From the Board: Watching the Flower Blossom

Paul Bernstein, moderator; Michael Bohnen, Jodi Hessel, Nathan J. Lindenbaum, Joseph Steiner and Dara Yanowitz

Five current Prizmah board members who served on the boards of the legacy organizations discuss their observations of Prizmah’s growth during this first year. Participants: Paul Bernstein, moderator; Michael Bohnen, Jodi Hessel, Nathan J. Lindenbaum, Joseph Steiner and Dara Yanowitz.

Paul: After nearly one year, what are people saying about Prizmah?

Dara: As we all know, it’s an enormous undertaking to have five established Jewish organizations choose to come to a table and try to create something new. It’s pretty unheard of, and I think that people were skeptical but also excited that we were willing to go through this process.

Joseph: I think that the skepticism has dissipated and been replaced by a real optimism as to what the merged organization can do for the day school world, and a lot of that had to do with the conference. I’m sure all of you heard it from the people in the elevators and corridors, not just that they were impressed with the conference, but they were grateful that it had been convened.

Dara: People would look at our badges and say, “Oh, you’re on the Prizmah board? Thank you.” We were observing the materialization of the dream.

Paul: Michael, having been at the Jewish Funders Network, what were your impressions of the conversations in the wider philanthropic realm?

Michael: Just like with any investment, you have early stage investors, who are excited by a new idea, and others who wait and see what you actually do. We certainly have been very successful with some of the early stage investors, and I think we still have a job to do with some of the funders who want to see the product. I’m confident that the more they see, the more people will come on board.

Paul: How does Prizmah support schools to reflect their distinct religious identity or worldview?

Jodi: The schools didn’t want to lose their identities. Everyone is very excited to see that that isn’t happening. Prizmah is representing everyone, yet also keeping the customer service of a favorite store where they greet you by name and give you a smile, and you feel like you’ve got a friend. Prizmah’s school advocates are those people. They are really making the schools feel comfortable.

Nathan: I think that we took the fairly conservative route in year one, to replicate almost everything that the founding organizations were doing. The challenge lies before us on a couple of levels: first, to achieve cross-pollination, to take the best programs from each of the founding organizations and get schools from all different streams to take advantage of them; second, to do something new.

Paul: What opportunities and challenges do you see for Prizmah in year two?

Michael: We need to help change the culture so that all schools realize the value of membership. Membership is important because it reflects Prizmah’s value proposition: schools get goods and services in exchange for what they pay. But it’s also important that they belong to this venture, that they feel a sense of unity and see that their participation can really help them meet their challenges.

Dara: One of the reasons we created Prizmah was because of the wealth and breadth of opportunity. Innovative programs that would appeal to schools across the streams, large and small. Collective lobbying for things that day schools need, whether it’s endowment or government help or funding. Professional development for day school teachers fieldwide. A think tank for donors to discuss the big questions that affect all day schools: financial stability, enrollment, sustainability.

Nathan: We’re going to develop innovative programs that are unique for Jewish day schools, and we’re also going to make available programs that already exist and are appropriate for our schools. Through collaboration we can bring programs to the field that are not accessible or affordable for a single school.

Michael: The challenges that schools face—affordability, excellence, advocacy—are becoming even more difficult. Prizmah can address all of those issues on a collaborative basis for the entire day school field.

Paul: Could you touch on the question of schools, Prizmah, communities, and federations working together: Where’s the collective impact opportunity?

Nathan: I’ve been intrigued by the notion of Prizmah focusing on working with communities, not just with individual schools. Some communities are already organized, and we should leverage that. In other communities, we can be the catalyst that brings individual institutions together. We can honestly say that we can effectively support all of the schools in the community.

Jodi: While most of us live in or near large Jewish communities, for schools in small, isolated communities, Prizmah is their lifeline. When we empower them to network with similar schools, they understand and support each other, and that’s just such a blessing for those schools.

Paul: What are you most excited about as you move forward?

Michael: Prizmah as a model for cooperation of people from different movements and viewpoints, hopefully one that can be replicated elsewhere.

Jodi: The idea of getting more Jewish tushies in schools.

Joseph: The potential to get schools to work together across the continent on educational excellence and on viability.

Dara: Continuing the momentum, seeing the business plan be fleshed out, watching the flower blossom, and doing what we set out to do.

Nathan: The notion of raising the profile of the day school movement generally. If we can continue to operate at a high level, we will see philanthropists and community leaders lining up to support our movement and move us forward.

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