Advice Booth: Building Relationships for Team Marketing


How can relationships help amplify school marketing?

In our science labs and maker spaces, during tefillah and on our sports fields, marketing opportunities abound at Jewish day schools. Illustrations of the joy experienced while learning in a Jewish setting are seemingly endless, making the task of elevating this work  simpler yet, simultaneously, more challenging. How can you, the marketing or admissions director (or other lead professional), capture and convey such an abundance of publicity-worthy stories? And when this is not possible, how do you choose among them?

An impactful answer can be found in building the right relationships. Fundamental to developing meaningful school marketing campaigns and distilling meaningful stories is having the right relationships, internally and externally.

Establish “Team Marketing”

In order to best recount the vivid stories that capture the value of your school, internal stakeholders, including teachers, educational leaders and administrators should all consider themselves as part of the extended marketing team. Marketing professionals must forge strong, collaborative relationships and develop the explicit understanding that when everyone is on “Team Marketing,” the school will succeed and thrive.


Make Educators Your Partners

Our most significant newsbreakers and makers are our teachers, and they are always “the room where it happens.” Significant classroom engagements and experiential learning opportunities provide the most powerful marketing stories—and teachers and educators should be the marketing team’s best friends.


Each year, identify a handful of teachers who can be true partners. They may be aspiring marketers, photographers or excellent storytellers themselves, and they are ready, willing and able to keep you in the loop about important story opportunities. These teachers truly understand that your mission is to tell the world about the work they are doing in their classrooms and the lasting impact they are having on their students. 

Work with educational leaders over the summer to create an editorial calendar for covering key academic events, and make special note of those that illustrate the special value of your school and/or the “theme” for the school year. Ensure directors, deans and principals consider you an integral part of their extended team, and ask to be included in regular academic department meetings. Volunteer to present at a staff meeting to share key marketing information and successes. 

Develop an internal content hub for sharing photos and stories, and create templates to guide teachers regarding content needed for social media or news stories. 

Show appreciation. Be sure to send around monthly thank you notes and call out all of your partners on the educational team.


Cultivate Internal Collaboration

Together, marketing, development and admissions form the triumvirate of Jewish day school advancement. Establishing a symbiotic and collaborative relationship between these teams will help achieve annual recruitment and fundraising goals.


Band together from the beginning. Coordinate annual plans so that admissions, development and marketing efforts are complementary and synergistic.

Create an annual communications plan that demarcates pivotal events and ensures timely outreach to target audiences.

Ensure all teams are in alignment with the designated annual theme and/or key message(s), and create programming, events and collateral that reinforce that messaging. 

Establish monthly meetups to enable knowledge sharing, cooperation and leverage incremental advancement opportunities throughout the year. 

Let your colleagues know you value their partnership, and outwardly acknowledge how your teamwork benefits the school. Send an internal memo of recognition and accolades.


Engage Student Marketers

Today’s students are naturally savvy marketers. Many are already skilled purveyors of their own online presence, and some also have additional experience and expertise in social media marketing, graphic design, videography and photography. Tap into these burgeoning promotional minds and sign them up for “Team Marketing” at your school.


Look for the helpers. Students who have a natural proclivity for marketing tend to find you. Think creatively about how they could augment your efforts, as well as how you can mentor and guide them. 

Create an official Marketing Internship program (during the academic year and over the summer), enabling students to utilize their skills in photography, videography, graphic design, etc., to create social media content for recruitment. Students intuitively know how kids consume content and what they are looking for. Offer samples and templates so students have responsibilities and deliverables;  an internship may even count toward chesed / community service or business course requirements. 

Lead a business, graphic design or video/photography club, providing a forum for students with interest in and passion for marketing to share their interests and hone their skills. Enlist these students in marketing projects for the school.

Be sure to recognize your students’ efforts and progress. Give students a shoutout for videos they create and other projects they own. Offer to write letters of recommendation for college, employment or other internship programs.


Leverage Parent Advocates 

Grateful parents are a school’s most fervent advocates. Developing relationships with these satisfied parents enables them to become excellent promoters as well.


Create a Marketing Advisory Committee. Select key parent advocates and influencers who can help create a plan of action for spreading the word about your school. 

Designate parent supporters as Social Media Ambassadors, who can reshare school social media posts and news and create posts about upcoming admissions and community events. 

Harness the power of parent advocacy by creating testimonial videos featuring appreciative parents focusing on the unique benefits of your school, your school community and the value of Jewish day school education.

Thank parent partners for their invaluable contributions. Consider honoring and acknowledging them at an end of year awards ceremony or board meeting.


Developing strong partnerships with educators, administrators, students and parents can yield big results for Jewish day school marketing. Creating and cultivating relationships internally and externally will help enrich promotional content, extend outreach to target audiences, extend your ability to capture and tell meaningful stories, expand outreach efforts, distill key messages and differentiate and market your school. Happy relationship building!

Donor Profile: Prizmah's First Crypto Donor

Daniel Miller

From Daniel Miller’s first job as a CPA, he observed the commandment of tithing meticulously, opening a second checking account where he separated and invested 10% of his salary into local nonprofits. He recalls 9th grade at YULA High School in Los Angeles, “The rabbis explained in Ta’anit 9a through use of a pun that the Torah commandment of tithing, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר aser te-aser, means that by tithing, one earns the reward of wealth, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְעַשֵּׁר aser b’shvil shetitasher. I took the lesson to heart and looked forward to my working career when I could finally put the lesson into action.”

Miller learned about cryptocurrency in 2013 and began investing. After receiving an MBA in finance from Northwestern-Kellogg he continued diligently giving, now 20% (chomesh, a fifth), and watched his portfolio grow. Facing a cryptocurrency liquidity event in 2021, his philanthropy budget outgrew the capacity of his traditional nonprofit partners. “I put on my consultant hat to consider the largest problem that my tzedakah could impact. I arrived at addressing yeshiva and day school affordability,” Miller said. “This is a very expensive problem that I’ve seen drive people away from the faith and break families apart. It puts the biggest financial burden on the youngest people, which for some is too great to bear.”

With the partnership of the local federation, Miller was able to make major investments in several Jewish day schools in Bergen County to support tuition assistance, capital campaigns and endowments. “Receiving gifts in cryptocurrency is still something new for many nonprofits, though it is getting easier thanks to third-party processors. Partnering with the federation greatly helped with the timeline that we needed,” he said.

Miller connected to Prizmah through his federation partners, and had the opportunity to speak at Prizmah’s 2022 Investor Summit. “The event was a place to inspire people to dream bigger,” he said. “I was exposed to North America’s leaders in Jewish day school education and, enabled by Prizmah’s national reach, I got to see impact I didn’t know was possible.” Miller was proud to have made Prizmah’s first cryptocurrency gift just this year.

As a parent with young children in daycare, Miller credits the determination of people decades ago who founded and funded yeshivas and day schools, and he sees his role as building on those visionary actions to keep schools strong for the next generation. “One lay leader told me his story. His grandfather benefited from financial assistance to make it possible for him to receive a yeshiva education. That person is now the grandfather of day schoolers. It’s incredible that an initial investment in Jewish day schools almost a century ago yielded returns across five generations and will continue deep into the future.”

Reflecting back on the lesson he learned from the Talmud, Miller remains faithful to the wisdom of the rabbis. “What may have started for selfish reasons—making sure to tithe so that I could gain wealth— created deep meaning in my life and changed me in profound ways. Giving is truly the best investment I can ever make.”

On My Nightstand: Spring 2023

Marisa Lewitan
Aimee Close
Elliott Rabin
The Matchmaker’s Gift, by Lynda Cohen Loigman 

This rich and rewarding novel is based on Jewish history. Sara, age 10, searches for someone to lend her older sister a clean handkerchief while traveling by ship from Eastern Europe to New York City in 1910. In choosing the man to lend her sister the handkerchief, Sara accidentally starts her career as a Jewish matchmaker, typically a man’s job during that time period. 

While settling into New York’s Lower East Side, Sara goes on to make several matches between people she knows and interacts with regularly. The male shadchanim of her community are threatened by her success, and speak out against losing their livelihood to a young unmarried girl (even as she becomes a woman). Sara tries to stop making matches as a result of their criticisms, but when that proves to be too painful, she stands up for herself and advocates to the community for her right to her chosen profession. 

The chapters alternate between Sara in the early 1900s and her granddaughter, Abby, who works at a divorce firm in the 1990s. As Abby learns more about her grandmother’s past, she begins to wonder if she has some of her grandmother’s abilities. This book is an interesting peek into US Jewish immigrant history, our matchmaking tradition, and strong women who are not afraid to go after their dreams. 

Review by Marisa Lewitan


The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker

It has been abundantly clear to me since joining Prizmah that there’s something special about the organization’s approach to bringing people together. I soon learned that Priya Parker’s insights have helped mold and strengthen the organization’s principles for engaging its constituents. The Art of Gathering is an excellent read that explores the potential depth of bringing people together skillfully. Drawing on her extensive experience as a professional facilitator, Parker offers simple yet insightful guidance on how to design and host gatherings that are engaging, impactful and memorable.

Parker’s approach to creating successful gatherings includes an emphasis on purpose and trust while also creating a sense of belonging. By cultivating empathy, curiosity and vulnerability, hosts can create a sense of safety that encourages participants to share and connect in ways that are both meaningful and transformative. Parker’s approach is grounded in the belief that gatherings have the power to transform individuals and communities. 

I’m grateful to have observed these principles and strategies leveraged throughout the Prizmah Conference’s planning and execution. The lasting bonds and memories from the Conference, both among the staff and the participants, clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of Parker’s ideas. The strategies outlined in the book will greatly help enhance your time spent with others.

Review by Josh Craddock


Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

When I first heard about this book, a novel about the gaming world, it really didn’t appeal to me. But after reading a review, I decided to go outside my comfort zone and give it a try.

Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed this book. I was fascinated to learn that for some people, gaming can be a safe way to try on a new persona or take a risk, knowing that if you fail, you can simply try again, and again, until you succeed. As the book makes clear, this can be particularly liberating for someone with a chronic illness or a disability, since they can create an avatar without those limitations and behave accordingly in the game.  So, for example, someone confined to a wheelchair in real life could run a marathon in the virtual world.

One of the most interesting things to me about this book was the insight into the minds of the people who design these immersive games. As the story unfolds, the main characters imagine entirely new worlds and create them in intricate detail, and in the process, they choose to correct some of the injustices they see in their actual world.

Despite numerous personal challenges, the protagonists in this book are the ultimate optimists. They create their digital worlds as an antidote to the evil and injustice they see in their lived experience, believing, or hoping, that someday, perhaps life will imitate art.

Review by Aimee Close


Islands of Abandonment, by Cal Flyn

An island off Scotland with houses occupied solely by cows. A demilitarized zone where rare and endangered species flourish. Mountainous slag piles from the 19th century carpeted with green growth. A WW1 trench with buried armaments leaching poisons, topped by trees and vegetation. A ship graveyard clogging an old tidal strait next to the New York Harbor. A city in the Caribbean evacuated like Pompei when overrun by a volcanic explosion 25 years ago.

These and other scenes are the hellscapes described in this riveting book by a celebrated Scottish journalist. Each chapter paints in words a region of the world that was once occupied by people and abandoned due to war, nature, or most often, toxicity. She bravely interlopes upon these desolate landscapes, sometimes with a guide but often alone, to portray them for us and take in their full significance.

These are places that are in some sense utterly ruined, lost, like Chernobyl, parts of Detroit where people fled and Newark’s empty factories. At the same time, they provide odd windows of hope, showing how nature–partly, brokenly–returns or regenerates in the absence of human domination. In Chernobyl, herds of horses thrive and roam upon the contaminated landscape. The abandoned Soviet state farms, where people were forced to work for “reeducation,” are the world’s biggest carbon sink. Citing an earlier essay, she summarizes, “There is some intrinsic value in untouched nature that he compares to a work of art.” This haunting book finds the art in these “post-human landscapes,” and in so doing, the author creates new art that lives indelibly in the reader’s mind.

Review by Elliott Rabin

How Long Do Heads of School Stay in Their Jobs?

Odelia Epstein

The question of average head of school tenure comes up time and time again, and its answer is relied upon as an indicator on school stability and strength. There is even evidence to suggest head of school tenure affects student outcomes (see “Contextual Factors Related to Elementary Principal Turnover,” “The Cascading Effects of Principal Turnover on Students and Schools” and “Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning”). It’s often seen as a statement of the sustainability of the headship and validation on job satisfaction.

For Jewish day schools and yeshivas, length of headship is often lamented as too low. A 2015 RAVSAK study about heads of Community day schools found that “many of our heads are novice or relatively new to their school. 39% of heads of school have been in their positions for 2 years or less, 20% for less than 1 year.” Two recent data collections have given us new insight on head of school tenure for the 2022-23 school year.

Prizmah recently collected data from 68 Orthodox schools and from 50 Community, Conservative and Reform schools about the number of years their current head of school has been employed at their current school in their current role. The results change the narrative about head of school longevity. As not all schools have someone who holds the title head of school, the data reported herein uses the National Association of Independent Schools definition for the head of school role: the person in the school who is responsible for all internal operations and, in most cases, external operations of the school.

For the 2022-2023 school year, the average head of Orthodox school tenure is 6.5 years, and the average for head of Community, Conservative and Reform schools is 7.5 years. The median tenure for all schools is 5 years. 

Median Tenure at Jewish Schools Aligns with Independent Schools

At times, key day school metrics align with independent school trends. The average head of school tenure for National Association of Independent School members is 7.7 years, similar to Jewish day schools and yeshivas. The median is 5 years, the same as Jewish schools.. 

Most Heads Have Served Under Five Years

A deeper look into the data tells another story, that over 60% of heads of Orthodox schools have been at their current schools for five years or under. The same is true of 57% of heads of Community, Conservative and Reform schools. Five years or under likely means that they are in their first or second contract term with the school. While many heads have led their schools for 10, 15 and 20 years, still the majority are not breaking the significant five-year mark.

Looking at these findings, I think we need to ask some important questions.

1. The stress of being a school leader and the stress of being a board member during the pandemic led some heads of school to leave and also contributed to boards making decisions to continue contracts with their heads. How did the pandemic affect head of school tenure?

2. Is there a length of tenure that is considered good or desirable? How long would we expect school leaders to stay in their current positions, given how frequently organizational leaders in general society change jobs? According to Bloomberg News, in 2022, “the average tenure of CEOs on the S&P 500 Industrial Index will drop to just 4.9 years... That’s down from 5.5 years at the end of 2019 and about six years as of five years ago in mid-2017". 

3. Over the last decade there has been a change in attitude around head of school coaching. Fifteen to 20 years ago, there were a handful of heads who had a professional coach; now it is commonplace. Hiring a coach can be a statement from the board that they acknowledge their lead professional needs support, that they are willing to invest in their head as proof of a long-term commitment. 

In 2018, Prizmah launched a coaching institute so that we could better support field leaders and help increase their effectiveness in their role.  Since then, Prizmah has seen the demand for coaches increase. Another effort over the last five years that has the potential to contribute to head of school tenure is the effort by Prizmah and other organizations, through programs such as the Leading Edge Jewish Non-Profit Board Member Institute in partnership with Kellogg School of Management and Prizmah’s Board Fitness, to impact, train and support board leaders. How have supports such as coaching and programs for board leaders impacted head of school tenure?

We may not have the answers to all the questions. Even so, having data and knowledge about the landscape of current day school leadership can help organizations, funders and policy makers creatively deploy strategies to support head of school job satisfaction and performance and to address head of school tenure head on.



My Zaidy’s Library

Rabbi Elisha Paul, Head of School, Rudlin Torah Academy, Richmond, Virginia

Elisha Paul

In my high school yearbook, I should have been nominated “least likely to become a teacher” despite the fact that my father was a career public school educator. To say the least, I was not the student most focused on academic studies or Jewish scholarship. I was way more interested in sports and my social life.

As a teenager, I once noticed that a bunch of boxes had been placed in the back of my closet, containing piles of old books with Hebrew lettering on them. When I asked my mother what they were, she simply said, “Those are Zaidy’s books he left us when he died.” In passing, she offered me whatever volumes I wanted.

For the next few years, I ignored those books and proceeded along my high school journey, but they always loomed large in the back of my mind and my closet. I periodically wondered if someday I would meet my grandfather in another realm, and if I did, what I would answer him when he asked me, “Nu, what did you do with my sefarim?”

This, combined with my desire to take a gap year in Israel in a school run by my old high school principal, led me to work hard that year to become fluent with our ancient Hebrew and Aramaic Jewish texts.

As I grew in my learning skills, I also grew in my interest in imparting my newfound love of learning to others. Ultimately, this led me to student-teach and embark on my now over 30-year career in Jewish education.

Thank God, I now am a zaidy myself who has a library of Jewish books of my own that I hope to give over to my own children and grandchildren someday. I really feel like I am living the Talmudic adage, “When a grandparent learns Torah with their grandchild, it is as if they received the Torah from Mt. Sinai.”

A Wrestler with God

Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon, Rabbi-in-Residence, B'nai Shalom Day School, Greensboro, North Carolina


I’m lucky to have encountered an educator whose impact is so profound it is hard to express. I have struggled to write about how Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman influenced my career path. I can’t think of much that I teach that does not have roots in learning with him about Judaism, religion and the power of an educator with a deep sense of purpose.

I was privileged to study with Rabbi Gillman during rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He gave me a unique pedagogical direction that inspires my work today. Throughout my studies with him, I acquired a hashkafah, a holistic approach to understanding the narratives, symbols and rituals of Judaism as a system that meets the universal, human need for meaning. This worldview has infused my teaching, my ideas about education and my professional choices. No less importantly, he treated my ideas as valuable and worthy of exploration, which helped me see myself as capable of being an impactful educator.

Teaching About God

“I was once in an elevator with a colleague and his phone rang. An infant in his community had died.” He paused, turning to us with a pointed look. “Now, imagine you’re God. Explain yourself to the parents.”

I flailed, finally scribbling down something I’d heard before but didn’t really believe. “You’re going to need to work on that,” he told me with compassionate bluntness.

Gillman was determined to provoke, challenge and support every student’s theological development. “You really f***ed this one up, God,” shouted the colleague in the elevator. We were a little shocked. I signed up for as many of his classes as possible.

Two years ago, I wondered how I might similarly provoke my middle school students to consider new ways of relating to God. I collaborated with musician and educator Eliana Light and with the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge to invent and pilot Wrestling with God, a curriculum and approach to middle school God education. We aimed to blow middle schoolers’ minds with all the possibilities of what the word God can mean—and then to scaffold a process of examining ideas about God that resonate with them personally.

I teach about God as part of the larger goal of empowering each person to develop personally meaningful ways to own their own Judaism. Gillman’s determination to empower each Jew to develop a personal theology has infused everything I do. My role as a Jewish educator is to inspire, challenge and empower each individual to wrestle with their own ideas about God and to expand their sense of connection to God, Torah and Am Israel. This has been my meta-goal and orientation with every student and in each educational setting in which I have worked.

I recently found a note I wrote Rabbi Gillman at some point during rabbinical school that remarkably sums up the significance of this relationship:

I want you to know what an important impact you have had and continue to have on me as a Jew and as a future rabbi. Your teaching has pushed me to think in new ways and given me tools to express these ideas. And just as importantly, the way that you care for all of your students and their growth is a real gift—and a model for all of us.

This is pretty much the same note I would write to him today if I could.

Word of the Day, Lesson of Life

Erin Lehrer, Judaic Studies Teacher, Les Écoles Azrieli Herzliah High School, Montreal

Erin Lehrer

Picture, if you will, a middle-aged bald man, wearing a tweed blazer, holding a stack of over 50 pages. This same man was known to be a bit odd, finding it difficult to gain the respect from his students that he so desperately deserved. This same man who ran into his 10th grade English class and did what can only be described as a Chevy Chase-style pratfall, allowing the teenagers in the room to erupt into a fit of hysteria. 

Me, the lowly and shy 15-year-old, immediately got up to help collect the pages. Once each page was gathered, my teacher walked not even five feet to his desk, tripped, and sent those 50 pages into the air one more time. You could hear the laughter all the way down the hall. He then stood up and wrote “schadenfreude” on the board. Defined as “pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune,” schadenfreude, unbeknownst to us, became our word of the day. We started each and every class with an experiential way of learning our words of the day, and apparently schadenfreude was no different. 

Following high school, I kept in touch with this teacher, as I felt a connection to him that was hard to describe. Perhaps it was because he was the first teacher to tell me he saw potential in my writing; maybe it was because he was awkward and I was awkward and I enjoyed seeing someone like me who was painfully shy until he was put in front of a classroom and got to analyze Shakespeare’s soliloquies; probably because whenever I shared with him my academic achievements following my high school graduation, he made me feel like these were also his accomplishments and he was proud of me. Whatever my reasoning was, I was, and still am, eternally grateful to this 10th grade English teacher. 

I learned that in order to be a good teacher, you need to not take yourself too seriously; students will find whatever they want to laugh at, but you have to roll with it as best you can. I learned that every opportunity is an opportunity to learn from, and with, your students. Granted, he knew what schadenfreude meant, but I am fairly certain the pleasure that my peers derived from his misfortune far surpassed anything he could have ever imagined. I learned that teaching is also an art form, a dance, that as long as you are the one leading, it can go in any direction. Finally, I learned that students can take pleasure in another person’s misfortune, but there are also teenagers who have empathy and compassion for their lowly middle-aged teacher in the tweed blazer.

My Two Role Models

Brian Cohen, Head of School, MetroWest Jewish Day School, Framingham, Massachusetts

Brian Cohen HaYidion Spring 2023

Had it not been for two teachers, I'm not sure I would have ever gone into the field of education. If I close my eyes, I can recall their classrooms and remember what they said and how they interacted with us. Mr. Mike Cupp and Dr. David Baker were so different, yet each made an indelible impression on their students. They continue to serve as complementary role models in my life and work in education.

Dr. Baker taught a full-year elective course called Zoology. It was a highly detailed and hands-on approach to learning about animals, balancing our time with texts and videos in class with our lab time, where we conducted dissections throughout the year on a number of different types of animals. I was fascinated by the learning. He was my tour guide into a world I did not yet know, full of the biological and broader scientific realm. A soft-spoken, somewhat introverted and shy individual, he was clearly dedicated to our learning. His influence was subtle but no less real, conveying his love of the material and giving us opportunities to discover and try new things.

A completely opposite personality was Mr. Cupp. Mike was this cool, bandana wearing, motorcycle riding, bearded teacher of language arts. His classroom was set up to be a bit of a hangout space where students would gather to talk to one another or to speak with Mike. Mike made himself available at all times of the day when he wasn't teaching, and you knew that you could stop by anytime to have a chat about literally anything on your mind. Mike also set up his office space with couches and bean bags and snacks so that we would feel comfortable hanging out with each other and him.

I can recall some very honest moments I had with Mike when I sought guidance and he imparted his sage wisdom. Incidentally, Mike taught us about Beowulf and Shakespeare and other famous writing, but I was honestly never so interested in the topics he taught. Whereas my appreciation for Dr. Baker's class was based nearly entirely on the material itself, my appreciation for Mike Cupp stemmed from other real needs I and others had. I always appreciated his passion for his subject, and how much it meant to him that students strove beyond their comfort zones to take on other perspectives.

It wasn't what was being taught that drew me to him so tightly, it was Mike himself. Mike was there for me and many of my peers when we needed him most during our junior and senior years in high school. I always knew we could count on Mike, and that is critical to have in the lives of teenagers. Simply put, Mike was the right guy in the right place at the right time for me and a number of my peers. In some ways he saved us.

For me, I love explaining the juxtaposition between these two teachers. One taught me to love the learning, while the other taught me to love myself and my peers even in those awkward years of high school. I took these lessons that I learned from Dr. Baker and Mr. Cupp, and I put them at the center of the work I do in the field of education. I endeavor to reach each child's mind and heart. In so doing, we all might just end up being some child's response to the question, Who was your favorite teacher?

The Little School That Inspired Me to Switch Careers

Sindy Udell, Director of Admission, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital


If you would have told me when I graduated law school that one day I would be in a leadership position at a Jewish day school, I would have asked you what you were smoking. Here is the story of how it happened.

My children were enrolled in a terrific small Jewish day school right in Washington, DC. I adored the school and soon was recruited to join the board. As a board member, I heard monthly of the struggles the school was engaged in, and all board members were asked to sign promissory notes to the school’s lender in case the school defaulted on its loans. At the time, I was a lawyer practicing securities and banking law, so I understood what it meant to default on loans and how close the school was to going bankrupt.

As a board member, I was assigned to help the school’s admission director figure out why enrollment was dropping and how to grow enrollment. The school of 150 students was in its 15th year, with its founding head of school at the helm, a charismatic, caring and inspiring leader. Parents and teachers adored her. Although the facilities were not gorgeous, the teachers were smart, thoughtful, engaged and dynamic. The school was progressive and innovative. It started in pre-kindergarten and went through grade six, with one to two classes in each grade. No grade had full classes, and attrition was at an all-time high.

I saw a gem of a school that was only missing one thing: enough students to support the school’s costs. I was bewildered and didn’t understand why parents weren’t knocking down the doors to send their kids there. I watched my children come home with confidence, critical thinking skills, engagement in hands-on projects, the ability to converse in Hebrew, a connection to Judaism and a deep passion about their purposeful learning.

I would sit at my legal job during the day pondering insider trading and other securities law violations, and felt a pull toward the little school that should survive and thrive. I thought, if only we could get the word out, this school will be unstoppable and will be able to educate thousands of Jewish students who would otherwise not receive a Jewish education. Then things got bleaker: Midyear in 2002-03, the admission director quit, with no replacement.

Our head of school asked me to meet her in her office the next morning with the board president to discuss the situation. We discussed the state of admission applications and the future of enrollment. It was late December, and we had zero admission applications; typically by now we would have over 100. As I spoke with confidence about our school, they looked at me and said, “Can you take over as admission director?”

I was astonished. Why me? They said, “You have been working with the admission director and seem to have a grasp on what to do. No one else understands this.” Without thinking of the implications that this gap would have on my legal career, the salary cut and the huge number of hours it would take to get systems in place, I turned and said, “Of course, but only until you find a true admission professional to replace me.” That was 20 years ago. I think they stopped looking.

I’m still working as the director of admission. We now have over 465 students enrolled in the school; we have built a middle school and a separate early childhood campus, and have done several renovations to increase the number of students we can serve. We are on our third head of school, each staying for 15 years.

Our alumni children are now sending their kids to Milton. I have attended countless bnai mitzvot, brit milahs, weddings, funerals and shivas of Milton family members. My legal career might have been derailed, but the fulfillment that I have experienced in facilitating the joyful education of countless students is immeasurable.

I close with an excerpt from a thank-you note from a parent of a recently admitted Israeli student:

Just wanted to drop a quick note thanking for your encouragement throughout this process. This is likely to change the course of our daughters’ lives (for good), and we have peace of mind knowing that our kids will be attending a school in which they’ll not only obtain an amazing education but also help to preserve their Jewish and Israeli identity.


Elliott Rabin

“To pull a friend out of the mire, don’t hesitate to get dirty.”

Baal Shem Tov

Contemporary literature on education is awash with articles touting the benefits of strong relationships. According to one recent academic study, “Substantial research literature indicates that positive teacher-student relationships (TSRs) promote students’ academic achievement.” The authors even coined an initialism just for these relationships (TSR). Experts disagree over the cause of the achievement, whether its student responsiveness or teacher motivation, though I think they're trying to tease out inseparables. Positive TSRs create a “virtuous cycle” that inspires both students and teachers to do their best work, and to strive to do better.

A 2019 report put out by the organization Transforming Education stressed the importance of teacher-administrator relationships: “A key factor in creating an environment conducive to student academic growth and social-emotional development is the cultivation of positive relationships between school leaders and staff.” It propounds three ways that these relationships support student outcomes: by enabling teacher growth; by increasing teacher retention (as they put it, mitigating teacher turnover); and by modeling positive relationships for students.

Relationships are surely at the heart of the enterprise of Jewish schools. At the center is the “TSR”: the tremendous caring and thought that teachers bring to the classroom, to leverage the dynamics among students, to support each student and account for each student in all of their unique complexity. Today’s teachers are attuned less to grades than to the person behind the grades; their concern is student intellectual and spiritual growth and social and emotional well-being, of which grades provide only one very rough index. All teachers, and especially Judaics teachers, train their vision on their students’ relationships bein adam le-chaveiro, among themselves, and bein adam la-Makom, with their Creator.

The relationship between parents and teachers can be fraught with sensitivities: demands and expectations on one side, anxieties and distancing on the other. And yet that relationship can be critical for student success. Teachers also can play a vital role in mediating the relationship between parents and the larger community that the school seeks to create; they are the first touchpoints for the families’ interactions with the school more broadly.

As noted, relationships between administrators and teachers play a key role in ensuring academic success. They also help maintain focus on the school’s vision, mission and goals, infusing all of the professionals’ work with the messages that can inspire everyone to row in the same direction. Additionally, administrators are the custodians of the school’s culture, constantly watching for potential outbreaks of toxicity and averting them into opportunities for healthy growth and collaboration.

These and other relationships that shape the larger community of Jewish schools are the subject of this issue of HaYidion. The first section looks at perspectives and programs that shape leadership and relationships within and beyond the school. Three Prizmah colleagues describe how fostering relationships is strategically built into all of our work with the field. Kislowicz writes of changing the paradigm from a transactional to a relationship-based model of leadership, across the range of school stakeholders. The next two articles present large, ongoing initiatives for multischool collaboration: Erlitz shows how a foundation can bring together school leaders within a community, and Ergas & Vorspan how a nonprofit agency can spark change and form synergies throughout a region. Levitt digs into the differences between a professional and relational culture within a school, considers their pros and cons and suggests a compromise.

The next section focuses on relationships between administrators and teachers. Pasek advocates for implementing a system of teacher leaders as a way to empower and retain teachers, alleviate administrative overload and bring the two sides closer. Novogroder & Moche offer guidance for success and potential pitfalls for teachers who become administrators, while Kligman recounts his personal journey on that path. Parkes, Elias & Kress show how the principles behind SEL can inform administrative work on creating a supportive culture for teachers to thrive. Brown argues for the importance of breaking bread, or bagels, to overcome teacher isolation and enhance faculty cohesion and camaraderie. 

In this issue’s school feature, contributors reflect upon someone who exerted a pivotal influence on their work in Jewish education. The last group of articles looks mostly at TSR, relationships between teachers and students. We start with a piece about parents, whose presence can help or hinder those relationships: Lipsky presents a Parent Advisory Committee as a way to channel parent concern and initiative for the good of the school. Cook & Kent offer a set of questions that can help teachers reflect on and strengthen the web of relationships within the classroom. Levingston explores the ways that teachers in different day schools establish a moral character through their questions, behavior and attitude. Levine reveals how his school’s PBL program encourages students to forge relationships with people in the wider community. Weiner writes of the formative role that a school’s GSA can have on student identity and sense of belonging. As a coda to the issue, Hoffman & Gordon, the founders of JEDLAB, the pioneering Facebook group with thousands of Jewish educators, converse about the nature of relationships formed and fostered online–a basic aspect of life for many if not most students today.

May the relationships in your school community continue to blossom and grow, strengthen and deepen, through the planning of you and your colleagues and the thousands of serendipitous exchanges that take place every day. Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad!

From the CEO: Learning Across Differences

Paul Bernstein

Though not an educator by training, I subscribe to the concept that all learning starts by recognizing differences. You see this in very young children who quickly figure out variations in voices and respond accordingly. Preschool games such as pattern-making and memory build from the same ability. When we recognize that some things are the same—and even more, that most things are different—we open ourselves to the space where learning happens. This is the basis for how we learn languages and ultimately, how we learn to engage with the large world around us. Some things are the same, and most are at least a little bit different.

As a network, Prizmah is defined by a belief that there are commonalities throughout the diverse day school and yeshiva field. We start from a place where shared challenges exist, alongside significant differences. Being able to recognize those differences and embracing the learning that can still happen across difference is a great part of what Prizmah offers day school leaders. The term that captures this dynamic is relationship—being able to truly engage with someone who is inevitably different, and to leverage the learning that comes from these interactions.

I observed this firsthand soon after I became Prizmah’s CEO, at a gathering of admission professionals from diverse schools, crossing geographies and denominations. The first presenter, from a small school in a small community, contemplated the challenges to maintain their culture after integrating mission-appropriate non-Jewish children into their school—a choice made as a means for the school to survive. 

Hearing this, and conscious of the sensitivities of different denominations working side by side, I feared that this might alienate other schools, for whom admitting non-Jewish students was anathema. However, immediately following this presentation, a professional from an Orthodox school talked passionately about the impact on the hashkafah (guiding philosophy) of their school, when they welcomed large numbers of Latin American Jewish families from Spanish-speaking homes. The source of the challenge and each school’s way of expressing their issues were markedly different, yet they engaged in rich discussion and helped each other address questions fundamental to each school’s being. This kind of dialogue was only possible because the professionals considered themselves in a state of relationship where diversity itself becomes a learning opportunity.

What I witnessed early in our growth has become commonplace during Prizmah programs and at our gatherings, notably the recent Prizmah Conference in Denver. Entering a room of a thousand people, the natural tendency is to find those whom we know, who look, dress and act like oneself, and to gravitate to them. How do you embrace difference when your brain is absorbing signals that draw you to the familiar? We saw in Denver, and see it over and over, that once people “get” how much there is to learn, when they bring their authentic selves and are ready to engage, those biases can be overcome. Yes, we celebrated the reunions and connections among old friends and long-lost acquaintances, and we also created space for new relationships to take root across differences. The sharing of vulnerabilities we observed—for those in just about every role in a school—was dramatic.

Three years ago, when Covid forced us to rethink the ways we nurture relationships, many of us found new opportunities to build trust. The online environments that were our lifeline to others exposed new ways to interact with people across communities, time zones and many more differences. Whether in a Zoom breakout room or via a chat, we tried new strategies that broadened our ability to connect. We may consider how we can take that skillset with us beyond the pandemic.

Just as we can admire the rapidly growing minds of young children for whom learning seems to come naturally, we also can look to older children for insight into relationships. The teenage years are marked by deep peer connections and the roller coaster of friendships of all kinds. As I think of my own children negotiating relationships with their peers and the world around them, I recognize that it is relationship skills, especially with those who may seem different from them, that will set them up for success in college and beyond.

Our Jewish day schools do a phenomenal job of strengthening our children’s strong sense of identity within their own “cohort” of the Jewish People and equipping them with the relationship-building tools that will serve them—and the Jewish People—for a lifetime. As the network for Jewish day schools and yeshivas, Prizmah is honored to follow their lead.

From the Board Chair: The Value of Networking—for Lay Leaders, Too

David Friedman

As an attorney, I dedicated my career to giving people advice. This has actually made me more receptive than ever in my retirement to listening when someone has a suggestion for me.

Several months ago, I was given a great piece of advice relevant to my role as Prizmah’s board chair. Through Prizmah’s participation in Preside, an exceptional program focused on the confluence of governance and leadership through a Jewish lens, run by a prominent national foundation, I am part of a cohort of board chairs and professionals in Jewish nonprofit organizations. As part of Preside’s leadership support, our coach suggested that I schedule annual calls with each member of the board.

The benefit of making these calls was easy to understand, even if logistically it took considerable effort. By connecting one-on-one with my fellow board members, I got to know them personally instead of as a face around a table or a box on a crowded Zoom screen. I learned what made my colleagues tick and what it would take for them to contribute even more. This also gave me a leg up for the times when I have had to reach out for support. Once a real relationship exists, it is much easier to hear, ask and respond.

We know that, for day school professionals, the value of relationship-based learning is second nature both within the day-to-day functioning of their school and beyond the school itself to the broader day school field. During the worst of the pandemic, when school leaders were determined to keep students learning and maintain their school community, connecting with peers throughout the network proved even more valuable, and those lines of communication and connection remained active. Whether it is as part of a cohort program, through in-person gatherings or in online formats like Prizmah’s networks, many day school professionals make it a regular habit to invest in learning with their peers—and they are cultivating deep relationships in the process.

I am delighted that 120 lay leaders followed in the footsteps of their professionals and attended the Prizmah Conference in Denver this past January. In casual hallway or elevator chats, at meals or in relevant sessions, I made it a point to get to know a number of these lay leaders and saw firsthand how energized they were from being together and discussing the latest ideas in the day school field.

The lay leaders who attended the conference learned about ways to address challenges their schools face, like affordability, and opportunities within the broader field, such as how to amplify the day school value proposition. They also explored how to be a more effective board leader, including how board chairs can engage their board and the principles of a successful board/head of school partnership. Spending two to three days away from home and their occupations was a significant sacrifice, and I am so pleased to have heard how much they valued the gathering.  

Prizmah is committed to helping lay leaders build on these relationships and continue to learn, through initiatives like the recently launched Level Up Your Lay Leadership series of three webinars designed especially for lay leaders. Topics include: From Obligatory to Obvious: Designing your Board to Attract the Right Lay Talent; Building a Strong Board-Admission Professional Partnership; and Leading Effective and Engaging Board Meetings.

Our strength comes from our track record in creating a network among schools to share ideas, provide a forum for discussions, and offer support and confidence in implementations. What thousands of professionals already know should be shared more widely with lay leaders.

I specifically want to encourage heads of schools to reach out to their lay leaders, and for already involved lay leaders to reach out to other lay leaders, to help them take advantage of cohort-based learning with other board chairs and lay leaders. The lay leadership series has sessions taking place in May and June 2023. This involvement is easy and fun, with a lot to be gained. Just think: Board chairs will no longer be alone. They now can have an experienced team to count on for support and shared learning. 

Prizmah intends to continue to nourish the network with opportunities to open lines of connection and develop relationships. We welcome suggestions from lay leaders for how Prizmah can help them leverage the network and develop the relationships that will sustain them and their schools for many years to come. 

It is also not too soon to look ahead to the next Prizmah Conference in Boston in February 2025, when I hope we will see a significant increase in the number of lay leaders in attendance. Let us all mark our calendars to save the dates. I, and my colleagues at Prizmah, look forward to seeing everyone there.

Centering Relationships in Prizmah Programs

Daniel Infeld
Gavi Elkind
Beth Rivkind

Professional Learning

Daniel Infeld, Director, Conference and Gatherings


A particular interaction caught me off guard at the Prizmah Conference in January, and it was especially surprising because it occurred over and over again. I’d be standing in the hallway to give directions, waiting for an elevator with a group of participants, or walking around the Conference Hub, and a participant would glance at my nametag and delightedly exclaim, “You’re Daniel Infeld! You sent me all of the emails!” By the eighth or ninth time someone said this to me, I started to think about the structures and practices we employ at Prizmah to center relationships in our gatherings, to create a culture where people are excited to connect and share.

One such structure is those emails that participants were so excited to thank me for. We know that a gathering starts long before you show up to participate; the culture of a gathering starts to be built the moment someone accepts an invitation. So it was critically important that every conference email you received was personalized for you with a greeting that included your first name, and the email was sent from a real person (me) instead of a generic conference@ or info@ email address. We wanted you to know that you and your participation matter, because the conference was designed with your needs and your development as a school leader at the center. Through this intentionality, we hoped to begin to build a human connection between participants and Prizmah, both to help you to feel that the Prizmah team is here for you and ready to meet your needs, and to begin to ferment a culture that values personal connection.

The other important structure that fostered my connection with participants at the conference was my nametag. At conferences, these badges can serve many purposes, such as security credentials or as an opportunity to advance the branding of the host or promote sponsors. However, at Prizmah, we ask participants to wear name badges primarily for the purpose of cultivating a culture of connection, and we design them with that intention. 

You may have noticed that the most important information on the badge—the participant’s name—has the largest font size possible. Names should be large and bold enough that they are clearly legible from 8-10 feet away, both for accessibility purposes and to avoid the awkward head check when the person you are speaking with glances down and squints to read your name on the badge. We also like to include additional information on badges, such as where someone comes from and what school or organization they work for. This helps participants strike up conversations or jog their memories when they can’t quite recall where they know someone from. These considerations present a real design challenge, both because the space on the badge is limited, and because participant and school/organization names vary significantly in length. We drove our designer and badge vendor a little crazy with the number of revisions and even physical mockups we printed, but it was all in service of building a culture where relationships matter and scaffolding relational learning for our participants. 

These are just two relatively small examples of how we design an experience to center connection and relationships. Join any Prizmah gathering, either online or in-person, and we hope that you will see and feel that building relationships is at the core of what we do. You might experience a session designed for you to engage in content with your peers, or you chat in the hotel bar late at night with old friends. You could be assigned to a meal table or a Zoom breakout room with other leaders who share your interests, or you could find yourself in a one-on-one conversation with someone who can help you untangle your latest challenge. 

This is all because we believe that gatherings should not be islands in time. What happens in the moment is important, but even more important is what happens as a result of the gathering—the new ideas you implement when you return to your school, and the people upon whom you can call to strategize and celebrate together.


Leadership Development

Gavi Elkind, Director, Leadership Development, and Ilisa Cappell, Senior Vice President, Engagement and Leadership


“Leadership is rooted in connection. Effective leaders build trust and enable people to learn from one another so they can adapt and respond to their environment together.”

This is one of three central ideas about leadership that anchor, guide and inform YOU Lead, Prizmah’s signature leadership development program for Jewish day school leaders. We know that relationships are at the heart of inspiring and effective leadership, and so they form the foundation of YOU Lead. Within the program, we focus on building and nurturing lasting, authentic relationships in the following ways.

Relationship with Mentor

Every YOU Lead participant is matched with a mentor, and the leader and mentor engage in biweekly coaching together throughout the program. Mentors approach their relationship with YOU Leaders with a mindset derived from the Co-Active Coaching Model, which centers on the transformational change that individuals can evoke in themselves through experiential learning, connection and self-awareness. Through their coaching work together, YOU Leaders and their mentors develop trusting, lasting relationships that inspire reflection, growth and change. 

Lorne Grintuch (YOU Lead ’23) shared about his experience with a YOU Lead mentor: “YOU Lead has provided me with an opportunity to receive guidance from an accomplished and intuitive mentor. Our focus is consistently on individual professional growth for the purpose of strengthening Jewish education as a whole.”

Relationship with Cohort

YOU Leaders are divided into three cohorts of roughly 10-12, with participants who share similar scopes of decision-making responsibilities in their work. In addition to meeting in person at the start of the YOU Lead program and building relationships with one another through asynchronous discussions, the cohorts meet monthly to explore a dilemma of practice, following a consultancy protocol. Through these regular points of connection, YOU Leaders build deep trust with one another, expand their thinking about how to approach challenges in their school communities and cultivate lasting relationships with professionals from all over North America. 

Amira Soleimani (YOU Lead ’23) reflected on her experience in her YOU Lead cohort: “My YOU Lead cohort is the professional community I never knew I needed. There was an instant bond that formed in my cohort, strengthened by our desire to learn collaboratively, support each other and nurture each individual’s growth. Together, we experience and model critically important leadership skills, such as empathy, presence and problem-solving—all while remaining deeply rooted in our Jewish foundation and values.”

Relationship with School Community

Through YOU Lead, participants reflect on their relationship with their unique school community and the various stakeholder groups with whom they engage. Units of study throughout the program help YOU Leaders broaden their perspective about, and develop critical skills in, navigating important aspects of school life, including school culture, team development, hiring and supervision, and difficult conversations. Through their learning, YOU Leaders develop a holistic understanding of the various relationship networks of their community in particular, and Jewish day schools more broadly. 

Relationship with Self

Finally, at the heart of the YOU Lead program is a commitment to nurturing each leader’s relationship to self. We believe that effective leaders continuously strive to understand themselves, own their responsibility, and reflect on their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors in order to serve and lead others. YOU Lead prioritizes vulnerability and self-efficacy in our learning, and encourages leaders to cultivate practices for self-reflection that will persist throughout their leadership journey.

Faye Kohn (YOU Lead ’23) noted: “In this early experience of leadership, I have been bolstered and transformed; this has been invaluable to me and, by extension, to my school community.”

By anchoring the program in a commitment to relationship-building, YOU Lead equips Jewish day school leaders with the skills, self-knowledge, connections and awareness they need to effect meaningful change in their school communities. 

Cultivating Relationships to Grow Enrollment

Beth Rivkind, Director, Enrollment Growth


The first steps of a journey to explore a Jewish day school can be overwhelming and intimidating to new families, but it can be a life-changing and fulfilling process (or so we would like to hope), with many positive relationships built along the way.

Engage, Prizmah’s signature yearlong partnership program, positions Jewish day schools to create, foster and sustain relationships with new parents and their local Jewish community in a way many day schools have not tapped into yet: through the development of strong community partnerships and through centering the Jewish day school as the hub for Jewish communal engagement.

It all begins with relationships.

With the ultimate goal of increasing Jewish day school enrollment, Engage focuses efforts on fostering three critical relationships.

1. A new family’s relationship with their Jewish journey—specifically the one they will embark on for the duration of their child’s education. 

Imagine this: It’s a fall Sunday morning days before Sukkot, and dozens of families are attending a science program at school. As families fill out name tags, make their cups of coffee and grab a nosh, they are greeted by a day school parent who happily chats while personally guiding them to the hands-on STEM/Sukkot activities. While parents interact with their children, the admission professional, several teachers and older day school students walk around introducing themselves and offering help. The welcoming and warm atmosphere is rare and unexpected to a few, but already makes everyone feel at home. 

The STEM director leads an interactive presentation, and afterwards, families are encouraged to move outdoors for playground time and a Sukkot-inspired snack. They leave with a treat and an invitation to return for an upcoming program in the weeks ahead. Several days later, the school admission professional reaches out to thank each family for attending and answer questions.

These new families, once intimidated by the thought of Jewish day school, are overwhelmed by the warm welcome, the attention to detail and most of all, the community. They see the wonderful potential of having their child immersed in a Jewish atmosphere in everyday learning.

For many of these families, this initial STEM/Sukkot program, developed in partnership with PJ Library, is the first time they had stepped foot into the Jewish day school. These families might attend preschool at a local temple or JCC, and for various reasons, they had not considered day school as the next step for their family. This fall morning Sukkot program offered families an opportunity to develop their relationship with the school and in turn, to pursue enrollment for their children.

2. A day school’s relationship with community partners. 

As illustrated on that fall day, the Engage program offers day schools the opportunity to build relationships with a new pipeline of Jewish families. However, the program is unique in that there is a strong focus on establishing a collaborative relationship between the Jewish day school and their local PJ Library partner, which is a natural pipeline of young Jewish families who are eager to bring Judaism into their homes.

Through the partnership developed within the Engage program, the school admission professional and the local PJ Library professional develop a strategy plan for engagements, which aligns with the school’s defined enrollment goals. Together, they analyze data to deepen the understanding of growth opportunities and identify the school strengths to develop tailored programs for prospective families. With this plan, in partnership, they can implement new or expanded family engagement programs geared toward specific target segments that highlight the strengths of the day school.

These family engagements are thoughtfully planned to offer values-based programming that showcases the unique school offerings. In some cases, engagements are held at neutral locations like a zoo, museum or park as a low-barrier way to attract unaffiliated families who might be intimidated by an overall religious setting.

Very often, during an engagement, there are many opportunities for parent connection that promote the development of relationships. Built-in time enables families to meet and greet. Current families and student ambassadors offer firsthand experiences and testimonials to illustrate their own day school experience. Ultimately, the strong partnership between the local PJ library professional and the Jewish day school admissions team is crucial to the success of engagements and the overall recruitment strategy. 

3. The school’s relationship with their Jewish community.

When day schools are positioned as hubs of Jewish communal life, they are simultaneously breaking barriers and building relationships with local families. Families are presented with opportunities to expand their involvement in their Jewish community. The “scariness” of the unknown fades away, and the joys of a warm and welcoming community can be appreciated. 

Maximizing community partnerships provide an opportunity for day schools to increase enrollment and build stronger Jewish communities. The Engage program allows schools to partner with PJ Library and reach families who already have shown interest in Jewish life. The partnership empowers families to become more “engaged” in Jewish life and schools to expand the pipeline of future day school families.

Shifting from Transactional to Relationship-Based Leadership

Barry Kislowicz

I have lost count of how many coaching conversations have started out like this: 

“Hi, how are you doing today?”

“[Sigh,] There’s just so much going on. I still have to talk to the teacher we discussed last week, prep with my chair for the board meeting coming up and find time to deal with the angry parent(s) emailing me about our math program…”

The combination of time pressure and emotional stress can make it hard for school leaders to get through the day. Many heads (and coaches) focus on time management strategies, including prioritization and delegation, to improve their chances of success. Indeed, the multiple demands on a leader’s time necessitate such techniques. At the same time, the focus on improved efficiency often drives heads and principals toward a transactional paradigm of leadership. 

Such an approach may help achieve the coveted “zero inbox,” but in the ultimate analysis it will cause us to fall short of our potential. In contrast, if leaders can uncover the system of relationships at the heart of their schools, and if they develop the skills for growing those relationships, they can achieve a qualitative transformation in themselves and in the communities they serve.

The power of a relationship-based approach to leadership has been documented across sectors. In Building Community in Schools, Thomas Sergiovanni has argued that schools must move from seeing themselves as organizations to seeing themselves as communities. The key to such a transformation is moving from transactional interactions based on pragmatic need to community relationships based on shared understanding, common values and connection. 

The quality of relationships within an organization has been shown to impact not only values but performance as well. Experts such as Patrick Lencioni and Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have highlighted organizational culture as the single most determinative factor in organizational growth, development and success. Daniel Coyle shows that the essence of culture is “a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal.” 

The leaders we encounter tend to share this perspective. As educators, they have long believed in growth. Most started their careers in the classroom, where they placed a strong emphasis on building relationships. Many invest time and energy in team-building sessions, leadership retreats and the like to shape school culture. Yet despite these worthwhile activities, the same leaders often struggle to uncover the relational aspects hidden within their daily interactions. It is precisely this day-to-day application that is most challenging, but can make the greatest impact. 

Consider how the following scenarios, pulled anonymously from our coaching practice, illustrate key differences between transactional and relationship-based approaches.


Scenario 1: The Angry Parent

Every school leader remembers that first time when a parent started the conversation yelling at them. Most parents, of course, do not act this way. Most are appreciative and kind. And yet the impact of multiple negative interactions adds up quickly and pushes school leaders to protect themselves by reverting into a transactional rather than a relational approach. 

When a parent calls upset about a teacher, the principal’s question will likely be, “Have you spoken with the teacher about this?” Yet this question can be asked in one of two ways. When some principals respond this way, parents understand that what is at issue is the chain of command—and perhaps limiting the number of issues on the principal’s desk as well. Indeed, preserving organizational structure and managing the principal’s workload are valid goals, but they fall short of what can be accomplished in this exchange. 

Other principals may also ask if the parent has spoken with the teacher, but it will be clear that they are doing so with relationship-building in mind. If the parent answers no, the principal will ask about the parent’s relationship with the teacher, gently trying to uncover why they have not made a direct approach. The principal also may share with the parent that the teacher enjoys hearing from parents, and that the conversation would contribute to a relationship that would support the child. 

By responding with an inquisitive rather than a protective tone, the principal can use this conversation to strengthen their own relationship with the parent. From our experience, most parents will respond in kind. Additionally, by explicitly highlighting the focus on the relationship, the principal will shift the parent away from a focus on this single issue and toward a year(s)-long connection with the teacher. This emphasis, reiterated over time in individual conversations and broad messaging, deeply impacts school culture. Ultimately, it can alter parents’ self-perception as they move from consumer to community member.

This second approach takes a few more minutes of conversation, but this is time well spent. By strengthening parent-teacher relationships and the parent-principal relationship, the leader will reduce the number of direct complaints and, more importantly, enhance school culture in a way that improves educational outcomes and staff/principal morale.


Scenario 2: The Challenging Staff Member

When we begin working with schools, we often find that there is no system in place for teacher supervision and evaluation. When there is a system, it is too often a formality, with boxes being checked but minimal impact on student learning. 

Moreover, we noticed a pattern that repeated itself across many schools. During leadership meetings, certain staff names kept coming up. These might be the names of teachers, finance staff, junior or senior school leaders. In every case, the pattern was the same. The same name kept coming up—and of course that individual was not in the room. Frustrations were noted, complaints shared, and the sense of hopelessness was palpable. 

This is not to say that the group never took action. In some cases, the individual was shifted to another position, in others they were let go. However, what did not happen in the vast majority of cases was a direct and transparent conversation. Yes, there were reprimands, but a reprimand is different from a conversation. 

The kind of conversation we are referring to is what Kegan and Lahey term “deconstructive feedback.” It is a conversation that the leader enters not from a position of all-knowing authority but from one of curiosity and inquiry. The leader believes there is a problem but understands that they do not have the sole perspective on this problem. Moreover, the leader understands that in order to facilitate professional growth, both the problem and the solution must be co-modeled rather than handed down from on high. 

The challenge with such a conversation, of course, is that it generates a deep sense of vulnerability in the leader. Leaders, even in 2023, feel that we need to know more, be more, see more and do more to justify our position. Acknowledging that we may not fully understand the problem, and that we in fact need the struggling staff member to help us comprehend it, can seem like an admission of failure. 

Seeing relationships at the center of our leadership practice turns this perception on its head. If the school leader is the “chief relationship officer,” then they must seek out opportunities to show vulnerability. As Coyle powerfully demonstrates, authentic relationships cannot be formed without the leader initiating a “vulnerability loop.” 

Seen in this light, deconstructive feedback conversations move us toward two crucial goals. First, approaching the conversation from a stance of vulnerability, the leader opens the door to strengthening relationships. Second, the leader enables the staff member to confront their own vulnerability—a vital step in any meaningful growth process.


Scenario 3: The Head, the Board and the Leadership Team

Given the turnover in professional leadership, and the planned rotation of board chairs, heads and chairs find themselves adapting to a new partner more often than not. The first weeks and months of each of these new pairings are a crucial time for relationship building. Yet if school leaders are reluctant to show vulnerability to their staff members, they are all the more reluctant to do so with their board chair—and the chair, for their part, may not be jumping into an open relationship, either. 

As a result, we typically see these relationships begin, and continue, as a game of competing agendas. The head and chair understand that they must cooperate, but they see this cooperation as a means to the end of accomplishing their own predetermined goals. In the best case, this approach leads to an ongoing dynamic of give-and-take, with each individual compromising in some areas to achieve their goals in others. Leaders involved in these dynamics often convince themselves that they are “partnering” while in truth they are engaged in an ongoing negotiation process. 

Contrast this approach with the vulnerability loop described above. If head and chair are to build a relationship, each needs to enter the partnership with tentative ideas rather than fully formed goals. The beginning of their work together, and its continuation over the years, can then be marked by a humble attempt to co-define the problems and allow the solutions to emerge from the joint thinking of the relationship. 

Sound pollyannaish? Perhaps, but we have seen countless heads and chairs who take this approach succeed in building true relationships, particularly when they do so from the beginning of their work together. 

A version of this scenario applies to the professional leadership team. Often each member of the team comes to the work with their own agenda—not a personal agenda, but one that represents their division or department. The lower school principal watches out for their students’ needs, finance keeps an eye on the budget, and so on. While it is true that each leader bears responsibility for their division, once they enter the framework of the leadership team they are in a new web of relationship. Teams that can engage in true co-leadership, rather than serving as a committee of individual leaders, will achieve qualitatively different results (Lencioni, 2012).

These scenarios reveal principles of relationship-based leadership that can be applied across our interactions with parents, staff, lay leadership and community stakeholders.

  1. Lean in to a relational rather than transactional approach to our interactions wherever possible. 
  2. Talk to—not about—others in the school community. 
  3. Muster the courage to show vulnerability in our conversations.
  4. Maintain the humility to co-model both the problem and the solution with others.

With the demands these roles place on our time and our emotions, this approach can be difficult to maintain. However, the investment is well worth it. By applying these principles to every aspect of school life, we can ultimately build the resilient relationships that unlock a qualitatively healthier, happier and more successful world of school leadership.

The Power of a Foundation to Build Relationships Among Schools

Maria Erlitz

As the leading funders of Jewish day school education in Seattle, we at the Samis Foundation take the challenge of enrollment very seriously, especially because our community has experienced some of the lowest per capita enrollment rates in the country in recent years. In 2020, we embarked on a research initiative to understand declining enrollment better and learn new strategies from schools and communities that have successfully turned their enrollment rates around. 

Along with the two well-documented success strategies of improving quality and increasing affordability, there is a third strategy that is showing great promise. That strategy is one of collaboration and relationship-building among schools, even ones that think of themselves as competing for the same students. In this article, I will explain what we learned about this collaboration as a key part of our day school enrollment strategy, how we are implementing it in the Seattle area and what preliminary results have been achieved.


Collaboration as a driver of enrollment

Collaboration is not an obvious strategy for driving enrollment. So why and how does it work? The research we conducted uncovered data showing that schools that successfully turned around declining enrollment trends did it by taking a multipart approach, with quality and affordability being two key factors, but with collaboration being an important third part of the puzzle for some communities. Departing families frequently cite lack of critical mass as a key reason for leaving day schools. Collaboration among schools creates the critical mass and vitality families want through shared resources and programming.

The impact of collaboration was particularly profound in Europe, where school communities took a communitywide approach to building strong day schools. We were fortunate to connect with Rabbi Josh Spinner, the executive vice president and CEO of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and Kate Goldberg, the CEO of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Legacy Foundation based in London, to learn about the approach of Educating for Impact in Europe, which is supported by a number of foundations. Spinner and Goldberg explained that in Jewish day schools from Finland to Spain, engaging community leaders in developing vision and strategy for creating a healthy Jewish education ecosystem was a powerful catalyst to vitality and growth.


Collaboration at the community level 

In the past, Samis focused on increasing collaboration by supporting relationship-building activities among heads of schools. This wasn’t wrong, but it wasn't enough. So, beginning in 2021, we established a forum to bring together heads of schools and lay leaders with the goal of sharing our communal responsibility and crowdsourcing solutions to issues of declining enrollment along with other challenges schools commonly face. 

This forum facilitated discussion and served to overcome obstacles and promote the power of working collaboratively to solve problems and reach objectives. Instead of making ourselves and the school leadership solely responsible for figuring out how to create educational vitality and sustainable enrollment, we gathered the minds of the community and gave them a forum for ideation and action planning. 

This forum, called Let’s Grow Enrollment, brought together lay and professional leaders from across the Seattle area to break down the silos among schools and develop dynamic approaches.


A day of magic

An entire day was set aside at a beautiful local retreat center. All the local day schools participated, and Rabbi Josh Spinner gave the charge: small community, big opportunity, and work together to double day school enrollment in Seattle in five years. It was an “If you dream it, they will come” moment. The day was carefully scripted to mix the day school participants with a facilitator to identify and remove obstacles, promote opportunity and report back to the whole group.



And then, the magic began. All the day school heads and participants set their territorial concerns aside and leaned in to learning from each other. “What are you doing for special needs?” “How are you handling diversity?” The sharing began, and so did the collaboration in getting the job done. Key themes arose throughout the day that led to the creation of four working affinity groups. These groups extended the success of the day by planning to meet over a series of months with their facilitators. 

A second convening was held six months later to share progress and ideas. Some ideas were more easily implementable, like sharing a sports team to create opportunities for competition. Other ideas were more complex, like planning an all-school hub for special needs education, which would enable schools to share precious financial and educational resources and cultivate a vibrant setting for students from different schools with similar education needs. But the point was this: Gone were the boundaries. Even as we ate lunch or dinner together, one would not be able to identify who was from what school. It was a group of lay and professional leaders advocating for more students in the Jewish day schools, period.


Collaboration strategy: preliminary results

Since those gatherings, beautiful partnerships are blooming that increase the vitality and critical mass in school communities. 

Fifth grade coop enrichment program. The two community schools are piloting a joint fifth grade program where each week, children and teachers from one school cross the bridge over Lake Washington for a full day with the other. The partnership extends beyond the teachers at both schools, who develop curriculum together, and the students. Parents, grandparents and special friends meet monthly for dinner and text study led by the fifth grade students. For Purim, this group put on an original Purim spiel at the local JCC for the whole community.

The Hebrew Education Excellence Cooperative. Five schools have worked together to establish a Hebrew Language professional development program with Hebrew at the Center that will improve Hebrew across all their schools. This will be part of a regional collaborative initiative called Cascadia that includes Jewish day schools in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. (See the article by Andrew Ergas and Ben Vorspan in this issue.) 

A Community of Practice focusing on special needs education. This program brings teachers together twice monthly to learn from each other and experts at the University of Washington’s Haring Center for Inclusion Education. 

Communitywide Lag Ba’Omer: For the first time in Seattle history, all the Jewish day schools will celebrate Lag Ba’Omer together in a local park with sports and live music. Each school has taken on leadership roles in planning this event.

And every week, I learn of other synergies among the schools and leadership.

We are encouraged by preliminary results, but we are not out of the woods yet. Enrollment has stabilized and increased slightly at some Samis-funded Jewish day schools, but we have a long way to go to our goal of increasing vitality and sustainability, and ultimately doubling enrollment. We celebrate these successes and keep our eyes on the prize of a stronger, more vibrant, sustainable, and growing day school community. The value of including collaboration in our strategic plan already has become manifestly clear, and we recommend that schools and funders consider including this approach in their overall enrollment strategy.

Cascadia: Strengthening Hebrew Instruction Through Regional Relationships

Andrew Ergas
Ben Vorspan

Not long ago, Hebrew at the Center (HATC) leadership conducted a series of conversations with Hebrew teachers, Judaic studies coordinators and heads of schools at several schools in the Pacific Northwest, and then shared what was heard with community leaders and funders. Out of those conversations, and the relationships and idea-sharing that resulted from those meetings, a new idea emerged that can become a revolutionary model inspiring the advancement of Hebrew language learning in Jewish day schools across North America: Think regionally, leverage resources communally, and act locally.

On average, just 13% of day school staff are Hebrew teachers, and four hours a week are spent on Hebrew language instruction. Many of these teachers have limited access to high-quality professional learning and may not have the academic credentials or training in the 10 competency areas needed to be an effective Hebrew language instructor. This is particularly true for smaller schools or schools located outside of major Jewish communities, centers more likely to host academic or communal institutions that can provide this type of training or support in Hebrew language instruction.

Despite being committed to their students and the students’ learning, Hebrew teachers often report feelings of isolation and aren’t certain to whom they can turn. School leaders echo this feeling, knowing where to send teachers of math or social science for professional learning and mentoring, but being less certain how to support Hebrew instructors. Central to professional growth of Hebrew teachers and, in turn, to improved student outcomes in Hebrew, is being a part of a meaningful community of practice, the ability to grow their instructional expertise, and a well-articulated pathway for personal and professional advancement. The absence of these fundamental frameworks of support lead to teacher attrition at a time when talent pipeline issues are already critically challenging.


Forging a Regional Hebrew Hub

When HATC leadership visited the communities of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver as part of a regional “listening tour,” teachers and school leaders repeatedly surfaced that the Hebrew faculty often are underserved when it comes to advancing their pedagogic expertise or elevating student outcomes. School leaders also raised significant concerns related to the talent pipeline for Hebrew educators in these communities, mirroring concerns throughout the field. However, each school and each community understood the limits to solving this issue on their own, whether the solution was finding Hebrew speakers and training them to become Hebrew teachers, or supporting existing staff with local professional learning opportunities to encourage growth and strong teacher retention.

In response, arising from requests made by Hebrew teachers themselves, a regional professional learning was envisioned that would serve the day schools of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Titled Cascadia in recognition of the mountain range running through the region, the goal of the project is to strengthen Hebrew programs and advance student outcomes and teacher professionalization through a partnership among the participating Jewish day schools and local funders. This initiative also will create dynamic connections across the community of teachers and, by extension, the way in which their students and families see themselves as part of a greater whole. 

Having day school teachers and leaders from each of these three cities working both together and in parallel reinforces a sense of belonging to a more robust, dynamic community. As shared by Marc Blattner, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, “We believe this effort will not only help us locally, but also bring the Pacific Northwest Jewish educational initiatives closer together for the first time.” In total, a dozen schools from an array of religious and communal affiliations have joined the initiative, including Seattle’s Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, MMSC Day School, Northwest Yeshiva High School, Seattle Hebrew Academy and Seattle Jewish Community School; Portland’s Maayan Torah Day School, Portland Jewish Academy and the Tamim Academy of Portland; and Vancouver’s King David High School, Richmond Jewish Day School, Vancouver Hebrew Academy and Vancouver Talmud Torah.

Thanks to grant requests organized in partnership with Hebrew at the Center and submitted by these schools, more than $365,000 has been pledged for the two-year initiative through funding from the Samis Foundation, Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, professional learning grants from Hebrew at the Center and financial contributions from each of the schools.


Project Launch


In late April/early May, teachers and representatives from participating schools joined together in Seattle for the initiative’s launch event, filled with relationship building, professional learning and discussions about the future of the field of Hebrew education and the important role that each educator plays. Participants were introduced to leading approaches to second language acquisition, new methods of language assessment, ways to understand individual learners’ needs, and the role of language learning and child development. Breakout groups on subjects such as brain development and language learning allowed educators working with elementary-age students, middle schoolers or high schoolers to meet together to consider their target populations. 

Other sessions were organized around the arc of the professional’s trajectory, with teachers newer to the field or more veteran teachers approaching the difference between proficiency and performance from these different perspectives, while Hebrew department directors met separately to consider the implications from a systems perspective. Most of the schools also sent their head, principal or director of Jewish studies and Hebrew, allowing for parallel sessions over the two days on articulating a school’s why—Lamah Ivrit?—resourcing the Hebrew vision, and engaging other key stakeholders from both within and outside of the school building in this two-year initiative. The professional learning program was organized by Dr. Esty Gross, HATC chief of staff and director of education, senior educators recruited for this initiative and representatives from each of the three communities. 

The two-day seminar exposed the school staff to all 10 areas of expertise needed for effective Hebrew language instruction in the Jewish day school space, with opportunities in the schedule for reflection, community and school planning, and beginning development of a cross-regional community of practice. They left this launch event excited about planned community visits, where a designated senior educator from HATC will do onsite school visits, generate baseline assessments for each school and the community as a whole, and then return later in the year for a communal day of learning. Each school will receive online training focused on the specific school priorities and have access to 20 hours of one-on-one coaching per year. The initiative also provides regionwide online courses and HATC membership. As important, the participants left with a shared language across schools and a common commitment to excellence in this key area of Jewish day school education.


Initial Steps


Although the initiative is in its infancy, we already are seeing positive signs. As Merrill Hendin, principal at Portland Jewish Academy, shared, “Giving educators opportunities to dig into rich Hebrew language methodologies and practices with colleagues from other Jewish day schools in the region gives all of us opportunities to learn together and deepen relationships with colleagues at Jewish day schools in neighboring cities. This benefits our students, who are always at the center of every learning opportunity.”

The schools participating in the Cascadia initiative are diverse, and so are the strategies for success. While all the schools are guided by the shared value that Hebrew is fundamental to Jewish literacy and identity, their individual vision for a successful Hebrew program may prioritize different elements of Hebrew language education. Each of the participating schools also faces unique staffing challenges, cultural contexts and educational goals; the development of this initiative in collaboration with local leadership facilitates a more customized strategy for each community and school. Through this ongoing effort, we continue our historic commitment to revolutionize the effectiveness of teaching and learning Hebrew in all educational settings. 

Hebrew is a historic connector in the Jewish community, linking our people across geographic and temporal boundaries. This is no less true today when we look for ways to bring the day school community together to advance the field of Jewish education. This Cascadia initiative builds on this historic role of the language, connecting teachers and school leadership across these three important communities in the Pacific Northwest, linking individual efforts to a broad and profound impact. 

Sabrina Bhojani, head of school at Richmond Jewish Day School near Vancouver, remarked, “This gathering was transformative. I used to think of Hebrew as simply a language. I have begun to develop a greater understanding of the role it plays in Jewish life and in preserving culture and memory. Thanks to this initiative put together by Hebrew at the Center, I have a newfound appreciation of Hebrew language learning.” Over the course of the next two years, it is hoped that this model of regional partnerships can serve as an example for other schools, communities and regions looking to leverage existing and new relationships to better serve teachers and, by extension, students.

We Are Family—The Pros and Cons of “Family Culture” in Schools

Aaron Levitt


“Dear (name of school) Family,”

Do you ever send or receive school communications using that language? What is your immediate reaction? Does it make you feel connected and cared for, or cynical and uncomfortable?

Several years ago, I had a conversation that has stuck with me. I had mentioned that as a principal I was trying to cultivate a school culture where everyone cares about each other, like a family. My head of school turned to me and said, “We are not a family. We are a group of professionals with a shared mission.” At the time, I had a hard time understanding why anyone would not want to build a close-knit culture. After all, do we want the students, teachers and parents in our building to think of school as somewhere they have to be or somewhere they want to be?

Fast forward to the challenging last few years of the Covid pandemic, when the lines between work and family were sometimes blurry. Teaching from home over zoom. WhatsApp chats and faculty meetings at all hours. The burnout and stress that educators often feel on a good day was multiplied tenfold. And now, as we begin, please God, to emerge from the pandemic and return to “normalcy,” the challenges of teacher retention and of mental health, which were really there all along, are even more acute.


The Question

Which brings me back to this question that I have been thinking about for years: What are the pros and cons of describing school staff as a family? Is this language helpful, or does it cause challenges? How should schools balance professionalism with caring? Are there boundaries that should or should not be crossed?

I posted this question on social media and received many strong opinions. One person wrote, “It screams toxic work environment that expects too much and delivers too little.” Others preferred terms like “staff,” “team” or “community,” rather than “family,” which may not even have positive associations for all people.

There is research on this topic. Several models of organizational culture have been described, among them “relational,” “tribe” or “clan culture” models. Proponents of those models point to research about the importance of belonging and of feeling connected, appreciated and accepted. Others have taken a very different approach. A 2021 Harvard Business Review article described “The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a Family.


Potential Challenges

So let’s dig a little deeper. What are the potential downsides of “family culture”? The main issues that are often raised are boundaries, accountability and self-advocacy.

Boundaries. Talking about staff as a family runs the risk of blurring important boundaries and upsetting work-life balance. If a teacher is not just an employee or colleague but a family member, then maybe it’s not such a big deal for me to ask them to go above and beyond their job description or hours. Wouldn’t you do that for a family member? And if we are family, does that mean we have to socialize on Shabbat and be friends outside of work? Or that our kids must have play dates?

Accountability. If we are a family, it may be harder for a supervisor to give honest feedback, to hold staff accountable, and in some cases, to let staff go. You would never “fire” your brother or sister from the family, even if their conduct left something to be desired. Taking a more personal rather than professional approach runs the risk of tolerating low standards.

Self-Advocacy. If staff are expected to feel like family, then it might be harder for them to complain, to ask for a promotion or a raise, or even to decide to pursue other professional opportunities elsewhere. Because families look out for each other. Families don’t put one person over the group. Instead, staff may feel they have to tolerate unreasonable expectations or sacrifice their own needs for the team.


Potential Benefits

Given all those challenges, what is the other perspective? What might be some of the benefits of using the language of “family”? Here the main approach seems to center on caring and community.

Caring. The flip side of too much acceptance is the benefit of knowing that your supervisor truly cares for you as a person, not just as an employee. They know that you are human, that you are not perfect, that you have bad days, and that you make mistakes. And they still believe in you, support you and encourage you.

This builds safety and trust. You’re not just another name on a list. You matter individually. Your voice is valued. Your growth is important. Even more than that, your relationship is not transactional. You matter to them not only as an employee, but as a person. They care as much about your 5-9 as they do about your 9-5. As one person responded to my post on social media,

I want them to know that I am invested in them beyond just the three hours a week they work for me, i.e., for mentoring, or writing graduate school references. I can see the downsides, but what I want to convey is that a “job” is a place you only go because they pay you (driving an Uber, Target cashier) but a vocation/calling/team is a job you do because the work itself and the people you do it with are important to you in addition to the paycheck.

Community. As a family, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And we look out for each other. I am willing to share materials with you or cover for you because I know you would do the same thing for me. We don’t compete with each other but celebrate each other. We work to integrate and welcome new colleagues and develop rituals to sustain camaraderie and morale. We are here not because we need a job, but because we have a shared purpose based on shared values. Perhaps most importantly, as a family our deepest held value is maintaining community even when we disagree.


A Compromise

As with most issues, there is no one approach to school culture that fits all. And it may depend on the environment of an individual school. Some schools may build a more “professional” culture, whereas others might lean in more to a “relational” one. To me, the approach and the language are not what matter the most; it’s the conversations around those choices. School leaders can say a lot of things, but the real culture will emerge over time by what they do and how they make people feel.

As we have seen, family and professionalism are two ends of a spectrum; there are potential benefits and challenges to either side. The art and heart of this really comes down to naming the issues, being intentional about the kind of culture we want to create and the kind we want to avoid, and making the conversation a regular part of the dialogue between all levels of staff.

Having said all that, there are many specific things school leaders can do to build the positive elements of trust, support, caring and community we have described, even if they don’t frame it as a “family.” What might it look like to build a school culture that authentically and sincerely values its staff and seeks to build collaboration, connection and community? Here are some suggestions.

  • Schedule time in your calendar to proactively check in on your colleagues and teachers to see how they are doing and what’s on their mind. This includes part-time and substitute teachers. No staff member should come to school and leave feeling that no one was happy to see them.
  • Show interest in people’s family and personal lives while honoring their choice to share as much or as little as they want.
  • Express sincere gratitude for your colleagues, not only for the work they do and the impact they have, but for being the person that they are.
  • Remind teachers that it is OK to make mistakes, to try new things that may not work out and to ask for help. Model this for them by asking them for help and demonstrate your own growth mindset by taking risks as well.
  • Share with teachers the decisions you are thinking about, and ask for their perspectives.
  • Develop protocols and norms for healthy debate and disagreement.
  • Create common spaces and schedules where teachers can spend time together.
  • Make sure that every staff member knows every other staff member’s name and role in the school.
  • Invest in your teachers by helping them create growth plans and recognizing their progress. Develop leadership capacities, and offer opportunities to take on greater responsibility.
  • Encourage work-life balance by not calling, texting or emailing about school matters at night or on weekends. And by supporting them when they need to take a mental health day to recharge.
  • Develop rituals and traditions to celebrate and recognize staff when they depart.

These are just a few examples; there are many more amazing things happening in each of our schools. The challenge (like many things) is not a lack of desire but time. We are often juggling so many responsibilities and putting out so many fires that it can be hard to find the time or headspace to make this a priority. But if you think about organizations with healthy supportive cultures, you will realize that this is not icing on the cake; it is the cake. We are in the business of nurturing people, and that includes not only students, but parents and colleagues as well.

So, after thinking this all through a bit, maybe my head of school was right. Maybe we’re not exactly a family. But maybe I was also right. We’re more than just colleagues—we’re a kehillah, a community. We are people who have a passion for helping children learn and grow, and for building a better tomorrow. Education is not a job for us, but a calling.  We care and, because we care, we are connected to each other. We have our own families and lives outside of school, but we also have a community at school where we belong and are cared for as well.

Developing Our Teachers as Leaders: A Vision of Professional Relationships in Jewish Day Schools

Laura Pasek

The scene is all too familiar: Jewish day schools often rely on traditional hierarchical relationships with respect to teacher roles. An administrative team makes the majority of decisions. Teachers are expected to comply. There are few opportunities for expert teachers to advance in their careers, which handcuffs teacher talent and limits Jewish education from fully realizing its potential to educate children and support them as they develop their Jewish identity. 

This hierarchical model can have a negative impact on the professional relationships in a school. Teachers might feel like they don’t have agency in the governance of the school or a say in the decisions that impact them. Often, teachers complain that administrators implement initiatives from the top down, rather than authentic efforts that arise from within the teaching ranks. 

Imagine a more collaborative context, in which a group of teachers meets regularly to share and discuss student writing with the goal of strengthening their writing program. The teachers ask probing questions such as, “I wonder what the student intends as the climax?” The group meets to discuss the writing, facilitated by a teacher leader who serves as the school’s writing coordinator. These teachers deepen their professional relationships through supporting and challenging one another in their craft. They elevate the writing program in their school. They find trends that need addressing and bring those issues to the wider teaching community and administration. 

Many teachers have so much more to offer; they are hungry for broader roles within the school to grow their leadership skills and improve instructional practices. They love teaching, and they are driven by a deep belief that they can better the field of education from within and beyond the classroom. Imagine what day school education could be like if we created systems in our schools to support teacher leadership and enable this type of critical colleagueship. 

I participated in a teacher leadership program at Brandeis University. Together with others in my cohort, we formed bonds based on our mutual passion for leadership from within the craft. We leaned into the organizational structures of schools, examined their micropolitics, and evaluated types of authority and their effects on collegial relationships. We worked within our schools to develop and implement change initiatives. We designed professional development that promoted “co-thinking” among the staff, in which coaching and mentoring are based on thoughtful analysis of problems of practice—not simply offering tips and advice. We discovered that school improvement often requires wholesale shifts in the culture of a school.

Making a successful cultural shift depends, in part, on teacher leaders. Teacher leaders have their boots in the classrooms and on teams. They live and breathe the day-to-day operations of classroom teaching. They work hard to develop relationships with their colleagues that move beyond congeniality; their work depends on the relationships they develop, which involve supporting, challenging, observation, mentorship and examining issues of practice.

How Teacher Leadership Work



Teacher leadership is implemented in a number of ways. Informal roles might include planning school-wide events and activities, hosting PLCs (professional learning communities) or serving in special roles, such as leading efforts to examine a specific aspect of the school program. Informal teacher leaders rely on strong collegial relationships to drive positive change within their organizations. Because much of this work is voluntary and driven by teachers themselves, efforts can sometimes fall flat if the school administration does not confer authority to these teacher leaders or support them with time and/or compensation.

Some schools offer accomplished teachers formal roles like department heads, team leads, curriculum coordinators and mentors. Roles can be associated with supervisory duties, whereas others depend on collegial relationships to make progress. Teacher leaders in formal positions are more likely to be compensated for their efforts or have release time from their teaching schedule. Because these roles are more formalized, teacher leaders can have more support for their efforts.

Not all Jewish schools are currently positioned to embrace a teacher leadership model. Many rely heavily on the hierarchical approach. Teachers are often charged with implementing initiatives based on the administration’s direction. Yet there must be buy-in from teachers to enact large-scale change successfully. School leaders may aspire to a co-teaching model, for example, but without broad teacher buy-in, it’s likely to fail. That’s where teacher leadership comes in.

An Example of Teacher Leadership



I know of one day school that recognized the inefficiencies in the hierarchical model, in which one administrator had more than 20 teachers to supervise and support. Adopting a distributed leadership model, the school appointed team leads to take on a range of responsibilities, from observing and working with peers to ensuring adherence to HR policies. They tapped expert teachers with a passion for leadership and developed an organizational structure to support them, while maintaining a half-teaching schedule. Team leads at this school are empowered to both coach and supervise their team of around eight teachers. They regularly check in with teachers, set goals for professional learning and engage in co-thinking on important and meaningful issues of pedagogy.

The school described above reports that they are able to make effective improvements on the culture of the school. There is a feedback loop in place in which teachers give feedback to the team leads, who give feedback to the principal and administration. The feedback loop allows the school to deepen their professional relationships. Teaching teams can have important conversations among themselves, which might not be possible at the same scale in a more hierarchical approach. This model empowers team leads to make decisions about multidisciplinary projects within their team. Teachers are invested in new initiatives because they have been part of the decision-making process.

Where to Start



Those in my teacher leadership cohort are committed to improving Jewish education through our professional relationships. However, we recognize the challenges of fostering improvements on the ground in real schools and the necessary changes in school organization and culture that are required. Schools hoping to deepen professional relationships, in the service of improved teaching and learning, can look to teacher leadership to help bring about such a cultural change. 

Schools need to consider whether their structures and decision-making processes empower or inhibit teacher leadership. They need to develop a pipeline for teacher leaders by creating supported roles in which expert teachers can thrive and make a positive impact. They can develop structured roles such as team leads, curriculum coordinators and committee leads.

Schools can tap expert teachers for these leadership roles. Which teachers are inspiring others to improve in their teaching craft? Which always seem to step up when there is a need in the school? The school with the distributed leadership model worried about feelings of resentment or competition among the teachers; they communicated with the staff throughout the process so that teachers knew about new leadership opportunities they could apply for. Other schools create team lead positions that are time-limited to give different teachers a chance to lead their teams.

Schools seeking to develop more structured teacher leadership roles should look to existing models for inspiration. The teacher leadership model is more widespread in public education than in day schools. Changing from the linear leadership model seems more difficult when teachers are hard to find and release time unrealistic. But consider how a school could benefit by empowering teacher leaders to nurture a collaborative culture that values teacher learning and offers a path for expert teachers to grow in their careers. Such a school will be more likely to recruit and retain ambitious teachers, provide broader support for all teachers, and foster institutional trust.

The Changing Nature of Relationships for Emerging School Leaders

Fayge Safran Novogroder
Rochelle Moche

Navigating relationships can be complicated at times, but never more so than when faculty members change roles within a school. Suddenly, relationships shift, and all those involved need to readjust. This phenomenon is perhaps particularly complex (and potentially fraught) in Jewish day school settings, where professional and personal lives are often intertwined. 

At the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) of New Teacher Center (NTC), for over 20 years we have worked closely with teachers as they transition into new leadership roles—mentor, department chair, division head or principal—and we have helped them navigate both the practical and emotional implications of the transition. In this article, we will give some language to the process of relationship change for emerging school leaders, identify common pitfalls and offer ideas on how to navigate these changes successfully. 

How do changing leadership roles affect relationships?

A new leadership role requires changes in behavior, priorities and mindsets. The impact of these changes is not only on the individual but on the people and the systems around them. Following are some of the changes, and challenges, new leaders face and the ways those changes can impact relationships. Many of these are relevant to all types of leadership roles, while others are particular to administrators. 

Acquiring new skills

Most new roles require learning new skills. Becoming a mentor requires developing new skills such as active listening, mentoring language, classroom observations, delivering effective feedback, and analyzing teacher and student data to inform teaching practice and charting professional growth. Taking on a new administrative role such as department head or principal can require attaining or honing leadership skills such as effective meeting facilitation, supervision, having hard conversations, shaping culture, operations, budgeting, scheduling and time management. 

Developing new skills takes time and effort and puts the mentor or administrator in a vulnerable position as they go from being an expert to a novice—and they do so publicly. This can affect feelings of competence and self-worth. Rabbi Sam Pearlson, middle school Judaic studies teacher at SAR Academy, shares about becoming a mentor: 

The hardest part of transitioning into a mentoring position was confronting my “imposter syndrome.” How could I possibly mentor another teacher when I'm constantly rethinking my own curricula and classroom practices? How can I help someone else navigate the struggles that I am working through in my own classroom?

In fact, emerging school leaders often mention “imposter syndrome” as a challenge. 

Setting boundaries

In the post-Covid world, it can feel like boundaries between teachers, students, parents and administrators have been eliminated. Heightened expectations have been made in all directions around time, availability and the amount of work to be done. Teachers and administrators must establish and assert boundaries to be able to stay focused, but doing so may upset some relationships. Educators benefit from setting boundaries regarding being approached by parents when outside of the school building as well as evening and weekend communications. Students and parents who might have enjoyed unlimited access to their teachers during the pandemic may be upset and frustrated by the reassertion of limits on availability.

In addition to negotiating pandemic-era patterns, new mentors and administrators need other types of boundaries as well. Mentors have to set boundaries with their administrators in maintaining their mentee’s confidentiality. New administrators may have to set boundaries with friends within and outside of school who want “the inside scoop.” Setting boundaries can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness for administrators, who feel they cannot fully share with former peers, current supervisees, upper level administrators, parents and friends in the wider community. Setting boundaries is crucial for the mental health and productivity of emerging school leaders, though the impact on relationships may add stress. 

New hierarchy

Moving from a peer relationship to one involving supervision certainly impacts that relationship. This change doesn’t necessarily have to negatively impact the relationship, but adding a feedback or supervisory element will inevitably change it. For teachers who become mentors or coaches to junior teachers, there is a power dynamic involved with classroom observations. Not everyone likes being watched while they do their job—fearing judgment and not wanting to show weakness—and having a peer observe one’s work in action may make a teacher feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. 

Those with new evaluative responsibilities may find themselves having to give critical feedback to friends, former co-teachers or even their own former teachers. Aliza Strassman, director of student services at Ben Porat Yosef and incoming director of Sinai at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, shares: 

One of the most challenging aspects of changing roles within the school (I had been a teacher there for seven years before becoming an administrator) was navigating new relationships. For me, this included both supervising former peers and finding my voice and place within the administrative team.

Giving honest feedback, as well as receiving it, can be one of the hardest tasks for new school leaders, and they may hesitate to do so for fear of damaging collegial relationships and personal friendships. Yet providing clear feedback is essential to creating a healthy work environment.

Avoiding pitfalls

In making the change to a new position, sometimes emerging leaders fall into mindset traps that can impact relationships. We encourage emerging leaders to be vigilant about avoiding these pitfalls.

Desire to be liked

This is especially true for new administrators, but is also relevant for mentors. Those in new leadership positions often don’t want to do anything to change the status quo or be considered “the bad guy.” For instance, mentors may hesitate to fully embrace their role for fear of being perceived as judgmental or critical to a peer. When it comes to administrators, we remind the JNTP Administrator Support Program participants that “administration is not a popularity contest.” Leaders often need to make hard decisions and have hard conversations. Falling into the trap of wanting to be liked means emerging leaders may resist executing crucial parts of their job. 

Getting stuck in emotions 

Emerging leaders must avoid getting drawn into others’ emotions. For mentors of beginning teachers, this can be particularly challenging, as the first 6-12 months might be spent largely on emotional support as new teachers struggle to find their “sea legs.” Mentors should help guide new teachers through their feelings of being overwhelmed and not become entangled with them. Both mentors and new teachers benefit from maintaining focus on setting and achieving goals and recognizing the incremental growth that is happening.

Power vs. authority

New administrators are chosen for their positions based on expertise, skills and other leadership qualities. In their new roles, they are imbued with both power and authority, and learning to find the balance between the two is crucial. We define “power” as implementing rules, regulations and accountability, and “authority” as possessing the knowledge, skills and compassion that build credibility and respect. 

New, insecure leaders can get caught up in focusing exclusively on such details as lateness to davening or complying with dress code, trying to control others’ behavior in order to assert their power. This can create tension in a school and lead to breakdowns in relationships with students, faculty and parents. On the other hand, without accountability, a school becomes a free-for-all, which can negatively impact relationships inside and outside of the building. The key to good leadership is finding a balance between implementing accountability and leading through authority and compassion.

Having to do it all

New administrators often fall into this trap. They want to show that they are worthy of their promotion, so they try to do all the tasks that fall under their purview. The reality is that nobody can do it “all” successfully, and relationships may suffer when an administrator can’t accomplish what they need to. An administrator may feel so overwhelmed by administrative tasks that they don’t make time to observe classrooms and give feedback. They may never leave their office to walk around the building and talk to students and teachers. Administrators must learn how to balance their administrative and educational leadership responsibilities. 

During a live podcast at the 2023 Prizmah conference, Solomon Schechter Day School of Boston presented how their organizational restructuring drove institutional alignment and change. One of their key changes was moving to a distributed leadership model, where faculty from across the school were empowered to take on certain administrative tasks. As Dr. Jonah Hassenfeld, Schechter Boston’s director of learning and teaching, explains, 

When you look at a principal who has 25 direct reports, there’s just no way that person can be providing the kind of coaching and mentorship and supervision [that is necessary] and scheduling the fire drill and making sure the buses are there on time and figuring out what happens when the lunch tables aren’t set up.

Balancing administrative and educational leadership tasks is crucial for the relationships in the building and within the wider school community.



How to successfully navigate changing relationships: Build trust

Given these challenges and potential pitfalls, what can people taking on new roles in schools do to protect and strengthen their relationships as they transition into new roles? The key is building trust. As Charlotte Danielson writes in Talk about Teaching, “The first, and some would argue the most important, characteristic of a school making progress toward improved student learning is that the leader has established an atmosphere of trust: trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.”

Trust can be built in a number of ways. It starts with truly knowing staff, as professionals and as human beings. This means showing interest in people’s goals, aspirations and concerns as teachers. It also means learning about who they are outside of school: Do they have a family? Where did they grow up? What are their hobbies and passions? 

One seasoned mentor shares that she begins every first mentoring session with the open-ended question “Tell me about yourself,” and similarly shares important information about herself so there is a basis for personal “knowing” and relationship. Another important tool mentors and administrators can use to build trust are one-on-one meetings, which give insight into a teacher’s practice—what’s working, what are the challenges, what might some of your next steps be—and provides an opportunity to ask, “How can I support you?”

Trust is also built through giving feedback that is honest and authentic. As Kim Scott indicates in her book Radical Candor: Clear is kind. Teachers know when an administrator is avoiding a challenge, and that erodes trust and credibility, and ultimately, the relationship itself.

Maintaining confidentiality is another important factor in building trust. Nothing erodes trust faster than divulging confidential information. Likewise, treating everyone fairly and equitably is critical for mentors and administrators. Everyone wants to feel respected and heard.

Building trust and investing in relationships will help those taking on new leadership roles do their jobs better. An administrator from Baltimore shares, “I did find myself focusing very hard on developing and maintaining strong relationships as a way to be as effective as possible.” And having strong relationships is the key to being able to provide effective feedback. In response to a question about how the move from teacher to evaluative team leader affected relationships at Schechter Boston, Rebecca Lurie, head of school, said, “If Jonah and I are talking every day about his work, and I care about him and I care about his work, then the one thing I have to tell him that’s [critical] feedback, he can hear, because there’s so much good.”

Of course, building trust takes time. Mentors need to prove to their mentees that they are 100% advocates for them, that they will put their mentees first, and that they will maintain confidentiality. Administrators need to show that they are able to understand their teachers’ needs, that they are sending the message to their faculty that “I am here for you.” Trust leads to good relationships, and good relationships form the basis of a vibrant school environment.

Final thoughts

Bracha Rutner, head of school at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central), offers the following suggestions for how new mentors and new administrators can navigate the changing nature of relationships, both within and outside of school: “Lots of curiosity and open-mindedness. Listening and knowing how to have difficult conversations. And get a coach.”

For new school leaders, being part of an external cohort of peers or having a coach can provide support and guidance in navigating changing relationships. It serves as a safe space where a mentor or administrator can be vulnerable, which then allows for their own true growth.

Ultimately, relationships are at the core of every human system, including Jewish day schools. Creating and maintaining strong, trusting relationships will maximize the potential of Jewish day schools to create vibrant communities of learning and growth.

“Clooping” and Other Tips for Stronger Relationships

Larry Kligman

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the namesake of my school (Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, California), said, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but textpeople.” When I discuss this beautiful quote with our community, I ask, What did Heschel mean? Time and time again, what comes out of our discussions is that the desired outcome of learning, through textbooks or other means, is to establish positive relationships with others. Heschel emphasizes the relevance of personal connection.

I am blessed to have had many roles at my school for four decades. I am a proud alumnus, and right out of college I started working at Heschel as a Judaic studies and physical education teacher and coach. Knowing that I hoped to become an administrator, I asked our school rabbi and middle school director what advice they had for me if I wanted to serve as a leader of the school in the future. From the numerous anecdotes they shared with me, one theme stood out: relationship-building.


Twenty-five years later, now in my 10th year as head of school. I still ask myself, What does it mean to have strong relationships with others? What are moments that I can point to where I can say, yes, I have created meaningful relationships that have helped others and have advanced our school? Many ideas come to mind, but these are the most important themes in creating strong relationships: show up and be present, walk like a three, be consistent and “cloop” (close the loop).

Showing up and Being Present

Throughout my first year working at Heschel, I often observed the teachers who were most respected by students and other colleagues and tried to analyze what they all had in common. Time and again, what I found was that they took the extra step to show that they genuinely cared. These teachers stepped out of their classrooms during recess and lunchtime to socialize with their students and other faculty. They showed up at the afterschool sporting events to cheer on their students. They took the time to inquire about their colleagues’ weekends, asking followup questions to continue the conversation. They made sure to greet others with a smile. The bottom line is that they showed up, were present and put forth the effort to make connections.

Walking Like Three

In creating strong relationships with others, I often say to our staff, “Walk like a ‘two’ more than a ‘one’” and “Walk like a ‘three’ as much as you can.” What does that mean? To me, a person who walks as a “one” has one thing on their mind, to get to the place they need to, as fast as they can, without stopping, without passing “Go.” A person who walks as a “two” is someone who will pause for two seconds, say hello and wish others a good day. These “twos” press pause and attempt to form a relationship. 

A “three” is the goal. A three reaches the destination, acknowledges others, but also stops and asks a question to start conversation. A person who walks as a “three” values others and understands that being part of a community means engaging with others.  

Clearly, there are times when you have to walk like a “one” because you are late or someone needs you urgently. At moments with slightly more breathing room, you can “take two.” However, “three” is the goal we should always strive for; by doing so, you convey genuine interest in and care for other people, nurturing relationships beyond the transactional sphere of work. A three is what we mean by being a mensch.

Being Consistent

In a school setting, students rely on adults to challenge their minds and nurture their souls. However, they also need our consistent, fair and respectful tone to fully succeed and thrive in our communities. When I meet with new staff members, I share the importance of being consistent in their emotions when dealing with others to make a positive impact on our community. Students, parents and colleagues should be able to predict our responses and emotions, whether it is 9 on a Monday morning or 2 on a Friday afternoon. Being steady with our emotions helps build the strong relationships to which we aspire.


Eight years ago, Heschel invited Dan Levine, president and founder of Engaging Minds, to lead a professional development workshop for our staff about the importance of building strong relationships. One of the many lessons he shared was the value of “clooping,” meaning “closing the loop.” For example, after having a parent conference where an action plan is made, “close the loop” later and ask the parents how the child is progressing. If a student confides in you that a challenge has come up, a week or two after you help them, check in and see if anything is better. If a colleague shares something with you, approach them later and check in on them. “Clooping” has become part of our school’s dictionary and a value we hold strong in our community.



In this day and age, when people are distracted by social media, cellphones and other devices, it stands out when people put down the phone, make eye contact and talk to someone. A professor in my teaching credential program said, “When communicating, 60% of what we say is interpreted through our body language, and 30% of what we say is understood through our tone.” If this is true, then 90% of communications is not what we say but how we say it. Every year I remind the staff that when they communicate with other colleagues, parents, students or anyone in the community, face-to-face and phone conversations are still the most personal means, especially when problems arise.

So as we try to raise more textpeople, we as leaders must model the value of creating and maintaining strong relationships to advance our schools and to uphold our Jewish missions.

Connecting for Common Purpose: How to Create a Supportive School Climate

Nancy Parkes
Maurice J. Elias
Jeffrey S. Kress

Jewish day schools are increasingly embracing efforts in social and emotional learning (SEL), with the pandemic and associated mental health concerns strengthening the urgency of this trend. Through SEL, values such as kehillah (community), kavod (honor or respect) and the like become woven into the fabric of interactions in a school. And while the focus is often on how to build trusting and positive relationships between teacher and student, an SEL approach emphasizes the importance of all relationships in a school. This means that the quality of the relationships between colleagues and among those in leadership and the staff are of paramount concern. 

When teachers experience positive relationships with their peers and supervisors, they feel better about the work they do, report reduced stress, and have a greater commitment to their own and their peers’ productivity and professional growth and success. This comes as no surprise. Think about your own journey as an educator. Are you able to identify principals, supervisors or colleagues who helped you achieve your full potential not only in the classroom, but also contributed to your overall sense of well-being? We suspect, based on having asked this question countless times, that your answer is “yes.”

Business and political settings have embraced relationship-oriented leadership. A 2018 Forbes article concludes that “relational leadership can be incredibly successful, particularly when it is authentic, empathetic, reinforced through gestures of friendship and embedded in the culture of a team.”

As such, principals’ and educators’ social and emotional competencies can profoundly impact everyone's experience, as well as the school climate, and to a large extent, determine how relationships develop among the staff. While all social and emotional competencies play a significant role in the development of relationships and school climate, self- and social awareness seem particularly important. Leaders and teachers who possess these competencies have an increased awareness of the effect their emotions have on others, as well as a deepened understanding of their colleagues’ and staffs’ emotions. Equally important, socially and emotionally competent principals and teachers can manage their emotions under challenging situations and understand that their handling of these situations affects their relationships with others and directly influences classroom and school climate. 

When positive relationships exist, teachers feel safe to share their struggles and concerns. In these kinds of trusting relationships, principals validate the emotions and issues shared, and they respond to them. Teachers feel accepted and appreciated, leading to more open communication and trust. When teachers perceive their principals as supportive and caring, they are also more likely to seek counsel when confronting difficult situations and feel sufficiently brave to try new things and ask questions. 

School Climate

It has been recognized for some time that school climate affects everyone in the building and influences teacher and student performance as well as mental and physical health. School climate refers to the quality and consistency of interpersonal interactions within the school community, which influence the children’s and staffs’ cognitive, social and psychological development. A positive school climate begins with the social and emotional competencies of the principal. Principals are at the forefront of constructing and shaping the context in which their teachers teach and students learn and, therefore, have a direct influence on the school climate. 

Principals who have strong social and emotional competencies are able to bring these competencies into the school, resulting in an environment that supports the development of positive relationships with their staff. They are more likely to design professional learning that is collaborative in nature. They also recognize and develop their staffs’ strengths and guide them through solving conflicts constructively and successfully. This creates an optimal school climate in which everyone benefits. Teachers like to be in a working environment built on cooperation, respectful communication and trust, where expressions and sharing of emotions are welcomed and acknowledged, and principals are supportive and responsive to each individual teacher’s needs. As a result, in such environments, teachers report feeling safe emotionally and physically, and are able to thrive. And they are less likely to leave.

Sense of Purpose, Source of Strength

One of the most important steps that school leaders can take to strengthen school climate for staff and students is to establish the core values of the school. All members of the school community should be able to find commonalities among their answers to questions such as, Why are we here? What is our purpose?

Educators acknowledge that trauma and stress accompany students and staff into school with them every day. This creates added tension in relationships and can drain motivation and focus. 

Yet as Viktor Frankl found under the most extreme conditions and William Damon and others have found more normatively, possessing a sense of constructive purpose can offset many other difficulties. It can galvanize positive energies and organize and focus actions in ways that improve and deepen relationships. When students and educators come together in common cause, great accomplishments can take place. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “If you believe you are here for a purpose, your energies will be focused. A sense of mission will give you strength. You will do remarkable things.”

One distinctive feature of a Jewish school is that the students are not there only for themselves and their own advancement. They are there for one another and to foster accomplishments that will make the lives of their classmates, schoolmates, community and the world better. Tikkun Olam is not something abstract; it’s a part of everyday life, an expectation for everyone to fulfill. When skills are not linked to virtues, these skills can be deployed in various ways, not necessarily constructively. Nor is a school climate helped by having cliques and hierarchies. The strongest path to an optimal school climate is when every student (and staff member) feels like a genuine shareholder in an entity that is bigger than any one person or group within the school.

Making Meetings Matter

Many of us have feelings about meetings. And oftentimes those feelings are negative. A quick search of quotes on the internet turned up gems such as these: “Your meeting is a high priority if there’s free food.” “Any simple problem can be made worse if enough meetings are held to discuss it.” “The longer the meeting, the less is accomplished.” (The latter attributed to Tim Cook of Apple.) However, when properly designed, meetings can provide opportunities for relationship building and can contribute toward a positive school climate.

Start the meeting with emotional intelligence. Begin with a welcome and by letting everyone know why they are there and what you hope will be accomplished as a result of this meeting. Open with a fun question to set a tone of congeniality. Take time to build relationships among staff; to build empathy; to teach and practice SE skills. With limited time for meetings, we often rush to “get down to business.” Instead, provide time for participants to listen to one another without always trying to problem-solve and offer time for staff to get to know each other. 

Provide opportunities to share emotions. Checking in with educators sends a message of caring. Just like athletes huddle before a game, principals can offer time for educators to come together and share their heart and head space at the beginning of the day. This also can be a time for educators to pause, check in with themselves and breathe before entering the classroom. Transitions can be hard for educators, too.

Create collaborative norms. Many educators set up classroom rules so that optimal learning can take place. Articulating what each student needs in order to do their best learning builds self- and social awareness and a classroom climate in which everyone can thrive. Why, then, do we not do this for our educators, as well? Whether it is during a staff meeting, team project or a causal interaction in the hallway, educators can benefit from reflecting on their own needs as well as the needs of their colleagues. Working together and articulating norms of engagement as a group recognizes that people’s needs and actions matter in creating a safe and brave space for everyone. This also builds a sense of caring and trust that leads to a positive working environment where everyone can do their best work. 

Create opportunities for staff to share expertise. While outside experts and “top-down” instruction have their places, staff members benefit from being able to contribute to and draw from the collective wisdom of practice. Ask teachers to showcase their innovative work. Provide opportunities for peer-to-peer consultations when someone gets stuck. 

There is much that can be done to enhance the school climate as perceived by staff members. For a leader, caring doesn’t need to be costly in terms of time or resources. The little things matter: a quick check-in at the beginning and/or end of the day, an expression of support for challenges both personal and professional, frequent reminders about the community’s common purpose. Together, these add up to a place where teachers thrive.

Bring in the Bagels: Can Eating Together Alleviate Teacher Isolation?

Gavriel Brown

A few weeks ago, a new Bible teacher confessed that, although she spent her whole first year immersed in teaching, she felt like she hadn’t forged any enduring relationships at the school. She experienced what David Tyack, in his 1974 historical accounting of American schools, describes as the “egg crate” phenomena. Teachers operate in isolated classrooms that resemble egg crates—each operating on their own, focused on their own students and with minimal contact with their colleagues. This default phenomenon is urgently worth unpacking, especially as workplaces regear in the great reshuffling and as schools struggle to keep and attract talent.

From a teacher’s workplace perspective, school can be both a highly sociable and a highly isolating place. Unlike so many workers at cubicles or remote work, teachers see dozens and dozens of people daily. Teaching is, by its nature, an exercise in collaboration. But schools are architecturally compartmentalized, faculty divided by subject matter, and the school day segmented by bells. Part-time teachers come and go, while full-time teachers have little time for small talk. Prep periods are scattered throughout the day. Teachers certainly see each other, but they rarely interact meaningfully. Few have time to chat, let alone eat and spend time together as a community of educators.

Teachers need it. Administrators want it. Everyone works better with it. Yet our collective sense of a workplace “community” has become trite and overhyped. Missives with “Dear X community” does not a community make. Cordiality is not community. Ditto for full faculty meetings. 

What does make community is not a secret: food. Research suggests that shared time over shared food is an essential ingredient for workplace happiness and productivity. Jewish tradition also places emphasis on shared meals as a means of creating a sense of community. At a time when teachers are being pulled farther apart from one another, can bringing in the bagels alleviate teacher isolation?


Food as Social Glue

As we enter this new age of working, we know what workers need from their workplaces. A 2021 McKinsey Quarterly survey across five countries and over 5,500 managers and workers found a disconnect between what employers and employees valued in their work communities. While employers thought employees valued compensation and work-life balance above all factors, employees placed a sense of being valued by their organization and a sense of belonging as their top values, far above compensation. The study suggested a reprioritization for businesses, especially those in people-facing roles, to build a sense of belonging and community. People need relationships, not transactions, to feel grounded in their work. One of their top recommendations to engage people in community? Food.

Plenty of workplace research supports this assertion. My favorite is a study by Cornell University’s Kevin Kniffin and colleagues of more than a dozen fire stations in one American city. After more than a year of study, one topline trend emerged: Firefighters who ate together fought better together—twice as well, in fact, as firefighters whose stations had more isolated social interactions. Kniffin found that individual eating among firefighters was a signal of deeper dysfunction at the station, with potential life-and-death consequences. Kniffin argued that daily spaghetti dinners (the firefighter food of choice) served as the glue that bound the first responders in teamwork and personal mutual friendships.

Jews are no strangers to eating as a community. Are you eating with someone else? Best to talk Torah to elevate the meal, according to Pirkei Avot. Are you eating a meal with three people? Say a special preamble to Birkat Hamazon, grace after meals. Eating with more than 10? Add a special insertion to the preamble to acknowledge the moment. Celebrating a life event? Eat. Our tradition identifies a meal as a time for caring, camaraderie, elevated conversation. Most Jewish social programming revolves around or someway includes food (when was the last time you joined a synagogue event without food besides for Yom Kippur?). Like Kniffin’s firefighters, Jewish rituals around eating discourage eating alone.

Two personal anecdotes, both about French fries, tease out this tension. At the conclusion of my first year teaching in an urban charter school as part of Teach or America, our administrators took us on a faculty bowling trip. We all piled into a yellow bus and divided into teams. Here were colleagues I had spent dozens of hours within professional development and grade-level meetings. 

Yet socially were strangers. As we (or rather, everyone else as I keep Kosher) ate lots of French fries, we talked about—what else?—students. We all got to school before seven and left after five. We put in the time together. But we had little else in common. All those hours eating at our desks and running into the teacher workroom to photocopy class materials translated into workplace solidarity but not workplace community (despite all the emails insisting that, in fact, we were one).

That isolation contrasts with my first job as a school administrator. Our yeshiva served dinner nightly, because the school day ended past eight in the evening. I tried to stay for dinner as often as I could, because I saw the comradery among the students and, for that matter, among the other teachers and administrators who stayed. As we ate French fries and chicken (French fries were always on the menu), we would disconnect from the school day and whatever dramas had ensued. We would talk about family, Torah and personal interests. I felt more knowledgeable about my colleagues in a month than in two years at my previous school.

Think back to the most memorable moments of collegiality at your own school. They most likely involve a shared meal. At Ida Crown Jewish Academy, my current school, one big highlight of the year for teachers is a shared meal before our big open house event. One teacher cooks up a storm; everyone sits at a communal table and enjoys each other’s company. It is a Shabbat meal on a Tuesday evening. The most common comment at the meal? “We should do this more often!”



Not by Bagels Alone

How might schools think about food to help build and sustain the sense of teacher belonging so many are desperate for in their workplaces? Ethnographer Jesse Dart’s Feeding the Hustle: Free Food & Care Inside the Tech Industry explores the significance and importance of eating together. Sponsored food has become de rigueur in the tech industry, where fancy snacks, fresh juices and even in-house chefs are common features (less so with the recent economic downturn). Food keeps the coders happy and, more importantly, at their desks for longer. Businesses that viewed food as a strategic investment found their efforts paid dividends. Reading Dart’s analysis of the ways some businesses lavish food on employees, with varying degrees of success, suggests, well, not by bagels alone. The community-creating companies didn’t just serve food. They thought about where food is consumed, what was offered and when it was offered.

Teachers inhabit an entirely different work world from computer scientists. Contrasting the tech world’s corporate largess with the education world’s not-for-profit paucity seems to only emphasize our workplace’s limitations. But Dart’s research suggests that successful workplace engagements around food need not require expensive or expansive food offerings. In fact, Dart argues that most businesses care too much about the food itself. Instead, his in-depth research suggests more deliberate planning about where and when food is offered. A well-timed breakfast, with time for teachers to pause and enjoy each other’s company, will prove more effective than a more lavish grab-and-go lunch.

Dart’s research also suggests that place is equally important. Study after study point to how much employees despise open-office plans and so-called “hot-desking”—shared workplaces that are common in teacher workrooms. These spaces lack warmth, permanence and a sense of ownership. On the flip side, offering no shared space for teachers and relying on their classrooms as offices and resting spaces keeps teachers compartmentalized and isolated.

Encouraging teachers to eat in shared spaces, by providing snacks or other incentives, can counteract these design downsides of common school spaces. Planning around space also can prevent a so-called loneliness spiral, where employees who feel isolated become less approachable, less willing to engage and less committed. These welcoming spaces can interrupt this spiral by giving teachers a place to engage with their colleagues.

My current school features four office spaces across the building to encourage bonding within and between subject-area teacher teams. While these rooms do have printers and other equipment, they are primarily used as meeting and workrooms. Some of those office spaces are teeming with positive energy, while others are used less frequently. 

It is no coincidence that the most trafficked office space is the one where teachers come early, share lunch, exchange ideas, bring birthday balloons and play light pranks on one another. Most schools can carve out an underutilized classroom space for this type of room and, with the proper ingredients, create a space where social eating and serendipitous interaction can take place.

The many articles and research papers on the relationship between food and workplace suggest a few nudges for our schools. Gauging the percentage of teachers who eat alone is a good barometer of workplace cohesion. Counting how many times in a year the faculty bench with a zimmun (a communal blessing after the meal) is also a good indicator of the importance a school places on opportunities for personal connection. 

Designating or designing a space in the building for teachers to gather is an important starting point. Successful teacher lounges or workrooms straddle the line between personal and professional. Carving out time is equally important but more logistically complicated. All these organizational behaviors are physical indicators of what the McKinsey report said that employees need: a sense of belonging and community.


What’s Stopping Us?

If the upsides to workplace well-being and sense of belonging are so obvious and urgent, why are schools not doing more of these simple bagel breakfasts or those firefighter “spaghetti dinners”? Often, just organizing food for teachers is fraught with petty office politics.

Historian Cyril Parkinson’s Law of Triviality comes to mind: “The amount of attention a problem gets is the inverse of its importance.” He based his quip on dramatization of a typical administrative committee tasked with approving a $100 million nuclear reactor, $4,000 for an employee bike shed and $200 for employee refreshments in the break room (adjusted for inflation). Not surprisingly, the committee quickly approved the nuclear reactor, because the scope and expertise are too difficult to consider. The committee hems and haws about the bike shed. Yet two-thirds of the debate is relegated to how best to spend the refreshment account (“Which coffee brand?” “Which type of cookies?”) and even whether to spend the money at all. 

This anecdote, well supported in behavioral economics literature, is cited by authors and critics to suggest that people in organizations pay more attention to unimportant issues than toward issues that really matter. But this story is also about petty office politics and food. Everyone has an opinion about food. Everyone wants to see their preference reflected in the consensus. These opinions often get in the way of rolling out bite-sized programs that encourage teacher community and ultimately affect the core sense of community in the school (the “nuclear reactor”!).

At a time when the average outlay to replace a teacher now runs north of an estimated $20,000 (never mind the hidden costs of replacing a teacher to the climate and functioning of schools), the cost-effectiveness ratio of small employee engagement programs to help retain teachers and increase teacher job satisfaction is a bargain. Of course, food cannot alter the fundamental dynamics in schools; free food doesn’t keep a great teacher working just one more year. But food does signal to teachers where the priorities of a school lie on a transactional-relational spectrum. With the consequences this high, it pays to bring out a nice tray of bagels. Maybe even some lox.

The Power of a Parent/Guardian Advisory Committee

Eliana Lipsky


It is no secret that Jewish day school parents are demanding, at times inappropriately so. Many parents are making financial sacrifices to send their children to Jewish day schools; it is natural that they want to ensure their financial investment is paying off. However, the way a parent body expresses its demands of a school may signal a lack of trust in the school leadership, leading the school’s professionals to feel insulted and their expertise undermined. Students benefit most when the adults at home and at school can establish and maintain a healthy and trusting partnership in their educational journey, supporting a school’s ability to serve its students’ holistic needs best. One way to build a healthy, trusting partnership between the school and home is to establish a parent/guardian advisory committee that meets regularly with the principal.

When I first began my principalship, I was new to town and new to the community, and my own children were much younger than my middle school students. Among the multiple challenges that come with being a first-time principal, I felt out of touch with what the parent body wanted and needed. After some negative interactions, I was beginning to view the parent community as adversaries, when as a teacher I had always viewed them as partners.

After discussing this with my head of school, we decided to assemble a parent advisory committee at the beginning of my second year. The primary goal was to help me connect with the middle school parent body and garner support for the nascent middle school program. The creation of this committee was a critical turning point in my principalship and continues to be one of my greatest assets.

A parent advisory committee is beneficial to novice principals, principals new to the school community, and principals who find their parent body is growing disgruntled after several years of demonstrated success at the student level. In many respects, the relationship and process mirror a healthy head of school-board president partnership. Presented below are steps for establishing such a committee.


Step 1: Clarify the Committee’s Purpose 

The principal and head of school should agree on the purpose and goals of the parent advisory committee before creating a committee. Writing a brief “focus of the committee” statement clarifies roles for the principal, head of school, committee chair and committee members.

The language used matters. A statement such as “to advise and guide the principal” leaves too much room for interpretation about the parameters of the guidance offered. Parents might feel they have a voice about curricular decisions that are under the purview of the principal and educational team. A statement such as “to support the development, growth and success of the [principal or division]” clearly delineates the committee’s scope of work.

The committee should focus on identifying issues of concern to the parent community, with the expectation that it will exchange ideas, feedback and observation when it meets. When appropriate, the principal raises issues or trends where the parent perspective is germane to navigating the noted challenges. The principal might seek advice on the implementation of key initiatives; the process itself can build buy-in and enthusiasm within the parent body prior to rolling out an initiative.


Step 2: Clarify Expectations and Behavioral Norms

Although I was excited about collaborating with the committee, I had my reservations. Would members embrace their role or overstep in an open forum? Would members advise with only their child in mind, leaving me with a skewed perspective of what the parent community was thinking, feeling and saying? To address these concerns, my head of school supported me by establishing expectations of behavioral norms for the committee. Two examples of behavioral norms might be:

  • Members are committed to engaging in and maintaining an open, respectful and confidential dialogue in partnership with the committee chair and the principal.
  • Members are committed to serving as a trusted resource to the principal by providing feedback, observations and advice on key issues and initiatives.


Step 3: Choose the Chair Wisely

As with any committee or school board, the committee chair will play a critical role in the success of the committee and the success of the chair-principal partnership. In consultation with the principal and board president, the head of school designates a board member as the committee chair. A board member demonstrates a commitment to serving the school in a volunteer capacity, is well informed about the head of school’s strategic plan, and can support vertical alignment between the principal and the head of school. The chair should have a child in the division during their tenure. The duration of the chair’s tenure depends on the cultural norms of the school community. In the case of a middle school parent advisory committee, a two-year tenure works well.


Step 4: Empower the Chair and Principal as Partners

The chair and principal are co-leaders of the committee, symbolically signaling to the committee and all stakeholders that there is a strong school-home partnership. The chair and principal should meet to co-design each agenda prior to each committee meeting.

At our agenda setting meetings, the ability to preview the committee’s observations and my initial reactions and observations afforded the chair and me the opportunity to practice listening with curiosity; to practice framing to generate meaningful and respectful dialogue; to ask clarifying and probing questions; to prepare ourselves emotionally for what we anticipated might unfold during the meeting; and to maintain an open line of communication that leads to trust. Trust that we would be honest, trust that we would hear each other out, and trust that we would remain open-minded to different perspectives. The stronger the partnership between the chair and principal, the stronger the committee.

The committee meets every four to six weeks. The principal and chair co-lead the committee meetings, typically beginning with the chair and principal welcoming everyone together before the chair opens the first agenda item. General gratitude for members’ time and work is delivered together. If it turns out that the principal or chair cannot make a previously scheduled meeting, the meeting should be rescheduled. The presence of both the principal and chair is essential to maintaining a balanced partnership both symbolically and in practice.


Step 5: Diversify the Committee and Represent the Student Body

The committee should have about 10 members whose tenure caps at two or three years. Members are invited back annually to join the committee. This honors their time as volunteers and keeps the feedback fresh.

Members may be selected in several ways. In some cases, it might make sense to invite parents to apply for a position on the committee. For a novice principal, handpicking the committee members may be a wise choice. In this case, the rest of the committee is selected through a collaborative effort by the head of school, principal and chair. The committee should be diverse in composition while representing the student body’s demographic diversity. There are numerous factors to consider: country of origin, family composition, gender, neighborhood affiliation, new or returning family, political proclivities, profession, sex, socio-economic status, synagogue affiliation, race, religious denomination or observance.

Equally essential is to ensure the selected members represent the broad spectrum of the student body. Consider grade level, gender, neurodiversity, participation in academic programs and extracurriculars, and peer groups. A school functions like a small city. Though there may only be 10 members, the more diverse the committee, the better the outcomes of the work.

In addition to these criteria, select members who are thoughtful and critical. Consider inviting a vocal parent struggling to engage appropriately. This gives the parent a constructive place to channel their concerns. Bringing my most critical parents onto the committee strengthened the school-home partnership. These parents felt heard and validated, and eventually became strong supporters. Of course, an unruly parent who has no regard for respectful dialogue will detract from a collaborative working environment and should not be rewarded with a seat on the committee.

As a middle school principal, retention is always on my mind. Having fifth grade and ninth grade parents on the committee broadens a middle school principal’s connection with the parent body to the lower and high school divisions, creating space for strategic retention conversations and work. When possible, invite the school’s parent association chair to sit on the committee even if their child is not in the principal’s division. Having the parent association chair present helps with whole school communication and retention.


Step 6: Actively Listen and Share Honestly

When school leaders view parents as adversaries, there is a tendency to avoid sharing the full thinking behind the decision-making process. This widens the gap between stakeholders who should be partnering to support the child. Administrators need to keep in mind that an active and critical parent body is one who cares deeply about their children and may need help learning how to engage appropriately and respectfully with the school. This modeling begins with the parent advisory committee. As part of fostering a supportive environment for the principal and educational team, committee members should be trained and expected to help other parents reframe their concerns in a more respectful manner.

The most fruitful agendas begin with committee members sharing their “headliners” or feedback and observations first. The point is to gather information and feedback with an open mind. After the committee has been working together for a while and committee members begin sharing information freely with the principal, this first agenda item often aligns with the agenda items the principal was planning to address. If this is not happening, it may be a sign that the chair’s and principal’s partnership needs more work, or the principal needs to listen more closely.

When the opening feedback session ends, it is beneficial for the principal to summarize what they heard and check that each member felt heard. Asking probing and clarifying questions during this time is encouraged. When there are strong emotions shared during the feedback session, validate those feelings. These actions demonstrate active listening, building trust between the principal and the committee. It is a model for partnering with all parents.

The committee then determines whether it makes sense to address the issues raised in the “headliners” or continue with the agenda as planned. During committee meetings, the principal shares the rationale behind pedagogical decisions. However, this must be done authentically with the goal of helping the committee to understand better the complexity of an issue and the rationale of the educational team. When difficult questions are raised it is critical the principal answers each question directly and clearly. Doing otherwise suggests the educational team did not give enough thought to the problem, undermining the partnership’s trust.


Step 7: Invite Teacher Leaders and Administrators 

Principals are accountable for everything that occurs in their division. Yet principals do not, cannot and should not know everything. Teacher leaders and administrators are the experts who comprise exceptional educational teams and spearhead initiatives. Committee meetings are a perfect opportunity for principals to invite members of their education team to present initiative rollout plans to the committee and to gather initial parent feedback prior to implementation. Previewing initiatives with the committee builds buy-in among parent body influencers early on, helping teacher leaders remain cognizant of the parent experience while serving their students. In turn, this opportunity benefits teacher leaders by broadening their capacity to work with parents at a macro level and providing them with authentic leadership training experiences.

A collaborative parent advisory committee signals to stakeholders that the principal cares about the school-home partnership. It promotes respectful dialogue, provides teacher leaders with natural leadership training and demonstrates thoughtful pedagogy. It is a worthy endeavor for anyone committed to fostering school-home partnerships built on trust, respect, appreciation and healthy dialogue.

Moving Relationships to the Center: Five Questions Every Educator Should be Asking

Allison Cook
Orit Kent

The Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP) is a method of learning Jewishly that understands relationships as the very heart of teaching and learning. Underlying this approach are PoP’s Core Relational Building Blocks (CRBB), which serve as a foundational tool for creating educational programs and learning environments that foster relationships between students and teachers, among students and their peers, and importantly, between students and Torah. PoP holds that the teacher, each individual student and the text itself are all partners in learning. 


The Core Relational Building Blocks

The CRBB framework constitutes a set of questions the educator asks themselves to address two fundamental elements to relationship-building: the work of helping the learning partners become present and available for relationship and the work of connecting all the partners. When educators consider each of these questions, they open worlds of possibility for the skillful use of strategies and interventions to deepen the quality of learning and strengthen the learning community that makes this learning possible. These are the questions:

How am I connecting to learners and building relationships with them?

How am I inviting in and helping each individual learner be present?

How am I connecting learners to one another?

How am I inviting in and helping the text (content) be present and available for partnership?

How am I connecting learners and texts (content) to one another?

In this article, we explore this framework through a case of one teacher and her classroom. We illustrate how an educator might use this matrix of relational questions to see the potential she has to move her class to joyful, deep and connected learning.



Sample Class Session

The following story of a teacher and her classroom presents a composite image of many common themes emerging from actual classroom observations and teacher reflections. 

In a Jewish studies classroom, students are working on a packet with text excerpts from Shemot (Exodus), translating phrases and answering questions about the text. Some students asked if they could work together, and the teacher has given permission for them to work in havruta; otherwise, students can work on their own to complete the packet.

Scanning the classroom, the teacher observes that a havruta group has their packets open to different pages, as one student is working on one set of questions while the other is working on the next, having divided up the assignment. They mostly talk and laugh together about an upcoming school sporting event, punctuated by the occasional check-in about what a Hebrew word means in the text or “what did you put down” for a specific question. The teacher occasionally visits them to get them back on track. 

In another part of the room, a student working on her own is intently writing in her packet. The teacher anticipates that the student will finish before the rest of the class, declaring “I’m done,” and the teacher will need to provide that student with an extension activity. In a different corner of the room, another lone student sits slumped down in his chair, frowning. Staring out the window, with his packet untouched, he taps loudly on the desk with his pencil, causing his classmates repeatedly to yell out, “Stop tapping already!” He responds with an angry look. 

 The teacher is busy crisscrossing the room, following raised hands and answering questions. She slowly becomes aware that many of the questions are not about the text itself but about the packet directions and what she is “looking for.” 

When the time is up, the teacher brings the class together for a discussion. She asks the class the first question in the packet about what Bnei Yisrael (the Israelites) have to do to prepare for receiving The Ten Commandments. Three out of 18 students raise their hands and comment in turn, directing their comments to the teacher. The rest of the class maintain a hushed hum of whispered chatter; they are not engaging with their classmates’ comments. Time is up. Kids stuff their packets in their backpacks and leave for the next class. 

After the class, the teacher reflects. She is happy that the class was reasonably behaved and that they accomplished the lesson plan for the day; the unit on these chapters of Exodus is on track. The students who spoke in the class discussion seemed to know the material. She hopes that they are representative of the rest of the class; she will find out when they do their unit assessment. She wonders about the one boy in the corner, though, and makes a mental note to ask him for his packet to see what he has done. 

Despite feeling on track, she is unsatisfied. The class lacks the energized buzz and love of Torah learning that she herself has experienced and inspired her to become a Torah teacher. Most of the students do not seem particularly moved or genuinely engaged in the rich lessons and ideas the Torah text raises. She wishes she could do something to breathe a different quality of learning and engagement into her class.

Over the years, she has learned classroom management strategies that have been effective for keeping the class orderly. She has employed strategies for motivation, such as giving students some choice to work together or alone and point systems for incentivizing classwork. Her curriculum packets follow the chapters she needs to cover. She has worked to include higher order questions about the text and to convert some of her assessments into options for creative projects. She is not sure what else she can do other than becoming more entertaining to grab the kids’ attention like some of her colleagues are able to do, but that just doesn’t feel like her—and anyway, she believes that the Torah should be interesting enough that she shouldn’t have to be a comedian. She wonders what other strategies she can learn to move her classroom toward the vision she holds.

But what would happen if, instead of reaching for the newest set of techniques, this teacher paused and viewed her class through the lens of Core Relationship Building Blocks? What potential might this afford her to strengthen the quality of learning in her class?

She would see that she can do more to connect with her students as individuals and to set them up to learn in relationship with the text and one another. Though not intentional, her current classroom is set up for students to care about completing activities according to the teacher’s expectations, rather than to care directly about the content and one another. The classroom culture supports students to “do school” rather than to build relationships.

Let’s listen in on the teacher’s reflections.


How am I connecting to learners and building relationships with them?

The teacher realizes that some students she does not know as well as others–and that these students have not had much of an opportunity to get to know her. She then makes sure to find formal and informal ways to connect with each student throughout the course of the class or the week. Instead of writing off the sports chatter of one havruta as a distraction to be tolerated, she sees it as an entry point for learning what is important to them and comes to understand that they are both serious athletes. She communicates her genuine appreciation for their commitment and finds a point of connection with them. In the future, she will draw on this connection to help them strengthen their havruta-learning relationship. 

Similarly, the teacher realizes she needs to reach out to the disengaged solitary student in the corner. Rather than checking in with his packet, she checks in with him about what he is experiencing. She learns that he is anxious about an illness in his family, and that the idea of doing worksheets at a time like this seems totally pointless. His classmates’ reaction to his nervous noisy tapping only further exacerbates his growing sense of disconnection. She offers to be his havruta and inquires which classmate he would feel good about working with in the future.

By considering how she is connecting to individual students, she opens myriad strategies from which to choose: prioritizing hallway conversations, sitting in on specific havrutot, conducting full class warm-ups and reflections that invite sharing, asking content-based personalization questions, and so on. She can take the opportunity to share stories about her own interests, her own challenges in learning and how she herself has built her own relationship to Torah.

The teacher’s knowledge of her individual students’ lives and her consistent demonstration that she cares about them contributes mightily to her students becoming ever more present for learning.

How am I inviting in and helping each individual learner be present? 

The teacher realizes that she typically skips this step in an effort “to get to work.” It dawns on her that not attending to this job of helping her students become present has contributed to a task-oriented classroom that does not yet draw on the personal investment and contribution of students.

She then builds in a two-minute routine to help her students get settled and center their awareness of themselves and others. She facilitates a class warm-up that specifically ties into themes of the Exodus text to give each student a chance to think for themselves and share. By so doing, she invites in the voices of each of her students and primes them to be able to engage in conversation with the text. Students begin to show interest in one another’s answers; energetic head nods indicate that students discover connections they would not have discovered anywhere else if it were not for the frame that the Torah text offers them.

Instead of hearing only from three students at the end of class, she makes it a goal to hear the voice of every student. She sets students up in havruta intentionally so that each student has the full opportunity—and expectation--to activate their voices and minds. With this core relational building block in mind, the teacher is able to find many ways to bring her students, in their particularity, “into the room.”



How am I connecting learners to one another?

The teacher realizes that while she is providing some opportunities for students to connect with one another, these occasions are mostly incidental. Students do have an option to work together, and they do get to hear some of their peers’ ideas when they report back to the full class, but she knows she has uncovered an untapped channel of energy to elevate learning by strengthening peer-to-peer relationships.

She decides to set her students up to work in longer-term havruta groups so they can grow in their collaboration over time. She teaches specific havruta routines that invite students to connect with one another socially and work together skillfully. These routines, newly embedded in the unit packet, hold students accountable for one another’s ideas—not just their own.

She introduces language tools to improve collaboration, embeds them in the packet, posts them on the walls, and models these in full group discussions. Instead of hearing her students ask one another “What did you put down for number one?” she hears them say “Tell me more about what you mean” and “I disagree with you because…” or “I want to build on what you just said…”

In the full group, instead of responding to each comment in turn, she redirects students back to one another. She asks her students to articulate aloud and in writing what their peers helped them notice in the text and the ways in which their friends enriched their understanding. She holds these peer-to-peer relationships up as a value of the classroom and cultivates an active practice of explicit appreciation for what students bring to one another in their learning.


How am I inviting in and helping the text be present and available for partnership?

As the content expert in the room, the teacher is used to presenting the text to her students, but this question has her thinking a bit differently. She realizes that the Torah is mostly trapped in a photocopied packet, encumbered by worksheet questions. She wants it to come alive for her students and begins to think about other ways to present the text physically, to give her students multiple experiences of interacting with it. She gives students time with the sefer (book) itself; she projects key verses on the wall for all to gather around as if around a campfire. She uses her packet to re-present and “chunk” the text in formats that help students slow down and notice its details.

Now that she has established havruta groups, she is freed up to differentiate instruction for a range of language learning needs and gives different groups skill-appropriate translation exercises to make the text accessible to them while preserving its authenticity and ambiguities.

The havruta routine builds in steps for reading and re-reading the text aloud so that everyone can give voice to the text and hear it many times over the course of study. And she continues to teach students more information and provide resources that help students understand the text on its own terms.

Now when she crisscrosses the room, she hears the words of Torah spoken from her students’ mouths. The text is present and surrounding them in sight and sound. Students begin to ask her more questions about their understanding of the Torah and fewer about what she is looking for to finish their work.



How am I connecting learners and texts to one another?

Through her reflective audit of her classroom, the teacher already has put in place effective structures to bring the text and her students into direct relationship with one another such as warm-ups, intentional havruta practices and reflections. Nonetheless, there is more she can do to create the quality of Torah learning that she desires.

She realizes that if she truly wants the text and her students to meet in conversation, she needs to give her students the chance to notice the text for themselves, wonder about it, and ask and pursue their own questions. Her standard text unit packets, filled with teacher-generated questions, do hold a lot of wisdom, but they also create obstacles to direct and intrinsic engagement. By the routines of translating, noticing and wondering she has instilled, her students most often discover questions the classical commentators raise and that she would have asked herself. But instead of racing through classwork to get it done, the students identify and consider those questions with renewed investment. Any questions they don’t ask that the teacher feels are critical, she contributes to the class as a fellow lifelong learner of Torah and an expert member of the learning community.

Whether students are pursuing their own questions or the teacher’s, the teacher has taught them to ground their answers in the text itself. She teaches them language tools such as, “Where do you see that in the text?” to help one another stay accountable to the Torah, supporting and challenging their ideas. By doing so, students develop habits of returning to the Torah.

Full-class discussions are no longer just about reporting out answers. Every student now has something to offer. Together, they are weaving a vibrant tapestry of genuine questions and evolving interpretations, particular to the relationships built among the teacher, students and Torah.


The Core Relational Building Blocks is in some ways a simple tool—just a handful of questions. But these questions help to reorient the enterprise of teaching and learning toward the life-giving potential of relationships. Educators can draw upon these questions to plan, to teach in real time, and to reflect on their classrooms in order to build the relationships that fundamentally shape the quality of learning. Through these questions, educators can see new horizons of opportunity to bring Torah to life and to cultivate the intellectual, social-emotional and spiritual growth and wellbeing of their students. The CRBB is an expression of PoP’s theory of learning: If educators attend to each core relationship over time and in balance, attuned to their context, learners will experience deeper, more sustaining and more joyful learning.

Moral Relationships in Jewish Schools

Judd Kruger Levingston

When we teachers and administrators guide students every day, our unstated tone and subtle body language may contribute more to our relationships with our students than what we actually say out loud. When we look directly at students, wave hello in the halls and ask how they are doing with the intention of listening to their response, we build trust. Conversely, when we turn our backs, ask students to send us an email, put them off somehow, or offer sarcasm and irony, we put distance between our students and us. We may even get a laugh sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that we have earned their trust.

Our students don’t always earn our trust because they test us: They speak out of turn and claim not to have remembered a due date or an element of an assignment; they ask to use the restroom and take their phones with them; they pretend a need to visit the nurse.

We have to remember, though, that just as it’s in our blood and in our job description to guide students, it’s in their blood to test their adults’ patience, subject matter knowledge and moral fiber. It is our role to take the high moral road even when they test us so that they can take us seriously when we make a moral claim and so that they can take our relationships seriously.

Over the course of research that I conducted at several Prizmah schools and at other independent non-sectarian, all boys, all girls, Roman Catholic and Quaker schools in connection with the Sylvia and Moshe Ettenberg Research Grant from the Network for Research in Jewish Education, I saw trust-building and strong relationships emerging in classrooms, and, most profoundly, I observed teachers leveraging a moral relationship with their students in a variety of contexts, from math and social studies classes to physical education and a prayer group sitting under a tree.



What did you notice?

In a third grade math class at a progressive Northeast Jewish day school, students were invited to come to the board to show that they could count by threes and anticipate the ninth student’s answer in the sequence. While one student repeatedly added the number three nine times, another stood with a meter stick and counted each time she saw a multiple of three. One created an equation, while Talia (all names are pseudonyms), a recent Israeli arrival in the United States, completed the problem in Hebrew and then discovered to her delight that she had taken the same approach as one of her English-speaking classmates.

The teachers, Caden and Chana, commended each solution to the problem, modeling pluralism by taking an open-ended approach that invited and validated multiple perspectives. The guiding question was, “What did you notice?” focusing on the method and not on a closed solution. Caden invited students to admire one another’s differences without criticizing whether one approach was “better” than another. In this mathematics lesson, the students experienced one another and truly heard one another as budding and resourceful mathematicians. Teachers were nurturing collegial relationships among the classmates that spawned acceptance, inclusion and mutual admiration.



What if?

When a sixth-grade language arts teacher at a Midwestern Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, Mrs. Abbott, took a “What if?” approach, she showed her students a video of a basketball game in which a player with Down Syndrome is assisted by a member of the opposing team when he shoots for a basket. The students watched the video, imagining, “What if the world were more kind?” One boy pointed out that the player holding the ball might have been called out for traveling, but that the “ref didn’t call him on it,” so the spirit of sportsmanship was more important than the particular rule.

The students tried to imagine a kinder world as they discussed some of the moral precepts in the young adult novel Wonder. Each student found a precept that they found meaningful and painted the words in a decorative fashion on a rock; one student chose, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” In choosing these moral teachings and in committing them to paint, Mrs. Abbott led them in expressing hopes for meaningful relationships with one another that would have moral meaning beyond the moment.


“High five!”

The athletic director at a Reform Jewish day school in the Southeast, Liam Brennan, embraced the Jewish values of the school, seeing himself in a mentoring role with his students, helping them to fulfill the vision of le-dor va-dor, from generation to generation. Having moved from a Vermont farm to the Southeast, Mr. Brennan’s youth was very different from that of his students, but he has developed strong relationships by seeing each student as an athlete in their own right. He recounted for me, “Every day is like my first day!” He makes sure to learn his students’ names. He watches for them and he knows how to make them feel seen, “giving the kid a high five even if they’re not an athlete.”

Knowing that the athletics program exists not so much to create state champions as to instill team spirit and opportunities for personal growth through sport, he emphasizes the ethics of teamwork and good judgment. He’d rather see the students take aim and shoot from the line from a position of modesty; he is mistrustful of “razzle dazzle” and fancy moves that don’t advance sportsmanship or good play. The coach-player and player-player relationships are most important because those relationships allow for mentoring, role modeling, generosity and humility. He concluded, “We don’t need another basketball player in the world; we need good kids.”



“Wow! Thanks! Help!”

Jewish day school educators know the challenges of asking young people to pray, and there are myriad reasons behind those challenges, including the complexities of praying in Hebrew as a foreign language; the elusive task of finding sacred space in school buildings; making room for sacred time in busy schedules; and asking students to express emotions and to give voice to words that feel archaic, or, at best, out of place in the hustle and bustle of a school day.

In a Reform Jewish day school, I learned from the director of the drama program, Caitlin Barr, that students put together a “Rock Shabbat,” setting prayers from the traditional liturgy to rock tunes from the Backstreet Boys and other groups. One of the Jewish studies teachers, himself a Jew by choice, has his students create an online prayer book to which they can add new material every year as they grow from their lower school into their middle school years, including creative writing in response to various prompts from one year to another, memories from their class trip to Israel, and spiritual reflections. He described the portfolios as “relational and playful” because the students express their relationships with one another and with God through media and spontaneous self-expression.

At a pluralistic, community school in the Northeast, Alon, the school’s Jewish life team leader and madrich ruchani/spiritual director, led some middle school students from their indoor in-the-round stepped prayer space to a grassy spot under a tree just outside the school’s front door. As they sat, the teacher in a conversation about three approaches to prayer, Wow!, Thanks!, and Help!, encouraging the students to experience the daily morning prayer, Baruch She-amar (“Praised is the one who spoke”) as encompassing these three approaches at once:

Wow: How beautiful is your creation;

Thanks: For this beautiful world and for the crops;

Help: Can you help them grow a little more?

Alon pointed out to the students that “the great earth” makes us say “Wow!”; we express our gratitude and say “Thanks!,” and we should use this time for prayer to find the motivation to help the earth and not just to ask God to fix it. By engaging his students in a thoughtful discussion by a tree, sitting on the grass with them, he modeled a positive teacher-student relationship and led the students toward a positive relationship with God or, for some students, their own conscience.



Teachers have the capacity to develop moral relationships with their students, sharing ideas, concerns, values and hopes. These moral relationships should be treasured because they reflect an experience closer to the I-Thou relationship described so thoughtfully by Martin Buber in his landmark work of theology, I and Thou. There are limits to a transactional, I-It relationship between a teacher and student that is focused on grades and on the exchange of information needed for a test. But, as Maimonides teaches in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, learning and performing good in the world are essential in human life, and they are essential in the teacher-student and parent-child relationship. In this era, in which virtual learning and online relationships easily substitute for in-person learning and for face-to-face interactions, it is clear that learning has a better chance at enduring when moral relationships between teachers and students are at the core of learning.

Kids Belong Outside of the Classroom: Innovative Educational Practices to Foster Relationships Between Students and the Community

Adam Levine

Stop me if you have heard this one before in a classroom setting: 

         “You know, in the real world, you won’t be able to….” 

         “When you get to the real world, you will see…” 

         “School is a bubbleyou aren’t in the real world until you graduate.” 

This line of thinking brings up several questions. 

  • If the students aren’t in the so-called real world, where are they? 
  • What message does it send to students that their world is somehow fake, make-believe or inauthentic?
  • What does this say about the world of education that we openly admit to operating in some kind of fantasy land? 

I cannot count how many times I have heard the expression “the real world” come out of the mouth of a teacher or even the students themselves. To me, this is not only inaccurate but also wildly destructive. By separating the students from reality or somehow suggesting that they are not actual functioning members of society, we are stripping them of both power and agency. By implying the students’ current words and actions don’t count, that they are in some kind of trial run for the real thing, we are truly doing them a great disservice. 

One of our primary goals should actually be to help the students understand that they are currently living in “the real world.” They should be engaged in their own communities, passionate about what is happening around them and empowered to make a difference. Educators often remark that one of the primary functions of a school is to cultivate the citizens of the future. If this belief is put into practice, we must allow them to practice their citizenship in a legitimate fashion. 

One way we achieve this ever-important goal is through the power of Integrated Project Based Learning. IPBL is an innovative educational approach to learning that empowers students to see the value in their own learning, motivates students to make cross-curricular connections, and ensures that the students are developing relationships and engaging in the community in order to make a difference.


This year, our seventh graders are learning about different changemakers, both historical and contemporary. As a final project, each student will identify a local changemaker, interview them and highlight their achievements in a community-wide event. For this to be successful, we need the students to develop relationships with community leaders from a variety of walks of life. 

Here is a funny thing about middle school students: They aren’t always comfortable (or adept) at community outreach, so this process takes a great deal of teacher guidance and scaffolding. Once the students have identified a local changemaker, they need to research them, reach out to them, schedule a time to meet with them and interview them. In order to achieve this, we need to explicitly teach the students how to build relationships with people who aren’t their peers. 

  • How do you write a formal email? 
  • What happens if they don’t respond—how long do you wait to send a followup? 
  • Do you really have to say “as per my previous email,” or is that rude? 
  • How do you greet someone? 
  • How do you conduct an interview? 
  • How do you introduce a guest speaker to a group of people?
  • How do you send a thank-you note? 


When the student work is ready for the showcase, the students personally invite the changemakers into the building to be at the event. This is done intentionally, as it helps foster a relationship between the student—and by extension, our school—and the community. These interconnective tissues bond our students with the community in an authentic and meaningful way.

As the years go by and students choose different changemakers or organizations they want to highlight, our Rolodex of relationships continues to grow. When students engage in mitzvah projects or other expressions of Tikkun Olam, we have a database of groups and individuals with whom we already have a connection. These connections ensure that our students have guidance and support.

Once the students have identified a changemaker, interviewed them, created a poster about their achievements and life’s work, and made a public presentation about them, it is hard to see how a relationship would not be formed. In fact, these relationships can become so strong that many students elect to continue working with these people or organizations beyond their years at school. One of our students became an ambassador for a local charity dedicated to clean drinking water in impoverished communities. Not for a grade, not for recognition, but because she developed a relationship with a community organization and became passionate about a worldly issue. 


Another student became a liaison for mental health awareness programming in local grade schools with the Kevin Love Foundation. Through this organization, the student helps break down barriers and challenge stigmas surrounding mental health, particularly in the context of athletics. The student was even recognized on Lester Holt’s NBC news program for his participation in the organization. This is a student who wasn’t deterred by people telling him he was too young to make a difference or that he wasn’t in “the real world.” 

When we tell the kids they are in “the real world,” they will begin to act like it. 

Through this type of educational philosophy, students are of course learning reading, writing, math, science, technology and more. But what they are really learning is much more vital, much more important than that. They are learning how to be people. They are learning about the power of relationships. 

Making our students’ work matter is one of the most critical aspects of the job of an educator. Allowing students to understand that not only does their learning matter but that it can make a difference in the world should be one of our primary functions. Empowering a generation of students to engage with the world outside of school is the job.

Relationships That Support Identity: The Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA)

Cheryl Weiner
Mike Schneider-Tran

MetroWest Jewish Day School (MWJDS), a K-8 school in Framingham, Massachusetts, began offering a GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) during the 2021-2022 school year due to growing interest expressed by middle schoolers (grades 6-8), many of whom were struggling with their gender and/or sexual identity. The students were in need of a safe space where they could ask questions and feel supported as they navigated complex questions about their lives and their identities in the context of a political environment that was becoming both increasingly welcoming and hostile toward them. 

The MWJDS students are not alone in their struggles. According to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, most LGBTQ+ youth are aware of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity by adolescence. A 2020 nationwide study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law found that approximately 300,000 youth aged 13-17 identified as transgender, and 1,994,000 as LGB. Given that identity is always in flux, so too are these concepts, and the meanings people ascribe to them. While some people have questioned whether LGBTQ+ identification is on the rise among youth, others attribute this shift to the comfort young people feel in expressing their identities. This is due in part to the brave and courageous work accomplished by countless LGBTQ+ activists and allies, Jewish and non-Jewish. 

The Jewish community is fortunate to have access to many wonderful resources, including Keshet, which works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews and their families in Jewish life, and JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), which supports LGBTQ+ youth and young adults from Orthodox, Chassidic and Sephardi/Mizrahi communities. Both organizations offer training and education to help Jewish day schools build awareness around the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals and develop strategies to create inclusive environments. Keshet emphasizes that “even in communities where there seems to be agreement that inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews is essential, it is still important to state this explicitly.” 

Young people who are able to openly share their sexual and gender identities and receive support have better mental health outcomes and report greater life satisfaction, according to a study by the Trevor Project. At the same time, some LGBTQ+ day school students do not feel that their day schools have created an environment where they can openly share their gender and/or sexual identities. That is not to say that people are close-minded, but rather, there is no precedent for them to rely upon. 

In a blog post for The Jewish Women’s Archive, Rising Voices Fellow Nina Baran, who led the GSA at her day school, noted that “some students from our school graduate and then come out as queer a year or two later.” This is a common practice among many day school students. She conducted the Gay and Lesbian Student and Educator Network’s (GLSEN) climate survey at her school, which measures challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ students at their schools and resources that support their well-being. Baran discovered that many students felt that their school’s LGBTQ+ resources were lacking. For example, their library had few books that featured LGBTQ+ identities, and staff with training in LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Keshet cautions that “inclusion is a journey, not a destination,” which means that equality is ongoing work that should involve all stakeholders, rather than a one-off effort.

MWJDS’ GSA, which is now in its second year, is led by school social worker Mike Schneider-Tran, one of the article’s authors. Schneider-Tran’s pre-existing relationships with middle schoolers—he leads the student council, teaches wellness and offers therapeutic support when needed—and his lived experience as a bisexual man made him an appropriate choice for leading the group. The students’ unfaltering trust in him provided an easy entry point for those who were interested in participating. Sixteen middle schoolers, many of whom were exploring their gender and/or sexual identities, joined during the 2022-2023 academic year, and the group is now in its second year of operation. 

Members also included allies who wanted to understand what their peers were experiencing. They became better educated and connected to their peers’ personal journeys. The in-school meeting format—the group met during lunch and recess—signified that this was a priority for the school, and also meant that all students who were interested would be able to attend. Parents were also informed about the group. In fact, a few requested it, and they were excited to see it take form. This reaffirmed the school’s commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion among its faculty, students and families.

During the weekly GSA meetings, students discussed topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. In addition to exploring these concepts, they talked about their own personal experiences and current events they wanted to respond to and mobilize around. They also expressed concerns about state, national and local politics that could threaten their safety and livelihoods, such as anti-trans legislation and discrimination. They discussed how some of these issues intersected with their Jewish practice and identity.

Having access to a GSA during a critical stage in identity development can be growth-fostering for students, faculty and families, and lead to transformative change. Findings from the Trevor Project’s national study among 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth revealed that only 50% perceived their learning environments as identity-affirming spaces. Having access to affirming spaces at school, online and at home, are critical to helping them feel validated and supported. In 2018, more than one-quarter of LGBTQ+ youth experienced alienation at school. This underscores the need for friends, family, and mentors who can understand them and support them.

Cole (a pseudonym), who transferred to MWJDS from a large public school in the sixth grade, recalls how they were one of few students who attended the GSA at their former school. This made them feel alienated and alone, and they were bullied for their gender-expansive identity. At MWJDS, they were elated to find a warm environment where they could safely discuss their identity and meet other friends with whom to share their experiences.

Having a strong sense of self was critical for graduating students as they headed off to larger high schools. Many have since joined GSAs at their new schools. Cole is now part of a GSA at their new school. They were recently elected as a freshman officer, and they helped to organize a panel on religion and queerness for a Pride Day event. They credit the MWJDS GSA for giving them the skills they needed to advocate for themselves and their beliefs. 

The GSA at MWJDS allows students to explore topics they might not have otherwise been able to at one of the most vital points in their lives. These conversations led to building confidence in themselves and their abilities to communicate with their peers, school personnel and, most importantly, their families. Certainly, Mike’s ability to form open and caring relationships with the students, and their ability to trust in him and one another, allowed student-participants to become vulnerable and reflective in the group setting. It is imperative that a GSA is accessible for youth to continue showing a growing support from educational institutions and their communities toward the LGBTQ+ community.


Creating Colleagues of Choice: What JEDLAB Has to Say about Building Relationships in 2023

Yechiel Hoffman
Ken Gordon

It’s been 10 years since Yechiel Hoffman and Ken Gordon launched JEDLAB at five in the morning at the 2013 National Jewish Day School Conference in Washington, DC. We decided to mark the anniversary by nudging the co-founders into kibitzing about the lessons of JEDLAB—now 12,000 members strong—and how today’s educators can apply them to their own work and careers.


Covid Walls

Hoffman: In the beginning, JEDLAB encouraged educators to seek colleagues beyond the people in their schools, classrooms and hallways. To consider the hallways that existed in the virtual spaces as real. We pushed it even further saying, “Online, you can find people all over the place who are asking the big questions about education and offering you new approaches and strategies.” I’m curious if nowadays people still feel that same level of openness. Or did the pandemic put up walls for people, because they were dealing with so much stuff, and interfere with the ability to find people in unexpected places to learn from or to work with?

Gordon: Yep. JEDLAB was Hebrew school teachers talking to Jewish studies professors, talking to development professionals, talking to people in communications (like me!). It was an unusual and welcoming community. As for the pandemic: It did rebuild some of those demolished silos. We need to knock ’em down again. It’s a challenge because we’re much more aware of how social media operates now. A lot of us avoid broadcasting, avoid putting ourselves into the big social machine that aims to monetize every last bit of our attention. Many people have intentionally contracted their social circles smaller because they want a different kind of digital culture. 


Group Size

Hoffman: I’ve always been an advocate for the importance of self-care and identifying mental health as being part of the holistic piece of a professional educator’s life. Lately I’ve been asking: Do online communal spaces, even online learning spaces, reinforce a kind of positive mental health?

JEDLAB became a very large group pretty quickly. When we were thinking about JEDLAB originally, we wanted it to have what Martin Buber might have called the I-You mentality. We wanted to build as many one-on-one connections as we could. I feel like that model can actually reinforce a healthy sort of support. But when you enter into a very large group… what could that do for you, other than summon the worst of what the Internet provides, trolling and yelling and such?

Gordon: I-You doesn’t scale. Authentic conversations, authentic relationships, are very difficult to maintain in groups of 200–and impossible in groups of 3,000 or 12,000. So what do we say to people who are hoping to capture some of the energizing spirit of JEDLAB’s early days?

Hoffman: I appreciate the fact that we started as a one-on-one relationship before we expanded it, even in the original circle, to 10, 15, 20 people. All those relationships were built on a sense of mutual support and asking, “How can we help each other fill the gaps of what we weren’t getting on our own from our jobs or from our immediate colleagues?”

I would encourage HaYidion readers to start their new communities with groups of twos or fives. My friend Josh Feldman, of R&R, talks about this a lot. With twos, you can really get an honest, informal relationship going. With five, you can create a dynamic that provides more dimensionality and more resources. And differing perspectives. Sometimes in one-on-one situations, you get locked into a certain biased, or even oppositional, way of seeing things. With five, you can kind of soften the curves.

I’m curious about the ways you can identify and cultivate those relationships, whether it’s in-person at the next conference you go to or whether it’s online, through, let’s say, LinkedIn. 



Gordon: Look for people who aren’t like you. (I’ve had good luck with doctors and designers.) Hang with those who might require you to learn something new. And find a common text that you can share. The JEDLAB book club model is a useful here. Throwing a book such as The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss of the MIT Media Lab out there, offering your opinion and seeing who else responds, is a great way to find your people. 

I never told myself, “I’m gonna converse with a dude named Yechiel who lives in LA and has (1) a Chabad background, (2) a doctorate, and (3) a rabbinical certification”–but there we were, online, talking feverishly about Sorcerers. Our conversations were relational because there was no transactional element. We immediately saw we had complementary ideas, and we built on that. 

Hoffman: I want to ask educators: How do you see the commonalities between people? Can you draw Venn diagrams illustrating what you share with others rather than looking at the things that separate you? They should try to find people who are opening up conversations and not be turned off if they don’t share your exact identifiers or they’re not working in the same sector or have a different role than yours. Look for the things that you have in common so that those conversations are open up.

Gordon: Get past the superficial markers of your professional and digital identities. 

Hoffman: When at professional conferences, pay attention to what people are saying and not what their name tag says.

Gordon: One of the things that annoyed us about the conference was that they had the experts on the stage … and the rest of us idiots in the audience. The separation inhibited dialogue. We wanted to enable more dialogue. Better dialogue. Real dialogue. 

Part of this is not suffering through a lot of superficial conversations. We want to encourage people to use honesty and curiosity to bust through superficial conversations. This can be tough to do, and it won’t always work, but eventually you may just find someone who’ll respond with something truly meaningful.

Hoffman: Say you’re going to a gathering, whether it’s an in-person conference or in a digital community, and people are talking about interesting things. You know, it’s good to listen. I’ve been finding there’s a lot of small, cohort-based groups that have been started either officially or more informally, and they’re usually friends of friends. And I’ve been meeting people through these things, people I’ve never met before. And I’m finding those to be extremely rewarding. People are just emerging into their social lives again and small, cohort-based environments make it easy to allow us to find those commonalities.

Gordon: Have enough confidence in yourself to reach out to anybody who says something interesting. The world is so connected now that if an author puts something out there that is interesting, you can probably have a conversation with them about it. 



Hoffman: Are you finding people are still (a) reading and (b) willing to make new connections around the things that they’re passionate about reading?

Gordon: One thing is 100% true: People who spend two years writing a book are filled to the brim with their subject, and if someone asks them a good, thoughtful question, they’ll answer. Doing so is basically raising your hand and saying, “I want to be your student.” And that is irresistible to the natural pedagogue, to someone who is a legitimate expert.

With our digitally connected communities, you can actually see the conversations happening after a new book is released. The public nature and the speed is new. We’re talking about the era of mobile agile hevrutah.

So many of our professional relationships are transactional. Transaction is, in fact, what a career is in many ways. This goes in the other direction. Getting relational allows you to transcend your job and your field. Give yourself permission to think beyond “What can I get from the person I’m talking with?”


Hoffman: Let’s talk about the long-term relationships that were fostered in early days of JEDLAB and how creating something new without the expectation of what it would become was a fertile ground for creating relationships that last. 

Gordon: Since JEDLAB, both of us have gone off and done a bunch of different kinds of things separately. But we keep periodically getting together, on video chat or phone. You even visited me in Boston. We’re always recapping the most recent thing … and there’s always this potential for our next collaboration to appear. Attention HaYidion-sters: Being in conversation in relation with a sympathetic creator-pal is endlessly energizing, and it helps you care about what you’re currently cooking up.

Hoffman: What would you want to say to Ken Gordon of 2013? 

Gordon: I would tell that guy not to worry about what other people are going to say or do about JEDLAB. We knew that nobody asked for JEDLAB, and so, in the back of my mind, I was always concerned that it would be “taken away” because it was an extracurricular adventure. You?

Hoffman: I would tell my 2013 self to chill. It will work out. It’s gonna work out the way it needs to. And the most important thing that will come out of it are the relationships you’ve built through the process.

JEDLAB was really atypical. Educators who work in schools together collaborate closely, but if one of them leaves to go to another school, then it’s suddenly the end. 

Gordon: Digital communities give you a chance to create colleagues of choice. 

Hoffman: The evolving professional friendship that transcends a particular project is something worth cultivating.

Gordon: I imagine that with our youngest Jewish educators, that sort of continual, longitudinal communication will be part of their professional lives. My young-adult kids are almost never not talking to their friends on one platform or another. 


Hoffman: Can you talk about the ways that you build community now?

Gordon: Honestly, it’s still very similar to the way it was in JEDLAB. I am by nature a reader, writer, teacher, learner. I’m pretty much always engaged in those activities simultaneously. I brought that into JEDLAB. I’m still doing that now, but in the world of innovation and design. I read books, connect with authors and experts—via email, via LinkedIn—and bring them onto the podcasts I produce or interview them for articles. Sometimes we co-write. What about you? 

Hoffman: What’s really important to me right now is building mini-communities, anywhere between five and 25 people who share some kind of affinity, but with enough difference to make it interesting. I’m just enjoying learning different ways to cultivate and intensify those communities. Most of these groups happen to be primarily living within a virtual environment and communicating digitally. So we can be geographically dispersed. 

In some ways it’s what we tried to do 10 years ago, but the technology was so fast and agile at that moment that we had no choice but to scale up to a place where it wasn’t within our original vision. I’m not letting the technology dictate the way I think it dictated the growth of our group in 2013.