All the colors of Jewish education

All the colors of Jewish education

Prizmah helps all denominations of day schools

This classroom is at Rashi, a Reform movement 
day school in Dedham, Massachusetts.
This classroom is at Rashi, a Reform movement day school in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Sometimes the world seems as if it’s divided into so many little never-intersecting bubbles that it’s coming out of a gigantic plastic wand a crazed giant is waving in the air.

We see the dangers of that separation, that state of walled-offness, all around us; in our politics, in our news sources, in our understanding of the world. We certainly see it in the Jewish community. Each of the streams is locked into its own riverbed, imprisoned, it seems, by the banks that also give it form and structure. Many of them come together occasionally at JCCs and federations, but even there we tend to stick with our own kind.

Jewish day schools also generally are shaped by the movements they represent; there are some community schools for progressive families, and at times Conservative parents send their children to Orthodox schools and Reform parents to Conservative ones, but those crossovers are relatively rare.

Many people despair of this segmentation even as they continue to live it, seeing no way out of it.

And then there is Prizmah.

The year-old midtown Manhattan-based organization, whose name — in full, it’s Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools — appropriately means “prism,” was formed from five groups. In alphabetical order, they are PARDES (the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools), PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education), RAVSAK (the Jewish Community Day School Network), the Schechter Day School Network, and YUSP (Yeshiva University School Partnership). (Yes, it is striking how much the Jewish educational world is attracted to acronyms, initials, and capital letters. There is no doubt a doctoral dissertation in that.)

PEJE dealt with Jewish education in general; the other four organizations represented Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and community schools.

Amazingly, the professional and lay leaders of all these organizations agreed to merge their bubbles and work together, with the understanding that they are stronger together, and with the resolve not only to acknowledge their differences but to cherish them as they discover common needs and work to fill them.

There are about 375 schools that are members of Prizmah; that includes most of the day schools in Bergen County.

Elissa Maier
Elissa Maier

“Prizmah is a startup that is a phenomenal model,” its new COO, Elissa Maier of Englewood, said. “It sends a powerful message about one Jewish community, working together to serve day schools.” The only similar organization she can think of, she added, is the Foundation for Jewish Camp (which oddly enough is headed by Jeremy Fingerman, also of Englewood.)

“Prizmah’s number one goal is to make Jewish day school education a priority across the community,” Ms. Maier said. “We want Jewish day schools to be the top choice for Jewish parents.” To that end, Prizmah will work with schools in four areas — “providing tools to foster educational excellence, to work toward financial viability, to develop professional and lay leaders, and to make the case for day schools.”

One way to work toward that goal is “to build a network to connect schools across the country,” she added. “Network connections are critical to helping people do their jobs more effectively.”

Most day schools face similar problems — first, most pressing, most unavoidable among them being the tuition bills they present, based on the expenses they must pay. But northern New Jersey is unlike most other parts of the country in that it is well stocked with day schools. In many parts of the country, administrators have to scramble for students, whose parents often have to be convinced of the school’s value. Here, many parents enter the school search pre-convinced, but have to decide which school is best for them.

Does that make Prizmah less valuable here? No, Ms. Maier said. Not at all. “There definitely is an environment of competitiveness, but Bergen County already has shown that there is value in bringing day schools together for conversation and sharing resources. Initially there can be a reluctance to come together, but when we show them the value — when it demonstrates itself — that changes.

“Here, we have a large enough community, with enough students to go around. And each school has its own characteristics.

“Across the country, though, you have to make the case for why day school. The challenge there is when you don’t have as large a population to feed into the schools, when you have a community that is declining in size or strength. The challenge is very much determined by where you are located.”

All schools need money, however. “We provide guidance and resources to help schools identify sources of funding and grants, and help them create fundraising models that they can work with,” Ms. Maier said.

Prizmah is open to all schools that focus on both Jewish and secular subjects, she said.

Ms. Maier has just begun to work at Prizmah; until now she has been at the Jewish Federations of North America, where she was the vice president of financial resource development and headed the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence. At Prizmah, “I will be overseeing operations, marketing, and finance,” she said. “I will be working on managing the team in the office. It is a merged organization, with people who came from all five of the different organizations that make it up. I will be doing a lot of work building culture and leadership development.” It’s sort of a model within a model of cooperation, of reaching beyond preconceptions, of realizing that the whole is stronger and more resilient than any of the pieces.

Nathan Lindenbaum
Nathan Lindenbaum

Nathan Lindenbaum of Teaneck has been active in many local schools — he’s been president of Moriah in Englewood, has been and continues on the board of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and is a trustee at SAR in Riverdale, N.Y. He’s also a founder of TeachNJS, an organization that advocates for state funding for day schools.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also sits on the board at Prizmah. He does have a day job — he’s a private investor — but “I live and breathe this stuff,” he said.

He’s a big fan of the way the group models cooperation, and he’s realistic about the needs that drove its creation. “None of the five groups were sustainable on their own,” he said. “Essentially it became clear that we could save the Jewish community a lot of money and get a much better product for the schools by combining them.

“Each of the organizations had its own strength. We wanted to see the best programs, which until now had been delivered only to one stream, being delivered to them all.

“For example, YUSP had very effective leadership and coaching programs, but only Orthodox schools were taking advantage of them. Similarly, the other movements had programs that were not cross-pollinating. And on top of that, there was so much overhead. This way, there are some economies of scale.”

And then there’s the message underlying the practicalities.

“This model is a great thing for the Jewish people,” Mr. Lindenbaum said. “We can model cooperation without homogenizing.

“That was a concern that many people had — could we still meet the unique needs of the various streams and movements — but there is so much that we have in common in terms of administration, fundraising, governance, continuing education, professional development. There is far more that we have in common than is unique to each movement.

“This is an example of how the whole community can work together without coming up with something bland. Each movement retains its own identity.”

There are many networks — a “reshet,” as each one is called — representing different commonalities among member schools.

One of the ways in which ideological, theological, and philosophical differences are acknowledged is that some programming and networks are divided by stream, but that is not the only way to “slice and dice differences between schools,” Mr. Lindenbaum said. “There are schools in metropolitan New York and schools outside here; larger schools and small ones. We are able to deliver programs along these matrices, as well as others. And the more schools you have involved, the better you are able to do this kind of customization.

“A big part of creating the various networks is that we can allow educators to group themselves, so people can reach out with ideas and questions to similarly minded and similarly experienced people,” he added.

The networks work mainly online — this is, after all, a vast country — but there also is a big annual conference. This year’s was in April, in Chicago. “We had more than 1,000 people there,” Mr. Lindenbaum said.

Paul Bernstein is Prizmah’s founding CEO.

Paul Bernstein
Paul Bernstein

“There is more that unites day schools than divides them,” Mr. Bernstein said; everyone involved in Prizmah says that, but it’s not rote. That’s clear. Each one says it with passion and conviction. “The realization of that is the essence of Prizmah. It’s why it works.”

Mr. Bernstein lives in Westchester County now, but he grew up in London. “I am a day school alum, and there never was any question of where my kids would go, first in London and then for the last six years at Schechter in Westchester,” he said. “It is a core part of everything we believe in — an incredibly good Jewish and secular education experience and values, in a school that has been nothing but supportive of their growth.

“There is a real driving force that unites day schools across different religious affiliations,” he continued. “That’s because we are after the same ultimate goal, in terms of success. What we are doing is working with the schools, individually and collectively, in achieving success. That means a lot of work is shared.

“Realizing that there is more that unites than divides us, there also is much that separates us. We work to create an environment that recognizes these differences, acknowledges the implications of those differences for how they define success and what they need to do to grow and flourish, and then we customize the things we do for them according to those needs.

“For example, if you are running a professional development day in a school, you want to make sure that it fits with the school’s curriculum and pedagogy. Some schools will run a more integrated dual curriculum and some run those things separately, so what you do for training is mindful and respectful of that.”

Educators work together at Prizmah’s annual conference in Chicago in April
Educators work together at Prizmah’s annual conference in Chicago in April

Not all pedagogic choices are neatly predictable by religious affiliation, he added. It might seem as though the more to the left in the Jewish world a school is, the more likely it is to have a unified curriculum, but that’s not necessarily true. “There are some schools to the left that would run them as separate tracks,” Mr. Bernstein said. “And the balance between secular and Jewish and Hebrew studies depends on individual choices that are designed to fit the community.” So much for stereotypes. “We will meet the school where it is, and help develop programs around those parameters.

“We are open to work with all schools,” Mr. Bernstein said. “A number of charedi schools work with us. Obviously there are many charedi schools that are organized and operate differently” — in ways that would make their administrators profoundly uncomfortable in the more mainstream Prizmah — but “we are welcoming of all who wish to be part of our collective effort for excellence.”

At the conference in Chicago, as at any conference Prizmah holds, “the sessions that everybody shares are run in a way that is suitable for all audiences, covering subjects that are appropriate for everyone” he said. “Everyone talks about financial issues, and leadership, and even some aspects of Hebrew and Jewish studies, particularly the study of the Hebrew language.

“But then we also create space for people to explore the subjects that are specific for their affiliations. We have affinity groups for them, so they can work on their own issues. So there will be a yeshiva affinity group, and one for community schools, Schechter schools, and Reform movement schools. They choose their subjects.

“The reality is that there are schools that are growing and schools that are challenged,” Mr. Bernstein continued. “There are rising standards in day schools, which ultimately helps the general health of the sector” — but causes some problems for some schools along the way, he didn’t add but hinted at. “And on top of that, 2008” — to be specific, that year’s financial meltdown — “created a different economic climate for everyone.

“No one will pretend that those challenges have disappeared, but people have become smarter in determining that they will do what they can to make day schools accessible even for families who can’t afford it.”

In creating Prizmah, the day school world is launching “a new chapter for day schools,” Mr. Bernstein concluded. And he has words of praise for the northern New Jersey community. “You have a vibrant community and set of schools, and great examples of schools,” he said. “Those that are thriving, and those that are trying new things, to make sure that education keeps moving forward. We innovate to improve, and our schools are as accessible as we can make them.

“I salute all the options available in the region. It is a really good thing — something that we could wish for as well in other communities.”

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford is one of the local schools that has joined Prizmah.

“I think it is good for us, because Prizmah is a consolidation of all the services and all the programs and all the expertise and all the resources and the framework that Jewish day schools may need to be supported,” Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s head of school, said. “Rather than going to several places — if you need professional development, go here; if you need financial development support, go there; if you need development support, go somewhere else — rather than going to all those resources on your own, you have this consolidation.”

But, she added, it’s also something more. “It’s not just regular, ordinary resources that it offers,” she said. “It’s a consolidation of best practices. That, I feel, is the game changer. The quality of what’s coming out, and what will come out, of the organization is going to be unparalleled. All the people I know who are involved in it are forward-thinking leaders, who are passionate about Jewish continuity and sustainability for the long run.”

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