Mental Health Summit 2023

An interactive series of four workshops will enhance your understanding of the confluence of students’ social emotional and neurodiverse learning needs and will allow teams of learning specialists, school counselors, and administrators to learn to access and direct behaviors, and collaborate and communicate more effectively, ensuring that all members of the school community can thrive.

Paul is Prizmah’s founding Chief Executive Officer. Learn more about Paul here.

A Tu Bishvat Message From Our CEO

Tu Bishvat, amidst the kabbalistic traditions, delightful children’s songs, and dried fruit, has an important halachic role. To properly observe the biblically ordained laws of orlah (avoiding eating the fruit of a tree younger than three years old), we need to keep track of the age of trees. Enter the rabbinically decreed New Year for the trees, a date dedicated to tracking and marking time.

As we celebrate this day, we marvel at and rejoice in the growth and transformation of trees, which move from seeds and saplings to bearing fruit ever so quickly. Trees themselves mark the passage the time, each ring a sign of another year past. On Tu Bishvat itself, we track and celebrate growth.

A few weeks ago, my family in England had an unexpected brush with celebrity. My mother, a German refugee who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child in Nazi-occupied France, was photographed with my niece by the Duchess of Cambridge. Their photograph will be part of an upcoming exhibit of portraits commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The Duchess published the moving portrait of my mother, together with photos of the two of them meeting at Kensington Palace, on her Instagram feed. After their initial meeting, my mother and Kate were again pictured together when the Duke and Duchess were guests of honor at the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration event in London. Their voices and presence create headlines every day, and successfully shone a brighter light on the importance of this anniversary. Kate described my mother, together with a second survivor she photographed, as “two of the most life-affirming people that I have had the privilege to meet.” She described the purpose of the portraits as ensuring that “[their] memories will be kept alive as they pass the baton to the next generation.”

I keep thinking about the portrait she took and what it represents. The staging and lighting of the photograph were designed very specifically by the Duchess to capture this unique moment. A survivor of World War II with her 11-year old granddaughter, light streaming in from the hopeful east, wartime artifacts (my mother’s German identity card, marked with a “J” for Jude-Jew) shared across the generations. The photograph is very much a moment in time, a moment that marks time, bridging the past with the future. The image captures the gaze of a young girl learning through the shared experience of her grandmother, committed to re-telling that story in order to learn its lessons.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks articulated a crucial lesson he learned from Holocaust survivors, when he said: “To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.”  The photograph of my mother does this, aesthetically and generationally. Our shared work in Jewish day schools also does this every day, child by child, family by family, community by community. By securing our Jewish future through vibrant and sustainable schools, in some ways we heal the tragedies of our collective past.

So this Tu Bishvat, while I still chuckle at the thought of my mother rubbing shoulders with royalty, I appreciate how the day’s focus on trees and marking time can catalyze a deeper appreciation for the relationship between past and future. And I give thanks, both for the trees which beautify our world, and the hundreds of Jewish day schools in which tens of thousands of Jewish futures are growing to fruition.




Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Paul is Prizmah’s founding Chief Executive Officer. Learn more about Paul here.

The Power of Network

As early as my second week at Prizmah, I saw first-hand the power of our Network of Jewish day schools. While getting to know a school leader, I was asked a question that reached to the core of the character of their school, and honestly was beyond my scope of knowledge. “I’ll get back to you on that,” I replied, thinking that our Prizmah team of experienced day school professionals would pull out just the right answer. But, when I shared the question with my Prizmah colleagues, instead of a “textbook” solution, their response was a list of five other schools who had recently grappled with the identical question. These peers provided that leader with better answers (gained through experience) than a single “expert” might offer. That is an example of the Network at work, and the knowledge of the field in action. There is no textbook, but there are plenty of solutions.

Being part of a Network means contributing and accessing the everyday “real-world” expertise that builds stronger schools, and a supportive, vibrant field.

In the past year, day school professionals and lay leaders have connected, shared, learned, created, and driven impact through the Prizmah Network at an astounding rate.  1100 field leaders, from over 230 schools, joined us at the March, 2019 Prizmah Conference and collectively Dared to Dream; 163 schools participated in a Prizmah Reshet group (which had 200 new members this year); 1305 resources were launched in our new digital Knowledge Center and have been accessed by thousands of page views.

Online, at in-person gatherings, through emerging partnerships with federations and national leaders in education, Prizmah’s focus on Network points us in a strong direction to support individual schools and the day school field.

We just celebrated Shavuot, acknowledging the enormous gift—matan—of Torah. When we call the holiday “z’man matan Torateinu” or “time of the giving of our Torah,” we are actually celebrating a collective experience, as Torah is referred to in the plural possessive. Rashi teaches that both the Written Law and the Oral Law were transmitted to Moshe at Sinai. While the Written Law—Torah she’bichtav--speaks in one Divine voice, the Oral Law--Torah she’be-al peh, including the Mishnah, the Talmud, Midrashim--contains multiple voices across generations. There is an inherent intricate network of diverse voices and opinions offering insight, advice, and instruction.

The Oral Law provides a model for understanding our world and addressing the challenges we inevitably encounter. When we gain access to the experience of others, when we draw on past examples to inform present action, when we debate—even loudly—about our differences, we strengthen our ability to deliver on our mission. The Prizmah Network is predicated on just such a philosophy.

For our Network to fulfill its potential demands that we create space for the myriad voices to be raised, that we construct pathways for connection among practitioners, and that we encourage portals and access to other providers of expertise.

“Do what we do best and connect to the rest” was a kind of informal mantra we used in talking about Prizmah right from launch. Convening the Network means sometimes being in the center and sometimes stepping aside so that people can connect directly.  Oftentimes it means connecting to experts, providers or resources throughout the Network. Primarily, being the Network convener means making it easy to both access and provide knowledge for each other.

In the coming months, we will be concentrating our efforts on strengthening the Prizmah Network with the voices of even more day school leaders and practitioners. School leaders will be receiving information shortly about renewing or establishing their Network affiliation, while others in the field can engage by sharing resources, asking questions, and supporting the day school field. Together, we can ensure that the day school field has a living network that supports and creates tangible impact for individuals, schools, and communities, all working toward a vibrant Jewish future.

Rachel is Prizmah's Director of Educational Innovation. Learn more about her here.

Seven Things School Leaders Can Do Now to Support The Wellness of Your School

During this time of crisis, school leaders are juggling so much more than usual, and your usual is already too full. To help lighten your load, I have researched and compiled a list of seven things that you can do now to make a positive difference in your schools. Thank you for all you do to lead with dignity during uncertain times.

Tip #1: At The Door 

So many school leaders have adopted the lovely custom of standing outside the school to welcome students as they enter the building in the morning, and especially now, making sure you are visible at the door establishes trust and safety. Many school leaders have started to get to faculty meetings ten minutes early so they can stand outside the door and welcome each staff member as they enter, a gesture that carries tremendous warmth and caring. This extra ten minutes is challenging to carve into our already busy schedules; assistance from office staff and administrators is key to making this work.

As we navigate the very real fears of this time, finding the balance between being cautious and not frozen, productive and not debilitating, is what Steven Covey calls “managing your weather” and is essential in establishing the feeling in the building. Some school leaders have found that making sure they have daily 15 minute office hours for staff to drop in has proven very meaningful. In fact, even on days when few staff appear for this open-door time, just knowing they have this option has been helpful to staff.

Tip #2: Pick One 

Right now, making sure staff and students are safe and available to learn is step one. Step two is being clear about what matters. Pick one thing. Make sure your priority is clear and how it will be measured. 

Jenn David-Lang writes about how school leaders must focus our priorities. For example, let’s say your priority right now is belonging. What does that look like to you? What might be less important now? How do you communicate it with your staff? Or perhaps you want to prioritize routine as a way of creating normalcy; what matters now and what matters less? 

Be clear with yourself, your teams and staff about why this is your priority now, and assess your adherence to it over the days and weeks. Many school leaders find that choosing the priority, ensuring there are values connected to it, and being clear about what it looks like in practice has alleviated much stress for staff and students alike.

Tip #3: Listen

Often, we invite people to share not because we need the information (though we often learn a great deal) but because they need to be heard. This investment in listening time is so crucial to establishing trust and safety. 

Many school leaders have rallied their leadership teams to make personal calls to each person on staff, to check in and listen. Some leaders are establishing “tag out” opportunities for staff. A school leader takes over a class for ten minutes while the teacher leaves the room, maybe for a coffee or news break. This takes the place of classroom observations for the month and also gives students face time with you as a school leader. Make sure you let the staff know your plan and what you will be doing with the students during that time. Letting staff know when you plan to come is key, so they can plan accordingly, and make sure your office staff knows this is a priority so you can’t be disturbed then.

In addition to making time for staff, many school leaders are creating opportunities to check in with alumni, parents and Israeli families, including those with children and loved ones serving in the IDF. These meet ups are so important and powerful. It is important for the leadership team to have an opportunity to reflect on these meetings and share among themselves. It is also essential for leaders to make time for themselves to be listened to and to check in with personal family members. As an aside, check out Kate Murphy’s book You’re Not Listening for fascinating tips on this crucial skill.

Tip #4: Be Like Broccoli 

As Rae Ringel observed, leadership is like broccoli, providing a fractal model that shows what to do by example. What we do is what others will do. If we want our teachers to be extra patient, to call parents more, to take care of themselves, to communicate about what they need, then we need to model that ourselves. For example, if differentiation is important to you as a leader, how do you differentiate your faculty meetings and communications?

At Prizmah, we strive to share common language. As a small example, if we have a day when our office is closed, we are given language for our out of office message. In schools, many arguments can be diverted and de-escalated by finding the right words that leaders can share with staff. For example, what is a sentence staff can use when parents are angry or concerned now? What is a sentence staff can use when there is a change in plans? How can a staff member ask for help? I have worked with a few schools that used faculty meetings to practice some of these scenarios, which were received with positive feedback.

One more model that is key: the pause. The more you take time in conversation to think, to pause and offer to get back to people (and then do!), the better your school community will be able to follow your lead.

Tip #5: Zone Defense

We may not be able to anticipate every scenario that will come up now, or even who may need support or a pivot in plan, so I recommend creating leadership teams with a “zone defense” approach. Let me explain. When I played basketball in high school, we often used a zone defense, which means you are in charge of defending the area in your “zone” and you can always call for help when needed. 

Now more than ever, making sure you have a leadership team in place is essential, and ensuring that they and the school community know who to go to for what is a game changer. That being said, we cannot always know what will be needed, so operating with a team mentality that each person will cover his or her zone and we will all step in to support one another is key. How do we talk about Israel? How do we talk about fear? How do we allow people to feel what they feel and still keep routine? Often when a crisis hits, we may get territorial, resentful and confused, so re-establishing what is working now and who the right people are for specific concerns and needs is very helpful. Making sure you check in with this team is also essential to ensuring its effectiveness.

In addition to our regular teams, many leaders are including local rabbis and community resource personnel in their teams at this time. For many, including more helpful voices can be supportive, and for some, it makes leading more complicated, so if it works to expand the circle now, do so with clear guidelines about what this team of support is included in.

One more kind of team that is worth the extra investment is the parent body. In particular, let them know how they can communicate effectively with the school and with one another about policies and even about social media. It may be helpful to have a team of parent liaisons you meet with, especially now, to listen and share.

Tip #6: Space Out 

Our buildings provide spaces for us to teach even before we open our mouths. Even for schools struggling to find space for basic class needs, getting creative about how we use space is very helpful during stressful times. 

Many schools have made “time out zones’' for staff to decompress, a quiet place to unwind and eat, with a no-noise rule. Other schools have created a newsroom for the staff to keep updated on events in Israel and have a place to listen and talk. Parents may also need a space to talk and be there for one another that is not in the presence of children. Leaders have even designated a room for people to attend their personal therapy sessions without needing to miss more school driving to and from the session. Offering a place to go is a great source of comfort to the people in the school community, even if they do not use this resource.

Tip #7: Checklist for Check-ins 

What does trauma look like for people at different ages? For people with ADD? When should we be concerned and when is a reaction “normal”? There are checklists available, like this one, from the National Education Association. Using your own checklist for student and staff support is a great idea, and providing faculty professional development training  in identifying red flags can help.

Another area to consider: How do we talk about Israel for different developmental stages? What are we doing and not doing for each age group? For some, writing a list of things to remember, including approaches and even specific language, is so helpful. Keep that handy.

In addition to using a checklist for making sure everyone else is ok, I have also started my own checklist for myself. What matters to me as a leader right now? What is important to me? Before meetings and lessons, I try to check in with myself to find my center and try to get in the space of being who I want to be at this crucial time.

I hope this list is helpful and gives you practical ways to support yourself and others as you lead during this time. I welcome your suggestions for other such tips. Above all, thank you for all you do to lead, inspire and educate our children and communities. May we be blessed with good news.