In the Issue: Value Proposition
“Some time later, the word of God came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘Oh Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!’”
In this striking passage, one of several in which Abraham argues with God, God attempts to reassure Abraham with the promise of protection and blessings. Abraham refuses to be comforted; without children, no other gift has value to him. In Abraham’s eyes, children hold the ultimate value, the promise of a legacy, of futurity, of his life’s work and values being entrusted to another generation.
In our day, schools embody much of that sense of value to which Abraham gave voice centuries ago. They are so critically important for parents because a school helps to raise children to become the kind of people that parents wish for them, helping them to learn, through explicit instruction, modeling and communal norms, the middot expressed through our tradition and lived by teachers and parents today. Through the lessons they impart inside and outside of the classroom, Jewish schools endow students with the intellectual skills, emotional dispositions and spiritual depths to enable them to embrace Jewish community and tradition, each according to their own path.
This issue explores the elusive notion of a school’s “value proposition,” the elixir of elements—mission, leadership, faculty, culture, curriculum, physical plant, reputation, affordability, messaging, word of mouth, vibe—that draws people to a school. Authors approach the topic in its subtlety, its manifold range of hues and applications. They portray what value proposition looks like for various stakeholders—parents, students, donors, teachers, administrators and others. They express its embodiment in schools of different kinds, in different places, embedded in different communities. They describe how it has changed over time, and how schools have put great thought and effort into transforming themselves in order to project the value proposition that the community, the families and the times require.
The first section looks at the value that Jewish schools have for their community, both locally and more broadly. Adler, Maier, Perla and Rosenberg, Prizmah colleagues, present work we’ve done with schools to enhance their value proposition during this time as we emerge from Covid in strength, with many schools having grown in enrollment, fundraising, reputation and more. Pomson and Wertheimer draw upon their recent book to emphasize the powerful impact that day schools have on their communities. Simon shows how an old school undertook a dramatic overhaul to respond to the needs and expectations of its changed community. Soffer meditates on the relationship between our schools’ cost and their value, while Fieldman and Silverman describe a process for communicating a school’s value to the range of demographic groups that enroll children there. Building upon his study of Jewish leadership, Kopelowitz offers a powerfully different framing for understanding the value of Jewish schools for the Diaspora Jewish community today.
Articles in the second section focus on the value that Jewish schools hold for students and their families. Freundel presents a compelling argument on the value of Jewish immersion in its many facets. Eilath explores a Jewish approach to diversity through the creation of a community based on shared purpose. Dunn speaks to parents’ concern for the transition to high school; Berger looks at the impact of a day school education on college campuses. Weinstock marvels over the impact that her children’s schools have had on her own Jewish journey.
In this issue’s school spread, students who switched into Jewish schools during Covid tell us what surprised them in their new environments. The final section presents perspectives on ways that teachers both enhance a school’s value proposition and perceive it, personally and professionally. The first two articles showcase the work of faculty in transforming the school’s curriculum in line with a changing vision: Gomeringer and Rabinoff-Goldman on a high school repositioning itself to be more student-centered; Hassenfeld on a K-8 school centering on issues of diversity. Brown surveys mid-career teachers at our schools, offering ways for schools to augment their value for these teachers and inspire more of them to remain. Silverman proposes several strategies to develop teachers’ capacity to align their practices with the school’s explicit and implicit value proposition. Potasznik, a relatively new Judaics teacher, reflects upon a kind of courage that our schools foster among teachers as they balance the twin imperatives of student self-expression and drawing upon a teacher’s training, insight and experience.
As we enter the home stretch of the school year, may your students, teachers and staff, professional and lay leaders all feel and appreciate the world of value that your school brings to them, each and every day.
From the CEO: Delivering on Our Promise
No matter how dramatic the end result, good-to-great transformations never happen in one fell swoop. In building a great company or social sector enterprise, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.
In the two decades since Collins published Good to Great, businesses and nonprofits have built on ideas like the flywheel to inspire and propel growth and sustainability. Like the principle in physics, each turn of a flywheel stores kinetic energy that can produce power.
This concept aligns well with Prizmah’s strategic approach to strengthening day schools. We stand with our schools and their community partners, pushing at the flywheel, each year strengthening their ability to nurture, inspire and grow young minds. We know that there are many turns of the wheel that stimulate and enable our schools to succeed over the long term: building powerful networks, investing in educational excellence, talent, affordability, knowledge sharing, recruitment and retention, to name just a few. When we see positive results, the flywheel starts to spin as each school’s “value proposition” strengthens. Success breeds success; momentum builds into a “virtuous cycle” of growth.
I believe we stand now in just such a breakthrough moment; the efforts that make the day school enterprise thrive are building momentum.
Jewish day schools excelled in the most difficult circumstances of Covid. This was no chance happening. I believe that “You are only as good in a crisis, as you were the day before the crisis.” It is through years of pushing at the flywheel, investing in excellence, that paid off through the pandemic.
As a result, net enrollment in day schools grew 3.7% between 2019 and 2021, running across denominational and geographic lines, as demonstrated in the Prizmah 2021 Enrollment Pulse Survey Report. For the first time since 2008, there is a measured enrollment increase in North American Jewish day schools. There are signs this positive momentum might continue as we emerge from the pandemic, hopefully spreading to those schools that have not yet seen growth.
Some of this growth comes directly from families choosing day school for the first time. From Prizmah’s study “Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” we learned that newly enrolled families, who might have returned to previous schools as the worst of Covid passed, fell in love and plan to stay, with 80% re-enrolling.
The signs are positive beyond enrollment. Prizmah’s 2022 Development Pulse Survey Report demonstrated that three-quarters of schools exceeded their fundraising goals in the previous school year, and more than half increased their goals this year.
Alongside annual giving, investment in endowments is a vote of confidence in the school’s future. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents reported that their school has an endowment fund, averaging more than $8 million. Of the schools reporting they do not yet have an endowment, 50% plan to launch a campaign in the next five years. Endowment growth is a key means for schools to address the affordability challenge.
Inside our schools and classrooms, professionals are accessing resources to continually improve the educational experience. Prizmah’s second Mental Health Summit, sponsored by the Ruderman Foundation, allows school leaders to engage deeply in strategies for strengthening the social and emotional wellbeing of all members of the school community. When the whole school experience delivers on its promise for students and their families, the long-term impact reaches the broader community.
Even with all these and other promising “turns” on the day school flywheel, we recognize ongoing needs and challenges.
In thriving Jewish communities, schools can deepen their impact by collaborating with other educational experiences, much as Prizmah’s Engage initiative partners with PJ Library to bring new families into our buildings. When philanthropists and investors gather at Prizmah’s Day School Investor Summit this May, they will connect, learn and catalyze additional, impactful investments in their schools and the field.
The recent study sponsored by Keren Keshet, “The Jewish Education of Today’s Jewish Leadership,” demonstrated that day school graduates are disproportionately represented in the leadership ranks of our Jewish communities. It is just another demonstration of how important day schools are to the life of the Jewish community. The investment of families and funders decades ago in our schools continues to pay off in our leadership.
According to the research, at a time when “lived Jewish spaces” are declining, “constructed Jewish spaces” like day schools become more important—they are the places where Jewish socialization occurs. We need to tell this story.
The day school value proposition is powerful and growing. Our flywheel is spinning, and the impact of coordinated efforts over time are making the desired impact. As we redouble our efforts, now is also the time to tell the stories behind the data that illustrate just what difference a day school makes.
From the Board Chair: Seizing the Moment
In my previous message in this publication, I concluded with the bold statement, “There has never been a better time to believe in Jewish day schools.” That sentiment continues to resonate with me, and as I look to Prizmah’s May 15-16 Day School Investor Summit in Palm Beach, the phrase “good timing” stands out in my mind. Whether or not you have children in a day school, if you care about the Jewish future, now is a great time to care about Jewish day schools.
When day school supporters gather in Florida, we will be marking this auspicious time for day schools and making the time to do what we can to seize the moment, energize each other and prepare ourselves to take bold steps to elevate day schools to the next level. Prizmah is convening philanthropists, foundations and community leaders to build connections, learn together and generate new opportunities for day school investment. Today’s funders have a new desire to understand national patterns and trends, and the Investor Summit is designed to move the entire field forward in order to better advance their local schools.
There is much for us to celebrate, thanks to the hard work and dedication of day school professionals and lay leaders. Schools demonstrated their strength during the worst of the pandemic, and as we started to come out of the lockdown, we saw the first overall enrollment increase to the day school system in 20 years. The level and quality of education at day schools is high; we are witnessing a great commitment to excellence. Communities are recognizing the critical role schools play and prioritizing support.
At this time of strength, our function is to leverage our achievements and direct attention to what will sustain our schools over the coming years. By coming together as day school funders, we can share ideas with each other and provide strength for moving forward.
Our hope is that each of us will walk away from the Summit and be able to energize our respective communities to focus on key capacities: increasing enrollment, addressing affordability and renewing our commitment to excellence.
As we all know, significant resources, financial and otherwise, are out there. I think about my parents’ generation, for whom success meant supporting their children through college and graduate work. Today, with even higher levels of accumulated wealth, there are potential funders with resources that, if used to support our schools—through endowment gifts, capital gifts or annual giving—would make a real difference. We need to spread the word about the value of the day school system to the entire Jewish community and encourage everyone to make an affordable, excellent day school education a real priority.
Our message to our friends in our home communities should be clear: Ensuring continuity and commitment to Jewish values, our schools also help ensure that future generations have the knowledge, skills and priorities to sustain themselves. As we know from recent research, day schools also produce future leaders for our communities.
Part of spreading the word about day school value is helping to build and strengthen the relationships between communities and the schools within them. This is a win-win situation, as schools will act as a magnet that pulls a community together and makes it more cohesive. In addition, the more a school is appreciated by a community, the more likely that school is to receive the necessary support.
So yes, now is the best time to believe in Jewish day schools. Prizmah is here to help, and we look forward to deepening our relationship with all day school supporters this May and making the most of this very special moment.
Accelerating Impact: Transforming the Field
A New Era for Jewish Schools
Jewish day schools provide a strong foundation for Jewish identity, engagement and leadership. The Jewish leaders of tomorrow are in the classrooms of our day schools and yeshivas today, and at this moment schools are demonstrating their strongest momentum in decades.
Covid has accelerated innovation and change in every facet of our schools. Perhaps most exciting is the enrollment growth across the day school field over the last two years.
Prizmah’s recent pulse survey shows that day school enrollment has grown for the first time since 2008. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, net enrollment in North American Jewish day schools and yeshivas increased 3.7%, and the growth happened across all denominations. While it is clear that Covid has triggered this increase in enrollment, it also has also presented a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of the field.
More importantly, families who enrolled during a moment of crisis saw and appreciated the value of day schools in ways that they never imagined before, and the vast majority chose to keep their children in the school. In the Prizmah study “Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” families that transferred to day schools because of the pandemic reported being “thrilled” by the experience, and most intended to stay. Our enrollment survey indicated that schools retained 80% of those transfer students; they didn’t leave once other schools returned to in-person learning.
We are at a pivotal moment: The buzz about day schools is positive, and communities are speaking about the value day schools bring in building a vibrant Jewish life. During Covid, we believe, many parents developed a broader understanding of the value of Jewish schools. The more that these parents learned about our schools, the more their perceptions and attitudes shifted. As one parent interviewed stated, “I like how deeply my son has connected to Judaism; that’s magnificent and beautiful.
I didn’t know that it could be like this. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s spread through our whole family.”
With this momentum, we have the opportunity to build on three areas where we can accelerate impact:
• Attract more families to enroll their children in Jewish day schools.
• Improve affordability to ensure that anyone who wishes to attend should be able to do so.
• Articulate the value and impact of Jewish day schools for students, families and the Jewish community as a whole.
A recent study on Jewish leadership showed that “the investment in Jewish education is vital to American Jewry’s future. Jewish education in childhood, teen and college years is a central part of the life trajectory of almost all of those who choose to become professional and lay leaders of the Jewish community.” Day schools and yeshivas produce the core of engaged, knowledgeable Jews who are poised to lead our community wherever they live.
Attracting New Families
Stewardship of prospective families is more often a marathon than a sprint. It is common to hear from admission professionals that they actively target and steward families for an entire year or even more before a family tours the school or applies for admission. However, the pandemic cut stewardship out and moved that admission process to a sprint, bringing in families quickly to day schools and enrolling them.
The Prizmah study “Seizing the Moment: Transferring to Jewish Day School During the Covid-19 Pandemic” found that some families that chose Jewish day school during the pandemic were “near misses,” and enrolling their children was an option they had considered previously. The question is, moving forward, what can we do to turn “near misses” into enrolled families? How can we learn from this experience and shift our practice, thereby increasing our admission pipelines?
These families were familiar with and knowledgeable of the day school in their community. In some cases, families had even enrolled one or more children in the preschool and chose to send them elsewhere for elementary school. These findings highlight the need for schools to prioritize communal engagement with partners like PJ Library, synagogues and JCCs to firmly position themselves as central institutions for Jewish life within their community.
With intentionally designed engagements, the schools and community partners illustrate the power that can come from working together as one community. Families with school-aged children gain opportunities to broaden their Jewish experience. At the same time, schools acquire a platform to illuminate their value through intentional connections to their curriculum and mission, resulting in a stronger pipeline of prospective students drawn into the orbit of Jewish day schools.
Strengthening a school’s strategy around engagement shines light on the need to continue to strengthen the professional practices around enrollment, for both recruitment and retention. While the pandemic’s silver lining brought increased enrollment to many of our schools, it also laid bare the challenges around enrollment management practice. Admissions professionals who for years have been used to operating with empty spaces in many grades now find themselves with more applications than they can accommodate.
With increased pressure on retention and desire to continue to grow enrollment more each year, we need to ensure that our professionals are supported with professional development. It is critical that we equip them with the right tools to strengthen and grow their practice.
Affordability: Ki Va Moed (The Time Has Come)
Until recently, what was famously said about the weather might also easily have applied to Jewish day school affordability: Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. That began to change more than a decade ago when cities and regions such as Montreal, Boston and Greater Metrowest, New Jersey, and more recently Toronto, began to tackle the issue of day school affordability at the community level. Unlike the individual school affordability initiatives that preceded them, these pioneering communal programs around affordability (often coupled with grants for academic excellence) were generally supported through a community-based endowment campaign.
Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, we at Prizmah had occasional conversations with local and regional foundations inquiring about these communal models. More often than not, the foundations left the conversation worried that declining enrollments and ever-increasing tuition assistance were leading the schools toward a financially unsustainable model, one in which they were being asked to “throw good money after bad.”
The strong performance of most Jewish day schools during the pandemic and in this post-Covid period has reversed trends, leading to a noticeable increase in student enrollment. It has also led to record levels of individual fundraising, according to the most recent Prizmah development survey. The combination of these two positive sustainability factors has reignited interest among local foundations and federations in community-based solutions to day school affordability.
Encouraged by the results of the communal affordability initiatives mentioned above (especially in Toronto), two more communities—Atlanta and Cleveland—recently announced affordability initiatives for two or more schools in their respective cities. Atlanta’s initiative offers significant tuition discounts for Jewish communal professionals; Cleveland’s program centers on middle-income affordability. Just last week, the Samis Foundation announced a multimillion-dollar middle-income affordability initiative that will significantly lower the cost of tuition at Seattle’s Jewish day schools. Prizmah is proud to have served as an advisor to Samis and believes the new program will lead to increased student enrollment and retention in these day schools.
Prizmah maintains that it is incumbent on all Jewish day schools and communities of Jewish day schools to explore any and all options related to tuition affordability. In addition to the advisory role that Prizmah has played in the creation of the Seattle program, we are currently advising a foundation in a large Midwestern city as it considers various options related to supporting a community-based affordability program.
With the value proposition of Jewish day school as clear today as it has ever been, we believe we are close to an inflection point with respect to “alternative” tuition models. We are optimistic that we are just a few years away from the point at which a clear majority of schools offer one or more of these tuition models. At that point, these critically important models will no longer be dubbed “alternative” but will become both the standard and the norm for schools all over North America.
Ki va moed!
Cheryl Weiner Rosenberg
Jewish day schools and yeshivas ensure a strong Jewish future. We know this through data, through stories and through experience. And yet, we often struggle to fully articulate the magnificent impact of Jewish day schools on individuals and communities because there are so many stories to tell and so many lenses through which to view them. Though the pandemic put an incredible strain on our schools, it also allowed schools (and Prizmah) to better understand the present value of day schools and their communities in real time.
As a Jewish community, we are tied to our stories. As “the people of the book,” we have structured our lives and traditions around the written and oral histories of our faith. Through our many struggles as a people—exile and genocide and even modern-day antisemitism—our stories, both individual and collective, have given us strength, connection and purpose. And so, when we talk about Jewish day schools and yeshivas and the impact they have, we continue the Jewish tradition of storytelling.
To be sure, we have research and studies that serve as the foundation for these stories: a study of families who transferred to day school during the pandemic and how they value the strong relationships within the schools; a study conducted by Keren Keshet that showed that of the adults now in Jewish leadership positions, as many as a third went to Jewish day schools and even higher numbers send their children to Jewish day schools; and Prizmah’s recent development survey that marked significant increase in Jewish day school and yeshiva endowments in the last several years, conveying the importance of Jewish day schools as a long-term communal priority.
Nevertheless, when we want to articulate the impact of schools, we go back to the stories. In the coming year, there will be so many stories of Jewish day school alumni shared, and the impact will be clear. Jewish day schools are critical to Jewish leadership, Jewish communities and a thriving Jewish future.
Looking Outside and Not Just Inside Jewish Day Schools for Their Value
What Really Happens at School?
One has to wonder why, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, it is still necessary to establish the value proposition of Jewish day school education. The first day schools were founded more than 100 years ago; they’ve educated hundreds of thousands of young people; and their graduates include public officials of the highest rank, brilliant scientists, universally admired cultural creators and no small number of Jewish religious leaders and lay volunteers.
A recent study of families who transferred their children to day schools during the Covid pandemic opens a window on what keeps parents away. Until the exigencies of Covid prompted them to take a second look, these parents say they assumed schools lacked diversity, were educationally inferior and were religiously oppressive. Repeatedly, these were the reasons they gave for having first opted for public school.
It seems that unless you’ve attended a day school yourself or, to be more precise, unless you’ve spent time in one during the last 20 years, it’s hard to imagine what they’re really like. Call it a failure of imagination or an historical hangover, but many people really have no idea what it’s like to attend a day school today.
With the goal of addressing such preconceptions, the two of us embarked on an in-depth study of the contemporary Jewish day school. The study has just been released as a book: Inside Jewish Day Schools: Leadership, Learning, and Community (Brandeis University Press).
To be clear, we did not set out to make a case for day school education. Our goal was to learn how pedagogy, Jewish religious and cultural life, general studies learning, values transmission and interpersonal contacts between teachers and students currently occur in Jewish day schools. During our visits, we also saw firsthand how these schools contribute to the lives of children, their families and their communities.
We identified nine schools to study from across the denominational spectrum. These included traditional, non-coed yeshivas and pluralistic, community day schools; a small school serving about 50 families and large schools with thousands of students; schools from all geographic regions of North America, reflecting local cultures and educational marketplaces; historic institutions and newly established ones, too. Each school is described in a separate chapter. Collectively, they offer a rounded portrait of the populations Jewish day schools serve, how they fulfill their educational missions and the challenges they face.
As we’ve started to talk with people about the book, we’ve come to realize that for those who work in schools or who are deeply familiar with them, much of what we “discovered” is familiar. When we tell them about what schools contribute to the lives of children and parents, they say, “That’s a lot like what happens in our school.” We’re excited by these reactions. They reassure us that the schools we selected are not exceptional; they offer strong examples of widely occurring phenomena. People can see their own schools reflected in these accounts and depicted in ways that give them compelling language to talk about what happens: for example, how day schools make “cultural virtuosos” of their students; how they engage in the work of “caring for souls”; and how they serve as “repair shops” and as “guides for the perplexed” for parents.
In this piece, we highlight an aspect of what we learned that typically prompts a more surprised reaction from readers. The findings that prompt such a reaction concern what day schools contribute to the communities in which they’re situated, or to put it bluntly, what they contribute to those whose children or grandchildren attend other, non-Jewish schools.
Day schools once celebrated their isolation. They conceived of their role as “fortresses” designed to keep out the worst features of the outside culture. Critics accused them of being parochial in their concerns and exclusivist in their orientations. Their advocates embraced such charges.
Today, outside the charedi sector, such claims could not be further from the truth. School leaders recognize that if they’re to be financially sustainable, they depend on support from a community larger than the families who pay tuition. They have to be part of those communities, not apart from them. Moreover, they recognize how much they can offer even to those members of their community who hardly ever set foot inside their buildings. We have identified three ways in which day schools make this contribution and illustrate them with vignettes from our sample of schools.
Antidotes to polarization
Our nine schools provide evidence that day schools may temper some of the widescale polarization in the contemporary American Jewish community. Dozens of community day schools with a strong pluralistic orientation work to avoid privileging one understanding of Judaism over another. They nurture a culture of mutual appreciation and respect. In our sample, Hillel Detroit, Brandeis Marin and Akiva School in Nashville offer strong instantiations of this ethos. They expose students to different kinds of tefillah experiences; faculty hold a range of ideological commitments, thereby modeling pluralism; and families affiliate with a variety of synagogues, or with none at all. These are common characteristics in the community day school sector.
Even some schools with strong denominational commitments provide a shared space for families with diverse Jewish lives. The Pressman Academy (a Conservative day school located on the premises of a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles) and the Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach (described in its philosophy statement as a “Modern Orthodox Dati Tziyoni [religious Zionist] school”) fit this bill. Both schools draw a segment of families whose home observances differ from the practices observed at school and who affiliate—if they do at all—with congregations not aligned with the school’s ideology.
In both cases, parents periodically test whether the school is willing to give ground on certain principles, challenging school leadership from different directions. At Pressman, some less traditional parents object to the school’s insistence that food at birthday parties must be certified kosher; more traditionally oriented parents complain about their daughters being required to learn how to chant Torah. Similarly, at the Hebrew Academy, controversies have arisen over the school banning birthday parties that start before Shabbat ends or over coed classes in high school general studies courses.
These kinds of issues periodically surface, but they don’t poison the climate. Parents generally understand and respect the schools’ ideological orientations, and they appreciate their commitments to inclusiveness and respect for all students, regardless of their own home practice. At the Hebrew Academy, it is striking that the director of admissions is happy telling prospective parents, “We’re soup to nuts in terms of observance.” In other communities, that’s something an Orthodox day school would not advertise; in Miami, it’s a badge of pride.
TanenbaumCHAT offers a different model of how day schools contribute to a nonpolarized Jewish culture. The school is incorporated as a community day school, but its Judaic studies curriculum and its faculty have been critiqued for being too traditional. The school’s stance is that traditionalism is being confused with seriousness and that it provides students—whatever their ideological orientation—with a rigorous grounding in the foundational components of Jewish culture and Jewish living. If the school is proselytizing anything, it is the notion that all Jews who take their Jewishness seriously should be knowledgeable about their culture and should take responsibility for their community. This is a fiercely nonpartisan position, a characterization that sounds like an oxymoron. At the present historical moment, this stance is profoundly countercultural, which makes it of special value to the broader Jewish community.
Anchors of community
When middle-class parents choose to buy a house, the availability of good schools in the area is a significant factor in their decision. The presence of a good Jewish day school can have a similar impact on the life choices of some Jewish parents. The viability and intensity of the Jewish communities in which schools are situated is a second major consideration.
All of this was particularly evident in the Nashville Jewish community. Many of our interviewees, especially if they were traditional or observant, indicated that they would not have moved to Nashville to take up a job opportunity if the Akiva School did not exist. The same considerations influenced Jewish communal professionals, such as rabbis in all four of the city’s congregations and also some senior staff at the federation.
Yeshiva Darchei Torah offers an equally dramatic case of how a day school helps build Jewish community. When the yeshiva was established, few highly observant Jews were living in Far Rockaway, New York; even the rosh yeshiva preferred to commute every day from Brooklyn. As the school has grown, a vibrant network of synagogues, kosher shops and other facilities has sprouted nearby. In unusually entrepreneurial fashion, the school purchased and redeveloped local homes, selling them to mission-aligned families, thereby further stabilizing the neighborhood. It’s no wonder the yeshiva’s leadership likes to think of itself as having created a mini-Lakewood in this part of Long Island. As they see it, the yeshiva has been the heart around which an organic community has formed.
The Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, the high school section of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC), a more-than-80-year-old educational institution in Elizabeth, New Jersey, can best be characterized as an anchor of Jewish life in a neighborhood that has seen dramatic social changes over the years. That some of the students are the fourth generation in their family to attend the yeshiva conveys the extent to which this institution binds members of the community together.
These instances are perhaps extreme, but parallels exist in other places as well. In Skokie, Illinois, the Modern Orthodox community is spread across four modest-sized synagogues. Because families don’t travel by car on Shabbat, they must live near their place of worship. These synagogue communities would have been fragmented and weak if not for the presence of Hillel Torah. The school does not so much serve as a communal heart as the capillary system that enables these groups to function as a more substantial and stable community. If Hillel Torah did not exist, families would have other options to the religious right and left. None would be a comfortable fit. The Modern Orthodox community probably would have moved on to another part of town or another city where life would be less complicated.
Hillel Day School in Detroit plays a similar role for a more liberal population. Proximity to places of worship is not the issue here but rather the potential fragmentation of a web of community institutions. Over generations, Hillel has enabled a network of families, many of whose members have played central roles as volunteers or professionals in the wider Jewish community, to form relationships with one another. The school is part of a larger system that includes Camp Tamarack, the community’s overnight camp, and half a dozen Conservative and Reform congregations. Parents talk about the school being part of a system. It might not function as the heart or even the capillary network, but it is a vital organ for maintaining the general health of Detroit’s Jewish community.
The case of Brandeis Marin is noteworthy in a different way because it is situated in an unusual Jewish community. Half of the families are not members of other Jewish institutions at all. For many, the school is their Jewish community. Sharing a campus with a Reform congregation and with a Jewish Community Center, the school has become a portal to Jewish engagement and education for children and adults.
Seedbeds of leadership
Where schools have been in existence for more than 40 of 50 years, it is apparent that their alumni play a critically important role in Jewish communal life. How much the current activism of alumni is a consequence of what they gained at school or how much was inculcated by the families in which they were raised is hard to determine. But there certainly is a relationship between a day school education and subsequent activism in Jewish life among alumni, a relationship one of us probed in a previous study of emerging Jewish leaders.
This phenomenon was most observable at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto, a community where the quality of life is such that young people are frequently inclined to settle in town, close to where they were raised. The school’s pride about the high proportion of current faculty who are alumni is evident. The same is true for the alumni who serve as professional and volunteer leaders in the city’s federation, schools and synagogues. There is a virtuous circle here: This community high school, with its intense commitment to Jewish culture and Jewish life, is supported by alumni animated by the goal of enabling future generations to assume a leadership role in the city’s Jewish life. A similar pattern exists at Hillel in Detroit, where local community leaders often began their interviews with us by stating, “You do know I’m an alum of the school.” Hillel’s alumni have been both beneficiaries of and contributors to the richness of local Jewish life since the 1950s.
A related and particularly intriguing pattern exists at the two Modern Orthodox schools in the sample, Hillel Torah and the Hebrew Academy, both of which also have been in existence for more than 60 years. Alumni of the two schools are active in welfare, educational and religious institutions in their region, within the Modern Orthodox community and beyond. What’s different in their cases is how many alumni have emigrated to Israel. In these explicitly religious Zionist institutions, this outcome is as much a source of pride as the number of alumni who are activists in the local Jewish community. These olim (emigrants to Israel) are enacting the schools’ Zionist ethos in the fullest possible sense. This phenomenon also means that a sizable proportion of graduates are not sending their own children to their alma mater. Such is truly the price of success.
It’s tempting to compare the active roles played today by alumni in their local communities to the outcomes we observed among the current population of students. Day school alumni are likely to become Jewish cultural virtuosos, meaning they have learned the skills, imbibed the content knowledge and acquired the self-confidence to lead religious services, assume communal roles, and speak with conviction to Jewish concerns. They also continue to be closely connected with their Jewish peers; and they share a commitment to values such as chesed, ahavat Yisrael and torah lishma (caring for others, love of the Jewish people, and Jewish study for its own sake). If indeed their schooling has provided a springboard to academic and personal success, then they are the kinds of people one might expect to play a leading role wherever they settle, whether in North America or Israel. By contributing in powerful ways to the lives of individual students, day schools are increasing the human capital of Jewish communities.
Time to Broaden the Value Proposition
When day school leaders promote the virtues of their schools, they rarely highlight these far-reaching achievements. In truth, these features may not matter much to prospective parents who want to know first and foremost that this school will take care of their own child’s welfare and are less focused on the role of the school in the wider community.
That’s unfortunate. Highlighting how day schools make an impact on their communities might enhance their appeal to a wide range of stakeholders and ultimately to parents too. Isn’t that what public schools emphasize? Doing so would certainly help establish why day schools are better placed than ever to make a special contribution to the quality of Jewish life in America.
Adjusting Value Proposition to Meet the Needs of a School Community
In a traditional Jewish day school model, an excellent Jewish education is the assumed value proposition; however, if families don’t value the Jewish experience, focus must be placed on other selling points to enhance the value proposition. Jewish day schools need to carefully analyze the special school qualities that parents are looking for in a school such as a unique educational program, a diverse community and affordability.
Path to Change
When I first became admissions director for the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater in 2011, a preschool through grade 5 pluralistic Jewish day school in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I was excited to take on the recruitment of new students to the school of which I was not only a parent but an alum as well. Given the declining trends of non-Orthodox day schools, I knew my task as admissions director was not going to be easy, but I believed that if families could just see the value of a Jewish day school education, they would stay. Many Jewish families enrolled their children for the preschool experience but went elsewhere for kindergarten. I decided to focus my recruitment efforts on the families who I knew wanted a strong Jewish education for their children. Some families stayed beyond kindergarten, but there were many who preferred more academics, less Jewish studies, more diversity or the affordability of the local public schools.
Even more frustrating, some families loved the school but had to withdraw their children due to social or learning challenges. As a result, with the shrinking enrollment and small class sizes, many families who ultimately would have stayed at the school decided that their children needed more opportunities to socialize in a different school with more students. Some decided to move to a bigger city with a larger day school.
As the funnel became smaller and smaller, we were faced with difficult enrollment challenges. In 2018, with K-5 enrollment sliding from 71 to 62 students, the enrollment trajectory looked bleak. I reluctantly agreed to participate in Prizmah’s Atidenu program, a program designed to help Jewish day schools with enrollment. I was skeptical that any program could change the trajectory of the school’s enrollment future when it seemed clear that the Jewish families of Tidewater did not value Jewish education. I was sure the school needed a miracle.
Finding Our Value Proposition
The Atidenu program started with a close look at our value proposition. With the trends that we were seeing, the only families that retained their children from preschool to the K-5 Primary Years Program were families who valued Jewish education above all else. We needed to determine what else our families in the preschool valued in a school. In order to develop a working value proposition, we needed to perform comprehensive market research.
To determine a value proposition, a school needs to understand what their community values. Located on a shared campus with the JCC, the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater was founded in 1955 as an Orthodox day school, transitioning to a pluralistic school to meet the needs of the diverse Tidewater Jewish community. In 2005, the majority of the Orthodox families withdrew their children from the school to begin a school with a more rigorous focus on Orthodox Jewish studies. The Hebrew Academy continued to operate with traditional Jewish practices that did not align with the practices of many students enrolled at the school.
In 2016, the value proposition in the preschool was addressed to increase enrollment in the early years. The Strelitz Early Childhood Education Center Preschool was a shared entity between the Hebrew Academy and the JCC. In order to attract more dual-income working parents, the committee made the controversial decision to open the school’s “fullcare” program on days the school is closed, including the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and Shavuot. A small percentage of families kept the chaggim, but the rest needed to work. Day care was an important value proposition for these families.
The team adjusted the tuition of the preschool to be competitive with area preschools and advertised limited financial aid to families who needed it. In addition, the preschool, which had been solely play-based, added an educational push to their developmentally appropriate program to meet the competitive needs of the families in the area. The preschool was open to all families, and with the excellent reputation, attracted a diverse student population. The Jewish education was more cultural than religious, celebrating Shabbat and holidays with various family celebrations. With these changes, waiting lists developed at the Strelitz Early Childhood Education Center Preschool; however, the enrollment dropoff before kindergarten became even more evident.
To understand the needs of our current families from preschool through Grade 5, we created a comprehensive survey asking parents to tell us what they value most about the school and to rank in order their values such as secular education, Jewish education, extracurricular activities and affordability. We identified three focus groups to help us to identify key target areas of growth:
1) Traditional Jewish families who had remained loyal to the school through fifth grade.
2) Reform, interfaith and secular Jewish families who had children in the preschool but we weren’t sure would stay for K-5.
3) Non-Jewish families who enrolled their children in the preschool.
For Groups 2 and 3, we wanted to determine what would persuade these families to keep their children in the school through graduation in Grade 5.
As a result of these conversations, we decided to make changes in the following areas in order to increase the school’s value proposition with the target families in our community.
Atidenu helped us to understand that the Strelitz Early Childhood Education Center was perceived to be a different program than the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater. The first thing we needed to do was streamline the programs to retain our families and increase enrollment overall. We needed one name!
This became more of a challenge than we realized. After consulting with a branding expert, it was recommended that we change Strelitz Early Childhood Education Center and Hebrew Academy of Tidewater to Strelitz International Academy. “Strelitz” is a recognized name in the community and associated with the preschool. “International” reflected a global and diverse community. Board members were reluctant to give up the cherished Hebrew Academy of Tidewater. Many argued that by taking out “Hebrew,” we were becoming less Jewish. We realized that the name “Hebrew Academy” gave the perception that the school was still Orthodox. We already have an Orthodox school in Tidewater, and we needed to have a name that reflected the values of our more secular target audience.
With 90% of the families at the school needing care on days that Jewish day schools are traditionally closed, we needed to find a way to provide care for these students. In the preschool, the fullcare program was open on Jewish holidays when the rest of the school was not. For the elementary school students, we partnered with the JCC on campus to provide care on the days that school is closed. In addition, with our extended childcare hours from infant to grade 5, we have been able to attract and retain an increasing number of families from the Orthodox community as well. In partnership with the JCC summer camp on campus, we also are able to offer a 12-month program to families.
Parents in the community want the best education for the child. Despite the fact that our alumni went to excellent middle school programs, there was a lingering perception that the dual curriculum gave short shrift to secular studies. What was once thought to attract families as a value proposition became a deterrent to many secular families.
We saw a trend among our graduating students, who were applying to the Public School International Baccalaureate Program, considered one of the city’s best. When we observed that there were no IB programs locally offered for the early and primary years, our head of school, Heather Moore, looked into the possibility of becoming an IB World School to boost our value proposition. We realized there were many parallels to the education the school was already offering. After completing the two-year authorization process, we are the only IB World School Primary Years Programme in the community. The program has increased our prestige and given us a unique niche. In addition, it spans preschool through fifth grade, giving students and families a more streamlined educational experience.
With the IB program in place, our school attracts many families who would not have previously considered us. When a focus is placed on Jewish cultural and global consciousness, families of all denominations engage.
Many of our families loved the preschool program while their students were enrolled, but had planned to enroll in local public schools for kindergarten due to affordability. Over and above private school tuition, many of our families had to pay for afterschool childcare. After careful evaluation, we realized that families would be paying significantly more when combining kindergarten tuition, afterschool care and care when school is closed.
To counteract the sharp increase in cost, we created a flexible tuition option, with a wide sliding tuition scale available for all families applying to kindergarten. Families can apply for tuition within the range to maintain an affordable tuition for their family. The school worked with the JCC on campus to create an affordable option for students enrolling in aftercare and holiday camps. This has enabled many families to remain with us. The lower cost and trusted continuous education experience from preschool on increased retention.
Diverse Social Community
Although small class sizes can be an attraction for families, when numbers fall under 10 students per grade, social constraints often outweigh the educational gains as a value proposition. The Hebrew Academy of Tidewater had changed its policy on admitting only Jewish students with a Jewish parent in 2015 but had never publicized the change. The focus groups revealed that secular Jewish families prefer a more diverse community, so increasing the diversity and number of students in a school can also increase the value proposition.
At the Strelitz International Academy, we have had the added benefit of attracting many NATO students. In 2019, Norfolk, Virginia, became NATO’s newest operational command and the first NATO headquarters dedicated to the Atlantic since 2003. Our families love that we have students from not only Israel but Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden. The global focus has been a wonderful opportunity for learning and growth.
Through enrollment and community data, surveys and focus groups, the Strelitz International Academy has increased enrollment by 44% from 2018 through 2022. Indeed, the pandemic helped to increase the school’s enrollment. However, even before, the changes that we made positioned us to absorb more families looking for a quality private school.
The changes did not come easy; we had to push the Jewish boundaries and traditional ideas of Jewish day school with our board of directors and the larger Jewish community. Yet when donors see the increase in enrollment and continued commitment to Jewish values and culture, they appreciate the balance we have struck between honoring the past and making way for the values of our Jewish community today. To maintain viability, we have to be able to adjust our school value proposition to meet the needs of our current families and attract families who may not have considered us in the past. Evaluating and adjusting our value proposition has enabled us to attract more students and look forward to a sustainable future.
What the Jewish Community Can Learn from Youth Softball
While listening to Michael Lewis’ 2020 audiobook, Playing to Win, I was struck by its relevance to our communal conversation vis-à-vis the cost-benefit analysis of Jewish education. The book served as a reminder that too often our conversation ignores, or irresponsibly takes for granted, the importance of yeshiva and day school education: It is a crown-jewel of the Jewish community and the greatest gift that we can offer our children. In my frequent conversations about day school affordability, we too often ignore day school’s irreplaceability. While it is important that we continue to creatively explore ways to make our schools less expensive, it is imperative that we also explore ways to make day school more appealing. The choice, if it can even be categorized as such for the majority of Jewish-American families, to not send to day school is as much about its import as it is about its cost.
Playing to Win chronicles Lewis’s late daughter Dixie’s career as a youth softball player. In vivid detail, he describes the commitment, competitiveness and compulsivity necessary to succeed in this booming industry. While Lewis raises attention to several problematic aspects of contemporary youth sports, one in particular caught my attention: the financial sacrifice necessary to sustain and support a budding athlete. Families invest tens of thousands of dollars, annually, into traveling sports leagues. Citing a particularly jarring statistic, Lewis notes that 77% of American parents report that the costs of their children’s sports lives have forced them to alter their financial plans. Perhaps even more jarring, 25% have assumed bank or credit card debt to support this hobby.
Costs of Day Schools
I listened to this short book (available exclusively on Audible) over the course of two days, pausing amidst a discussion of the broader $70 billion youth sports industry only to resume my regularly scheduled day as a head of school. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that I found a conversation about the exorbitant costs of youth activities particularly relevant. My return to reality was filled with comparable conversations. I would hypothesize that the 77% number referenced above falls short of the number of our families who have had to alter their financial plans to support a Jewish education for their children. To borrow Lewis’ phrase, it is nothing short of absurd.
The book was in the forefront on my mind when a close friend and school board member serendipitously sent me a recent shiur by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder: “Our Communal Responsibilities and Our Responsibilities Towards Our Community.” In it, Rabbi Wieder bemoans the high cost of Jewish life in contemporary America. Much like Lewis, he describes commitment, competitiveness and compulsivity. He suggests that to live in the Modern Orthodox world today, a family income must be at least $300,000 (which according to investopedia.com is in the top 5% of US families). Rabbi Wieder painfully describes families breaking down at the financial burdens incurred by these costs. He suggests, too, that the cost of Jewish life is a considerable factor in the disturbing trend of people leaving Modern Orthodoxy. (A recent Pew poll suggested that 1 out of every 3 people raised in Orthodoxy will leave it in adulthood.)
It is fascinating to assess these two phenomena, youth sports and Jewish schools, concurrently. Both are sources of major financial strain, incurred by parents in the name of their child’s success. Both are accepted as irreplaceable, and completely unequaled, by their adherents. Both seem to be, somehow, simultaneously inevitable and unsustainable.
Rabbi Wieder fears for the unsustainability, and offers suggestions for more long-term viability. He suggests that the long-term continuity of Jewish day schools must rely on communal support. Families must be able to stretch their payments over longer periods of time, or active families without day school aged children must incur some of the cost. He cites traditional sources to demonstrate that this is in line with the rabbinic vision of Jewish education. However, through it all, Rabbi Wieder devotes no significant time to celebrating day schools’ value proposition. Though he may take it for granted, it ought to be named explicitly. Many day schools publish documents outlining their affordability plan. These must be paired with documents outlining our impact on children and on the broader community.
Pairing Costs with Value
While I sympathize with Rabbi Wieder’s concerns, and I am intrigued by his suggested interventions, I think he, as well as so many others, fail to address a major issue. For the large majority of Jewish American families, the choice to send to public school is not simply about affordability, it’s about worth. Even if these families can afford Jewish schooling, or the schools offer flexible tuition models, they will still choose to not attend because it does not seem worthwhile. Perhaps our focus on affordability has eclipsed a more basic conversation about importance. Conversations about day school affordability must never come at the expense of conversations about day school value. This is certainly not meant to avoid the pressing financial questions; however, it is meant to frame them appropriately.
A recent report by Prizmah suggested that the large majority of families who transferred into day schools as a result of the pandemic decided to reenroll even as public schools reopened. Why? Because by becoming a part of the day school community they were able to comprehend, and experience firsthand, its value-add. To be certain, the number one reason that families chose not to reenroll (even if they were in the minority) was because of financial strains. Rabbi Wieder is right in suggesting we need to creatively reimagine day school tuition. But this creative reimagination must always be framed by support for, and belief in, our day schools.
Data are unequivocal about the impact of day school education. The Pew report describes a glaring gap between the Hebrew skills of day school and non-day school graduates. Beyond Hebrew and Judaic studies, a 2007 study “What Difference Does Day School Make?” reports that students at Jewish day school feel more engaged and challenged academically than their peers in public schools. Yet the impact goes beyond academic success. The same study showed that graduates of Jewish day schools are up to three times as likely to pursue a career in Jewish education as publicly schooled children. Day school graduates are 50% more likely to say that being Jewish is “very” or “extremely” important to them. Our continuity, quite literally, depends on the success of day schools. While many in our field take this for granted, it is hardly the consensus opinion of American Jewry.
Sharon Freundel articulates powerfully how the Jewish day school experience goes beyond basic, quantifiable numbers. Day schools help our students discover their passions and give them the tools to pursue that passion. Day schools give our students access to an ancient enduring language. Day schools invite our students into a constant, lifelong relationship with God.
Keeping Sight of Our Worth
Perhaps parenthetically, though I believe equally crucial, I fear that Rabbi Wieder also fails to properly celebrate the amount of funds schools currently devote to affordability. (Note: Many schools, including mine, are eschewing the term tuition assistance in favor of more neutral terms such as flexible tuition. We’re not “assisting” those who cannot pay the exorbitant fees, we’re creating a model that sustains schools and supports families.) According to NAIS records, day schools allocate over $5,000 per student in aid. At all schools where I have worked, roughly 25% of our budget has been allocated to supporting families who cannot afford full tuition. Though the system is imperfect, obsession on affordability has eclipsed our vision of day schools as a whole, and we’ve lost the forest for the trees.
Lewis’s whole book seems to be leading to a complete lambasting of the youth sports industry. Yet the book concludes with Lewis standing on a college softball field with his daughter, who sees the immeasurable value of this journey.
I had a list in my mind of all the things Dixie had sacrificed to get here. As we carved a big circle around the empty field, I read from it: vacations, school dances, weekend parties and on and on. Roughly 10,000 hours that she might have spent with her friends, she’d spent with me or her mother on the road. She’d paid such a price, I thought. She’d forgone a life of ease and comfort for a life of sweat and toil. She listened to me as I listed all the things she’d missed. But when I looked over, she was still smiling. “Yea,” she said when I finished, “but look where it got me.”
As we run through our list of the sacrifices we have to make, and as still we work to limit or eliminate those sacrifices, let us never forget the smiling voice reminding us of its unmatched worth.
Using Market Research to Elevate Marketing Strategy
At Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, Ohio, we recently invested in a market research study to deepen our understanding of the three personas that make up our key audiences. The market research, which took the form of interviews, surveys and focus groups, helped inform our strategic marketing plan, including our key messaging. In this article, learn about our key findings, including a few surprising insights, and how you can apply the same market research practices to elevate your school’s marketing efforts.
With a goal of communicating with strategy, we recently reviewed our marketing to see if we were reaching our audience with messaging that truly resonated. As career marketers, we had some assumptions about who was attracted to the school, but we also understood a concept known as the buying-selling paradox. Often, schools like ours focus on the rational benefits of a Jewish education, whereas our buyers—parents—make their decision nearly entirely based on emotions. Instead of focusing our marketing efforts on the nuts and bolts of a Jewish education, should we instead try to tell a compelling and emotionally charged story?
Marketing 101: Know your audience
You do not have to be a marketing professional to know one of marketing’s simplest rules: Know your audience. As we looked closely at our school’s data, we quickly saw our families fell into three loose marketing personas:
1) Those who actively sought out a pluralistic Jewish education for their children, primarily affiliated Reform and Conservative families.
2) Those who wanted to have a more private-school experience, but stumbled into Jewish education for a myriad of reasons.
3) A small but growing number of Modern Orthodox families who are prioritizing a stronger secular curriculum for their children.
What exactly is a persona?
A marketing persona (sometimes called a buyer persona) is a representation of a group of customers who have similar goals, buying journeys and personal profiles. Personas help you visualize the ideal customer you are trying to attract. They help you relate to your prospects as real humans.
While sometimes conflated with demographic outlines, personas tend to be more benefit-driven. Instead of using fictionalized personas, we shared our three personas with actual examples of families from our school to illustrate this philosophy to our board of directors.
Ultimately, we used terms and abbreviations to define each of the three personas:
1) Jewish Identity (JI)
2) Values-Based (VB)
3) Lessons of the Torah (LT)
We have since used these personas for other reasons beyond marketing, such as recruiting a diversified group of new board members.
Why does each of our personas choose Mandel?
Using a third-party firm, we set out to conduct market research to confirm our three-persona hypothesis and better understand the drivers of their buying decisions. We had some assumptions about the buying process, but we did not have ample information to determine how to optimize our marketing strategy. We started by listing out some key questions that we wanted to understand: Why do our families really choose Mandel JDS? What is the underlying emotion behind their buying decision? Are we emphasizing the right elements in the recruitment process? Are we reaching our broadest possible audience?
While you can do market research on your own (see suggestions for how to get started at the end of this article), we opted to hire an expert to help guide us through the research process. Thanks to a recommendation from a marketing professional at another local Jewish organization, we quickly found a strategic partner who had terrific references and ample experience working with both private schools and Jewish organizations.
Structuring the market research
We decided to use a variety of research instruments to gain insights about our audience and their motivations for choosing a school for their children. We wanted to be sure to hear from our existing families, but equally important was hearing from families who had not chosen our school. Therefore, for each type of research, we included both “affiliated” and “non-affiliated” participants.
Exploratory interviews. Our first step was to conduct in-depth interviews with staff and current parents to develop insider, baseline information. Then we mapped those parents with additional parents from the community who represent the target personas but who are not affiliated with the school. Interviews were held one-on-one or in small groups, either in-person or via Zoom. In total, 16 interviews were conducted by our researcher. We found that using a third-party researcher to conduct the research created an unbiased, safe space for interviewees to be candid in their responses.
Quantitative online survey. Next, we conducted a survey of all of our key stakeholders, including faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, alumni parents and donors. We received 420 completed surveys, of which 49% represented parents of current students. The survey helped us identify motivators, communications channels, attitudes, behaviors and perceptions of Mandel JDS and other schools. It also provided a deeper understanding of the consideration set when choosing a school and mapped out the customer journey.
Focus groups. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, we conducted a series of focus groups with current and unaffiliated parents to help validate our messaging. During these focus groups, we explored perceptions of Jewish education in general as well as specific schools in our community. We also asked focus-group participants to respond to test messaging: a school concept, taglines and headlines, key phrases and even proposed imagery. We held seven focus groups, three with non-Mandel parents, two with current parents from the JI persona, and two with current parents from the VB persona. We split our focus groups by personas to gather and compare insights in order to craft customized messaging for each audience.
Key findings and insights
The first question we wanted to explore was whether or not we had gotten our personas right. The research heavily reinforced our first two personas, but showed that our third persona of Modern Orthodox families was simply too small (approximately 6%) to merit the allocation of marketing dollars. Instead, we learned that there was a spillover effect from our first persona (JI) to our third (LT); namely, by marketing to highly affiliated and engaged Reform and Conservative Jewish families in our community, Modern Orthodox families that were not fully or adequately supported by other options for day schools in our community would naturally be drawn to our school. Instead of allocating marketing dollars, we made a commitment to meet this segment of our community through programmatic efforts. For example, we sponsored the Kiddush at the local Modern Orthodox minyan on Shabbat and added a new afterschool program led by a local Rabba to explore stories in rabbinic Judaism.
The second insight we sought to clarify was how we could refine our positioning to better articulate the school’s value and help explain what makes us different from other options. We revised our positioning statement and identified six key aspects of our school’s personality. These brand elements are not intended for external use; rather, they exist to help us to emphasize the right elements of who we are throughout our marketing efforts.
The third benefit of our market research was the determination of the “reasons to believe” for each of our two primary personas.
What we learned about JI:
• They care about their children having a strong Jewish identity, pride in who they are, as if “it’s in their kishkes.”
• They are less interested in Talmud study, Jewish literacy, Hebrew language or Israel necessarily. It is more about the overall identity formation of knowing who you are and feeling good about it.
• They also value the small class sizes, the community and the individualized attention to their children.
What we learned about VB:
• They value small class sizes, community, individualized attention and the focus on social-emotional development.
• However, small class sizes are also an area of concern. This persona has expressed concern about the lack of “real diversity” and limited social choices.
• They feel Jewish values are generally a value-add, but they are more invested in their child growing up to be “a good, kind person.”
Here are some additional findings that are interesting and somewhat surprising:
• Many families do not take a data-driven approach to evaluating school options for their children; rather, they rely on their informal networks and their own personal perceptions and experience to determine which school may be the best fit.
• To our surprise, we learned that we are not competing with other independent private schools in our community. For the most part, we are competing with one other Jewish day school and public school options.
• Values are important to all of our families, regardless of persona. VB families are motivated by cultivating graduates with integrity and a strong moral compass, whereas JI families are motivated by cultivating graduates with a strong Jewish identity.
• Even though we consider ourselves “diverse” as a community day school, drawing from families across our region and from all streams of Judaic practice and affiliation, as well as many Hebrew-, Russian- and Spanish-speaking households, the word “diversity” is a non-starter, as it is perceived by our potential buyers as relating only to racial diversity. Some respondents felt it was inaccurate and inauthentic to use that term in our marketing.
• Social dynamics, especially in terms of class sizes, can often influence a family’s decision even more than academics or other reasons.
Marketing strategy, refined
As a result of our research findings, we built a new annual marketing plan to reach and engage our two personas. This includes:
1) Print advertising that leverages full-page ads in local magazines in key JI and VB geographic locations and our local Jewish newspaper, replete with new imagery, headlines and updated messaging to build awareness among new, prospective families.
2) Paid digital campaign that is highly targeted and helps build awareness and convert prospects into leads for recruitment purposes.
3) Two variations of our admissions viewbook, each focused on one of our two key personas, to help drive consideration and convert leads.
4) A pre-tour questionnaire to help identify the correct persona for prospects before they walk into our building.
Print Advertisement Examples (JI and VB)
Social Media Campaign Examples (JI and VB)
In addition, we identified additional marketing initiatives that need to be undertaken in future years:
• A website refresh focused on new messaging and positioning.
• An integrated storytelling campaign across channels to help reinforce our new positioning and key “reasons to believe” for each of our primary personas.
While the new marketing campaign has only been running for three months as of this article’s writing in March, we have already begun to see the impact. During that time, we ran four full-page print ads and launched a targeted digital advertising campaign.
To date, despite a significant Covid spike and winter break, we identified nearly 20 leads, 10 of which were qualified leads. Five out of these new leads toured the school and two have submitted applications for the 2022-2023 school year. In addition, we have seen significant increases in inquiries (12%), tours (44%), and applications (45%) versus one year ago.
While it is hard to know if these families already knew about our school or were planning to reach out regardless, these recent marketing efforts have increased our brand equity and created a funnel of new prospective families for our school in a way that we have never had before.
Simple steps to get started
If you are thinking about how you might be able to do your own market research, here are some suggestions:
1. Create a list or database of your current families along with key demographics (i.e. affiliation, why they chose your school) and start to look for natural groupings; these groups will form the basis of your marketing personas.
2. Create a list of “affiliated” and “non-affiliated” families who fit each of your personas.
3. Consider using a third-party researcher if your budget allows. If you are planning to do the market research yourself, figure out what kind of information you need from the personas to have a deeper understanding. Simple yes-or-no or multiple choice questions can be easily answered via survey, whereas open-ended questions or responding to headlines and photographs is better in an interview or focus-group format.
4. Using simple technology like Survey Monkey, send your survey to key stakeholders.
5. Review the data and look for trends to support or debunk your assumptions. Summarize your findings and share with your school’s leadership.
6. Leverage your new findings to update your marketing strategy and tactics.
More = More: Jewish Day Schools and the Education of American Jewish Leaders
It should come as no surprise that today’s Jewish communal leaders, both lay and professional, have far higher levels of Jewish education of all sorts, including day schools, than the Jewish public at large. Perhaps more surprising, if not more encouraging to advocates of day schools and Jewish education generally, is that these experiences are a growing phenomenon in the leadership cohort. Younger leaders report higher levels of Jewish education, including day schools, than older leaders. And leaders with children are giving them more day school and other Jewish educational experiences than they themselves undertook some years ago.
These are among the more crucial findings from a recently conducted study that focused on the educational patterns of Jewish leaders, both lay and professional, asking: How were today’s Jewish leaders educated in their childhood and adolescent years? How do the patterns differ by denomination, political identity, age and leadership sector?
Sponsored by Keren Keshet and conducted by Research Success Technologies Ltd. of Hannaton, Israel, from January through May 2021, the survey consisted of an opt-in sample of 2,079 respondents who lead American Jewish organizations of all sorts. These respondents include those who serve in lay or professional capacities, or whose social profiles closely approximate communal leaders. They lead schools, congregations, camps, federations, advocacy groups, women’s organizations, academic bodies in Jewish studies, social service agencies and others. Lists were provided by Jewish organizations or organizations that sent the link to the survey to their constituents.
A link to the survey was also posted on over 250 Jewish Facebook groups. Download the full report here: www.researchsuccess.net/leadership.
The Increasing Importance of Jewish Education
The adults now in Jewish leadership positions were widely exposed in their youth to numerous educational experiences, far higher than the Jewish public at large. As many as a third went to Jewish day schools from grades K-8, and two/thirds of those, 23% of the total, continued on with day schools during their high school years. In addition, 59% went to overnight Jewish summer camp. Similar numbers participated in Jewish youth groups, a third in part-time Hebrew high schools and a third in high school age trips to Israel, while about half took Jewish studies courses in college, and almost as many participated in Hillel or other Jewish campus groups. Clearly, Jewish education in childhood, teen and college years is a central part of the life trajectory of almost all of those who choose to become professional and lay leaders in the Jewish community.
Younger Jewish leaders are more Jewishly educated than their older counterparts. With respect to Jewish day schools, the study uncovered some dramatic changes: While just a quarter of Jewish leaders between the ages of 55 and 64 attended a Jewish day school (K-8), 44 percent of those 20 years their junior did. Among leaders with children aged 14 or older, day school enrollment grows from 33% among the adults to 62% among their children.
For overnight Jewish summer camps, 56% of the older leaders and 65% of the younger ones attended a Jewish summer camp. Triple the number of younger leaders as compared with older ones attended Jewish preschools; double the number attended Jewish day camps, organized teen trips to Israel and Hillel programs; and significantly more younger leaders attended Hebrew high schools, Jewish youth groups and college courses in Jewish studies. Birthright participation also increases over the limited age span for which it has been available. The only form of Jewish education that doesn’t increase from older to younger leaders is part-time Hebrew school.
These patterns of growth apply to all the denominations.
Increasing Importance of Jewish Education for Active Engagement in Organized Jewish Life
What are we to make of these stunning findings?
Most significantly, they demonstrate that Jewish education is increasingly valuable for creating, nurturing and sustaining the high levels of Jewish engagement found among the minority of American Jews who are affiliated and active in organized Jewish life.
Why is this the case? How are we to understand larger historical changes and the contribution of day schools?
The Decline of Jewish Public Space
Individuals’ sense of Jewish belonging is an outcome of the “Jewish social spaces” in which they live. These are spaces in which individuals are conscious that they belong to the Jewish people. In these spaces, individuals experience the Jewish past, present and future intersecting and gaining meaning in the context of relationships with other Jews.
An example might be the experience one has when walking into a Jewish institution, such as a synagogue or JCC. The art on the walls evokes Jewish history, signs in Hebrew, Jewish or Israeli music played over the intercom, advertisements for courses offered and local Jewish businesses, the presence of Jewish newspapers and so forth inform one that you are in a Jewish space. Relationships that one develops in these spaces are ideally informed by Jewish concerns, decisions and conversations with Jewish content.
There are two basic types of Jewish social spaces:
Lived spaces. These are “natural” spaces into which we are born and live our lives. They are spaces associated with family and neighborhood, and in Israel they are found as part of the public life of the Jewish state.
Constructed spaces. These are social spaces that are intentionally designed, such as those we find in a JCC, synagogue, youth movement or day school. There are also special spaces that take us out of everyday life such as heritage travel experiences, museums and festivals.
A Jewish community includes both intentional and constructed spaces in which people live their Jewish lives. The rule is. More equals more: The more time one spends in Jewish spaces, the stronger one’s sense of belonging to the Jewish people, including motivation, curiosity to learn and sense of responsibility to other Jews.
Decline of Lived Jewish Spaces and Increased Importance of Constructed Space
The pre-modern shtetl or the ethnic neighborhoods in which most American Jews lived through the end of World War II are examples of lived Jewish spaces. The experience of Jewish life is one in which the family home and surrounding neighborhood are a lived Jewish space in which one forms a sense of Jewish belonging. Such an experience still occurs in heavily Jewish areas such the Upper West Side of New York City, the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh or Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles. There, it is possible for a person to develop a strong sense of identification with the Jewish people without receiving an intensive Jewish education.
After WWII, most Jews moved to suburbia, and with time the ethnic neighborhood has for the majority disappeared as the central space of Jewish socialization outside of the family. As a curiosity that speaks to the larger trend, Ted Merwin in his book Pastrami on Rye documents the decline of the Jewish deli, from 1,550 kosher delis in New York City alone in 1931 to just a couple hundred delis in the entire United States today. The deli is an example of a lived Jewish space normally located in an ethnic Jewish neighborhood.
Outside of Orthodox Jewish communities, in which people live within walking distance of their synagogues, the vast majority of American Jews are left with the extended family as the primary site of Jewish socialization. The result is the growing importance of constructed Jewish spaces, such as those mentioned above, that grew rapidly to serve suburban Jewry after WWII.
Day schools are a critical example of intensive and holistic constructed Jewish spaces. In day schools, children spend a majority of their waking hours over the course of years. Students interact with one another and their teachers, providing a holistic experience inside and outside of the classroom. In effect, a day school serves the function of a Jewish neighborhood. It’s a place where Jewish children come to associate membership in the Jewish people as natural part of their lives.
The Jewish Education Weave: Everything Supports Everything with Day School at Center
The movement of individuals between different Jewish educational contexts and their homes creates overlapping experiences that reinforce one another and, in aggregate, recreate the experience of Jewish public life that was once found in the ethnic neighborhood.
Preschools are a feeder for Jewish day schools and other forms of Jewish education. Day school students and alumni participate heavily in overnight Jewish camps, youth groups and campus activities. As we move from the left to right on the Jewish social and religious spectrum, so we see the strength of the Jewish education weave grow. Orthodox Jewish children, teens and young adults participate in the full range of Jewish educational opportunities, creating a holistic and continual lived social experience with other Jews.
Day Schools for Some, Overnight Jewish Camp for Others
Outside of Orthodox communities and the more traditional Conservative population, the major alternative pathway into the Jewish educational weave begins with overnight Jewish camp. As one moves left on the Jewish spectrum, camp replaces day school as the major entryway into Jewish leadership. Once children participate in a Jewish camp, they are more likely to search for other Jewish educational opportunities. Other starting points include teen youth groups, Hebrew high schools or post-high school experiences such as Israel educational travel and Jewish life on campus.
Implications for Day Schools
Jewish day schools stand at the center of what may be called Jewish public space in the United States today. They provide a replacement for the Jewish neighborhood, an experience that strengthens when there is overlapping involvement in other Jewish educational, religious and communal institutions. Day schools and overnight Jewish camps are critical drivers for the socialization of Jews who engage in Jewish life. Their students and alumni heavily populate other forms of Jewish education that take place before, during and after the period of day school attendance.
This circumstance yields lessons both for the conduct of Jewish educational institutions and for the advocacy of Jewish education.
Allyship. In terms of promotion and advocacy in Jewish communal domains, day schools ought to see themselves as natural allies with related Jewish educational institutions. More funding for preschools, camps and the like can well benefit day schools. More participation in Jewish educational and communal life means increased enrollment at Jewish day schools.
Fostering cooperation. Day schools have a strong interest in fostering cooperation with Jewish preschools, overnight summer camps, youth groups, Israel experiences and campus groups. The presence of day school students and alumni in other Jewish educational domains can only serve to reinforce the education undertaken by day schools and build firmer social ties among day school families and with other Jewishly engaged families.
Leadership. Day schools should see themselves as allies and leaders in other Jewish educational interventions. Day school faculty working in summer camps or youth movements (for example) are a source of professional and intellectual guidance and potential collaboration. In general, day school faculty should advocate for communitywide Jewish education.
In sum, the day school and overnight summer camp are critical sites for Jewish socialization, providing intensive and holistic Jewish social spaces where children, teens and their families experience belonging to the Jewish people. Jews who are likely to be involved and active as leaders in organized Jewish life are also more likely to report having attended a Jewish day school or summer camp, and are even more likely to send their children to day school and camp.
To the extent that the Jewish community thrives, so will its educational institutions; one is dependent on the other. Greater numbers of educational opportunities available to children and teens mean more opportunities for children and families to interact with one another, thereby strengthening their overall sense of belonging and involvement in their local Jewish community and the Jewish people. In this context, the interest of day school lay and professional leadership and faculty is to work to strengthen the growth of Jewish education beyond the day school itself.
Commentary: “Values-Driven” Jewish Schools
Plenty of public and private schools (maybe most) can claim to be values-driven institutions. And yet those values are often eclipsed by the responsibility to ensure that by the time students graduate, they are on the way to being employable and law-abiding citizens. Surely, though, schooling is about more than the task of preparing young people for the functions they’re expected to perform in society. Values-oriented schools strive for something larger. Schools can help young people become both the best possible versions of themselves and also producers of culture, not only consumers of it.
Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer, Inside Jewish Day Schools
Rabbi Jonathan Knapp
Head of School, Yavneh Academy, Paramus, New Jersey
How do we evaluate success? In life? For our students? Admittedly this is among the most difficult, and important, questions we ponder. As Jewish learning institutions, our definition of success must be defined by our students’ engagement with our religion at its core values. When we consider the life our students will ultimately build for themselves, the cornerstone must be strong and meaningful engagement with our timeless Jewish principles.
When that engagement becomes the life compass for our graduates, then we can begin to discuss the remaining goals of success in other arenas. However, fulfillment in the other aspects of life without the core foundational underpinnings of life rooted in our deep values is lacking.
Rabbi Deborah Bock Schuldenfrei
Head of School, Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School, Encino, California
What if John Dewey and Rav Kook met up at Tel Aviv bakery for a cafe hafukh? Their conversation might sound a little like Pomson and Wertheimer. Dewey understands the essence: School prepares good democratic citizens and practical social people who know how to interact in the world. Guided by Jewish values, Jewish schools are learning communities, teachers are lifelong learners and students grow into lifelong lovers of Torah and education.
I imagine that Kook would respond to Dewey with the Zionist folk expression “to build and to be built,” Livnot ulhebanot. As Zionists, we build Israel and we perform this holy work to be built ourselves. Schools too are a place for us to build and to be built. Livnot ulehibanot is both an inspiration and a culture code. When mission and vision aligns, every day at school can be a day to build and be built. In social-emotional learning, we support others and work on the self. In innovation labs, we build with our hands, tools and devices, and we use the design-thinking process to empathize and heal the brokenness in our world. In Ivrit, we build our vocabulary while building a future for the Jewish people rooted in what Bialik described as “the golden key to Jewish education.” Together, we are builders of the Jewish future; whether teacher or student, parent or supporter, we all can be built through what we build.
Head of School, Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, Providence
As a Jewish community day school, we believe that we have an obligation to teach our students to fight for justice and equity, and to oppose oppression in all of its forms (echoing the clarion call in the Torah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue”). And, as an elementary school that embraces progressive education, we claim John Dewey’s assertion that “democracy has to be born anew every generation and education is its midwife.” As such, we understand that authentic “success” depends not on students’ grades or standardized test scores, but on their capacity to nurture themselves, sustain healthy relationships and meaningfully serve their communities.
We strive toward tikkun, repair, by responding to the world as it is with a vision of what it might become. As part of this process, our students learn to honor themselves and to acknowledge the sacred in others; our parents and caregivers discover that they are not alone in caring for their children, but that they are surrounded by devoted and wise partners; our supporters and friends are afforded the opportunity to engage in teaching, and learning from, the next generation of leaders and builders. Our task at JCDSRI is to help create a world for our children in which tzedek umishpat, righteousness and justice, and chesed verachamim, kindness and compassion, reign.
Seven Advantages of the Immersive Nature of Jewish Day Schools
One of the most compelling reasons for parents to send children to Jewish day schools and for funders to support them is the immersive nature of the day school experience. There is a great deal to be said for students being in a Jewish environment six to eight hours per day, five days per week, 40 weeks per year. Jewish sleepaway camp is also an immersive experience, but while the four- to eight-week camp experience is fun, informal and relationship-based, Jewish day schools present a different, deep model of immersion.
Outlined below are reasons that the immersive nature of Jewish day schools works to strengthen our Jewish children.
1. Research shows that immersion works to develop skills, capacity and habits of heart and mind. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in Outlier, “Mastery comes after someone practices one skill, like playing the violin, for 10,000 hours.” Analyses of second language acquisition have demonstrated that it is achieved more efficiently and effectively within an immersive environment. Why should we think that it is any different for acquisition of Jewish wisdom, knowledge and values, which are essentially the “language” of our people?
2. Not only are the students immersively exposed to Jewish wisdom, knowledge and values implicitly throughout the school day through mechanisms such as bulletin board posts, signs around the school and activities such as prayer and Birkat Hamazon, but connections to Jewish thought and feeling can be made explicitly throughout the day. For example, the theory of evolution and Ma’aseh Bereshit—the Creation story—can be taught side by side, having students analyze the relationship between science and faith. Or math and science could be utilized while teaching students what makes a Sukkah kosher, according to Masechet Sukkot.
3. Literature can be analyzed using Jewish values and figures of speech. For example, metaphors can be taught through such parshiyot as Shirat haYam—the Song of the Sea (Shmot 16). This approach of integration serves to minimize an essential issue in Jewish life of compartmentalizing one’s Jewishness, as in “I’m Jewish in shul, but being Jewish does not impact me in the slightest at work.”
4. Especially in the younger grades, where social-emotional learning is front and center, character education can be framed in Jewish terms. For example, rather than a teacher instructing the students during morning meeting to say good morning to each other, the lesson hevai makdim bishlom kol adam—be the first to greet everyone—could be the frame in which this is taught. For middle and high school years, makhloket leshem shamayim and makhloket she’einah leshem shamayim—loosely translated, disputes for higher moral reasons or disputes divorced from higher moral reasons—are a good framework to use for playground or classroom spats.
5. Topics that are especially meaningful and/or sensitive to Jewish youth can be more easily confronted and discussed within the safe walls of a Jewish day school: the place of Israel on the global stage, the rise of 21st century antisemitism, and the perceptions of safety and security for Jewish kids in the United States. If discussed at all in a secular public or private school, these topics will be uncomfortable at best and traumatizing at worst for our young people.
6. Further, students in their school setting throughout the day will see Jewish values in action, whether it is how adults speak with each other, how teachers treat students, or how areas such as a connection with God and social justice come to life. These will become internalized as children experience them on a routine basis, without a lot of “do as I say, not as I do” lecturing.
7. Only in Jewish day schools do students have the time and opportunity to dive deeply into our shared ancient Jewish texts, ideally in the original language. One of the few things that all Jews across the board share is a fealty to our shared heritage based on our holy texts, be it the Tanakh or the Talmud. Becoming involved in studying these texts and adding their own voices to the conversation will help our students deeply integrate Judaism into every fiber of their being. Given the time constraints of every other type of Jewish education, this can only be done to its optimum in a Jewish day school.
8. Finally, having Jewish children form close relationships with other Jewish children can only serve to strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish community. This is not to deny that there are huge advantages to having our children exposed to contemporaries of different faiths, socioeconomic strata and worldviews; that can be done through a school partnering closely with a local public or parochial school of another faith community. However, there is strength in numbers, and that increases exponentially when our children have compatriots living within a similar ethos.
While this list is surely far from exhaustive, we need to disseminate this message of the enormous benefits of Jewish immersion to the parents and funders in our communities and develop their buy-in to the necessity of day school education for Jewish children.
I suggest that Jewish day schools can take lessons from the best and look to successful corporations to see what strategies they use to get their message out there. One company whose marketing strategies are well analyzed is The Walt Disney Company. Let’s look at four of its strategies and how we might transpose them for promoting Jewish day school education. These strategies have been adapted from an article about Disney by mageplaza.
First Strategy: Telling Stories that Resonate and Inspire
A number of years ago, an article in eJewishPhilanthropy suggested that Jewish day schools compile portfolios with financial data and other statistics, offering funders a glimpse at the expected ROI, similar to for-profit companies. At that time, I thought to myself that this approach was too cold and dispassionate for anyone to understand the value of Jewish day schools. What we should do is put together a “Portfolio of Inspiration,” in which we share success stories, whether that means the number of professionals and lay leaders who are products of day schools, stories of individual students whose lives have been informed by their day school experience, or recollections from families whose life journeys have been shaped by one or more of their children attending Jewish day school.
We are a storytelling species; day schools need to become better at telling our stories in compelling ways through a variety of media, and disseminating them widely through marketing and communication firms, websites, social media and the like. If folks don’t even see our stories, they cannot be inspired. And if our stories don’t stir their hearts, even if they do see them, there will be no change.
Second Strategy: Building Spaces as Sacred Destinations
Sometimes, just getting someone into the physical space of a day school might be the tipping point for them to enroll their children or opt to become a donor. Perhaps we can think of our buildings not as schools but as sacred Jewish communal havens. We could create spaces within our buildings attractive enough to host Jewish organizational events that would bring currently non-affiliated folks into our space.
We could create community batei midrash within the walls of our schools. We could open our doors on Shabbat to a congregation that needs a place for prayer and camaraderie or on Sunday to a Jewish scout troop. When people feel the kedushah of the day school building space and inculcate it within themselves, they may be more likely to enroll their children so that the kids, too, can experience the kedushah, or they may become more likely to donate to a holy establishment such as the day school communal space.
Third Strategy: Employing the Feeling of Nostalgia to Reinforce Customer Loyalty
We should not underestimate the power of nostalgia. In certain ways, it is all the rage. People love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in part for the nostalgic feelings it evokes. Retro fashion is always in style, although the decade defined as “retro” changes with time. We even look fondly upon a pre-Covid world, forgetting that it was not all sweetness and light.
If we can leverage “nostalgia” for a long history of the Jewish people and how we have survived each outside assault by our sworn antisemitic enemies, each internal onslaught of assimilation and attacks on Jewish continuity, every event that tried to eliminate the Jewish people, our co-religionists might begin to understand the way that only Jewish day schools can give the armor and ammunition to the next generation to fend off any and all attacks on our legacy. Adult Jewish education inside our own walls, involving teaching different eras of history, different paths of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi development, and the formation of our culture based on a millennium of Jewish arts, culture and intellectual writings might evoke in them sufficient remembrance, recollection and even sentimentality to want their children to gain the upper hand of an immersive Jewish education.
Fourth Strategy: Always Sticking to your Theme
Anyone reading this article ostensibly is a proponent of Jewish day school education. We need to create a value proposition and stay the course with it, not turning to the left or right, to quote the Torah. Our messaging needs to be clear, consistent and constant. Getting students into our schools and cultivating donors is an ongoing, never-ending process. It cannot be one and done.
Schools need to decide on their own value proposition, be it immersion or something else, and get that message out there repeatedly as widely and broadly as possible. Just as with school initiatives, unfortunately, too many schools change their branding too often, such that the core message is watered down. Create your theme, create your value proposition. Stick with it and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it.
Jewish day schools have a huge amount to offer. My perspective is that the immersion aspect is key to the success of day school education. Let’s build on all facets of that immersion, and let’s also utilize time-tested strategies to incorporate new families and individuals into our day school world, building their passion even as we continue to build our own.
Shared Purpose and Mutual Responsibility in a Diverse Community
A few years ago, I attended a conference at a local non-Jewish independent school. On the walls of each classroom, I noticed large posted signs that included language about student’s rights and privileges on the wall. The type of language I observed was, “Everyone has the right to a safe learning environment,” “Everyone has the right to speak” or “Everyone has the right to have their disabilities accommodated.” Of course, you would be hard-pressed to find an educator, parent or student who disagrees with these statements. However, it occurred to me that the presentation of similar content in a Jewish day school classroom looks radically different.
In my current school and in other Jewish day schools I have taught at and observed, you often find the same language structured in the context of a classroom brit, a covenant. In that context, you might observe language that says, “It is our shared obligation to ensure that every student has a safe environment to learn in,” or, “Our classroom community is collectively responsible in ensuring that every student has a voice and an opportunity to speak.”
Indeed, one of the most powerful value propositions of a Jewish day school in 21st century America is the shared purpose that students experience in a community educational environment. This shared purpose often can be contrasted to a secular educational environment, which privileges the individual journey of uncovering and discovering every teacher and student’s relationships to certain identity markers, biases, groups, heritages and privileges that all serve as a springboard for uncovering the full potential of the individual student in a democratic manner. In this context, every student, regardless of their background, is deserving of the right to speak, to be understood, to be seen, to be recognized and most importantly to be educated in a manner that suits their learning sides. While these are essential understandings, Jewish day schools understand that rights and privileges without a coupling of meaning, purpose and responsibility are incomplete.
A Diverse Classroom in Morocco, a Century Ago
This isn’t a new phenomenon in Jewish education. A responsum from nearly a century ago in Morocco highlights this tension in a Jewish classroom. In a collection of letters written by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Danan in the early 20th century, a question can be found that describes a heterogeneous learning environment in the Jewish community of Sefrou, a short distance from Fez. The letter records a query from a parent who wanted to withhold payment toward a Jewish educator.
One student came home to his father around lunchtime, and the father asked his son, “My son, what did you learn today?” His son answered, “Since the morning until now, we barely learned anything except for a little bit of Gemara. Since there was a new student in class and we had to go slowly until he understood it, due to him, our learning was delayed.” When the father heard this, he quickly grew angry and refused to send his son back to the same teacher. Thus the parents and teachers sought my guidance to understand whether the parent owed the teacher a salary for his work, whether he should be fined or whether he was exempt from paying… The parent also added, “Since this teacher got to this place and delayed and took away learning from the group for the sake of the individual, I do not believe that he will be swift and careful to give my son the education he deserves... and we pay a great deal for our children’s education.”
In Rabbi Ibn Danan’s response, he notes that Torah learning has always happened in a heterogeneous learning environment. Even when Oral Torah was first taught to Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the Elders, every person heard teachings repeated four times for the sake of others. Indeed, the new student in the classroom in Sefrou created an opportunity for others to learn material again and to appreciate the value of being obligated to one another. Rabbi Ibn Danan goes on to say that in every classroom environment, students occasionally feel that their learning has been wasted, but the truly wise student rises above that emotion and realizes that true learning occurs when collective understandings have been reached by the class.
Community in Diversity
The parent who wrote Rabbi Ibn Danan expressed a common feeling that many parents experience in classroom settings. Why should my students’ learning be impeded by the diversity of learners or behaviors in a class? Why should my student have to sacrifice an inch of their right to learn because of others in their class? The classroom communities that exist with Jewish day schools offer an alternative to this question. Through a mutual obligation to uphold one another’s rights, students discover a shared purpose in a Jewish day school classroom community.
In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay “The Insecurity of Freedom,” he writes:
Man’s true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends him. Each challenge from beyond the person is unique, and each response must be new and creative… The glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free, and my capacity to be free, but also in the realization of my fellow man’s right to be free, and his capacity to be free.
At our school, I see a shared purpose cultivated on a daily basis. On our sports teams, I notice that when students put on a jersey, they know that younger students are watching them play for our school. They understand that they are temporary custodians of the jersey, and when they graduate, the legacy of how they behaved on the field, how they performed and how they improved will be what they leave to the community. A shared purpose is cultivated through a responsibility to other students in the learning community that they feel connected to. When our students gather for tefillah and younger students sit with older students, they recognize that a shared purpose is cultivated through a responsibility involving transmission of culture, customs, rituals and traditions through different age groups.
Families who choose to send their students to a Jewish day school have the opportunity to engage in a truly countercultural experience. The individual right to learn is honored through a shared purpose and a covenantal classroom community. In this context, students learn that in order for their voice to be heard, they must actively work to create an environment for others to be listened to who are different from them, including students with learning differences, students from diverse socioeconomic, racial and political backgrounds. Other schools may have diverse classroom environments, but the unique shared purpose that is cultivated through collective responsibility at a Jewish day school harnesses that diversity to enable students who are prepared to lead, build bridges and understand differences once they leave their Jewish day school communities.
High School Already? Addressing Concerns of Kindergarten Parents
In my role as director of admissions at Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, I am constantly navigating questions from prospective parents. One might think the most frequent question I receive is about tuition, followed by the religious observance of our school community.
While these are certainly topics we discuss during our admissions relationship, the question I get asked most often is how our graduating eighth graders fare in high school. Prospective parents don’t just want to know about how prepared their child will be academically for the rigors of high school. They want to know how their child will manage the social transition to their local high school—if their child will fit in, make friends and adjust to the larger and often more challenging school environment.
Since I’ve been asked this question so often in the last few years, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my response. Today, when parents turn to me and ask what it will be like for their child when they enter high school, I share these thoughts, based on what I’ve come to know about the day school experience.
I begin by explaining that every child is different and navigates change differently. As such, there’s no single experience that best represents a typical transition to high school. Nonetheless, I tell them about how, from the moment a child enters our school, we are preparing them with the skills they need for life through our focus on the whole child.
While academic excellence is a priority, so too is the social and emotional wellbeing of our students. Whether in kindergarten or eighth grade, our students begin their day with a morning meeting to check in with one another in their small-group kehillah. A morning greeting, eye contact and community-building activities give our students the chance to be seen and heard before we even turn our focus to the learning at hand. Our schedule designates time and space for us to teach and practice discrete social skills like empathy, perspective taking and conflicting feelings. And the countless discussions around Jewish tenets and values provide opportunities to reinforce what it means to be a kind and caring member of a community.
From the first day we welcome our incoming kindergarteners, we are preparing them for that day when they will eventually leave our care. I frequently hear our head of school comment that we will only see the true impact of a Schechter education once they graduate and travel beyond our walls.
I also suggest to prospective parents that activities, sports teams, day/overnight camps and other experiences that take their children beyond their day school community can ease some of that eventual transition years later. These activities expose our kids to broader social networks and give them a safe opportunity to flex the skills they’ve been developing at school. Once in high school, sports, clubs and activities can make their child’s world a whole lot smaller with kids who share the same interests.
Addressing Parents’ Fears
I’ll also be honest and say that graduating from a small, relationship-based day school community to a larger public high school can have its challenges. Many variables impact the transition, including the size of the public school, the number of middle schools that feed into that high school, the extent to which the high school helps integrate its many new students, and the relative inclusivity or culture that characterizes the school, the students and their parents.
Then, I often pause and ask the parents what they fear most. Surely, these concerns are not coming from their preschooler. Rather, they find their genesis in a vulnerability many of us share in worrying about the potential roadblocks and bumps that stand in our children’s path throughout their lives. Especially today, with our fast-paced society and the challenges adolescents face with social media, it’s no wonder parents are concerned about the wellbeing of their child in kindergarten, throughout elementary school and beyond.
A few years ago, we hosted a recruitment event and invited several recent graduates who were soon headed off to college. Sure enough, the question about transition to high school came from a prospective parent. One of our alumni, who attended a huge public high school, volunteered to answer the question.
“The transition was hard,” she said. “But it was hard for everyone to leave the school they knew and merge into a bigger school with greater demands, endless hallways and countless new faces. The difference was that I know who I am; I’m grounded in my knowledge of who I want to be, confident in my Schechter friendships and our ability to withstand different high schools, and blessed by my relationships with countless teachers who were invested in my growth and development.” She went on to say that so many of her teachers attended her bat mitzvah and came to watch her play in a high school tennis match years after she graduated. She closed by saying, “I knew I’d find my place; it just didn’t have to be right away.”
Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that attending the local middle school will ensure a smooth, bump-free transition to high school. Indeed, social groups seem to consistently change: friends excluded, and kids unceremoniously deleted from their text group. The important thing is for children to have resilience and the skills they need to navigate these challenges—skills that they get throughout their day school experience.
Most of all, I let prospective kindergarten parents know that no matter how much we worry or try to prepare, there are always going to be bumps and potholes throughout their child’s life. One of the best ways to help children navigate future challenges is by providing them with the strongest foundation possible to build their identity, grounded in education, values and history. I also remind them that by sending their children to Jewish day school, they are giving their children one of the greatest gifts: a Jewish community that is invested in who they are as individuals and helps them to become the best version of themselves.
Value Proposition of Day School Education in the College Campus Setting
In a midrash popular among campus educators, the Talmudic rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is described as a young man in his twenties yearning for the religious education he didn’t receive as a child. Upon discovering a rebbe, Rabbi Yochanan, he pleads to be let into his beit midrash. Through tears he describes his case for joining this seminary, is eventually allowed in, and over time he becomes Rabbi Yochanan’s greatest student, surpassing his knowledge and surprising his unsupportive father with the greatness of his aptitude for learning.
This powerful story describes an archetypal character, perhaps one all educators aspire to create: the student who comes from a family that did not prioritize Jewish education for their child but through a process of guided discovery finds their own path to Jewish education and practice. It’s easy to contrast this image of the “blank slate” student who is opened to a world of inspiring Torah through the right educator with the student who is weaned on a diet of limmudei kodesh, Torah learning, alongside their limmudei chol, secular studies, in the day schools we have today. Yet this student, the day school educated student, also arrives on the college campus on a path of learning, exploration and decision making about who they are and who they will become.
In some way, every Jewish college student, regardless of background, may choose a path to become their own version of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. For both Jewish and secular learning alike, all students need to choose their teachers, establish their learning path, and determine how they want to continue or depart from their familial story and expectations.
Indeed, many parents choosing to give their children a robust Jewish education prior to college do so specifically to encourage their children to make certain Jewish choices as part of their adult lives. What do we know about these recipients of rich Jewish education, specifically day school graduates, when they come to college and effectively play with adulthood for the first time?
In a 2021 survey of college students throughout the United States, Hillel International found that 44% of students involved in Hillels throughout North America reported having some day school education. Clearly, that indicates a high level of continued connectivity from high school to college, given the relatively small number of students with day school education among the college Jewish population. Despite the difference in educational background, this group are far from a homogenous subset of students; they represent a diversity of backgrounds, range of religious and political commitments, and increasingly complex identities that mirror the general population of Jewish students on campus. While robust data collection and understanding of the lives of Jewish day school graduates on campus will require further study, what follows are some high level trends and reflections on the state of this population today.
Our studies indicate that day school educated students are found at a relatively limited number of universities, each of which tend to have larger Jewish populations. Yet simultaneously, Jewish students can be found on an ever-increasing range of campuses. Over the past couple of decades, those colleges with larger day school populations have become increasingly comfortable places for those Jewish students, with a growing set of resources to serve specifically observant students, including robust Hillels, Chabad and a growing number of other organizations that support those students. Those campuses also provide access to options of kosher food, minyanim, rich learning opportunities, accommodations for housing, rabbinic couples and more.
Leadership and Learning
Hillel directors from campuses that serve a higher number of day school educated students anecdotally identify them as having a higher level of commitment to learning and literacy. Many model an ethic of Jewish learning, along with a greater sense of obligation to participate in a range of activities. At these campuses, day school students, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are more likely to feel ready and confident to lead services.
This was more evident than ever last year with the resumption of in-person classes following Covid hiatuses. Hillels were required to limit the size of any gatherings, which required them to create many smaller services. Brandeis and Princeton, two campuses with high concentrations of day school educated students, had ample students able and willing to lead different aspects of High Holiday services.
Indeed, those students help foster an environment of high-quality learning and prayer. The post-high school year or more in Israel also significantly increases the nature of the commitment of those students. These students come to campus more discerning and active in their religious lives, having advanced significantly in their learning, and often more focused on finding a sub-community that mirrors their level of observance.
The effect day school education has on students is certainly a cause for celebration and recognition. It’s also worth recognizing the ways that these students can impact the broader community of Jewish students on the campuses where they are concentrated. From there, we can see some challenges and opportunities emerge.
Several Hillel directors noted that they experienced non-Orthodox day school graduates as particularly committed to community and community-building. While they are not necessarily the most consistent to attend or lead Shabbat or holiday services, they are often the most present in “non-ritual” Hillel programming. They take leadership roles on student boards, develop social and social justice programming, and participate in Jewish learning fellowships. They are most comfortable in Jewish community, as it’s what they most intimately know from their formative years. One director contrasted those students with alumni of teen youth programs, even those who were most involved in those programs. For some of them, the college Jewish communal experience doesn’t compare to the intensity of the youth group experience and may be disappointing in comparison.
The confidence, commitment, skills and knowledge that many day school graduates possess is, of course, a source of pride and what we would hope to see from those many years of investment. Yet to those students without that experience, their distinctly educated peers often can be a source of intimidation and alienation. The sense of ownership and fluency found by their day school educated peers can be entirely foreign. To give a dvar Torah in a crowd of fellow students who have deep familiarity with a range of texts, historical knowledge and comfort with Hebrew can be exceedingly difficult. To assert a position of Jewish passion and position, even one that doesn’t comport with halakhic or communal norms, is that much harder before peers with seemingly more confidence in their knowledge.
On campuses with large numbers of day school alumni, their perceived insularity can threaten to exclude students who did not receive the same education. Some Hillels on campuses with high populations of Orthodox day school graduates strain to engage non-Orthodox students. Conversely, those Hillels with smaller populations of day school educated students sometimes struggle to meet the different demands of a day school educated student.
This begets a larger challenge around the encounter with a diverse and pluralistic Judaism that is at the core of the DNA of Hillel. Many Hillels serve a broad range of students with different Jewish commitments, lineage, practices and beliefs. These Hillels have to try to be all things to all people, and yet for those students with very specific expectations about what Jewish life looks like or doesn’t, finding one’s place within that Hillel can be particularly challenging. Day school educated students are well served arriving on campus with an open stance and open mind about the diversity they will encounter, even while they are affirmed in their own perspectives and beliefs.
A Few Cautions to Consider
Many day school educated students with relatively little exposure to non-day school educated peers are not prepared for the diverse and open range of Jewish expression to be found in this broader context. In college, many of them will be exposed for the first time to a range of ideas, lifestyles and political opinions that will be new and even shocking. While a few decades ago, there was much hand-wringing over the ways day school graduates would first encounter academic study of Bible, today that fear is much more likely found in relation to Israel on campus.
Of course, these students are not alone in facing anti-Zionism and anti-Israel behaviors for the first time in college. Without a doubt, this is something day schools must prepare their students for so they don’t walk into the “lion’s den” without any awareness of what’s to come. Others have written about the disservice day schools do to their students when they don’t expose them to a range of perspectives to the state of Israel. Finding the balance between inculcating a love for Israel and Zionism with a realistic appraisal of its complicated story would seem to reduce the backlash experienced upon first exposure in a less supportive environment.
One Hillel director at an Ivy League school with an exceptionally vibrant observant population including dozens of day school educated students, described to me their own growing awareness of an increased judgmentalism on the part of some of those students. This director notes that some students seem less aware of the privilege of their Jewish education, akin to the privileges of an elite private school education. When those students arrive on campus, some might act toward their peers with less formal Jewish education as a type of “character flaw” rather than as their own education as an immense privilege. In fact, as day school education becomes more expected, especially among modern Orthodox students, who tend to concentrate in fewer schools, the risk of a widening gap between them and their non-observant, non-day school peers grows.
Another Hillel director has observed a growing phenomenon that tracks with what we know about the growing cost of observant Jewish life. They noted that many Orthodox students are enrolling in academic tracks that would lead to higher-paying jobs rather than pursuing their own academic passions. While a decade ago, more students would have pursued academic careers in history, literature and Judaic studies, today far more are oriented toward business and finance degrees. They are aware of the cost of the lifestyle they have come to know and the education they received and are preparing from the moment they go to college to be able to replicate that in their own lives.
Like Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, today’s day school educated students are also on a path of self-discovery and exploration. They too yearn for a path of meaning, connection and purpose. These students are given the tools as children to discover this path in the context of Jewish life, and for many they will arrive ready to jump into their emerging adult selves, Jewish confidence in hand. On many campuses they will find a supportive community that will foster their continued religious growth.
And it’s important to remember that despite their formative education, there are those who will choose to take a break from organized Jewish life, realizing a need for a hiatus or a reset. Like Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, their choices will be influenced by a myriad of factors, including, significantly, both parents and educators. As the tides of campus life continue to shift amidst an ever-turbulent world, our mandate—as parents, teachers and Hillel professionals alike—is both to provide students with the tools for a richly textured Jewish life and also to support them in experimenting with these tools as part of their journey through emerging adulthood.
Learning Talmud from Your Child: Day School Value Proposition for Parents
I went to public school. My parents went to public school. My grandparents went to public school. I never considered the idea that my own kids wouldn’t go to public school. And then I married into a Jewish day school family. My husband went to Jewish day school, his parents went to Jewish day school, and his grandparents went to Jewish day school.
If I’m being honest, when I was in high school, I didn’t even know Jewish day schools existed. As our own Jewish journeys were progressing, I was open to the possibility of this experience for our own kids. In September 2006, I dropped my oldest off at kindergarten at our local Jewish day school; 16 years and three kids later, my Jewish day school experience is closing in on its final chapter. Our youngest is finishing 10th grade and I feel the time running out.
Yes, I feel the time running out. Our son might also, but I think I feel it more acutely. I’m sure any good psychologist will say that I’m conflating my anxiety about becoming an empty nester with the ending of our Jewish day school experience. Of course, that is partly true, but to be honest—what I’m really going to miss is all of the learning I have had access to both explicitly and implicitly by being a Jewish day school family. As a parent who had little to no formal Jewish education, I have learned so much from being a Jewish day school parent about faith, practice, Jewish history, Hebrew and more.
Here are some of the ways that our family has grown from being part of a Jewish day school.
Beating to the Rhythm of the Jewish Day School Calendar
One of the most impactful parts of being a Jewish day school family has been adjusting our calendar to the rhythm of the Jewish year. Friday early dismissals to prepare for Shabbat can be frustrating for working parents, and yet they also caused our whole family to alter our weekly rhythm in meaningful ways. Friday afternoons were times for long walks, cooking together and playdates we couldn’t squeeze in on other days. My husband and I juggled our work schedules and often had to call in for reinforcements to cover those Friday hours. And yet those Friday afternoons with the kids home from school early will always be a central point of our family time.
And it’s not just the times when school is closed; it’s also what happens when school is open. If you had told me when I was in high school that I would know when every Rosh Chodesh would be and that I would be so excited to hear from my kids what awesome things they had done that day to welcome the new Jewish month, I never would have believed you. Will I remember it’s Rosh Chodesh when my calendar is not synced to a Jewish day school? I sure hope so. Learning to live my life to the beat of the Jewish calendar has been a gift that Jewish day school has given to our whole family.
Friends Are a Family Affair
I’m often amazed when I think about how I know every parent of my kids’ friends. It is so rare in today’s disconnected world to have that kind of connection with community. And not only do I know their parents, I know so many of their grandparents. Because Jewish day schools are a daily lived experiment in dor lador, from generation to generation. This tethering to family and connection between multigenerational families is an incredible gift, not only to our students but to all of our families in the day school community.
Recently I was talking with my son, a Jewish day school alum, about the conflict in Ukraine. He shared a story he remembered from fifth grade when one of his classmate’s grandfather came to speak about his experience emigrating from Ukraine. My son told me that he recently messaged that friend to check in on his family and how they were holding up during this conflict, and to ask if they had family who had remained in Ukraine. I was amazed not only at the friendships that endure but that the impact of multigenerational family connections can be so strong, even years after graduating. This gift has not only widened our social network as a family, but connected us in a deep and meaningful way to people we would have never met had it not been for our Jewish day school experience.
The Child Becomes the Teacher
This has been perhaps the greatest value for our family, to have a child come home from school and be so excited to share what they learned. The amazing thing is when they share what they learned in their Jewish studies classes. It was Judaism 101 for me. Quizzing the kids with Hebrew flashcards, I learned critical Hebrew words like magevet (towel), zayit (olive), mischakim (games) and mada (science). When they studied and learned tefillah, I learned alongside at night listening to recordings of the teachers singing the tefillot, improving my own relationship to prayer and practice.
When my oldest studied the many rules of kashrut, we made significant changes to our kitchen. Even to this day I call him when I have a question. The knowledge our kids gained permeated every corner of our family, our rituals, our practice and our conversations. My husband, who had a similar day school education as our children, was amazed when the kids came home with some tidbit of information that he may have forgotten. The confidence a Jewish day school education gives to our kids to become the teacher is an enduring benefit.
As I begin my final years as a Jewish day school parent, I am having the ultimate experience of my child as teacher. On a Shabbat afternoon during the Omicron surge when we were back hiding in our homes, my 10 grader and I got into a heated debate. I was pushing him to read for fun—to improve his vocabulary and to keep him from Covid boredom. He pushed right back saying he studies Talmud nine periods a week and from that experience learns more critical-thinking skills and expands his vocabulary than any book I could suggest he read “for fun.” As the debate raged on, we ended at an impasse and agreed he would read a book of my choosing and I would study Talmud with him for the first time in my life. How hard could that be?
What seemed like a simple challenge has continued; he has read three books so far, while I’m spending two to three hours a week studying Talmud with him. From these study sessions I am witnessing all that Jewish day school has given to our family. Effortlessly, he teaches me what the Talmud is, how it is organized, what else was going on in Jewish and world history at the same time, where geographically different conversations take place, what were the social and religious practices of the time. He pushes me to read the text out loud, gently correcting my bumpy Hebrew reading and encouraging me to keep trying. He is the one to say, “Come on, Mom, let’s learn together tonight.” It might take us several months to get through one of the smallest tractates, but as many say: It’s the process that matters most here.
In the Talmud, many ideas are taught “in the name of” the original person who discussed a topic. Every day that we are learning together I know that my son is teaching me “in the name” of his beloved teacher Rabbi Jaffe, and I also know he is teaching me “in the name of” his and his brothers’ entire Jewish day school experience. What they learn is what we learn as parents.
I’m so glad we have two years left as a day school family. Two more years of calendar notifications, getting to know parents and grandparents of our kids’ classmates, and expanding our learning and our minds along with our kids. I am so deeply grateful for the path that led me to Jewish day school for my family and to the wonderful school communities we have been blessed to join.
As my son and I prepare to make a siyyum (celebration of learning) later this spring, we will do so in the Jewish day school lunchroom with his peers and teachers—a small way to say thank you and to share this experience with our school community who has given us so much.
The Advice Booth: Making the Most of the Donor Cycle Through Value Proposition
How do I most effectively engage current and potential donors throughout the year? How do I ensure that all donors feel good about their gift?
One of the most important aspects of promoting an organization or day school is demonstrating the value proposition of your institution. In Jewish day schools specifically, this means a school should be able to convey the benefit of their school over others—unique programs the school offers, the success of students and alumni, and the importance of a Jewish education—to demonstrate the value of the institution. A value proposition should be conveyed in clear and concise language to avoid confusing points or making it too generic to apply to only one school.
In fundraising specifically, a good value proposition can be the key to your donor relationships and securing funds by directly tying it to each stage of the donor cycle. The basic structure of the cycle begins with identifying prospects and cultivating a relationship with them, followed by solicitation or securing a gift, and finally, stewardship of the donor from the time of their gift until the end of the fiscal year. Using a value proposition in each of these stages reminds the donor throughout the cycle why they are choosing to partner with a specific institution.
In cultivating relationships with prospective donors, it is important to convey clearly to the donor why their support is needed in order to secure a gift. By using a value proposition to lay this groundwork for the donor, they should walk away from early meetings and conversations with a clear understanding of what the needs of the institution are, and why it is the best place for them to direct their support. The value proposition should make them feel good about the potential partnership being built.
However, what’s less obvious is using the value proposition also while stewarding a donor. Stewardship is generally looked at as a thank you letter or phone call with a personal touchpoint, or maybe a trinket or gift. However, even after a gift is made, donors should be consistently reminded of the impact they have helped create through their gift, why they chose to make their gift to this specific school, and how that gift directly impacts students and programs. More specifically, if a donor funds a specific program, be in touch with the details of what was achieved with the help of their gift, and how the work would not have been done without their support.
Using a value proposition in all areas of the donor cycle enables a donor to really focus on the purpose of their partnership and giving. As solicitation, especially mass appeals, occur more and more via email blasts and website campaigns, articulating the value proposition is how you grab your audience’s attention and get them to the donate button. This is recommended across all platforms: email messaging, website language, personal conversations and campaign materials. Similarly, as thank you moments and stewardship are often done using generic emails or swag, concentrating on value proposition enables a refocus on why they supported your school and, perhaps most importantly, why they should come back and support again in the future.
School Spread: Value Proposition Through the Eyes of New Students
From New York To Nashville
Fourth Grade, Akiva School, Nashville
This year, I moved to Nashville from the Big Apple, aka New York City, Manhattan. Everything is SO different. To start, There were around 840 people in my old public school and 100 at Akiva school. So yeah, HUGE difference. Also, we have to learn Hebrew. It’s my first language I got to study, and I am learning a lot. Like “?,???” that’s “why” in Hebrew.
Even though almost everything is different, a lot isn’t as different as I thought it would be. I thought the school would be smaller. I thought Nashville would be hotter. I also thought it would be more peaceful. So I had no idea what Nashville was like.
When I got to Akiva, two things were there I never thought would be: uniforms and homework. Weird enough, I didn’t have any homework at my old school. All the homework was done in class. I also never thought there would be people who treated people unkindly. A girl in my class started bullying me at the start of the year. Little did I know that she would soon be my best friend!
In Akiva, our student body is called the Knesset. I campaigned to be the first grade liaison. Even though I didn’t win, it was still fun to try out.
The best thing about New York is the fact that it has almost everything. You want Chinese food, there! Do you want Mexican food? Also there! Some people say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” Even though New York has a lot, in Nashville there are so many things to do with your family and friends, including bowling and rock climbing, or riding bicycles around town.
Being a Jew is very different from what I thought it was. People who are kosher have so many rules they have to follow, like not using electronics on Shabbat, or not being able to pick flowers. I found out how few Jews are in the world and I never thought about this when I lived in New York. While taking Hebrew classes I have learned a lot on how much we cherish God and how we treat each other and take care of each other as part of who we are as Jews.
While I am in Nashville, I’m hoping I can have something I’ve never had before, a way to think before I act. I can say something that’s mean in a way that I don’t want to be unkind.
Moving has been a big experience. Everything is as different as a crocodile and a sheep. I thought a big city girl like me shouldn’t be in the suburbs, and we shouldn’t have moved. My parents didn’t tell us we were moving until a couple months after they started planning. Life is different, yes, but all I have to do is stay focused on learning, having fun and making friends.
Feeling Cared for
Ellia Ferneau and Shayna Towler
Eleventh Grade, Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, Silver Spring, Maryland
Any transition takes time, especially a switch into a brand new school, but school programming can harm or help this process. Since we walked in through the doors on our very first day, we’ve learned a lot about what a change like this means to us. Through ups and downs, good days and bad ones, new friends and teachers, we’ve been able to settle in and find our places as part of the Berman Upper School.
In all honesty, the first day of school was not only incredibly draining, but incredibly stressful as well. Following a schedule with only a few minutes designated for each class, we were ushered from room to room for brief introductions with each teacher. Unfamiliar with the new surroundings, we desperately dashed back and forth, looking for the right rooms. In each session, we met yet another new teacher with a whole new set of classroom guidelines and expectations. Name after name, class after class, syllabus after syllabus… It was chaotic and overwhelming.
In addition to eight mini-class periods, we sat through multiple assemblies that were full of information regarding school policy. For returning students, this was hardly groundbreaking, merely a routine check-in about changes to past school guidelines. However, for new students, it just felt like an information overload that was simply impossible to follow. With snow cones and Berman slides in hand to cap off the day, we went home, overwhelmed but optimistic.
Then came Day Two, and then Day Three, and so on. Slowly but surely, we adapted into a new normal. The names, faces and hallways no longer seemed so foreign. The school norms and guidelines became second nature. We developed connections with peers and teachers and felt like a greater part of the community every day, partly due to the new student infrastructure that Berman has in place.
At Berman, a buddy system exists, matching up new students with peers so that no new student is completely alone. Although neither of us had to rely on the buddy system because of our preexisting friends at the school, it was reassuring to have it in place. Staff members, too, were designated to interact more closely with specific grades and with new students. Knowing that someone was particularly looking out and available for us was incredibly comforting.
Even staff and students who weren’t specifically assigned to new students were immediately open and accommodating. It was never awkward or embarrassing to ask questions, even later in the year. The transition to Berman was greatly enhanced for us by the welcoming attitude of both the faculty and students and has the potential to be for many new students to come.
Becoming a Part of a Kehillah
Sixth Grade, The Davis Academy, Atlanta
When I first came to The Davis Academy, I was worried about so many things. Would I make friends? Will I understand what we are learning? Are the teachers going to be nice? As time went on, I realized there was nothing to worry about, and Davis was a perfect school for me.
At Davis, we often talk about what it means to be part of a kehillah (community). At my previous school, I didn’t even know what that word meant! I quickly learned how lucky I am to have found such a special kehillah that I now get to be a part of.
Even before the school year started, I was making new friends. All of the students were so welcoming and a lot of fun to be around. Now that we are farther along into the year, I have made more new friends and always have people to talk to and hang out with.
Along with the kind and welcoming students, the Davis teachers make it easy and fun to learn, and they also are very supportive and understanding when I need help with something. For example, when I first started at Davis, I had little experience with reading Hebrew. My teacher recognized that I was struggling and immediately helped me catch up to the rest of the class and ensured I understood all the new material. Now I am reading and writing in both block and script!
Also, when I started at Davis I was put into the on-level math class. All of the work was very easy for me, and I had all As. I spoke with my math teacher to see if I could move to honors math. She understood and agreed that I needed to be more challenged, and it only took a bit of time until I was in honors math. All of the teachers here are so understanding and make sure that what I am learning is right for me. I know that as a member of this amazing kehillah, my teachers and friends always have my back.
Lastly, the school building seemed difficult to navigate at first, but quickly I got the hang of it and have memorized where all of my classes are. The lockers and binders that we are given at the beginning of the year are a big help with staying organized and keeping track of my belongings so I don’t worry about losing anything.
Honestly, I thought my transition to Davis would be far more challenging, but Davis really is an amazing and welcoming school. My Jewish day school has been a much better fit for me.
Making Friends and Loving Learning
Fourth Grade, Columbus Jewish Day School, New Albany, Ohio
I came to CJDS because of Covid. At my old school, it was going to be virtual, and my mom didn’t want that for me, so she suggested that I go to CJDS, and I agreed.
When I came, I was surprised that there were not that many kids and they knew each other well. So I was scared that it would not be easy to make new friends, but to my surprise, I was wrong. I had a friend on one of the first days, and just a few days later the whole class was my best friend. I am thankful for each and everyone of them.
I get a lot of attention from my teachers, because we do not have a lot of kids. It helps my learning experience, because sometimes I don’t understand something, and the teacher is able to work with me to explain it. At my old school, I had to wait a long time for my teachers to come to me. I don’t think that I would be as smart if I didn’t go to CJDS.
I did not know if I was going to stay another year, but it was so great that I decided to stay until graduation. I am so glad that I stayed because if I didn’t go to CJDS I would not have some of the nicest friends, not to mention a better learning experience. Getting to learn at CJDS was the best decision ever.
Many Pleasant Surprises
Fifth Grade, Oakland Hebrew Day School
When I first heard I was going to enroll in an Orthodox Jewish school, I pictured it a certain a way. None of what I pictured was true. I’m going to tell you about some qualities of the school that I wasn’t expecting.
Keep in mind that I’m not the kind of kid who loves school, so when I say something positive, it should be taken seriously.
I imagined I would be going to a strict, impersonal school that just focused on learning. Actually, my first day was the opposite. Right when I entered, there was a community meeting that focused on welcoming me as a new student. At OHDS they try to really focus on you, your strengths and your needs throughout the year. For example, I was new to Hebrew when I arrived, so I got to sit with one of the banot sherut for extra help in Hebrew class.
I get called upon by teachers for tech support. This makes me feel important and like my strengths are seen and needed. Whenever I walk by the other classes during lunch, the kids who are out of class yell my name and say “Hi!” I know this sounds cheesy, but it feels like it’s one big community instead of a you-go you-learn and that’s it kind of place.
Judaic studies is also different than what I thought. I imagined that it would just be learning the rules of kashrut and studying Torah. Instead, we focus on interpreting the Torah for what it “really is” and finding new meanings of commentary and text. I enjoy arguing, so this is more interesting than I thought it would be. Coming up with questions and debating on the answer is way more challenging and creative than just learning text.
I also was surprised at the quality of non-academic classes. For example, I love the art program although it is strict, and we actually play games during PE instead of just warm-ups and exercises. I also enjoy an occasional hike in nature with my class.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about tefillah. I thought tefillah would be a bore, and to be honest, sometimes it is. But occasionally I like to try and pray to wake me up and start the morning. I appreciate that I’ve learned to navigate a siddur in so short a time! I wasn’t expecting to learn to be able to be hazan so early; I thought I would just have to sit through it. The ability to daven is a skill I can always use in my life.
As you can see, OHDS has surprised me in some ways. It is not an impersonal school that just focuses on Judaica and academics, although you still learn quite a bit. (In fact, my math class is the best I’ve ever had.) There are lots of ways to be creative and put yourself into the learning, like in Judaic studies and art. Even tefillah has some pluses! All in all, if I look back to what I pictured before I started, I’ve had many pleasant surprises.
Creating a Student-Centered High School for a Post-Covid World
Much has been said about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives of adolescents. At Gann Academy, a pluralistic high school in Waltham, Massachusetts, as we have navigated this experience as a community, one of our central beliefs is that there is no going back to the status quo.
In the past two years, we shifted our focus, creating a new educational model with three primary innovations that enhance our students’ holistic experience of being a high schooler during this moment of challenge and change: a customized, semester-long academic curriculum, investment in students’ social-emotional support, and the articulation of explicit community values. Our value proposition lies in centering our work on meeting students where they are, and in so doing, forging a new status quo that will serve our students for generations to come.
Going Deep: A Customized, Semester-Long Academic Model
Semester-long classes are familiar to most adults who have completed undergraduate and graduate education. A semester model allows for focused learning time and the ability to go deep into subjects. When we re-opened in fall 2020, we knew that our students needed stability, consistency and focus, all increasingly challenging to access in an uncertain world. In order to meet those goals and keep our Covid risk mitigated, we introduced a semester model for learning that has had a tremendously positive impact on our students’ learning over the past two years.
Unlike traditional Jewish day schools, in which students take up to eight classes simultaneously, Gann students take two robust semesters full of both required and elective courses, up to five classes a semester, or 10 classes over the course of a given year. Keeping students to five courses a semester and having those classes meet daily has a number of advantages for our students:
The immersive nature of each class is electric. Students are able to go deep in each class period, covering the breadth of their coursework from a stance of inquiry, engagement and attention. From senior English electives to Jewish studies and drawing and painting, the exceptional quality of student work that we have seen from students over the past two years has aligned with our understanding of how student learning works best, by allowing kids to go deep while keeping an eye toward the transferrable skills that students are building in one course and applying in the next.
Our students deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Gann students want to challenge and stretch themselves in areas of interest and excellence and seek support in areas of academic growth. The semester-long model is elastic in a way that allows students to tailor each year to their particular ambitions, interests and needs. Providing students with a diverse array of course choices as well as a schedule flexible enough for them to take advantage of those offerings is a unique aspect of the semester-model, and one that keeps students at the center of their learning,
As an example, while all 10th graders take classes in English, history, Jewish studies, Hebrew, math and chemistry, a student who is interested in medicine might choose to take on AP Chemistry in addition to Spanish or French in the spring semester, while one who already knows she is heading to engineering school may fill up her schedule with two or three classes in computing, design & fabrication over the course of the year. Others who may be exploring their interests in the arts, world languages or humanities, or who seek time in the learning center, are able to configure their schedules in a way that balances their exploration and needs.
Preparing students for an emerging future. As we consider the world that our students will inherit and help create, we are investing in building the skills that will serve them in paradigms that don’t yet exist. The creation of our semester schedule and the curricular process that has accompanied it has allowed us to look critically at our academic program and make sure that each course builds on the transferrable skills like critical thinking, meaning-making and empathy-development that we know our students need to master.
Wellness Matters: Investing in Student Wellbeing
Many aspects of Gann’s response to Covid-19 were protective for our students. From the earliest days of lockdown through the past two school years of in-person school, Gann students have been learning, their teachers and advisors have been attentive to their triumphs and challenges, and they have even been able to celebrate moments of joy and “normalcy” together. Even so, we take seriously the nationwide challenge to adolescent mental health and healthy development that teenagers everywhere are facing and are grateful to have had the resources necessary to meet that need. Gann’s approach to student wellness takes into account the academic, physical, social-emotional and spiritual dimensions of students’ wellbeing, and takes an innovative stance at the intersection of these realities.
This is hard, but we can do hard things. Gann’s student support team, which includes our assistant head of school for teaching and learning, school counselor, dean of students, school nurse and learning center leadership take a collaborative approach to our students’ wellbeing. Our goal is to support and accommodate students in times of need while also working with students and families to build their strength, resilience and fortitude.
Jewish tradition and practice provide a meaningful framework for our work. Jewishness and Jewish tradition animate every aspect of life at Gann. We know from the resilient history of our people as well as contemporary adolescent psychology (such as Dr. Lisa Miller’s The Spiritual Child) that deep and authentic spiritual and communal knowledge and experience is protective for teens in times of challenge as well as a proactive tool for student thriving.
Relationships are at the center of learning. With students enrolled in semester-long classes, both they and their teachers are able to focus their energy and attention on the immersive experiences in each course. Student-faculty relationships have been at the heart of a Gann education for decades, and facilitating their development is a key tool for living our mission.
Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh LaZeh: Naming our Communal Values
When Gann reopened in August 2020, we didn’t know how well our students, employees and families would be able to adhere to the strict guidelines that we put into place to help reduce risk to our community. In collaboration with our student council, we created a community brit outlining the expectations for behavior in and out of school that would enable us to stay open. The brit underscored for us the deep importance of explicitly naming communal values and behavioral expectations for everyone in the school community, which we have since extended to other aspects of our school experience beyond the confines of Covid. This year, for example, our student council and school leadership worked together to create a general brit for student norms, and our 12th graders are hard at work creating a special covenant for their time together in Israel this spring. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Our choices impact other people. Covid or no Covid, Jewish tradition teaches us that our behavior impacts other people’s lives, and that it is our responsibility to make choices that will ease and support the lives and wellbeing of others in and out of our community.
Naming values is part of the educational experience for adolescents. Sometimes we take for granted that students understand expectations through a process of inference or osmosis. However, by clearly naming, discussing and having students and families sign on to our brit, we have the opportunity to bring kids into the discussion of the why of our values, and to use that conversation as an important learning moment for them about how they can meet those expectations.
Bringing community service “home” to Gann. Community service hours have long been part of the graduation requirement for our 10th, 11th and 12th grade classes. As the pandemic bore down on opportunities for our students to find meaningful chesed opportunities, we looked for small and large ways for students to give back to their community.
However, it became clear that students wanted and needed avenues to contribute at “home” at Gann, so we created the Gann Community Fellows program in order for students to volunteer in our library, dining hall, marketing department and head of school office. This program served the two-fold purpose of giving students an “inside baseball” perspective on what it takes to run a school while also contributing to the feeling that it is our communal responsibility to keep our school thriving.
In reflecting on the past two and a half years of evaluating, responding to and sharing what students really need, and creating a school in that image, our value paradigm has shifted. We have a new understanding of the importance of shared responsibility and purpose in order to shape the experience and the future we hope for our students. In building a new model for high school, we hope to be effectively sharing that the value we offer is in the attention paid to what students need and the willingness to make thoughtful choices and intentional changes in order to meet that goal as well as we can. We aspire to model a level of responsiveness and responsible risk-taking in service of our community that infuses our school’s culture and inspires students and teachers, parents and administrators alike.
I want to make a bold claim: Diversity isn’t something you have, it’s something you do. When we do diversity effectively, we teach our children to find meaning in their own experiences and in the experiences of others. There are opportunities throughout the school years to reflect on how we are the same and how we are different with respect to our classmates, our communities and humans around the world.
These concerns are central to the disciplines known as the humanities. And yet, the humanities continue to fall out of favor. Elementary schools and high schools focus on standardized measures of academic achievement that downplay the qualitative dimensions of learning, while structural economic inequities lead new classes of college students to become understandably concerned with securing their economic future with majors in fields they deem “practical.”
Jewish education has a unique potential to set up our children for lives filled with meaning. But when schools divide their programs into secular studies and Jewish studies, they implicitly teach students that “Jewish” meaning is somehow siloed and separate from the other aspect of their experience.
Jewish Humanities Curriculum
Over the last two years at Schechter Boston, we have focused on building connections across the humanities disciplines of Jewish studies, language arts and social studies. Our Jewish humanities approach comprises two central components:
Essential questions. Education starts from authentic inquiry. Our humanities units will be built around essential questions that students explore through the lenses of these three disciplines. For example, a pilot unit developed this year asks eighth grade students to study the Talmud’s Oven of Akhnai in parallel with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and ask: What should you do when your own sense of what is right conflicts with a rule or law? This question gives students freedom to practice articulating their own points of view and trying on the perspectives of classmates’ perspectives.
Jewish habits of mind. Jewish tradition offers four habits of mind that support student learning in the these text-intensive disciplines:
• Makhloket, the belief that constructive disagreement is essential for learning.
• Hevruta, the idea that we learn better when we learn together.
• Iyyun, the belief that we must push beyond surface-level meanings.
• Kedushah, the belief that the study of texts is an inherently sacred activity.
Reinforcing these habits of mind across the curriculum develops graduates capable of drawing on Jewish tradition to find their own answers to the big questions that concern us today as Jews, Americans and all the other identities we hold.
Our schools will never be able to do diversity unless we invest in this kind of humanities education. We must make time and space to talk and learn about ourselves and each other. Intentionally talking about small differences, whether it’s our country of origin, our native language or our Shabbat practice, builds the very same habits of mind as discussing racial differences or political differences.
Helping students see how these three disciplines offer multifaceted perspectives on the same questions holds the potential to transform Jewish education. Instead of seeing Jewish education as primarily about literacy, cultural transmission or collective belonging, the Jewish humanities empower learners to find their own identities and to learn how to do diversity with others.
Over the past year, we have reorganized our school to support a focus on Jewish humanities. We created a middle school humanities department to align curriculum, find interdisciplinary connections and develop a shared vision of Jewish humanities. These Jewish studies, language arts and social studies teachers meet weekly to share lesson ideas, compare learning goals and develop their practice in the context of a professional learning community.
Jewish Education for a Diverse World
In addition to their core teaching, the Jewish humanities teachers developed and implemented schoolwide programs, including a yom iyyun (day of study) earlier this year focused on the Afghan refugee crisis. Under the guidance of their teachers, student council put together an interfaith panel of local activists working to resettle refugees in the greater Boston area. The panelists described how their faith identities intersected with their commitment, and then teachers built on this to explore the experience of refugees through the lenses of literature, history and Jewish text.
The example of the Jewish humanities approach shows how day schools can reframe diversity education as a strength. Bethamie Horowitz once wrote that we should stop asking “How Jewish are you?” and instead ask “How are you Jewish?” I believe that Jewish communities and schools must stop asking “How diverse are we?” and instead ask “How do we do diversity?” This shift allows us to intentionally scaffold the skills and habits of mind that kids need to encounter diversity throughout their lives and lead lives filled with meaning. Not only will our students go out into the world as prepared as their peers who are educated in “more” diverse settings, they can be better prepared for having learned the skills and habits of mind of intentional diversity.
Historically, Jewish education has been viewed as an investment in a child’s Jewish identity, sometimes at a cost to their general education. Although it is a well-established finding that graduates of Jewish day schools go on to be as successful as or more successful than graduates of secular schools, some have argued that choosing Jewish education means choosing to withdraw from the world around us, to emphasize particularism over universalism.
I believe that when we decide to do diversity, we recognize that our children’s Jewish identities are an indivisible part of who they are in the world. We equip them with the knowledge, skills and habits of mind they need to navigate the complexity of an increasingly global and interconnected world. Ultimately, this kind of Jewish education will teach them that the world is a bigger, more diverse and more complicated place than they could have imagined.
Schools, and particularly Jewish day schools, have a responsibility to do diversity. Day schools must help students take pride in who they are, take on the perspectives of others and grapple with new experiences. This approach will help students connect their own lives and in the wider world.
Re-energizing the Teaching Value Proposition
How can we retain mid-career teachers amid historic shifts in the educational labor market?
When Marc, a mid-career teacher with a full slate of Judaic and general studies classes, was offered an enticing job working at a Jewish nonprofit last year, he was initially torn. He loved the classroom, but the past two years had taken their toll. He saw his responsibilities at home and work increase, but not his pay. He watched as his friends cozied up in sweatpants as they worked from home—and receive generous salary bumps—and thought, “Frankly, it would just be nice if I could use the bathroom when I need to.”
Marc, like so many of our Jewish educators, sees teaching as his calling. But the so-called “great resignation,” the ubiquitous term coined in 2021 by NYU’s Anthony Klotz, had him doubting the long-term viability of his choices. LinkedIn has tracked a significant increase in teachers updating their profiles with jobs outside the teaching field. Federal job numbers back up LinkedIn’s findings; more teachers are abandoning their professions than in any other industry. Marc left the classroom. How many more will join him?
Jewish schools have relied on the intrinsic value of Jewish education to retain talent inside the classroom. To quote the classic teacher workroom poster, “It’s not about the income, it’s about the outcome.” For an increasing number of mid-career teachers I spoke to about this article, many of those intrinsic values that drove them into this career have since waned. More pressing anxieties have since filled the void: “mortgage, kids, car payments and quarantines” as one teacher put it. Yet others felt “stuck in the middle,” without a clear vision of where they see themselves. They were “treading water” in their personal and professional growth.
One consequence of the great resignation is a newfound emphasis on extrinsic job motivators: personal autonomy, job flexibility and growth opportunities. I spoke to nearly a dozen mid-career Jewish educators from several schools in both I-95 corridor suburbs and smaller “out of town” communities (but not in my school, Ida Crown Jewish Academy). I wanted to speak to mid-career professionals because they often form the backbone of school faculty, are established in their communities and are under the pressures faced by young families. They are also no longer novice teachers and have a more seasoned understanding of their careers.
Focusing on this context might yield areas of future research and action. I employed a phenomenological approach, as defined by Sharan Merriam and others, to steer the conversations and to attempt to derive meaning from these shared experiences. In speaking with these teachers, I wanted to see whether the national conversations about employees’ relationships with their jobs had trickled down into the world of Jewish education. Indeed, they had.
This cultural and labor market moment should force Jewish schools to better articulate the value proposition of this continued career path compared to other opportunities. To put it bluntly: teachers can exit the classroom and make more money working from home. In their sweatpants. “I did my time,” one teacher told me. “Why stay?”
Competing Value Propositions
For teachers, a successful value proposition reflects the complete compensation package, values and experiences that they can expect from their schools. As we think about the shifting sands in the labor force at large, it’s worth articulating the most salient value proposition for Jewish teachers.
For all: summer break, short Fridays, sick days, vacation days, Jewish holidays off; the chance to impact the lives of young people; the chance to enrich the next generation of Jewish children. For most: shorter workdays, tuition benefits, healthcare benefits, retirement benefits, life insurance, family leave; curricular autonomy, continued professional development; long-term relationships with students and the chance to impact the larger community. For a few: autonomy inside the classroom, the chance to move into more senior roles, the chance to drive schoolwide decisions, the chance to change the trajectory of the larger community.
For the mid-career professionals I spoke to, these extrinsic and intrinsic value propositions seemed compelling. For many, they remain compelling. Yet other values and, importantly, new anxieties and challenges, have eroded what was once an ironclad commitment to the profession. These new worries are worth exploring.
For all: a worry about the rising cost of housing, camp, cars and household necessities, and the inability of schools to commensurately raise salaries; health protocols; increasing numbers of students with complex emotional and learning needs. For many: increased scrutiny and distrust from parents, the inflexibility of the job coupled with the need for flexibility at home. For a few: a disappointment with the lack of kavod—respect and dignity—that they thought would be afforded to them for choosing this path; the fear of being stuck with few options down the road if they felt the need to switch careers.
Hearing this dysphoria was difficult but in no way surprising given the constraints and pressures from the last two years. Yet in speaking to these teachers, few could point to school programs that attempted to directly address these issues. Schools pivoted hard to address student concerns and rapidly increase student support. They “asked teachers to rapidly change,” one teacher told me, “but then dropped the ball in terms of longer-term support.”
Mid-career teachers valued and worried about their short-term working conditions and their long-term rewards. They also recognized schools’ limitations of financial and human resources. Yet even within these limitations, several focused interventions emerged from these conversations as a possible roadmap for reinvigorating the career’s value proposition for mid-career teachers.
These proposed interventions represent nudges rather than systematic restructuring. This list specifically sidesteps questions of compensation; as Stanford Professor Linda Darling Hammond noted in a seminal work on the subject, the pay scale is both the most effective form of support but also the least likely to change. It also sidesteps more amorphous concepts featured in various listicles across the Internet (think “build relationships” or “understand the value of time”).
Interestingly, the first series of recommendations I heard from teachers fit into what job satisfaction researcher Frederick Herzberg calls “hygienic factors,” whose absence yields dissatisfaction. They are important to maintain basic job satisfaction. My conversations also revealed so-called “motivating factors” in job satisfaction. These are factors teachers found to increase their satisfaction and desire to stay. Added together, these six granular and somewhat out-of-the-box changes may change the calculus for teachers in the field.
Tactful Transparency. The teachers I spoke with felt comfortable, even relished, in what Dan Lortie (in his Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study) calls the symbolic “closed door” between them and administrators. Having “done my time,” as one teacher told me, “it was great to have autonomy inside my classroom. To feel trusted.”
However, when social-emotional issues arose, teachers who could rely on administrators to deal swiftly and transparently with student issues felt highly supported. With student mental-health issues on the rise, tactful transparency with teachers can help educators feel informed and sympathetic. “I know that I’m a subject teacher and not a social worker, but I also know that I can better support a student if I know about their difficult background,” an elementary teacher told me. “Don’t keep me in the dark,” another teacher said. “I know there are difficult cases. It would have made a world of difference if I just knew what was going on.”
Administrator Response Times. A strong administrative team is, of course, a key element for teacher satisfaction and retention. But drilling down on this concept revealed a pinch point: Lackluster response times to teacher emails and concerns deeply frustrated teachers. When administrators “punted it back and forth,” it “just drove me crazy,” an ex-high school teacher said. Some teachers pointed to monthlong issues that were left to fester as one reason for them contemplating leaving.
“In a supportive school, salary is important, but we knew the limitations going in, we make it work,” Yoni, a seasoned ex-teacher told me. “But if things are not going well, if the stress is high and the support nonexistent, you look at the check with frustration.” Yoni, like many teachers I spoke with, pointed to a responsive administrator as a key to making the work feel sustainable.
Substitute Teacher Systems. “It was almost easier to come in sick than to organize a sub,” a middle school teacher said. His experience mirrored the experiences of many other teachers. Interestingly, substitute-teacher systems—and the anxieties and frustrations with failed systems—kept floating to the top of many of my conversations. Clearly, more pervasive working-from-home benefits have put job flexibility on the front burner.
A mother of two young kids said that her school set up a “subbing system so that it was difficult and cumbersome to use.” She said the biggest frustration was “the unspoken judgment” she got after consecutive days of supporting sick kids at home. “It felt like I was constantly letting my school down, but I also didn’t want to let my family down,” she said.
Schools might consider permanent substitutes, competitive teacher compensation for class coverages (with various added benefits to school climate), and, most importantly, a clear and consistent system for arranging subs. This removes one important professional roadblock that can otherwise leave teachers resentful during stressful family situations.
Differentiated Adult Learning. Teacher professional development often takes the form of prescriptive, faculty-wide learning and one-off seminars. For mid-career teachers, this learning felt insufficiently personal: “Those PDs never changed my practice. It felt more like a ‘we need to do this because this is what we did last year’ kind of thing,” a high school teacher told me. One teacher said it more bitingly, “I hear nonstop that we need to differentiate with students, but I never see us being differentiated as teachers with different learning needs!”
However, mid-career teachers did light up when given the chance to discuss a longer-term project or professional learning community they engaged in or led. Some of these projects spanned more than one year, helping to break the yearly “reset” cycle that frustrates some teachers. The learning forged new relationships with students and colleagues. “Leading my PLC made me a better teacher and it made me feel that I had something unique to give to my school community,” a middle school teacher said. These PD opportunities helped entrench teachers in long-term commitments to their schools. Nonetheless, creating these multiple avenues for teacher professional development complicates school norms and schedules. Schools might consider PLCs, teacher-specific PD budgets, longer-term outside coursework and differentiated PDs to better support adult learners.
Tiered Leadership, Not Just Added Responsibilities. All the experienced teachers I spoke to had nearly full or full teaching loads in addition to various school-support responsibilities. These included grade or faculty leads, curriculum oversight or student-activities supervision. While these roles initially helped teachers engage in school decision-making, some of these roles grew stale and the responsibilities scattershot. “I knew I no longer had a passion for being the grade-level manager, but I also knew that I didn’t want to lose out on the money, so I kept it,” a teacher told me.
Schools might consider creating a new tier of leadership that sidesteps more traditional department chair, grade-level chair, teacher coach or grade-level activities coordinator. Instead, these team leaders might rotate across these roles year-to-year depending on areas of interest, growth and need. This allows teachers to partake in “job crafting” to better align their jobs with their shifting personal needs and skills. These team leaders would further distribute leadership across the school while allowing veteran teachers opportunities to sharpen their skills. Importantly, these experienced teachers wouldn’t feel “locked-in” to their previous roles.
Driving Toward a Goal. “At the beginning of my job, my head of school asked me where I imagine myself going, what my dreams are for teaching,” an ambitious teacher, now in real estate, told me. “Yet she never asked me again after that.”
Many of the mid-career teachers I spoke to felt they lost a sense of purpose that they had in their first few years of teaching. They felt comfortable in the classroom and had built up curricula they could rely upon. However, instead of feeling on their way to mastery in their craft, some felt that they were simply slogging through the mud. “Instead of supervising me,” an elementary teacher told me, “I wish my administrator understood where I wanted to grow as a teacher and helped me get there.”
Administrators might consider using classroom observations and one-on-ones to help teachers formulate both pedagogic and professional goals (as opposed to more immediate and fleeting teaching issues) so that teachers feel they have a goal in mind. Teachers can use coaching time to reflect on ongoing coursework or larger questions of teaching philosophy. “Does my principal really need to talk to me about petty classroom stuff? Does she think that still interests me?” a high school teacher confessed.
Working to Change the Calculus
Will these six shared recommendations change the calculus for teachers? “Sure, these might have kept me teaching for one or two extra years—maybe,” an ex-teacher from Florida told me. “But ultimately it comes down to what a teacher feels is best for them and their family.” At the conclusion of our conversations, many of the ex-teachers felt the same way. They were prioritizing their family’s financial futures or their own sense of professional purpose. Yet each teacher also mentioned that had schools proactively worked to update the value proposition of classroom teaching, they would have considered a few more years.
These conversations confirmed that the historic upheaval in the education labor market, and the subsequent ways it has reordered teacher priorities, has trickled down into Jewish schools. The question is not whether schools will react, but whether this reaction will be a scramble—lower standards for open positions, strained existing staff, increased class sizes—or an active articulation and modernization of the value proposition of this career path.
Professional Development to Promote a School's Value Proposition
Collectively across the country, Jewish day schools allocate numerous resources to attract new families and generous donors. Marketing campaigns often focus on a school’s secular academic offerings, advanced technology, state-of-the-art facilities and student acceptances into top universities. Taking a quick glance at private school advertisements or their social media posts, prospective families may find it difficult to distinguish one school from the other. As the cost of a private school education continues to increase, parents want to see a physical representation of where their tuition dollars will be spent.
But ask any admissions director, and they will tell you that parents also want to know how to ensure that their child becomes a mensch, marries within the religion and contemplates making aliyah. So what is it that makes your school stand out from others, and why should a prospective family or donor choose your school? The answer lies within the school’s carefully crafted value proposition and its commitment to ensuring that this statement guides the living and learning taking place each day.
Parents’ Deeper Question
A school’s value proposition is perhaps the single most important aspect of a Jewish day school’s identity and is usually displayed prominently on a school’s website and as a welcoming statement in its advertising and marketing materials. It is intended to answer parents’ questions as to why a school would be a good fit for their child. However, all too often a school’s value proposition is written by a marketing team that may lack insight into the depth of what brings exceptional value to a Jewish day school education.
While we can all agree that most parents and donors look for schools with a rigorous and diverse educational program, there is an even more thought-provoking question that, while not always asked outright by prospective families, lies nonetheless at the forefront of their decision making. This question focuses on the intrinsic and intangible benefits of a Jewish education, and how investing in a Jewish day school education will provide these benefits to their children. Such benefits include developing a strong Jewish identity, being part of an inclusive Jewish community, understanding the history and traditions of the Jewish people and advocating for the State of Israel. Ultimately, these somewhat intangible benefits are the reasons why most families choose a Jewish education for their children, and these benefits need to be the focus of the school’s value proposition.
A Jewish day school administrator must be able to guide parents to envision what the end result of a Jewish educational experience will look like, even for the youngest students who may just be starting their educational journey. Beginning with the first admissions visit and continuing until the senior commencement program, the tenets of a school’s value proposition should always be a priority for school leadership and serve as a constant reminder to the faculty and staff of the promises made to the school’s families. It is imperative that the school’s value proposition be infused not just into its academic offerings but into all activities that are offered to the students.
So, as Jewish day school administrators, how do we ensure that the faculty and staff embody the spirit of the school’s value proposition? It is not enough for your faculty to merely repeat the mission, they need to be able to clearly articulate it through various communication channels and more importantly, through their actions in the classrooms. However, ensuring that your faculty incorporates the value proposition in all they do requires extensive and ongoing professional development that focuses on creating continual value within the school.
Professional Development Strategies
The following strategies are ways in which professional development can be used to highlight and build upon a school’s value proposition. Administrators can use and share these strategies with their faculty and staff so that the value proposition remains as the focus of all interactions with both students and parents.
Debriefing after teacher evaluations. The time following a teacher’s evaluation is a perfect time to debrief about how to best infuse the value proposition into conversations with parents and students. Since the majority of teacher evaluations more than likely cover measurable goals and objectives, an administrator can use the time following the formal evaluation meeting to share with the teacher positive feedback that has been received about how the teacher has made a special effort with students. Acknowledging difficulties at home, offering extra help to a struggling student, and simply listening to parent concerns are all ways to ensure that families appreciate the intangible value offered at your school that they may not always receive elsewhere. Acknowledging the importance of these initiatives goes a long way toward making your faculty feel valued and ensuring that they will continue to share this value with the families.
Professional growth goals. Ask your teachers and administrators to set professional growth goals that include at least one that is related to the school’s value proposition. If your mission includes, for example, motivating students to form a lifelong connection with Israel, faculty should keep this idea in mind even when planning secular academic learning activities. Geography lessons about Israel’s natural resources, history lessons discussing Theodor Herzl and Zionism, and even math lessons converting shekels to dollars are all ways in which a connection to Israel can be reinforced in the classroom and support the value proposition of the school. Especially in a dual-curriculum culture, faculty need to understand that the creation of cross-curricular learning goals brings tremendous value to a Jewish day school experience.
Time to observe and inquire. Perhaps the greatest professional development is that which is self-driven. Faculty benefit greatly from observing and learning from their peers, but often do not have adequate planning time during the day to do so. Arrange to cover a class so that teachers can observe other faculty members in their classrooms and discover new and innovative approaches to teaching. This technique applies to all levels of teachers, not just those who are new to the profession. Oftentimes veteran teachers may need to step outside their comfort zone and try different ways of teaching in order to keep pace with changes in educational pedagogy. Seeing how the value proposition of the school is infused into the daily learning of various topics provides a valuable professional development experience.
Collaboration and coaching. Similar to the observation of classrooms, faculty greatly benefit from collaborating with their colleagues and being assigned a mentor, teacher or coach. Encouraging the exchange of ideas between teachers and departments also will assist your faculty to make connections between value-based aspirational goals and academic learning.
Self-assessment and reflection. Faculty need to clearly understand the school’s value proposition and be able to effectively communicate it to their students and parents. Understanding the value that a Jewish day school education provides to families is not always easy and may require the teacher to assess and evaluate their own beliefs and classroom behavior.
Bringing it All Together
Does your school’s value proposition include specific wording that describes the incremental value of a Jewish day school education? If so, faculty will benefit from a variety of professional development initiatives in order to embed this message into their lessons, instruction and communication to parents. Let’s say that your school’s tagline reads, “Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders Today.” This sounds great, but what does it truly mean and what can your faculty do to support this aspirational statement?
The first step might be to have teachers openly discuss during a faculty meeting what leadership skills they possess for themselves, and how they can best teach these specific skills to their students in an age- and grade-level-appropriate manner. While we recognize that not everyone is a born leader, there are important Jewish values that can be identified as being essential for inculcating leadership skills.
In addition to guided collaboration and reflection, professional development for this specific example also may include small-group discussions with their peers to find out how other faculty are infusing leadership skills into their class lessons, and pairing new teachers with those who have been at the school longer and may have a greater understanding of the school’s value proposition. Additionally, having teachers include a section on their lesson plans where they can identify how the lesson promotes the school’s value proposition serves as a reminder to faculty of the importance of creating lessons and activities that consistently align with the stated mission.
A well-defined and clearly articulated value proposition is essential for the growth and sustainability of Jewish day schools. While a school’s mission statement typically addresses the fundamentals of educational programming, a school’s value proposition describes the underlying beliefs, ideology and mindset of the administration, board of trustees, faculty and families. Jewish day school administrators must establish that all faculty and staff understand the significance and meaning behind the school’s value proposition, and that they regularly reflect on whether their actions are consistent with its wording and intent.
A strong and continual professional development program will help to ensure that faculty and staff are able to deliver a value-driven education of outstanding secular and Judaic values to its students each and every day. This approach is paramount to ensure the growth and sustainability of Jewish day schools throughout North America.
To Teach Means to be Exposed: Balancing Student Autonomy with Teacher Guidance in a Judaics Classroom
Being a teacher is hard. Being a new teacher is incredibly hard. On the days when it is hardest—and thank God the hardest days seem to come less frequently in my third year teaching than they did in the first—a line from a mentor of mine, Leah Rosenthal, pops into my head: “To teach means to be exposed.”
Leah told me this literally in passing as we were walking in opposite directions down the long hallway at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. I was nervous about an upcoming one-off lesson I was to teach that week to a group of visiting Jewish professionals, and the anxiety-produced knot in my stomach was already in full force. It’s hard to call Leah’s line “advice,” because it was not framed as a piece of sage wisdom she, the master pedagogue, was passing down from on high to a novice teacher. She was not trying to rid me of my anxiety or in any way fix the situation. It was, in true Leah fashion, just a short, honest statement of fact. For everyone, regardless of the amount of experience they have in the classroom and their level of mastery over the texts, to teach means to be exposed. So one better get used to that pre-lesson stomach knot.
The Intimacy and Anxiety of Teaching
One of the reasons the line is so powerful to me is because it recognizes as natural the anxiety and uncertainty I feel daily as a young teacher. I know I am not the only one of my friends whose job gives them those stomach knots on a regular basis, keeping them up late or waking them up before their alarm goes off in the morning. I am sure many people across a wide range of professions feel personally attached to their work in a way that makes their on-the-job performance feel like a direct assessment on their worth as human beings.
But I cannot help but feel that there is an intimacy to the job of teaching that very few other professionals know. What other job asks its practitioners to bring so much of themselves as human beings into their day-to-day work? To share one’s thoughts, assumptions, lines of logic, with a group of students, at times complete strangers? To hold something up that one cares about to learners, and try to communicate to them why it is important that they care about it as well?
The challenge only grows for Judaics teachers in liberal or community day schools, where one is oftentimes fighting negative assumptions about Jewish learning held by students or their parents. In such environments, the task is not really just to teach content, but to be a personal model for a relevant, meaningful vision of Judaism in the 21st century.
The Autonomous, Neoliberal Student
However, more recently, I have come to see Leah’s line not just as a recognition of teaching’s challenges, but as a call: to think of teaching as an act of exposure positions the act of teaching itself as a countercultural and courageous moral stance within our society’s wider cultural framework.
The modern neoliberal world—the world in which I teach, in which human interactions have a transactional nature and relationships become a material to be capitalized upon—posits a certain model for citizenship: A fully fledged human being is self-reliant, empowered to make their own decisions and unencumbered by the assumptions of the past. This model has analogues within the walls of the modern liberal classroom: The fully fledged student is self-reliant (needing to produce knowledge self-generatively in project-based assignments that provide structures for knowledge construction but not the content itself) and empowered (learning culminates with the student being able to come up with the right answer for themselves).
As a young person who grew up myself in this very world, I have a natural appreciation for the insights of contemporary progressive education. I understand that human beings both process and express information in myriad ways and that this should be reflected in our assessment practices. I know that it is important to empower learners to come to their own conclusions through self-generative and project-based learning activities and that traditional, hierarchical classroom structure often stifle student creativity and motivation.
But the model of teaching as exposure has allowed me to question some of its assumptions. The values espoused by progressive educational ideology—self-reliance and student empowerment—have their flip side. Encouraging citizens (or students) to be empowered and self-reliant can at the same time excuse those in power (or teachers) from their responsibility for and involvement in the creation of a safer, fairer, more giving and more compassionate society. It is easier to tell poor citizens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps than creating a society in which people’s basic needs (shelter, health, education) are tended for, a society in which we dare to assume our dependence on others.
And in the same way, it is easier to have students produce a skit on a given perek, ostensibly to show their individual interpretation of its contents, than to assume the inherently asymmetrical nature of that relationship and take responsibility for the fact that I as the teacher have an obligation to 1) share relevant ideas and teach specific concepts that students cannot arrive at by themselves, based on my knowledge of Jewish texts, and 2) turn Jewish knowledge into part of the moral upbringing of students.
Inserting an Educational Frame
On a practical level this means, essentially, doing more as a teacher. Here’s an example from my experience teaching the story of Shimshon from the book of Judges. One can have students learn the appropriate chapters in chevrutah, perhaps even with a well-thought-out question-asking routine for students to follow while reading, and regular class check-ins and discussions. Then, one can go into a creative assessment, where students demonstrate their learning through an art project in which they draw Shimshon as they visualize him based off the details provided to them by the text.
However, one also can insert a step before the assessment, in which one highlights certain textual details of the story in a way that allows students to see Shimshon as a tragic figure, attempting to escape the burden of responsibility placed upon him by his people while simultaneously craving for their acceptance and a feeling of belonging. Such a teaching move may involve a frontal component of class, like a lecture. In this way, it runs counter to the current pedagogical zeitgeist. But the very point is to bring an idea, or a perspective, to the students that they would not have gotten using only their own resources.
In this lecture, I as a teacher would be doing two very important things: using my specialized knowledge to help my students reach a plane of knowledge they could not reach on their own, and taking responsibility for their moral development, exposing them to ethical ideals or dilemmas that they could not reach on their own. This teaching move requires me to give my students of my knowledge, my perspective, my experiences: the resources that make me the person and the teacher I am. It is exposing and, indeed, terrifying. But if I am exposed, I cannot be replaced, nor can they.
The Courage to Care
If teaching means to be exposed, it means that teaching is a project where one is constantly reaching out to one’s students from a place of care for and responsibility towards them. This is why it is terrifying, because such a reaching out implies the possibility of rejection, but so necessary in today’s political and pedagogical climate. Our world and the world of our students is one in which we are simultaneously empowered—able to do what we want, when we want—and cut off, disconnected from the kind of meaningful relationships that give us feelings of safety and belonging. In other words, it is one in which we are all exposed. The teacher is the brave one who reaches out despite it all. In so doing, they not only provide students with new knowledge they could not have otherwise; they provide them with a new way of envisioning the world in which we are not so alone.
This understanding of my role as a teacher does nothing to resolve the stomach knots I still get before I teach a lesson for the first time. But it provides a helpful frame in which the stomach knot itself becomes a sign of the value of being a Judaics teacher in the 21st century classroom. To teach means to be exposed, and that means that my colleagues and I are involved in an important countercultural project, with all the attendant anxieties. To teach means to be exposed, and that means a teacher challenges widespread cultural assumptions about the place of care in communal spaces. To teach means to be exposed, and that means being a teacher gives one the chance to create an alternate vision for the world in one’s classroom, a world in which being a fully fledged human means being responsible for others.
Research Corner: Jewish Day School Development Trends
In March, Prizmah published a development pulse survey focused on annual campaign and endowment. The survey was completed by development professionals and heads of school. It captured data of 118 schools in the United States and Canada, representing broad geographic, religious and enrollment diversity. Community/non-denominational, Conservative, pluralistic and Reform schools comprised 60% of the respondents, and Orthodox/Modern Orthodox schools 40%.
While many feared that the pandemic would negatively affect fundraising, this survey reveals a positive trend for Jewish day school and yeshiva annual campaigns. In the school year 2020-2021, in the midst of the pandemic, 80% of respondents were able to raise the funds needed to meet their annual campaign goals. Two-thirds reported they exceeded their fundraising goals. The average amount raised increased by $17,000 over the previous year.
The percentage of schools reporting that they did not reach their annual campaign goal has decreased from 45% in 2019-2020 to 21% in 2020-2021. The percentage of schools reaching their fundraising goals has increased dramatically. Eighty-one percent of respondents projected that their school will meet or exceed their 2021-2022 fundraising goals.
In addition, parent participation in school annual campaigns did not decrease from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. Seventy-two percent of schools reported that parent participation has remained steady or increased from the prior year.
The survey also found optimistic news about endowments. Overall, the pandemic did not cause schools to shift focus solely to annual campaigns and forget about endowment giving. Forty schools reported they’re currently engaged in an endowment campaign and raised approximately $26 million in 2020-2021.
When asked to report endowment valuation as of June 30, 2021, the top two reported endowment valuations were $62 million and $54 million, versus $46 million and $45 million in the prior year. The significant increase is the result of both strong stock market performance and schools securing additional endowment funds. That said, the market has fluctuated since June 30, 2021, and the valuations likely have changed in tandem with market variation.
Of the 118 respondents, only 27 report that their school does not have an endowment. Nearly 50% of those schools reported they are interested in launching an endowment campaign within the next five years. This survey indicates that the creation of an endowment is becoming a well-established norm in our field.
Check out this survey and more Prizmah research here: https://prizmah.org/prizmah-research.
On My Nightstand: Books That Prizmah Staff Are Reading
The Venice Sketchbook
By Rhys Bowen
This is a beautiful story of two women of different generations, Great-aunt Lettie and Caroline.
Great-aunt Lettie was a private person, a spinster who led a seemingly unremarkable life. At the time of her death, she gives Caroline a sketchbook, three keys and whispers one final word, Venice.
Struggling to find the meaning, Caroline goes to Venice to unravel the mystery. On this quest, Caroline discovers a secret life of courage, sacrifice, love and loss.
Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: Tales of Life and Death on the Neurology Ward
By Dr. Allan H. Ropper and Brian David Burrell
What happens when the things about ourselves on which we rely and depend—our memories, preferences, personality, abilities and connection to our body—suddenly change dramatically? How do we know what might be wrong with us when we can no longer trust our own thoughts, actions and words?
The authors ask these questions as they explore the relationship between the brain, the body and the experience of being human. Following in the narrative tradition of Oliver Sacks, Ropper and Burrell recount stories of patients that appear on Dr. Ropper’s neurology ward at Harvard Medical School that are, at turns, entertaining, painful, illuminating, confounding and (dis)heartening.
Two resounding truths emerge from the tales: that which makes us human is profoundly complex and delicate, and the brain is immensely powerful—and terrifyingly susceptible to a litany of problems.
By Jennifer Robson
Set in 1947 after the recent victory of the allies, this novel depicts postwar Britain as a place of hardship, shortages and desperation. But when the upcoming nuptials of Princess Elizabeth are announced, the nation finds a distraction around which it can rally. Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, struggling embroiderers in the famous fashion house of Norman Hartnell, are thrust into a frenzy of pressure and excitement when they are given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in the creation of the royal wedding gown.
Almost 70 years later, Heather MacKenzie is trying to make sense of a set of embroidered flowers left to her by her beloved Nan. Nan never spoke of her life in Britain, and Heather had no idea how her Nan had come to possess such exquisite embroideries that looked so much like the ones worn at the royal wedding. And how did her Nan know the famous artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?
This book is a captivating read, and Robson keeps you immersed in fashion houses and workrooms, embroidery and royal protocols, war and the cost of victory, and the power of friendship during a time of hope.
Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir
By Ashley C. Ford
This book gives a personal voice to the experience of a black girl growing up in middle America. As the book moves through her life, we come to know Ashley as a very bright, articulate child, seemingly older and wiser in spirit and soul when compared to her peers. We come to care for this child as we know her. We grieve for her as she navigates poverty, abuse in her family, the hazy memory of her incarcerated father, and the conditioning of acceptance, guilt and shame she experiences as a victim of rape. Ford guides the reader to understand how these tenets of her experience as a child inform the reality of her adolescence and adulthood.
This memoir reminds us that grief digs a deep hole in our souls, one that, paradoxically, can become a vessel for growth. Ford shows us the complexity of her experience, and the reader knows her, aches for her, cheers for her and loves her.