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.