Paul is Prizmah’s founding Chief Executive Officer

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

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.

Avi Hazel Headshot

Avi is the head of school at the Denver Jewish Day School since 2007. He received a Doctor of Pedagogy, honoris causa, from the Jewish Theological Seminary. As a father of four, Avi also knows a thing or two about parenting. In his spare time Avi likes to spend time with his family, travel, bike, and play the drums. 

How To Cultivate and Sustain A High-Functioning Independent School Board

During my 30 years as an educational administrator and, most recently my 15 years as head of Denver Jewish Day School, I have come to appreciate the board and the lasting impact that an outstanding board can have on a school. Certainly, a school would never enjoy success without a dedicated faculty, a community that supports its mission, and donors who help make up the difference between tuition and the cost to operate the institution. I believe that an engaged, committed and reflective board is also critical to the long-term success of an independent school. 

#1 The key to success starts with the Committee on Trustees (COT).

The key to success starts with The Committee on Trustees, the subcommittee of the board that nominates board members in my school. The makeup of that committee is highly strategic. Our COT functions best as a small group that includes the current board chair, immediate past board chair, a committee chair who is well connected in the community, and an additional board member who is also well connected in the community. The head of school and director of development should also serve on the COT. One must be invited to serve, as it is not a committee you can join voluntarily.

The COT begins its work many months before the slate of nominated board members is made public. This allows enough time to make thoughtful and strategic nominations for board membership. The COT should work to balance board membership 50/50 between current parents and community members, noting that former parents and alumni often can be excellent community board members. The COT should also look to balance the board out with people who have expertise or skills in different areas including finance, legal, fundraising, buildings and grounds and a connection to the mission of the school. Nominees should be someone whom the COT could someday see becoming the board chair or president. That helps keep succession planning front and center.

#2 A board also needs members who can support the school financially, and some who will make leadership level gifts to major fundraising campaigns.

The COT needs to speak transparently with prospective board members about the expectation that all board members support the school’s campaigns at a level that is meaningful and appropriate for them. There is not an expectation that all board members will make major gifts. However, it is important for some board members to be amongst the strongest financial supporters of the school. In our case, 100% of our board supports the school financially, and one-third of our board are major donors. Having your most dedicated leaders step up and give leadership gifts to both the annual campaign and capital campaign helps put the school in the strongest possible position for success, as board members asking for gifts have already stepped up and demonstrated their belief in the school.

#3 Board member training and ongoing education. 

Once the COT has nominated new board members and those members have been elected to the board, it is time to begin training them. I have found that it is best for new board members to be contacted directly by the board chair and/or the head of school to talk one-on-one about their new role and answer any questions or concerns they might have. A board orientation session held with each new board member is also very productive in preparing board members for their first meeting. A board training, which typically includes board leadership and school administration, should cover expectations and the different roles and responsibilities of the head of school and school staff (operations) and board members (fiduciary). There is sometimes some overlap or gray area between the responsibilities of the head and the board, and the subtleties of these issues can be discussed so that board members begin to get a sense of these items before they come up for the first time.

Board education continues during the school year as well. There are often opportunities for training at board meetings, and an annual retreat is a useful opportunity to strengthen a board. To me, a retreat is simply a gathering of the board that is substantially longer than a typical board meeting. A retreat could last three hours or three days, depending on the goals for the meeting. I prefer to get a few months into a new school year and begin working with a new board before selecting topics for a retreat. That way you have a sense of what the issues or challenges are, and an agenda can be set for the retreat that will be most productive and useful for the board.

#4 A well-run board meeting goes a long way.

This is an important element I have grown to appreciate over the years. The board chairs with whom I have worked have been dedicated to setting a meaningful agenda and sticking to it. Side discussions are not permitted, comments that are off track are redirected, and a polite dialogue steeped in our school’s values is expected. Respectful disagreement over issues is permitted in the boardroom, but upon conclusion of the meeting, the entire board is expected to support publicly what has been decided.

#5 The board chair-head relationship is a key partnership and must function well.

I recommend that the board chair and head have a scheduled weekly meeting where current, strategic and long-term issues can be discussed. My current board chair and I also developed a list of promises we made to each other about the way that we will work together. This covenant is at the top of our weekly meeting agenda, so it is always front and center. Most importantly, work to keep an open, transparent, and friendly dialogue between the chair and head. Settle differences before meetings, be transparent and upfront about feelings, and try to prevent surprises.
The board chair and/or head must also be prepared to have difficult conversations with board members when necessary. Conversations must be held with board members who dominate meetings, push a personal agenda, have poor attendance or are not in line with the mission or strategic plan of the school. These conversations are ones that many prefer to avoid, but they are crucial to have if you want a highly functioning board.
These steps are not exhaustive, nor do they guarantee that your school’s board will always make the right decisions. However, when implemented with care and dedication, they can help cultivate and sustain a high-functioning, independent school board.



Value Proposition

Submitted by Elliott on Mon, 05/09/2022 - 11:28

This issue looks at the mixture of elements, ranging from mission and leadership to curriculum and vibe, that draw people to Jewish schools. Sections explore the relationship between schools and their communities, the value that our schools provide and communicate for students and parents, and the centrality of teachers as creators and purveyors of that value. Articles balance the timelessness of Jewish education with contemporary educational, managerial and systemic trends impacting our schools and field at this moment.

Debra is Prizmah's Director of Network Weaving.

Valuing Women in Jewish School Leadership

Living Our Lives 

Fifteen years ago, when I was the head of an Orthodox Jewish day school, there were the beginnings of whispers about equitable pay for female leaders, leadership pipeline challenges, leaders’ emotional and mental health, and the complexity of the role of head of school. Fast forward to today and those topics are front and center in our communal landscape. Some days, from my 10,000 foot perch here at Prizmah, I have the privilege of imagining what could be true of our field fifteen years in the future. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once quipped, “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying,” reminding us to live our values at each and every moment. I have the privilege of working in a field of Jewish day schools and yeshivas that continuously and passionately urges us to live out our values.

Hiring Trends 

However, I recently noticed a curious trend which calls into question whether we, as a day school and yeshiva field, are truly embodying the values that we hold dear. 

Over the past three years, the hiring practices at Jewish day schools and yeshivas shed an interesting light on ongoing conversations about gender parity in the field. In 2020, 44% of open Prizmah headships, including both long-term and interim positions, were filled by women. That number decreased in 2021 to 30% of open headships and held steady this year at 31%. Said in a different way, for the past two years approximately 1 in 3 Jewish day school and yeshiva boards who were searching for a new head of school hired a woman for the role. In addition, the percentage of women hired by Jewish schools across the religious spectrum has dropped in noticeable ways in recent years.

If our values suggest that women have the potential to be hired at similar rates to men in the field, then we’ve got work to do.

The Vision

At Prizmah, one of our strategic priorities is the work of Deepening Talent, investing in the current and future talent pool of Jewish day school and yeshiva leadership. As a data-driven organization, we compile research on fieldwide trends to enable schools to have critical context for their own leadership practices and decisions. And in our work supporting schools in hiring leaders, we help them to ensure that they find the best leader possible for their school. We know with certainty that communities ready for women in these roles benefit from female role models, who amplify the existing diversity of voices and range of leadership styles.

The Current Reality 

Within Prizmah’s network of schools, 43% of the Reform, Schechter, and Community day schools are headed by women. However, among Orthodox schools, the numbers are lower than in the field as a whole. Given the extremely high percentages of women working in education writ large as teachers, learning specialists, counselors, division heads and support team members, the overall lower percentages of women in senior leadership positions in this sector represents an opportunity for individual and communal growth. 

Five years ago, Nishma published a research profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews with nearly 4,000 modern and centrist Orthodox respondents. In that study, 93% of respondents agreed that women should have expanded roles in Modern Orthodox organizational leadership. If that research reflects newly shifted cultural realities and communal norms as it seems to suggest, then what are the factors which are preventing more women from being hired as heads of school? Prizmah’s early research uncovers a range of factors, including job descriptions requiring semichah, leadership expectations out of alignment with the lifestyle of Orthodox women, and a lack of intentional leadership pipeline. 

Beyond these factors, the impact of Covid has been disproportionately felt within the female workforce than with their male counterparts. A number of suggestions have been made for addressing the return of women to the workforce, including those articulated by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine:

  1. " Supporting caregivers via financial help, improved childcare infrastructure, and family-supportive policies; and 
  2. Supporting workforce development via training programs for women, greater access to male-dominated jobs, and mental health services." 

The Plan

Prizmah has made a commitment to design intentional, strategic interventions in order to support leadership development for Orthodox women, to explore their access and obstacles to leadership positions, and to share their wisdom, experience and creative thinking with the field. We are working to ensure that current heads of school and rising leaders receive support to strengthen their leadership capabilities and profiles through cohort-based programs, mentoring and access to consultants.

In addition, we have commissioned two research studies to explore both compensation patterns and the cultures and conditions which enable Orthodox women to flourish in senior leadership positions. It is our hope that through this portfolio of work, communities interested in working with Orthodox women in senior leadership positions will encounter a robust cadre of candidates, current Orthodox female heads of school will thrive in their roles, and the field will have access to the necessary data in order to undertake intentional strategies for change.

The Invitation

Join us as we imagine a healthy future for schools in the field. A future in which the roles of senior leadership are easily navigated together with family life and the mental, spiritual and physical health of our school’s leaders are of utmost priority. And one which includes a masterful, creative and diverse range of leaders, so that our students see that the Jewish future requires and benefits from the leadership strengths and styles of all its members.

Rivy  is completing her sixteenth year as head of Seattle Hebrew Academy. Stay tuned for next steps, in the meantime you can listen to her podcast, The Poem.The Parsha.The Podcast. recorded each week together with the poet and SHA teacher, Adrienne Query-Fiss.

Finding Strength in Otherness: Women's Leadership in an Orthodox School

In her pivotal work In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan lays out the concept that women are “living at once inside and outside the framework”—an observation that absolutely resonates with me as an Orthodox woman leader and head of school. 

Orthodox women, even in 2022, in varying degrees and depending on setting, are still “the other” vis-à-vis communal life, whether within the confines of the synagogue—where there is separate seating, differentiated roles and ritual practice—or even in protocols or etiquettes in social settings, communal events, praxis and visibility during lifecycle semachot. This otherness is palpable.

Leading Through Otherness 

The feeling of being “other” is real. In the realm of school life, how might this complicated “otherness” inform school vision and practice positively? 

For me this otherness, integrated into my persona, to a very strong degree underpins my stance and leadership practice in my sixteen years as head of school of the Seattle Hebrew Academy. From the beginning, the school’s bylaws had to be changed in order for me to be allowed to serve as the first female head in the school’s history of more than six decades.

To “live at once inside and outside the framework” is to identify and feel for “the other,” to deeply know the experience of not being fully comfortable in postures of power, not at ease with and perhaps philosophically against having the coffee made, phone calls cued up or notes written on my behalf in the office, and absolutely not acculturated to a heavy-handed authoritarian stance as an educator, the common “sage on the stage” posture in the classroom or at the school assembly.

Upon reflection, I had begun to adopt a non-hierarchical, more democratic stance as a “boss,” as educator and as a colleague. To me, to be “other” is to feel deeply for the weak, to give space for all voices and to be sensitive to the potential hurt of the disenfranchised. 

Is this a purely a personal penchant or an adoptable ideology?

Finding Our Vision

Coinciding with assuming my current position, I had been invited in 2006 to participate to the Visions of Jewish Education Project, which sought to develop a “vision” for our own particular schools. Here is the way that the project articulated the notion of “vision” (as outlined in the introduction of Visions Of Jewish Education, by Seymour Fox, Israel Scheffler and Daniel Marom):

Vision, as we understand it, is not simply ideological preference. It implies both comprehensive understanding and guiding purpose. It places the work of education in the setting of a present that is an outgrowth of the past but that also contains within it the seeds of a future to be grasped creatively through imagination and effort.

With these words taken to heart, together with the guidance of the faculty of the MTEI Visions project, I set out to develop a Visions Project. 

I wanted so much for the school as its new head: growth for the teachers, a healthy involvement for lay people and of course a transformative and inspiring education for the students. My mind raced from ideas of hands-on learning to student leadership, from the need for rigorous academics and to schoolwide chesed initiatives and then to professional development and nurturing school culture and on and on. These are areas we desperately need, but what is the vision driving those activities that will happen in this school? What will be the ethos, the overarching idea that will provide a litmus test for our decision making?

Student Dignity

After soul searching and much self-reflection, I realized that the outstanding school that I wanted a share in creating was a school where the honor of each student was at the center of every conversation.  Whether the topic concerns school mission, parent culture, teacher growth, curriculum, hallway norms, differentiated instruction and certainly if it involved discipline, I knew that student dignity could be the framework for a fruitful outcome and the nexus for building out ripple rings of culture. 

What is student dignity? What does it look like and how does one have it permeate an entire school staffed with teachers with dramatically different backgrounds, sensibilities and preferences?

I began with a deep dive into the Jewish texts and then creating a study booklet with sources, questions and materials for our entire staff and board to consider through the year at meetings and in-services. This value of student dignity came alive; it was adopted into the new SHA mission statement, created by a six-month effort of a board and community task force:

  1. We provide our students, families and community a school of excellence, founded on love of God & Torah and inspiring academics within an atmosphere of Kavod HaTalmid, student dignity.
  2. We develop students of character and integrity through the pursuit of Torah knowledge and secular studies, connection to the State of Israel and commitment to our Ashkenazic and Sephardic heritage. 
  3. We prepare future generations to lead lives of service and mitzvoth and to perpetuate our Torah and traditions in Seattle, Israel, and worldwide.

Kavod Hatalmid became the animating ethos for our social-emotional curriculum called Project SHAlom, leading to its adoption as a schoolwide approach to student behavior, with a 35-minute video documenting its adoption available on our website for all to view.

A Different Leadership Voice 

This stance from a place of “otherness” began to inform leadership actions that I am committed to assuming and implementing. Over the years, I have heard from staff that as a woman I lead differently: hands-on, less ego, attention to detail, caring about children’s happiness and creating an overall less authoritarian feel to our school.

Being “other” led me in many directions.

Thinking deeply about the experience of anyone walking onto our campus building. How does that feel for a first-time guest? What is experienced from the parking lot, to the walkway, in the hallway, into the restrooms and on into classrooms. What kind of welcome will they receive?

We created a checklist for all events seeking to anticipate all needs, and there are always warm greeters along the welcome route. 

Are all families comfortable at SHA, no matter their spot on the Jewish spectrum?

The creation of a Jewish values-driven parent "Working Together Handbook" was created addressing these sensitivities.

How do middle school girls feel when they stand on the sidelines as their male peers lead in the morning minyan?

We moved our middle school girls into their own tefillah space after I spent a year at morning minyan. 

What about songs and textbooks with pictures where there are consistent depictions of the nuclear family of abba, ima, yeled, yeldah? How does the child not in such a family feel?

This one is tough, with so many materials coming from other places. We did change the lyrics of the children's "Shabbat Angel" song though: "First we light the candles, then we go to shul!" 

Must students stand when a rabbi—in the Orthodox world, a man—walks in the room, but never for a female scholar?

We sidelined this practice, thinking that if learning must not be interrupted to greet the Messiah, we would be okay to allow students to remain seated. 

I believe that if you work in a school you are a teacher, meaning every adult in a school is a teacher. Therefore, every adult—the office staff, the custodial staff—in the school is part of our learning community.

We all sit together. We study Torah and pedagogy, we plan activities, we consider our values and their implementation together as a community. 

The seeing of "the other" leads to the belief that as a head I cannot not expect others to do anything that I am not ready to do myself. That includes sweeping the floors, shoveling the walks and if necessary, cleaning up accidents in the kiddies' washroom. 

This kind of stance truly builds bonding moments and memories that last a lifetime. 

How to address this issue of "otherness"? Let the words of Emmanuel Levinas guide us as we encounter the "other"; they offer a truly compelling value for educators: "In the face the Other expresses his eminence, the dimension of height and divinity from which he descends."