PHILADELPHIA — Professional and lay Jewish day school leaders gathered in the City of Brotherly Love for three days to forge “uncommon connections” with their peers.
The fifth North American Jewish Day School Conference, which ended March 10, brought an estimated 1,000 participants to the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, where the stated goal was
to learn about systems intelligence. PARDES Day Schools of Reform Jud-aism, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the Schechter Day School Network and the Yeshiva University-School Partnership co-hosted the conference, with sponsorship from the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Kohelet Foundation and Jewish Federa-tions of North America.
The packed schedule featured workshops, plenaries and three-hour “Con-stellations of Learning” blocs, in which participants could pick and choose among sessions ranging from free-wheeling, unstructured conversations to three-hour intensive discussions.
New this year were opportunities for participants to study Torah, excursions to Philadelphia educational and cultural landmarks and a special track for small school communities.
The focus on small Jewish day schools grew out of last year’s joint RAVSAK-PARDES conference in which a sort of conference within a conference for small schools and communities was hosted. According to Dr. Marc Kramer, co-executive director of RAVSAK, the endeavor was wildly successful.
At this year’s conference, Kramer’s back-to-back small schools sessions were packed, particularly a session that examined four case studies ranging from dealing with donor stipulations to dealing with dissatisfied families. Case studies, explained Kramer, are a useful tool for identifying problems and dig-ging beyond the superficial to find a meaningful answer. Workshopping the cases together with a wide range of voices helped small school leaders gain insights they might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear.
“One thing that we heard, which we knew, is leadership is lonely business,” said Kramer. “If the next Jewish school is two or three hours away that’s really limiting, but when you can sit in a room with other Jewish leaders from small schools you can have relationships with your colleagues that are missing throughout the year.”
To further facilitate conversation, the NAJDS conference featured an interactive meeting environment dubbed “The Play-ground” designed by Fielding Nair Inter-national, the architects behind creative learning spaces around the globe. The room was divvied up into learning spaces — campfire, cave, watering hole and life — where attendees took advantage of sitting down for one-on-one conversations or learning about blended learning techniques from the multitude of educational technology companies present.
Just across from the technology-laden tables, Rivky Ross, head of school at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick, N.J., sat on the floor surrounded by classroom objects and demonstrated how the Montessori multisensory approach is incorporated into Hebrew language learning.
Ross explained that a benefit of a smaller school — her school has 125 students from infant through eighth grade — was the sense of community created.
“We’re a school where the children feel they’re a close-knit family, and that has a lot of value,” said Ross.
Pittsburgh’s own Com-munity Day School, jointly affiliated with Schechter and RAVSAK, had eight participants at the conference.
Hillel Academy of Pitts-burgh sent a delegation as well.
CDS head of school Avi Baran Munro praised the collaborative event, which was first held in 2008, for bringing together professionals from across the spectrum of Jewish day schools to learn from one another. Though her team has yet to have a full debriefing on their individual experiences, Munro said her staff came back “fired up.”
“We place a high value on professional development and on peer, collegiate networking and all of that happened there,” she said.
Rabbi David Lapin, CEO of Lapin Consulting International, and his daughters, Ashira Lapin Gobrin and Bruria Lapin Martin, urged a return to traditional Talmudic methods of study as a means of giving Jewish students an edge in an automatized future.
“What do we have to give to our students?” he asked the audience. “The capacity in the future to compete with robots. To be able to do what robots cannot.”
He impressed upon the audience that Talmudic methodology makes sense to children growing up in the digital age. Unlike traditional education, he continued, where students are taught that to get from one to three you must go by two, the study of Talmud allows a leap from one to three, to go out of order and ask questions. It is the asking of questions that will give Jewish students the advantage.
Lapin urged the crowd to “change [the] conversation from competitive advantage to Jewish advantage.”
To drive the point home, Gobrin had the audience study the first tractate that discusses the Shema and share their results and conversations.
Concluded Gobrin, “Western education teaches students to answer our questions. Jewish education inspires students to question our answers.”
Workshops on fundraising, building endowments and affordability were threaded throughout the conference.
In an 80-minute Constellation session held March 9, Harry Bloom, strategy manager at PEJE, and Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in suburban Baltimore, gave a joint presentation on “What does governance have to do with Fundraising? Everything!”
Bloom posited that the secret to school board success is a combination of strategic board meetings, board education about programs and budget, formal board education and conflict-of-interest avoidance agreements in place. He also highlighted the sometimes uncomfortable, but necessary, task of profiling board members’ ability to give financially — the ideal being that board members’ gifts to their schools be among their top three donations yearly.
Melissa Apter is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.