My commitment to Jewish education drives my work, my philanthropy, and my passions. Among my proudest efforts was helping to create the Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston (JCDS) over two decades ago. The school’s founding was rooted in core values that were surfaced from visioning exercises and conversations among a committed and passionate group of day school parents.
We began with “artifacts” (as defined by Edgar Schein), reacting in some ways to what we didn’t want and then flipping the lens from complaining to envisioning. In fact, at an early convening, we set rules giving everyone two uninterrupted minutes to speak with a limited time for complaints and a request to focus most of their time to describe the ideal. We recorded everything we heard; we clarified with each person the essence of what they shared. We asked everyone to listen deeply to each other and got a sense of the varying perspectives in the room. It was a long night. There were over 100 people in the room.
A group of us collected these thoughts and dreams looking for prevalent themes; themes that resonated with us and were compelling -- whether we had considered them before or not. Then we began to explore our vision for the kind of school that would bring these dreams to life. What kind of community and culture would we build to prevent complaining in the parking lot or behind closed doors, ensuring issues that need to be addressed for the good of the community could surface respectfully and candidly? What should we do differently? And, equally as important, what would we preserve?
Initially our conversations focused on the “espoused values,” and then we engaged a wider circle of people and discussions dove more deeply in order to surface underlying assumptions and make them explicit, moving from the unconscious to the conscious in order to increase our intentionality.
The vision began to take form; we identified our shared values and the values we imagined would define the school community we were embarking on creating. We adopted the tagline, “a child is a flame to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled.”
With a shared belief that the decisions we make in life are based on a combination of knowledge and experience, we sought to be inspired by Jewish camp as a model. We believed the world is an authentic classroom, and the first step to learning is engagement, so we set out to imbue the school with powerful, meaningful, and impactful joyous Jewish experiences. Our commitment to infusing this ethos throughout our school took the shape of demonstrating, modeling, and creating an environment filled with compassion and empathy.
We felt compelled to be in a constant pursuit of excellence – to be reflective, honest, and transparent – reflecting a growth mindset and frame of mind that focused on what we could learn from mistakes and successes. We were aware of how important it is to avoid breathing our own exhaust and to practice and live the value of anava, humility. Our experience reinforced the importance of mutual respect and active listening as we worked to make our vision a reality.
Teachers, we knew (and still do), are key to the whole educational endeavor. Investing in, enabling, and empowering them to find their voices and share their passions would result in their ability to inspire our children.
From the beginning of this journey, there was the understanding that as a Jewish communal institution, we don’t just serve the families, students, and staff that are directly involved and part of JCDS. We recognized that we must be part of and give to our community – contribute to strengthening the Jewish people. In fact, we talked explicitly about sharing our learnings in order to contribute to the field of Jewish education.
Community was the guiding lens in creating the rituals, rhythms, and events that ultimately would anchor our school year -- both in and out of the school building. Years later when considering a name change, it became clear that the name captured the essence of our school: the Jewish Community Day School. Community is our middle name and remains an essential value -- a value that we are constantly engaged in unpacking and making visible.
While my story begins with the opportunity to create an institution from scratch, most Jewish day school stakeholders look through the lens of an existing institution or school when thinking about changes that will strengthen a community. Many of the same conditions that are conducive to creating something new are the conditions that are needed to usher in and embed change within an existing organization.
Founding JCDS helped me understand the merit of the eight considerations for culture change as captured in the work of Trice and Beyer (adapted here in my own words):
- Capitalize on propitious moments.
- Combine caution with optimism; create an optimistic outlook on what the change effort will bring.
- Attend to the needs of the individual and the group; serve all constituents in a balanced way.
- Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of intentional implementation. Do what you say and say what you do.
- Select, modify, and create appropriate cultural forms (e.g. Hebrew as a language of use, not just a language of study).
- Set certain cultural norms.
- Find and cultivate innovative, confident, and inspiring leadership.
After celebrating the 70th year of the State of Israel, I can think of no more powerful example in the modern world than the miracle of taking a vision, guided by faith and values, and turning it into a reality. If Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, could become Medinat Yisrael, the state of Israel, this should be an inspiration for us all as to what we can accomplish. Im tirzu ain zu agadah, if you will it, it is no dream.