B’Yadenu: A Strategy for Whole School Reform

With the Foundation’s grant supporting the B’Yadenu Project now concluded, we are pleased to share reflections and a look ahead from David Farbman, Senior Director of Education at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. 

In 2012, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, and five Boston-area day schools launched the B’Yadenu project with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Ruderman Family Foundation. B’Yadenu, which in Hebrew means “In Our Hands,” was designed to shift a whole school to cohesively and collaboratively work to better serve all learners. Essentially a strategic planning process for day schools, B’Yadenu encouraged school leaders and faculty to develop and execute a model for boosting the capacity of educators to strengthen instruction and support for all students. With the project coming to a close, this is a good time to reflect on the successes and challenges we have experienced over the last few years with this ambitious project to re-shape Jewish day schools in ways that better educate diverse learners.

The Significance of the B’Yadenu Model
To better understand B’Yadenu’s potential impact, we need first to consider how uncommon (read: countercultural) the initiative is in the world of education, generally, and Jewish day schools, specifically.

Most schools operate largely under the influence of two powerful forces: urgency and inertia. Taking each of these in turn, consider urgency. Too rarely do day schools address underlying causes or adopt more methodical or systematic approaches to ameliorate challenges. “Fix the problem as quickly as possible,” is the order of the day. The second force is somewhat oppositional to the first. Much of what takes place in schools—from specific lessons to curricular expectations to the daily schedule—results from inertia. Educators tend not to change practice from year to year because when a problem does not emerge (i.e., does not need to be addressed urgently), they see no compelling reason to do so.

At base, B’Yadenu is an effort to break the hold of both of these forces at once.  In terms of urgency, B’Yadenu presses administrators and faculty to consider questions that are deliberately non-reactive in nature like “How can we address the root causes of this problem?” or “How can we institute practices that are most effective, even if they will take many months or years to implement fully?”  At the other end of the spectrum, B’Yadenu aims to open the eyes of school staff to alternative possibilities that they had not considered simply because they were not pushed to do so. Through B’Yadenu, educators are prodded to ask themselves questions like: “What would our school look like if we did curriculum or scheduling or professional development differently?” and “Why do we have to teach this way?”

For school personnel to consider these questions is not only rare, the task is exceedingly difficult, and, of course, the difficulty stems in part from their rarity in being asked. For anyone—educators or not—to examine one’s own habits and assumptions takes candor and care and trust.  That is, deep reflection into how to change current behavior in order to do better requires, first, that we are honest with ourselves and our peers. Second, such inquiry should not be addressed haphazardly, but rather done within the context of a methodical and consistent self-assessment. Finally, the entire exercise of self-reflection must be rooted in an environment of good will and mutual respect.  B’Yadenu revolves around these three principles and seeks to guide school teams to abide by them.

What it Takes for B’Yadenu to Succeed
Engaging in B’Yadenu certainly provides a path toward overcoming norms that tend to be short-sighted. But progress is far from guaranteed. As such, below is a brief consideration of some factors that must be in place to make success more likely.

  1. Controlling role of leaders in the process. Absent heads of school and/or principals within the school consistently and forthrightly insisting that faculty and all staff commit to serious, substantive, and often challenging change at many levels, such change will simply not happen.  Only leaders have the power to say to teachers, “Don’t be concerned about addressing this problem right now. Only be concerned that you address it well.” Once teachers begin to undertake that process of self-reflection, they are far more likely to take on the burden of change and to do so with a deeper sense of the rationale behind their need to change.
  2. Belief in the value of external expertise to help the school do things differently. It simply is not feasible to expect teachers and others in the school to implement new practices without first holding up what these new practices might look like. When outside professional consultants or coaches offer novel approaches or, perhaps equally important, validation for current methods that are sound, they effectively provide faculty with a road map or, at the least, some milestones along the way toward improved practice.
  3. Shared willingness among all involved to allow for change to take place on a relatively gradual scale. If teachers are really going to be overhauling their pedagogy, they cannot be expected to do so at the snap of their fingers. They must navigate through an extended period of trial and error, so that they fully appreciate what works best to elevate their students’ learning. In schools that have been most successful, the transformation in educational practice has taken place over the course of years.
  4. An abiding willingness to change. Perhaps it is obvious to say so, but absent a deep commitment from teachers, learning support staff, administrators and, of course, school leaders that they want to engage in the process, transformation is simply impossible. To undertake the complex process of self-reflection, to learn from external experts, and to persist through the experimentation and honing process is a test of endurance and will. Sustaining that desire to change through the inevitable wrong turns or competing agendas is challenging, but without this uniform and consistent ambition to generate real change, nothing sustainable will occur.

These latter two characteristics together form a healthy tension within successful schools. Striking the balance between these two ends of the spectrum—a demonstrated patience and methodical approach on one side; an incessant drive for improvement on the other—is what ultimately generates enduring and real change.

What Does “Success” Look Like?
What does it actually mean to “transform teaching and learning”? As the question itself implies, there is no single construct that defines transformation. Rather, the change exhibits certain characteristics that, in some combination, can be said to have met the ultimate objective: the evolution of a school toward an institution that meets all learners’ needs and where all learners can thrive. We consider four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners:

  1. Primacy of adult learning. If a school is to live up to its goal of nurturing in children a lifelong love of learning and continual development toward a better version of the self, teachers must harbor this love, as well and continually practiced in systematic ways.  A sound B’Yadenu school is one that features regular times for teachers to collaborate and learn from one another, as well as some form of formal and actionable feedback that structures their learning about their own teaching.
  2. Widespread belief that all students can and should succeed academically and socially. This should not mean that a day school should be expected to educate absolutely any child that seeks to be a student there. Rather, the notion means that for all students that are currently at the school—and for others who are seeking to attend—the presumption should be that the school can successfully educate them. Teachers must continually search for ways to tailor the educational experience to the specific needs of each child and focus on what each child is learning, not what the teacher is teaching.
  3. Steeped in data about student learning and behavior, such that faculty and administrators have concrete evidence about what those “better contexts” are for each student. So, for example, if a teacher wants to know if a student learns more effectively with a certain reading program or another, she will have data to back up when that student is making more progress. Then, armed with that data, the teacher can structure that child’s learning environment that will promote the greatest amount of learning.
  4. School leaders insist that all staff align to the values of high-quality schools, namely the previous three elements: committing to professional growth, nurturing the potential success of all learners, and appreciating how data is essential to identify student needs. This commitment to fill the building with adults who harbor these inclinations is the surest way to build sustainability. With the right people on board, the right practices are sure to follow for the foreseeable future.

One final aspect worth noting. Though each successful B’Yadenu effort exhibited these four components, the schools differed from each other meaningfully in both the particular challenges they were trying to address and the ways in which they addressed them. What matters less, then, is the what of the B’yadenu process, but rather the how by which each school brought about sought after change.

The Future of B’Yadenu
Taking into account what we have learned over the last eight years, what can we say about how the day school universe overall might take on B’Yadenu and what Gateways can do to encourage more schools to become schools that embody the four characteristics of schools that successfully educate diverse learners outlined above?

The approach to seeding more B’Yadenu schools must focus on how to draw out the potential readiness of schools and cultivate that potential into genuine platforms for transformation. If we can locate those schools that acknowledge that their current educational program is unable to consistently address the needs of all students, then these educators are on the cusp of developing one of the foundational aspects of readiness: willingness to change.

In our experience, schools can be effectively steered toward being ready to take on the challenges of whole-school change through an honest analysis of current teaching and learning practices and how they serve as impediments to all students succeeding.  In so doing, school leaders and faculty can be enlightened to three of the four conditions needed for whole-school transformation (desire for change, insight into its evolutionary nature, and the value for external expertise).  With these cultural qualities taking root, the school community is then far more prepared to tackle the complicated, but rewarding, work imagined by the B’Yadenu process.

As for the fourth characteristic of strong leadership—which actually stands first in terms of its importance—the very act of organizing a candid assessment is a sign of the school leader’s commitment and vision.

Understanding what characteristics should be prominent in any given school community in order to take on the hard work of B’Yadenu and, in turn, what values we should be aiming to embed to ensure lasting change, we believe the field is better poised  to bring about more widespread success in B’Yadenu projects (or any large-scale school improvement initiative). At Gateways, we will use these lessons to continue to guide and model and plan and strategize and prod more Jewish day schools to become places where all learners, regardless of their abilities or needs, can receive the education they so richly deserve.

Access the B’Yadenu Toolkit here.



Diversity of Leadership: Building a Professional Team That Reflects an Organization’s Target Audience

The recent Brandeis study Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life affirmed the work of Honeymoon Israel as we welcome the 100th group of Honeymoon Israel participants to Israel in a few weeks. After four years of running trips, 2,000 couples from 20 different North American cities have participated and have had the opportunity to be embraced by the Jewish community and to build their own communities of young couples that will hopefully last for many years.

Consonant with the Brandeis study, we have found increased interest recently from the organized Jewish community to become more welcoming. Specifically, we now have broad-based support to welcome the ever-growing diversity and range of young couples with at least one Jewish partner to Jewish life.

While opening doors for initial engagement of these couples in Jewish life is important, sustained and meaningful engagement with them depends on how much we empower young couples to create their own Jewish communities. To that end, we believe that it’s critical that our own leadership reflect the diversity of our constituency. Over the past few months, we’ve begun to “staff up” and we’ve recently hired five new team members. More than 60 Honeymoon Israel participants applied for these jobs and more than half of them were non-Jews.

Three newly-hired Honeymoon Israel national team members are non-Jewish Honeymoon Israel participants. They were so inspired by their new community that they want to make it a part of their careers. As we embrace them as part of the Jewish family, we also encourage them to lead the organization and their community into the future. Their reflections on why they chose to work for Honeymoon Israel, and their experiences thus far, affirm the importance of proactively inviting young couples of all kinds into Jewish life experiences.

Laura Cuellar Bernstein is the new Director of Marketing and participated in a New York Honeymoon Israel trip in February 2018. “Being part of Honeymoon Israel as alumni has been transformative for us. My husband’s family is Jewish and my family is Catholic. As we navigate the intricacies of creating an interfaith family, we’ve explored the commonalities between our faiths, cultures, and traditions. We often find that these point to the same core values: love, respect, and family,” said Bernstein. “Through this experience, we’ve become so close with the couples we met and it’s been incredible to have this community by our side. Honeymoon Israel has given us the support, space, and tools to confidently and meaningfully bring tradition and faith into our home.”

Laura Parker is the new Applicant Experience Manager. She and her husband Harrison Benett participated in an Atlanta Honeymoon Israel trip in May 2019. “I applied to go on the trip because my husband and I found during our wedding planning that we would not be welcomed in the community I grew up in (Southern Baptist), but we were both welcomed into the Jewish community. After our wedding, we began looking to expand our Jewish community from one couple to have over to Shabbat to many,” said Parker. “I fell in love with the intentional community-building while in Israel. Our trip leader and Rabbi led thought-provoking questions, unique Shabbat experiences, and quiet moments with partners that brought a diverse group of 40 adults to bond together in 9 days. I knew before boarding the plane back home that I wanted to work for Honeymoon Israel. The community has been so impactful in my personal and professional life. I am so honored and excited to be a part of a team that will give other couples across the nation (and Canada) an opportunity to build intentional Jewish communities, no matter their background.”

Hannah Smith, Administrative Coordinator, also participated in a Honeymoon Israel trip out of Atlanta. “My partner and I chose to participate in Honeymoon Israel because we were searching for ways to connect with Judaism and incorporate it in a meaningful way in our daily life. The idea of a life-changing ten day trip to Israel with 19 other adventure-loving couples who were also searching for answers seemed almost too good to be true, but we knew we would regret not applying! We ended up having one of the most beautiful, fun, eventful, surreal, informative, and spiritual journeys with our Honeymoon Israel family. We made memories that will last us a lifetime, we found answers to questions we had for years, and we came back with even more questions and ideas that we love exploring and learning about daily. We were also pleased to find that Honeymoon Israel facilitates community building and supplies a wealth of resources for all of the couples once they get home. The staff, as well as fellow alumni, work so hard to assist with Jewish learning and fun events so that we can all stay connected.”

Smith and Parker both knew during their trip that they wanted to be part of the Honeymoon Israel team. Smith adds, “I knew I wanted to work for Honeymoon Israel because I wanted a fulfilling and worthwhile career at an organization that I truly believe in.”

For Bernstein, it was the mission that made her eager to join as an employee. “Before we applied for Honeymoon Israel, my husband and I were skeptical that the organization had a hidden agenda. We were both happily surprised and blown away to find that it’s truly the open and accepting place it says it is. This is what made me want to be part of the team. It’s important to me to create a culture where diversity and understanding are prioritized and celebrated.”

Beyond a career, Honeymoon Israel is designed to provide a community for the alumni on the team. “The community I have found both as a Honeymoon Israel alumnus and now as an employee has meant an immense deal to me. As the non-Jewish partner in my relationship and as someone who has never belonged to any religion/community, I found both spiritual and social connections with Judaism and with Honeymoon Israel,” adds Smith.

The Brandeis study illuminates the reasons why couples with Jewish and non-Jewish partners are less engaged in Jewish life and emphasizes the need to move from welcoming to offering proactive invitations. Young couples want a “way in” to explore and make their own decisions regarding their emerging family’s Jewish identity and life experiences.

We are committed to ensuring that our growing staff and Board of Directors are comprised of all members of the “HMI Family.” This isn’t just a matter of being inclusive—this is a smart business practice. HMI, like other organizations, wants employees deeply committed to and passionate about our mission. We want employees who understand and can relate to all of our audiences so we can best reach, engage, and serve all of those audiences.

As more and more Jewish organizations evolve to be more proactively inclusive, we hope that the next wave of community professionals and board leadership reflects the diverse constituencies they serve. We’re proud that HMI has helped young couples connect with each other and build Jewish community in meaningful ways. Equally as important, we believe, is what is affirmed in the reflections above. When non-Jewish adults experience a warm and inviting Jewish community, in some instances they not only want to join that community, they also look to lead and to welcome others in as well.

Avi Rubel and Mike Wise are Co-CEOs of Honeymoon Israel 

Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change

At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:

You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.

By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed.  Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.

Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice.  How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values.  B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.

Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:

In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.

Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.

At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is Vice President of Innovation and Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.





The Intangible Work of Sustainability

Kelly Cohen, Director of JumpSpark in Atlanta, shares how they are using the Sustainability Diagnostic Tool to implement a Community Partner Network to expand Jewish engagement opportunities and to invest in Jewish professionals as the future of Jewish education. 

The Or HaChaim, in his commentary on the book of Exodus says that when building the Mishkan the Israelites “encounter both tangible perceptibles, and intangible imperceptibles.” God had given clear instructions as to how this new dwelling place was to be built and mandated the contributions of the whole community. The tangible perceptibles were the physical building materials that would define the Mishkan’s shape and structure, but just as important were intangible imperceptibles. As the Or HaChaim says, “It was the intangible contributions that enabled the tangible parts to be joined together and to form a sustainable whole, a tent that would not collapse.”

JumpSpark is a part of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative and an Innovation Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. We connect and collaborate with the community to create meaningful and defining moments for Jewish teens, while enhancing the infrastructure of Jewish education and engagement in Atlanta. JumpSpark partners and invest to reimagine existing programs, supports new and innovative ideas, and thinks creatively to meet the needs of teens, their parents, and Jewish educators and professionals that work with them. Simply put, we are trying to build a new ecosystem of teen offerings and support in Atlanta.

Over the past year, JumpSpark engaged over 1300 members of our community with innovative programming including our Strong Women Fellowship, Navigating Parenthood series and JumpSpark Professional. In addition, through Spark Grants, $275,000 was strategically invested by JumpSpark into the Atlanta Jewish teen space. These are our tangibles that build something new. While we have the beginning of a structure, as JumpSpark enters its second school year, we need to directly engage with the intangibles necessary for sustainability.

In the coming school year, JumpSpark will launch a Community Partner Network. This model, adapted from the San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative, is the next iteration in the development of JumpSpark. Through this network, thirty local Jewish teen serving organizations will join forces with JumpSpark to connect the community, expand Jewish engagement opportunities in Atlanta, and invest in Jewish professionals as the future of Jewish education. Over the course of the year, Community Partners will be asked to track teen engagement, participate in Cross Community Evaluation surveys, commit to participation in JumpSpark Professional workshops, and launch a new Teen Israel Taskforce. With an $1800 incentive grant for partner organizations, JumpSpark is able lead the community in working together for an engaged and sustainable Jewish teen ecosystem.

In visioning and implementing this new network, JumpSpark was guided by the Sustainability Diagnostic Tool (SDT) developed by Rosov Consulting for the Teen Funder Collaborative, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation. This tool is a practical, helpful resource for anyone engaged in community building who wants to assess a program or initiative’s readiness for sustainability.  As Aaron Saxe, Jim Joseph Foundation Senior Program Officer, shared, The SDT offers clear indicators and a qualitative sliding scale for communities to gauge progress themselves. Taken together, communities will gain a deep understanding about their readiness to ‘make it on their own.'”

As we embark on the work of building this new Community Partner Network, I am supported by the clear indicators for sustainability laid out by the SDT. We must be focused on how we can show “diverse community organizations are significantly invested in teen education and engagement effort.”  We must put “incentives and structures in place to support communication and coordination among diverse youth-serving organizations and programs” and we must be creating the structures to ensure that, “youth-serving organizations and programs are collaborating effectively to increase economies of scale and eliminate redundancies.” JumpSpark’s Community Partner Network is about taking the first step together as a community to achieve these goals.  The building challenge comes when I ask myself, “How are we engaging with the deeper level of our work—not just with what can be seen, but the intangible contributions from our community that will ultimately hold this thing together?”

What has become clear is that we will never be able to “make this our own” unless we dedicate time to build community and to foster collaboration. In a Jewish organizational world where we sometimes are stuck in silos, a concerted effort must be placed on community-wide relationship development and trust. Diverse constituents must be brought on board through listening and compassion. All this work will take energy, empathy, talent, commitment and time. These are what we can’t track in our metrics or quantify in our reports, but this is what is going to hold it together. If the intangible work has been done to build a community that is unified and committed, we can build something that will last.

JumpSpark is proud to be a part of the vanguard experimenting with the Sustainability Diagnostic Tool. When the Israelites were building the Mishkan in the desert, they were creating a place for God to dwell. Today, as we embark on using this new tool to create and sustain our Jewish future, may we never lose sight of the intangibles holding our work together and the holiness we can create.

Kelly Cohen is Director of JumpSpark in Atlanta.


A Path Forward in Jewish Leadership Development

In her now-famous study on leadership, Tina Kiefer, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Warwick, asked participants to draw a picture of an effective leader. She found, not surprisingly, that the overwhelming number of people – no matter their gender – drew a white man. This study points to the fascinating way in which a particular mental model of leadership shapes both how we see the world and how we might imagine our future, as well as our unconscious biases of what a leader looks like. And it begs the question: what might we as a community achieve if we work to expand our mental models of leadership? 

The recent report from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) articulates a number of core challenges to attracting and retaining top talent for the Jewish nonprofit sector. In particular, it makes a strong case that without increased career development opportunities and resources for Jewish professionals, it will be challenging for them to succeed in their current roles and to advance into new leadership roles. These are indeed the very challenges that led to the founding of Leading Edge in 2014. And over the past five years, we have been working with our partners to nurture emerging leaders and to support organizations to create the kinds of workplaces that attract the best and brightest.

Through this work, one thing has remained clear: there is no talent crisis. There is no shortage of people ready to roll up their sleeves, enter our workforce, and advance to more senior roles. But all too often, our organizations are not ready for an expansive vision of who a leader is and what a leader looks like. Leading Edge believes it is in the interest of the entire Jewish community to have a vibrant sector that is able to recruit, develop, retain and advance leaders of all genders, races, abilities and sexual orientations. Doing so will require a great deal of intentionality and purpose.  

Here are a few insights that Leading Edge has gleaned through our work that may help us all  address challenges related to leadership development and retention.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

If we want to recruit diverse talent to both join and grow in our organizations, we need to ensure that our cultures are built to empower a diversity of voices. The 2019 Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey found that while 70% of the employees surveyed believed that their organizations valued diversity, only 53% actually built diverse teams. There is a gap between our aspirations and our actions. To narrow this gap, we need, as Suzanne Feinspan articulates, to support our leaders in examining the implicit biases that we all carry and bring to bear on our work; we need to empower staff with language and skills around equity and inclusion and get board buy-in for creating inclusive organizational cultures. We need to create workplaces that promote trust, respect, and psychological safety, making space for courageous conversations that honor diverging perspectives. This not only aligns with our Jewish values, but it also drives stronger outcomes because of the innovation that occurs through the meeting of diverse perspectives.

We also need to ensure that our workplaces are free of harassment, discrimination and abuse. This is something that I think a lot about as a male in a field in which 70% of employees identify as female. I am aware of–and know that I still can learn more about–the opportunities I have been given and the way in which my voice has often been privileged over female colleagues because of my gender.  

The process shapes the outcome

We’re all familiar with the old adage “what got you here won’t get you there.”

Given the deeply networked and at times familial nature of our sector, recruitment and hiring in our field is often done in an informal and unstructured way and, more often than not, people hear about jobs through their connections. Networking to find talent can be a tremendous asset –and a tremendous liability that excludes talented and qualified candidates from landing roles because they do not hold the same kinds of relationships with connectors in the community. 

Leading Edge recently published a CEO Search Committee Guide, which among other things contains extremely helpful advice from feminist leader Shifra Bronznick, founder of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, on eliminating bias from the process of hiring a new CEO. Bronznick stresses that search committees should run an entirely structured process, from how resumes are rated to how interviews are assessed. Assessors should rate each candidate independently before knowing the ratings from other committee members. This will help eliminate groupthink where bias thrives.

The limits of Cultural Fit

The recent study commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative finds that at least 12-15% of the 7.2 million Jews in the United States are Jews of Color. Though we’ve seen emerging efforts to support the leadership of Jews of Color in our community, it is clear that our workforce is nowhere close to representing our community.

Oftentimes the language of “cultural fit” is used to exclude candidates from under-represented groups, such as candidates of color, from being hired. The term cultural fit, which originated in the 1980s, refers to screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they might have on an organization (e.g. do they align with the values, beliefs and norms of the organization?) While we certainly believe in the importance of cultural alignment, we also see the way in which the language of “cultural fit” may be used to exclude candidates who bring an under-represented identity or perspective to the organization. This feels all the more live in our community, where a prerequisite to being hired is often previous work in or familiarity with the Jewish community. If we think about the history of those who may have been excluded from mainstream Jewish life, it is not hard to see how focusing on “cultural fit” in hiring processes can result in maintaining a certain level of homogeneity in our organizations.

Diversity as a lens

We know in our hearts that the opportunities for leadership are as diverse as the people who make up our community and er are constantly thinking about how we might support and amplify a wide range of models of leadership. We are inspired by such efforts both in our community, such as Yavilah McCoy wrote about recently and models of leadership beyond our immediate community

People often ask if Leading Edge will create a separate area of work to tackle issues such as women’s leadership. In fact, we are embarking on a project – generously funded by the Genesis Prize Foundation and the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition – to understand and address the root causes of the gender gap in leadership in our community. However, critically, we plan to integrate the learnings and actionable items from this project into all of our efforts, rather than maintaining it as a separate line of work.

This approach, we believe, is indicative of the urgency and possibility we see now in the Jewish leadership space. Yes, we need to act now to fill the void of leadership–and the diversity of leadership–throughout the Jewish community. And yes, the talent exists to support a new generation of Jewish leaders, reflecting an expanding mental model of leadership. We are learning about effective strategies to cultivate this development in long-lasting ways, and we share these learnings to help the field. Together, let’s support the talent within our community, welcome new talent, and continue to change how Jewish leaders are supported–and who Jewish leaders are. 

Mordy Walfish is Chief Operating Officer of Leading Edge

Polarity Challenges in Developing Jewish Leaders

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

Efforts to define and address the contemporary nature of “Jewish identity” and to develop approaches to “Jewish continuity” that have the power to appeal to Gen-X, Millennial and Gen-Z audiences of Jews have been the focus of the majority of Jewish professional spaces that I have been blessed to navigate as an educator and communal professional for the last 20 years, and are highlighted in the Center for Effective Leadership’s (CCL) recent report on Jewish leadership. What I have seen less of in these spaces are approaches to engaging Jewish identity and continuity that do not operate from an often unconscious, yet underlying assumption that the Jews that we are attempting to most engage through Jewish services are White.

As a younger CEO of a newly established nonprofit, whose mission is to service and empower the leadership of Jews of Color, it is important for me to build partnerships with philanthropies and institutions that appreciate the rewards that our community has experienced through years of unified Jewish institutional focus on facing crises and existential threats to our survival. And it is important to find new opportunities that are emerging for Jewish institutions to embrace the diversity of contemporary Jews and environments where rapid social change and emergent realities encourage leaders to engage adaptability, versatility and innovation in order to secure impact and relevance within the communities they serve.

It seems that the state of life itself in 2019 encourages many Jews to seize the opportunities of a diverse world and be whatever type of Jew – affiliated, loosely affiliated or just human – that they would like. As a leader who has benefitted from various fellowships and leadership cohorts offered within Jewish institutional frameworks, this freedom to “Just do JEW” in many ways was granted to this generation by leaders of previous generations who innovated and resisted within the institutional frameworks of their day and created the security and social support necessary to yield a container for today’s most powerful Jewish innovators to flourish.

As a Jewish woman leader of color, navigating and seeking support within a majority White Jewish institutional framework, innovating and resisting has been challenging. It is crucial to study and appreciate how the work of powerful role models like Shifra Bronznick of Advancing Jewish Women Professionals and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service have influenced my own journey. The strategies and frameworks that these White Jewish women utilized to create equitable pathways for what they hoped would be all Jewish women’s leadership empowerment were essential to my success and I would hazard to say the success of many Jewish women leaders today. Yet even with all of the strides and accomplishments in this space, the frameworks and pathways created for women leaders of 2019 do not establish clear roads to leadership for Jewish women of color nor sufficiently remove the equal sign that persists in many Jewish spaces between Jewishness, Woman-ness and Whiteness.  Welcoming the tension that exists between embracing the strides and ongoing challenges that Jewish institutions navigate regarding new opportunities to live Jewishly at the intersection of race, class and gender helps me to stay curious regarding what remains possible for a new generation of Jewish women leaders of color.

In 2014, 10 percent of American Jews identified as Black, Asian, LatinX or mixed, and 12 percent of all Jewish households in New York City, Long Island and Westchester identified as biracial or non-White.* These numbers indicate the presence, in the greater New York area alone, of over 66,000 Jewish Women of Color in the Jewish community whose lives and leadership matter.*[Pew Research Study on Religion and Public Life, 2014]

My desire to appreciate and utilize all that I have learned in White majority Jewish leadership spaces, while also agreeing to engage adaptability, versatility and innovation in my approach to being a transformational Jewish leader, inspired me to build programs within Dimensions that can support Jewish Women of Color in finding new language to allow their Jewish identities and leadership to be expressed and valued outside of an exclusive paradigm of Europeanness and Whiteness. Through “The Jewish Women of Color Resilience Circle,” Dimensions supports Jewish Women of Color (JWOC) in experiencing themselves as other than “other” as Jews.  In many spiritual communities and in Jewish communities specifically, Jewish Women of Color have yet to experience what it means to be central, clearly spoken to, and equally relevant in the derivation of Jewish ritual and practice. In Dimensions’ projects, we utilize a transformational leadership approach to support JWOC empowerment and to create a consciousness of JWOC thinking, JWOC love, JWOC spirit and JWOC power in the world. In our gatherings, I support Jewish Women of Color in developing a Jewish practice for themselves that resists any assumptions of White supremacy.  I do this work with love and compassion and I engage participants in supportive opportunities for ongoing reflection and re-evaluation.

As an aspiring transformational Jewish Woman of Color leader, I also model the prospect that JWOC can lead and operate meaningful leadership lives outside of a paradigm for work that supports our own oppression. In my leadership, I take seriously that in modeling and prioritizing my own self-care, I offer Jewish Women of Color a chance to connect to their humanness and thus their frailty.  My approach to leadership encourages emotional literacy and the confidence to admit when we are hurting or struggling, without succumbing to fear that we will be seen as weak or inadequate.  In my work with Jewish women of Color, I often address the challenge that when a woman leader of color lives even a small portion of her life publicly, that public too often expects perfection and, by virtue of being a leader, that she has already conquered the challenges she advocates against. My approach to transformational leadership provides Jewish Women of Color with opportunities to take off their capes and masks, be vulnerable, share our burdens, and seek and offer help to one another as we develop our capacities for leadership.

According to the Jews of Color Field Building survey “Counting Inconsistencies,” of the United States’ 7.2 million Jews, at least 12-15%, just over 1,000,000, are Jews of Color and in some communities, at least 20% of Jewish households are multiracial. For many, witnessing the profound social transformation occurring within contemporary Jewish communities might be cause for distress and alarm.  For others who are willing to engage the “Both-And” of Jewish communal growth, these times offer an opportunity to explore new ways of growing Jewish community and engaging Jews that will only emerge when leaders choose to welcome tension and swing between our established social polarities, as noted as one of CCL’s Jewish leadership challenges. The goal of Dimensions’ Jewish communal projects is to serve as a catalyst for enhancing the transformational leadership of Jews of Color and Jewish Women of Color. The JWOC Resilience Circle has created a necessary space for Jewish Women of Color to honor and care for themselves while giving voice to their experiences. It supports and makes more visible the leadership and meaningful communal work that Jewish Women of Color are accomplishing. Dimensions teaches our partners to center the work of Jewish Women of Color as valuable within larger Jewish communal spaces and encourages those interested in engaging under-served populations of Jews, to create personal and organizational resources for sustaining these extraordinary Jewish women.

Although the context has changed, Dimensions is leading initiatives that are concerned with Jewish identity and continuity. Our programs approach Jewish continuity as an opportunity to engage difference. We create Circles of Resilience that can sustainably engage Jews of Color, and Jewish Women of Color specifically, because we believe that the lives, families and future generations of all Jews are invaluable to the realization of a beloved, inclusive and multiracial Jewish future for all of us.

Yavilah McCoy is CEO of Dimensions Educational Consulting.

Promote Dialogue: Next Steps as We Navigate Education Challenges in Training for Effective Jewish Leadership

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

In their first-year interim report on Jewish leadership development, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) identifies five challenges facing those who wish to cultivate Jewish leadership today. One of those five, Education Challenges, encompasses, but is not limited to, the following:

  • that there is a “lack of clarity around terminology,” and no “agreed-upon definition of Jewish education;”
  • that trends in Jewish education have been towards a consumerist approach asking, “what does the market audience need (or want);”
  • that individuals also want to be, as Dr. Jonathan Woocher z’l put it, “prosumers – empowered to create their own educational experiences, and to guide them on lifelong learning journeys;” and
  • that it is not clear who “does the work” of Jewish education. Are they those whose job titles includes “Jewish educator” or those who work in a frontal classroom setting? Or, as Shuki Taylor of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education says, “professionals from fundraisers to program directors to farmers need to see themselves as educators, who should approach their work from a learning perspective?” (I happen to agree with Shuki on this point).

Examining the above, it is clear that just within the Education Challenges bucket, CCL points to numerous challenges when thinking about cultivating leadership. My reflection after reading this section of the report is two-fold. First, we need to prioritize ongoing dialogue on these issues and second, we need to clarify the definitions many of us already know but others may not.

In regards to dialogue, CCL points out that as we think about the future of Jewish education—and its many related complex and important issues—people will articulate differing opinions and visions. Inevitably, some people’s will be strong and impassioned. Coincidentally, these three variables—an important issue, when emotions run high, and when opinions differ—often are the markers of a critical conversation between two or multiple parties that must occur to address and resolve differences. An effective and responsible leader makes it a priority to engage in these conversations head on, with transparency, a great listening ear, and kindness, no matter how fraught they may be.

The challenges stated in the CCL report should further motivate our Jewish education field to have these critical conversations. These conversations must be with diverse groups and held in public spaces.  A good example of this is the open and frequent dialogues hosted at the William Davidson School of JTS. These included conversations about the goals, purpose, and scope of education and involved colleagues from across the spectrum of Jewish life.

I suggest that an effective leadership approach to navigating the many issues CCL highlights is to prioritize discussion over determination, dialogue over absolutist decision-making, and be pluralistic and multi-faced when we decide whom to invite into conversation, gathering a diverse selection of Jewish educators and leaders and to create an environment that welcomes and appreciates various perspectives. In my view, such an approach will generate more innovation and collaboration then holding particular stances that can limit one’s impact or influence.

In regards to clarifying definitions, I was curious to see some of the challenges stated in the report, as I think at least a couple have already been resolved. For example, there are agreed upon definitions of Jewish education.  Most would commonly define Jewish education as involving the exposure to or transmission of knowledge and engaging learners in experiences between an educator(s) and learner(s) that involve or speak to a particular body of content. Now, what is included (or not) in this body of content? What are the shared goals and purposes of our work? These are great and deep questions—and ones we must discuss. Again, I don’t believe we should set a goal to determine finite answers. We will never get to consensus! Yet, we certainly can say that there is some consensus around what Jewish education is, and we should amplify this to as large an audience as possible.

A second example is the perceived conflation between informal and experiential education. Conflating these two educational approaches was an issue earlier this decade for many deeply involved in Jewish education. There is an understanding now that “formal vs. informal” references the Jewish educational setting, whereas “frontal vs. experiential” commonly relates to an educator’s approach to the educational experience or learning. These definitions, to me, are pretty clear and irrefutable, with many thanks to Dr. David Bryfman, Dr. Jeff Kress, and other colleagues who have written on this. The task now at hand is to amplify these definitions for clarity to the broader community. In our work to build the Jewish leadership field, we must effectively communicate what we already know.

Which brings me back again to the importance of dialogue. Many of the education challenges before us as outlined by CCL are indeed complex; thus our charge for leadership must be to advance the conversation, and to spur new innovations and paradigms for Jewish education to consider. We must also make our work a bit simpler by leading through the iterative process, allowing our work to constantly grow and evolve, and to communicate our work frequently and broadly so we all can respond, converse, and learn from each other.

Mark S. Young served as the Managing Director, Leadership Commons at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary

The “Crisis Narrative,” Revisited

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

In its insightful report prepared for the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) reaches a conclusion which echoes an axiomatic foundational principle of our work at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America: that the conditions of social comfort and relative political security challenge us to articulate visions for Jewish community and Jewish identity that are robust enough for Jews to want to opt into them in an open marketplace of identities and choices. The CCL report wisely observes that the American Jewish project had shifted, by the end of the 20th century, from the attempt to assimilate into trying to thrive after having successfully assimilated. In such a climate, with the absence of pronounced persecution on par with earlier eras in Jewish history, and with an increasing diversity of ideological expressions and even of the very definitions of Jewishness, Jewish leaders and educators face the challenge of having to “make the case” for Judaism itself to potential adherents who could easily default to opting out.

This is why so many of us do what we do in Jewish education: we believe there is a Judaism that is greater than the one forced upon us by the “crisis narrative,” that Judaism should not be a coercive default; and that a clear articulation of such a Judaism not only makes a better case for Judaism to survive and thrive today, but also reflects a deeper understanding of the covenant itself. My colleague Shaul Magid argues provocatively that to be fixated on existential threats – to be constantly concerned that the Jewish people will be destroyed – is its own act of disbelief in the covenant, a lack of faith in God’s promise that the Jewish people will not be destroyed. Or, if we prefer a secular framing: the Jewish people, in all its lachrymose history, has been relentlessly adaptable. Shouldn’t the business of Jewish leadership be to lead the people towards the next adaptation, rather than merely protecting the people against threats? After a while, if you don’t tend the house, what’s the point of guarding it?

Our institution has premised itself on this understanding of Judaism in general and specifically of American Jewry since its founding, and argues that one of the ways in which we “make the case” for a Judaism of meaning is through the quality of our ideas. David Hartman z”larticulated this in slightly different terms, and for Israeli society, in his landmark essay “Auschwitz or Sinai,” arguing that it was time for Israelis to move past a victimhood-consciousness – which impeded moral obligation and responsibility – and towards a Judaism characterized by the metaphor of Sinai, and the responsibilities created by covenantal commitment. Persecution and oppression may be useful catalysts to sustain community in moments of crisis; but over time, and when existential threats no longer describe the totality of a community’s experience, we need positive and constructive commitments around which to organize our sense of belonging. Failure to identify and invest in these commitments will not only mean that we will fail to hold onto our adherents; it will also seed suspicion in those who believe that our fixation on existential threats belies a vacuousness in whatever it is we seek to protect. For at least a generation, we have heard this refrain echo in the Jewish community: what, after all, is the meaning and morality of survival for its own sake?

Increasingly, however, I find myself conflicted. Antisemitism consciousness is again on the rise in the Jewish community, and I fear that in our haste to repudiate it, those of us critics of Judaisms built on survival and solidarity perhaps never really engaged with the seriousness of its claims. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, writing in 1967 – still in the shadow of the Shoah, and in the midst of feverish rising hostilities on Israel’s borders – wrote as follows:

“I confess I used to be highly critical of Jewish philosophies which seemed to advocate no more than survival for survival’s sake. I have changed my mind. I now believe that, in this present unbelievable age, even a mere collective commitment to Jewish group survival for its own sake is a momentous response, with the greatest implications. I am convinced that future historians will understand it, not as our present detractors would have it, as a tribal response – mechanism of a fossil, but rather as a profound, albeit fragmentary, act of faith, in an age of crisis to which the response might well have been either flight in total disarray or complete despair.”

I feel indicted by Fackenheim’s words, and I am concerned that inasmuch we have insisted that a previous generation’s survivalism was merely tribalism, we are left unprepared to grapple with the urgency of its moral message. We have been so convinced by the need for a post-crisis moral language that we failed to harvest the moral possibilities and legacies of a generation of Jews whose very survival was an extraordinary affirmation in light of more plausible alternatives. In our haste to insist that the morality of our predecessors was insufficient, did we simply not do the work in understanding it?

Worse than that, we also see now that antisemitism didn’t disappear; the only thing that has disappeared has been the capacity of our community to organize with some sense of shared resistance to it, a commitment – even if ‘secular’ in nature, even if only committed to survival for survival’s sake – to fight it as a collective. Antisemitism for American Jews today is just another datum in the partisan divide, and this is the worst of both worlds: the persistence of a pernicious hate, without even the gift of solidarity among Jews on the other side. Is it possible that in fixating on a moral alternative, we evacuated the useful and instructive moral message of what it was that we were rejecting?

But it’s not that I want survivalism and the crisis narrative to come back again as the organizing principle in American Jewish life, to swing the pendulum in the other direction to correct for the mistakes of having let it go too quickly. Survivalism is not only a set of fears and the framework for a moral response; it also brings with it an economy of actors and institutions who benefit when the energy and attention of our community fixates on self-preservation and political solidarity. Sometimes, in my more heretical moments, I feel angrier at anti-semites for warping our communal priorities than I even am at them for hating us and trying to destroy us. I feel in these moments affirmed by the Haggadah’s brash assertion that Lavan the Aramean was ‘worse’ than Pharoah, as he sought not merely to eradicate us physically but also to extinguish our spirit. When we become fixated on threats against us – on the enemies at the gates rather than on the covenant in the center of the camp – are we unwittingly complicit in our own demise?

I suppose that one of my hopes for Jewish education and Jewish leadership today is to find a deeper epistemological humility inside this swinging pendulum, more seekers of Jewish moral meaning of our most existential fears, a community of interpreters of our biggest political questions – committed more to the complexity found in imperfect solutions to Jewish problems than to advocacy for this tendentious choice or its radical alternative. We have to find ways to work on identifying the redeeming moral arguments behind the survival of the Jewish people just for survival’s sake, even as we hold alongside them our moral and sociologically-informed instincts that those arguments that fueled the Jewish past may not be sufficient to anchor a Jewishness for the Jewish future. I am not convinced that the most innovative and visionary leaders of the Jewish people are those that are capable of transcending the constraints and limitations of those that came before us. Jewish continuity has always been made possible through a weird hybrid of being forward-looking, and informed by the choices and mistakes of the past, all at the same time. It is possible that the survivalism of the 20thcentury – with its secular commitments to “Jewish peoplehood,” and the odd continuity for its own sake – have what to teach even those of us who are skeptical of their hegemony. To move beyond the crisis narrative – which I still believe we must urgently do – we may need to revisit it.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Lessons from the Field: Ayeka’s Professional Development of Educators

At Ayeka, we believe that Jewish education must be broadened to engage the whole student in his or her uniqueness: mind, body, heart, and imagination.  Only when students personally connect with the material will they find it truly meaningful. We partner with six day schools of different denominations across the country to train teachers in our unique pedagogy of Soulful Education.  Our goal is to nurture the inner lives of the teachers themselves and to provide them with the tools to personally, emotionally, and spiritually engage their students. As we near the end of year one, we have successes, challenges, and questions to share.

New Paradigm for Jewish Education
Ayeka shifts the paradigm of Jewish education; as a result, operative questions change. The student no longer asks, “What does this text mean?” but rather, “what does this text mean to me?” The teacher no longer asks, “Have the students mastered the material?” but rather, “Now that the students have mastered the material, how will it impact their lives?”  The role of the teacher also changes, from expert source of information to role model of a Jew on a life-long journey of growth, also learning and seeking to grow by engaging in Torah study.

At leading schools across the country, this paradigm shift is beginning to take hold. Seasoned educators are aware of the disconnect sometimes experienced between their students and the curriculum and want help engaging them. They appreciate the opportunity to step back from the frenetic pace of the school day to become learners again, to hone their skills and refocus their vision, and to renew and deepen their own spiritual connections. Some have been teaching for decades without a clearly articulated philosophy of education. Many tell us that it has been years, even decades, since they personally studied the texts they teach. Now they can approach it anew with fresh eyes. Moreover, students of all ages respond positively to the opportunities for personal reflection, and want more.

Overcoming Challenges of Shifting to Soulful Education
At the same time, we’ve discovered that a shift of this kind is difficult for many teachers, who associate Torah learning with purely intellectual discourse.  For some, this paradigm challenges what they long held as the goals of Jewish education, as the dominant school culture, or as the expectations of parents. We have learned that running immersive training programs is not enough to achieve the desired outcomes. We need to coach our teachers with 1:1 mentoring on a regular basis throughout the year.

For teachers to alter their pedagogy, and to both share more of themselves and invite students to do the same, feels risky. This requires teachers to step out of their comfort zones and to be vulnerable.  For this kind of change to succeed, program participants need the understanding and support of colleagues and the school administration. Ayeka works with at least two teachers within a school to help cultivate a peer-to-peer support system. We find that keeping the school administration “in the loop,”so they understand and support this new approach to learning is also critical. Ideally, at some point, an administrator participates fully in one of our training cohorts.

Site visits are invaluable, when we offer direct feedback to teachers after observing their lessons and meet administrators in person.  Moreover, each school is a universe unto itself.  The schools are vastly different sizes and in different geographic regions of the country. They serve different denominational communities, have diverse cultures, and operate in different educational systems.  Some schools are thriving and some are struggling.  Some buildings are decrepit and some are state-of-the-art.  When teachers gather from across the country to attend our training retreats, they are “homogenized” to some extent, and we see only the differences in them as individuals. Yet all of these variable factors and more influence what happens in the classroom, and we can best support our teachers by knowing the ecosystems in which they operate.

There are inherent challenges in trying to effect transformative change in an institution from the outside. We do not hire teachers, design curriculum, run staff meetings, or define school culture. Some schools, in their well-intentioned hurry to improve instruction, introduce multiple professional development initiatives at the same time, which can overwhelm its teachers. We need to teach our pedagogy in the most effective manner possible, while staying mindful of the limitations of our reach and the many factors influencing teachers and their capacity.

Big Questions to Consider Moving Forward
Ayeka partners with schools, but we train educators. We see a surprisingly high rate of transience in the day school workplace.  For instance, in our first year working with six schools, two Heads of School transitioned, and several teachers went on leave or are leaving the school.  This has led us to question the unit of change we are seeking and effecting.  If it is the individual educator, should we “follow” them to their new place of employment? If it is the school, how do we address the inconsistency and lost ground when participants leave?

Is a short-term partnership effective, or must the relationship be ongoing in order to have long-term impact?  How do we balance depth with breadth, rigorously training select educators while exposing the entire staff to core elements of our pedagogy and the paradigm shifts we are inviting?  How can we do this right and still keep it affordable?

At Ayeka, we believe we are all works-in-progress and on a lifelong journey of learning and growth. The first year of the Soulful Education Professional Development program yielded important insights and questions. We know there are more to come as we work with schools to make Jewish learning more personally meaningful for students and teachers alike.

Michal Fox Smart is Director of Ayeka North America


The Power of Leaders Who Leverage Networks

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.

At a time when our country—and world—feel so upside down, effective and transformative leadership has never been more needed. The Center for Creative Leadership study commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation helps us name and tackle perennial challenges in Jewish leadership with the profound urgency this political and spiritual moment demands.

Reading through the report, I stumbled upon my own words quoted from a talk I gave in 2014 titled “Discontinuing Jewish Continuity.” My central argument, then and now, is that our American Jewish community is not suffering from a crisis of Jewish continuity, but rather from a crisis of Jewish communal purpose. And, I would suggest, we need visionary and ordinary leaders—leading from a multiplicity of locations, identities, communities and platforms—to help us articulate that purpose and shape our future.

As the study describes, the challenges of leadership include the ability to manage polarities, to build inclusive and diverse communities, to develop Jewish education that is rigorous enough to transmit core Jewish principles while being accessible to an increasingly expansive Jewish population, to build Jewish organizations that attract and retain talent, and lastly to elevate our leadership game beyond our primary institutions in service to activating and aggregating the power of our networks for maximum impact.

In regard to the leadership practice of collaboration and the power of network-level leadership, I have seen firsthand the exponential and longitudinal benefit of this approach. In 2004 Bend the Arc (then Jewish Funds for Justice) launched The Selah Leadership Program in partnership with The Rockwood Leadership Institute, with initial funding provided by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Rather than develop a leadership program that would primarily benefit our organization, we designed Selah to be a world-class leadership program that would also create the conditions necessary for a Jewish social justice sector to emerge and thrive. Selah was a deliberate intervention into the Jewish community, and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is one concrete manifestation of this network-level investment. Selah is now midway through our second Jewish communal intervention: to support the leadership of Jews of Color through four consecutive Selah Jewish Leaders of Color cohorts. By lifting up and fortifying the leadership of Jews of Color, Bend the Arc is playing one strategic role among many in helping our multiracial Jewish community live into a greater commitment to racial equity. We are deeply grateful for the partnership of the Jim Joseph Foundation, as well as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jews of Color Field-Building Initiative in supporting this essential work.

And yet, on this question of network level leadership, I find myself grappling with some of the same questions that I articulated in that talk many years ago. When I think about the tremendous power of “network weavers”, the enormous resources spent on field-wide collaborations, or the well-meaning inclination for collective endeavors—all of which I support wholeheartedly—I come back to two questions: who has, de-facto, defined the parameters and actors that comprise the network, and when all is said and done “to what end”?

We know that most of our current Jewish institutions are not yet being led by Jews who represent the plurality and multiplicity of our community (including, but not limited to leadership by women, Jews of Color, and younger Jews), and we also know that many of our Jewish communal organizations are no longer feeling alive and relevant to a significant percentage of the [American] Jewish community. Given this reality, is it perhaps the strongest leadership move to pause before investing in the success of this iteration of our Jewish ecosystem? Or, if we choose to activate and harness the power of the networks we have, how can we be mindful of the perspectives, voices, practices and brilliance that is missing? What is our responsibility as leaders to mitigate this absence in our own institutions, and in our Jewish ecosystem as a whole?

And, as our Jewish community and communal ecosystems continue to transform, we will still need to answer the question: What is our shared vision, and why is it essential for us to reach for that vision together? How will we remain aligned and moving forward over time? When we work to elevate our own and other organizations in a networked system, the system itself is strengthened. Reinforcing an ill-defined system can create deeper challenges. I often wonder how much more powerful we could be if our networks had a conscious and explicit vision for our collective success.

Many Jewish social justice leaders are tackling versions of this problem together. Leaders and organizations from The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, for example, have made a multi-year commitment to advance practices and policies of racial equity in our organizations and broader field. In moving together in formation towards our shared vision of making social justice a core expression of Jewish life, we are learning to share responsibility and accountability for the historic— and current—manifestations of racism inside the Jewish community.  This is network level leadership in action.

Developing the capacity of Jewish leaders to ask these bigger questions and skillfully lead our organizations—and broader community—is a critical need. We are grateful that the field is moving in this new direction and that the very nature of the ecosystem of leadership development is expanding and reshaping itself.

Stosh Cotler is the Chief Executive Officer of Bend the Arc

Values at the Core of JFNA’S Next-Gen Engagement

Parker Palmer – an educator who writes about social activism, values, and community engagement – has spent his life trying to convince teachers, civic leaders, and influencers that finding one’s inner truth is the first step in helping people achieve greater personal and professional fulfillment. The idea resonates well with Generations X and Y (millennials) and often informs the Jewish community’s next-gen engagement work. Hard-pressed to make decisions about what they want to do and who they want to be, today’s young adults struggle to understand what it means to be human in a world that constantly challenges their humanity. The result, according to Palmer, is a crisis of identity, which must be addressed.

The lesson for next-gen Jewish professionals is to address the complex issue of identity before presenting a pathway to communal engagement. Palmer’s ideas are prominently featured in an 18-month fellowship program developed by The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in partnership with M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education and the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). He encourages an exploration of identity through truth – starting with one’s own truth – as a path to understanding where the most fruitful intersections with the world lie. It’s a version of the idea of “meeting people where they are,” but through Palmer’s lens, the success of “the meeting” can only be achieved through deep personal understanding. “Who is the self that teaches?” is the core question Palmer asks in his celebrated book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, which has become a mainstay for Jewish educators since its release in 1997. His ideas, which are derived from his Quaker roots, impart important lessons.

The JFNA fellows, 20 of whom will graduate from the program’s inaugural cohort in November, are young adults hired by local Jewish federations to lead next-gen engagement work. As representatives of the market, they were directed to follow Palmer’s recommendation to explore their own identities as a first step. Their self-exploration was complemented by a rigorous set of leadership questionnaires administered by the research-based CCL in Greensboro. CCL provides fellows with analyses of their leadership competencies, communication preferences, and tolerance for change through a battery of assessment tools typically used for top corporate CEOs. The goal is to allow the fellows an opportunity to understand the values at the core of their identities and how these values affect their performances and success at work. At the end of the 18-month program, these young professionals will be more intentional about how they engage their peers and also better positioned to guide their local communities.

From the start, the initiative was experimental. Next-gen federation professionals tend to have small budgets and operate several concentric circles away from their most senior federation colleagues and local board leaders. This significant investment in their professional growth and development is supported by a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. Also, each federation is giving their fellows time for training and learning as well as supervision and funding for an applied learning demonstration project. Taken together, this effort is unprecedented in the Jewish community and reflects the federation’s commitment to cultivating talent and finding new ways to address one of the community’s most pressing concerns: next-gen engagement with and commitment to Jewish communal life.

Commitment, including its connection to values and identity, was also discussed. What does it mean to be committed to the Jewish people? How much of myself and my individualism am I willing to give up in order to be part of a community? These questions are central to the identity of next-gen Jewish professionals and their peers.

Presented with an endless number of ways in which to express themselves, every decision they make is riddled with complexities of who they truly are. That amorphous reality often provokes indecision and inaction. The fellows are learning to interpret and address these questions head-on in their next-gen work. They are learning to think like educators and leaders by practicing various methods that will enable them to elevate conversations about Judaism, Jewish identity, and Jewish commitment through an exploration of values.

The fellows are learning that people only make lasting commitments after they have wrestled with difficult ideas or experienced conflict. They must fall and then rise, get pushed and push back. Yet, conflict often involves risk and possible dissention – ideas not always embraced by federations that pride themselves on representing a community that speaks in one harmonious voice. To be successful, the fellows will have to counter these entrenched behaviors and solicit buy-in for new engagement tools from federation leaders.

Palmer also wrestled with similar issues related to cultural reform. He recognized that, on their own, his wisdom and passion were insufficient to ignite change. Part of the challenge he accepted was to communicate his ideas in a way that others can understand, spread, and scale. For example, he often used the word spirituality, which is loaded with various meanings and assumptions. However, Palmer reasoned, “When I actually did get around to talking about spirituality, I would say to people, before you stop listening, let me explain what that word means to me: spirituality is any way you have of responding to the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than yourself.” Once he provided this definition, people seemed more at ease.

The JFNA next-gen fellows aim to address an audacious and timeless question: How do we make Judaism matter for the new generation? The answer, they are being taught, can be found only by looking inside and discovering what they truly believe, for once they truly believe, they can convince others to believe as well. It’s a journey few in the Jewish communal space have had the luxury of experiencing with such intensity and commitment, and JFNA has high expectations for this group. As one fellow explained, “Ever since I came to understand the value proposition, I have not been able to stop talking about it. I have trained my colleagues, members of our federation board, and, of course, the young professionals with whom I work. Perhaps finding ways to engage the next generation in Jewish life may be just the beginning.”

Rabbi David M. Kessel is the Associate Vice President of Young Leadership and Next Gen Engagement for The Jewish Federations of North America. The second cohort of JFNA’s NextGen Fellows began in May, 2019.

Learn more about the Next Gen Jewish Federation Fellowship program here.
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Responsive Innovation: Growing and Evolving Through Dialogue

It starts simple. One problem. One need. One idea.

At Sefaria, we take that simple start and grow it collaboratively into robust and sometimes game-changing solutions. This is the heart of our approach to research and development: we listen to our users, we study the potential impact of implementing new tools and features, and then we innovate. We have an ambitious vision to make Torah more accessible and we balance a long list of new product ideas and everyday maintenance needs along with a constant stream of user feedback. This vision is best pursued when our funders view themselves as partners in this journey—ready to celebrate successes and to learn from failures with us—and when they understand why and how this approach yields the innovations that the field embraces.

The Winding Journey to Innovation
As a fast-moving organization, one that is committed to launching early and often, and pivoting when necessary, long-term plans can be tricky. We release a new feature about every three weeks. Some of them you’ve seen, because they’ve gained traction, while others quietly morph into other features, getting redesigned and redeployed later on. Like most tech companies, our product roadmaps primarily exist to help us prioritize the most important work at that moment, and plan the sequence in which we’ll release features as they relate to our strategic goals.

Estimating how long it will take to create an entirely new tool or feature is always a challenge. We do, however, use a quarterly planning process adopted from a technique made famous by Intel and Google measuring objectives and key results–or OKRs. This approach allows us to remain flexible and open to new opportunities while also holding ourselves accountable to internal deadlines and benchmarks. As we grade the previous quarter and plan for the next one, we can adjust to new circumstances, adapt to changes in the broader world of technology, and allow our small but mighty engineering team the opportunity to support the needs of our audience. Furthermore, some of the most successful tools, products and interfaces pioneered by Sefaria – including our Source Sheet Builder – were not initially on any product roadmap.

Source Sheets have long been a fixture in Jewish education. For decades, rabbis, teachers and professors would physically cut and paste these sheets together so that students could learn together in a classroom setting. For a long time, this tool served its purpose.

When Sefaria was first building its library, our team repeatedly heard requests from users: Can I build a source sheet on your site? Given the importance of this pedagogical tool and how inextricably linked it is to the way we study Jewish texts, we knew that our users were onto something. So we listened and responded, building a product that digitized the source sheet.

At first, that’s all it was: just a direct digitization of a once-analog product. Of course even that was a giant leap forward, allowing users to pull from texts without scissors, a glue stick and a copy machine. This new life for the traditional source sheet quickly evolved as we learned from our users.

Soon, we upgraded the ability to add multimedia. A community educator could add video classes to a sheet. Or a teacher could add an image of a Marc Chagall painting to illustrate how a text inspired a piece of art. Or perhaps a singer-songwriter would write music based on female characters in the Bible and upload the recordings with links to the texts that inspired her.

But because Sefaria is an ever-evolving platform, we kept reaching. Again, we turned to our users to listen, learn and grow. We soon realized that we needed a way for educators to reach an eager audience. It wasn’t enough just to host their source sheets–even in their new upgraded form. Now, we needed a method to connect users to the type of content they were seeking.

To this challenge, we responded by developing our Groups feature. Now, organizations and schools, as well as individual artists and thinkers, could launch their curriculum, classes, resources and ideas in a low-risk, high-reward environment. This evolving feature already hosts more than 45 groups including Moishe House, One Table, ELI Talks, various synagogues, schools, Hillels and more.

And it doesn’t end here. As you read this, our team is working around the clock on enhancements for the Groups feature, for the Source Sheet Builder and new tools we have yet to even announce.

Funding the Unknown and Embracing Change Together
For some funders, our approach is unconventional, and the nature of the work can be unsettling. One problem begets one solution—and the work takes off from there. Truly innovating often means embarking on the unknown, including not knowing when—or if—a new project will be completed.

As a software platform that will succeed or fail based on its utility, we are wary of making promises—whether it’s a new feature or an engagement tactic—before anything has been tested by users. If we were to make specific commitments simply to satisfy a funder looking for a detailed project plan and timeline, we could end up building products that are not adaptive and don’t work for the majority of Sefaria’s users.

That’s why we particularly value our relationship with funding partners who learn with us and remain open to flexibility and change throughout the grant period. These partners also understand that risk-taking is a critical part of innovation. And because traditional, “transactional” grant reports sometimes fail to capture progress made and valuable information learned in any period, we appreciate the opportunity for regular check-ins. Our ongoing conversations give us the opportunity to build trust, share honest feedback, learn from each other and, ultimately, better support the Jewish community together.

We’ve been very lucky to work with several major foundations and individual investors who have been willing to take this journey with us. And while we have made a lot of progress making the Jewish library more accessible, we still have a lot of work to do!

Annie Lumerman is Chief Operating Officer of Sefaria.