah

Organizational Memory

When Prizmah became an organization five years ago, one challenge was that the organizational memories of five different entities had to be merged into one institution. In the beginning, part of my job was to preserve the memories of each organization in order to seed the foundations of NewOrg, as we were called before we had a name. Who were our constituents? What were our programs? Where and how did we store this information? As NewOrg became Prizmah, and our missions, visions and programming collided and evolved, my job also included thinking about preserving Prizmah’s organizational memory.

First, a definition. According to Wikipedia, “organizational memory” (OM) (sometimes called institutional or corporate memory) is the accumulated body of data, information, and knowledge created in the course of an individual organization’s existence.” I think of OM in two ways: the information held and shared by people, and the information held and shared by systems.

From a people perspective, OM is preserved at Prizmah in a few ways. As a young organization, Prizmah still has people on staff who came from the founding organizations as well as people who came aboard very early on. This group of staff can speak to the pre-Prizmah agencies, as well the early history of the organization, through to today. Additionally, as new people join the staff, not only does orientation cover the necessary (How do I access my paycheck?), the basics (How do I log into my email?), and the culture (How do staff communicate internally?), but also enables new staff to interact with a variety of people. In the first few weeks of their employment at Prizmah, new staff members meet with their own teams and also with other teams to hear about work at Prizmah that they might not be involved with on a day-to-day basis.

Furthermore, we encourage staff to touch base both formally and informally. In Slack, for example, we use the Donut app which randomly pairs people for informal “coffee” chats. Staff are able to hear about the work that others are doing and also learn about their colleagues’ lives beyond Prizmah. Staff meetings and staff retreats also give opportunities for sharing our work as well as for cross-organizational collaboration. Finally, all of our retreats have included unplanned downtime, enabling staff to share more informally.

With all of this talk, though, the systems we use to record and preserve these conversations and our work is the other half of the organizational equation. Over the years, I have reviewed and often revamped our systems to not only improve collaboration, but also to preserve our institutional memory. For example, we use Box for file storage and collaboration. From the beginning of Prizmah, I created folders to hold the information of our legacy organizations. I also created folders to house current programming. Much of the legacy programmatic information was moved into current folders so that everyone could access the information.

Additionally, permissions for these folders are designed to maximize transparency for staff. Not only is programmatic (both current and defunct) information open to all but similarly with the administration folder. A new staff person, for example, could peruse through or watch old staff meetings, which are found in the administration folder, or read through a program’s marketing that no longer exists. Finally, on a more technical side of Box, we also have document holds set up that comply with best practices and serve as yet another way to preserve OM.

Another tool that Prizmah uses, as mentioned, is Slack, and here too the organization of our channels and the way we use it sustains OM. For example, we have a group of channels that are primarily used by specific teams, but are purposely open so that anyone can drop in and see the projects of that team. The channels are designed to hold the entire history of a conversation, so someone can join at any time and understand not only current conversations but also any conversation in that channel’s history. Additionally, during orientation all new staff are encouraged to join multiple channels to better understand Prizmah’s history and ongoing programming.

These tools, which are designed to share and collaborate in real time, help preserve the OM even as we continue to grow.

Over the years, I have watched Prizmah evolve. My job has continued to be keeping my eyes forward on growth as well as backward to preserve our history. Five years into Prizmah’s existence, I appreciate both the people and the systems that connect us daily and preserve our OM.

Research Corner--Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During Covid-19

Organizational Memory

In the 2020-2021 school year, as many schools across North America were closed due to the pandemic, Jewish day schools worked hard to offer fully or partially in-person learning for students. Being independent entities gave our schools a nimbleness that many other school systems didn’t have during this time.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a positive result on Jewish day school and yeshiva enrollment. In a Prizmah pulse survey conducted in November 2020, 62% of schools reported an increase in enrollment from the previous year; on average, 31% of new students transferred from public schools. The enrollment increases were largely in community, Reform and Schechter schools. The last Jewish day school census reported a 9% enrollment decrease in these schools from 2013-2018. Given these trends, we sought to understand the experiences of parents who transferred their children into a Jewish day school from a public school or other private school during the 2020-2021 school year so that school leaders fieldwide can glean learnings and insights.

With generous funding from JCRIF, Prizmah hired Rosov Consulting to conduct interviews with parents who transferred their child(ren) into Jewish day school during the pandemic. Prior to this study, little was previously known about families who chose not to send their offspring to a Jewish day school.

 

The study focused on the following questions:

  1. Why did people whose children have now transferred to Jewish day school previously send their children to a non-Jewish school? What did those parents think of Jewish day school before that led them not to enroll their children?
  2. Why did Jewish day school become an option for these families? In what ways did families become aware of this option? What were parents looking for in their child’s school when they switched, besides that the school was open?
  3. What have parents liked most about the schools they have joined, and what have they missed compared to the schools their children previously attended? How likely are these transfer families to keep their children in Jewish day schools, and what would it take to keep them there?

 

This article is going to focus on the first of these three questions.

Twenty-four schools were represented in the study, and 114 interviews were conducted. The study found that parents who had previously opted not to send to a Jewish day school did so because of cost, logistics and values.

Cost

Parents who cited cost felt they were already paying for public school through their high taxes and weren’t prepared to pay for private schools in addition. Some parents had been concerned that they would have to sacrifice other investments if they paid Jewish day school tuition. Others perceived a higher value at their local public school or were convinced there were more cost-effective ways of providing a Jewish education and Jewish friends for their children.

Logistics

These parents explained that the distance to the Jewish day school from where they currently lived was not convenient. Prior to the pandemic, they didn’t have the time to carpool their child to and from the school’s location.

Values

Other parents were drawn to the “diverse environments” of their local public school, were concerned the Jewish school was too religious, or saw themselves as champions of the public school system and had children enrolled there.

A mix of factors drove these parents to switch their children during the pandemic into Jewish day school. Half reported they switched because they wanted a five-days-a-week, in-person school, which their previous school didn’t offer. For slightly fewer than half reported that the Covid pandemic was the tipping point for enrolling their children in Jewish day school. They had been interested at some point, but the pandemic is what actually drove them to make the change. And a small group of parents reported that they had been planning on switching to Jewish day school, and the pandemic sped up the process.

Another key finding of the study is that almost all of the interviewees had some type of prior connection to the day school. According to the report, “Some had even previously attended, worked at, or sent their children to these schools or to camps and preschools on these sites.” This has important policy implications; admissions professionals could potentially view people who come into the building for reasons other than schooling as strong candidates for enrollment.

Overall, parents who transferred their children to Jewish day school during the pandemic were satisfied with their experience, and only 15% of interviewees were planning on un-enrolling them. To read the full findings, view our study.

On My Nightstand: Books That Prizmah Staff Are Reading

Organizational Memory

The Secret Book of Kings

By Yochi Brandes

This novel takes place during the time between the Books of Samuel II and Kings I. Early on, we meet Shelomoam, a young man who is growing up in the tribal lands of Ephraim. He’s struggling to understand why his family is scared of soldiers and tax collectors, and why he’s in trouble for trying to help those less fortunate. Along the way, he learns that his parents are keeping a big secret, prompting him to set out to discover his own identity in the grander scheme of the Kingdom of Israel.

The story also tells of Michal, the daughter of King Saul. After marrying King David, Michal has lost her whole family, feels ignored by her husband, and becomes concerned for the future of the nation. She’s also guarding a secret about Shelomoam. Eventually, when the two meet, Shelomoam learns the truth about his birth and identity, which sets into motion his destiny as a future king.

The author’s story turns much of the canonized narrative on its head and opens up a world of possibilities about the people of Judah and Israel as they seek to establish a strong kingdom in the land promised to them by their forefathers.

reviewed by Ely Winkler

 

Morningside Heights

By Joshua Henkin

This novel centers on the meteoric rise of Columbia professor Spence Robin and the marital and familial complications that arise when he is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s at the peak of his academic career. Most of the story is told through the eyes of his wife, Pru Steiner, a younger spouse forced to serve, prematurely, as long-term caretaker for an ailing and increasingly withdrawn spouse.

Morningside Heights is partially autobiographical. Son of legendary Columbia law professor Louis Henkin, the author grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and attended Jewish day school as well as Jewish summer camp (where this reviewer met him). The book serves as a paean to the neighborhood of Henkin’s childhood, coursing with its many famous sights and sounds. The novel also possesses some poignant spiritual moments. Pru, who grew up in the Midwest, eventually seeks out the comfort of a synagogue and the connection it provides to her more religious upbringing.

Henkin is a gifted writer who understands the complexity and nuance inherent in all family relationships. While his story lines are understandably somber, they usually end on an upbeat and optimistic note. Morningside Heights is no exception.

reviewed by Dan Perla

 

The Parted Earth

By Anjali Enjeti

We start with a love story between a Hindu girl, Deepa, and a Muslim boy, Amir, set in Delhi in the wake of ethnic violence of the partition of India and Pakistan. Because of the partition, the two are forced apart, Amir to Pakistan and Deepa to England. The story picks up with Deepa’s granddaughter Shan, having only once met her grandmother, befriending another woman who has also been affected by the violence in the wake of the partition.

The novel delves deeply into the generational impact of the partition. The author beautifully shows how trauma does not disappear because time has passed; it is simply stored differently throughout the generations. Shan journeys to find her grandmother; she grows by embracing her family’s and her own past rather than ignoring it. The storylines can get confusing, bouncing back and forth between characters and generations. Still, the author’s care and sincerity in depicting the intergenerational trauma of the partition of India makes the book well worth its while.

reviewed by Rebecca Cohen

 

Beautiful Country

By Qian Julie Wang

Told through the eyes of a child, this debut memoir provides a unique perspective on being an undocumented immigrant. Wang came to Mei Guo (“beautiful country,” a term for America in Mandarin) in 1994 at the age of seven. She writes about the challenges of adapting to a new country: seeing her mother (Ma Ma) and father (Ba Ba), who were professors in China, work backbreaking jobs earning pennies. Extreme poverty, hunger, sweatshops, racism, humiliation and the daily fear of being found and deported echo through the pages, and the pain and struggle is palpable.

At times, it seems hopeless, and yet this is a story of resilience, adaptability and perseverance through trauma. Wang teaches herself English and finds solace through books. Some moments resonated with me; checking out stockpiles of Babysitter’s Club books and taking care of a Tamagachi, for example, is something I too did as a preteen. Her family’s story is a poignant reminder to always practice compassion and empathy, as we don’t know what others are going through.

The memoir ends when she’s 12, leaving us yearning for more. Wang and her parents became naturalized citizens just before the 2016 election. She is now a Yale-educated lawyer and founder and leader of the Jews of Color group at Central Synagogue in New York, where she is also a member of the racial justice task force and the social justice reform leadership.

reviewed by Traci Stratford