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From The Jewish Week, August 21, 2007

The Jewish Week of Greater New York

Follow The Leader (08/21/2007)

Carolyn Slutsky - Staff Writer

At teacher’s conferences, graduate schools and think tanks across the country, best practices and new ideas for how to educate the next generation of Jews is an important, evergreen debate.

But in the pursuit of ever-increasing excellence in Jewish education, the question of how schools actually function — and what makes a Jewish leader — is often lost in the shuffle.

Two programs bringing together educators from all walks of Jewish educational life are seeking to address just this issue.

The Leadership Institute for Congregational School Principals, a joint program of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has just graduated its first cohort, a group of 40 area synagogue school leaders who worked with 12 mentors to improve their leadership potential. Funded through a $1.8 million grant from UJA-Federation of New York, the program addresses the challenges education directors face through three pillars: pedagogy, Judaica and leadership. Educators meet over a period of two years for intensive, transdenominational workshops to reinforce their Jewish backgrounds while learning management skills and working with mentors experienced in the field to boost their confidence and make their synagogues run more effectively.

While the LICSP program focuses on congregational school education, the Day School Leadership Training Institute at JTS, supported by the Avi Chai Foundation, applies many of the same leadership lessons to day school principals. Now in its 10th year and with its fifth cohort, DSLTI builds on the similar pillars of education, Judaism and leadership in seeking to imbue day school leaders with a sense of how to head a school community with all its disparate pulls.

At a recent session during a month-long intensive course, the topic of the day was the view from the balcony versus the view from the dance floor, the idea that a principal must be able to mingle among his or her students, parents, alumni and board, all while maintaining a bird’s eye view from above on what larger systems must be in place for the school to function.

“As a rabbi, you have to be able to connect with people on a basic level, the message is to connect with all the different stakeholders,” said Rabbi Matthew Bellas, campus rabbi at the Brandeis School in Lawrence, L.I., and a current DSLTI participant.

Though the programs differ in their target learners, both seek to bring greater respect and professionalism to Jewish educators over a sustained period of years, exposing them to mentors and creating lifelong relationships that participants carry with them into all their future work. Both draw heavily on Jewish text and context to give educators a grounding and confidence they say they never had before.

“Jewish education is an ideal place for leaders because we have the opportunity to create the future,” said Bob Tornberg, head of school at Talmud Torah of St. Paul, a mentor in the DSLTI program. “We have to look at the future and realize the people we teach will be leaders in a future time we can’t envision.”

For many participants, as the saying goes, knowledge is power.

“I’m not sure that my view of leadership has changed, but I feel braver about leading,” said Rabbi Lev Herrnson, a graduate of the DSLTI program and head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County and High School of Long Island. “I feel as though I have a greater understanding of the dynamics involved in leading a school, I had a more naïve approach than now where I’m thinking about the institution as a system.”

Sara Losch, a graduate of the first cohort of the LICSP program and director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, agreed.

“I have a much stronger sense of my own leadership potential,” she said recently on the day she received her newly framed diploma to hang on the wall of her office. “I go into conversations with new members or families or staff with this confidence that comes from having a stronger background in the things I need to talk about.”

Leadership was never anything the veteran educator had considered a part of the job description.

“I saw myself as an educator, to some degree a role model but didn’t think of it in terms of leadership,” she said. “But this opened up this whole different world to say, ‘why wouldn’t we need this, the way any other organization would?’”

For Losch, who had worked in education already for 15 years, the program allowed her to merge her Jewish knowledge with her understanding of leadership, while at the same time allowing her to debate the nature of Jewish peoplehood with leaders across denominations.

Evie Rotstein, director of LICSP, said this, along with creating a learning community, was precisely the program’s mission.

“Our focus on raising confidence and the role of the educator to be on equal footing with other leaders in the congregation is an important focus,” she said.

During the course of both programs, educators learn in a transdenominational setting about everything from latest trends in education research, financial management, curriculum development, family and group dynamics and organizational systems management. At the same time, Jewish history and text is a solid component of each program, giving the educators a strong sense of the meaning of their leadership roles.

Both while in the program and after graduation, participants struggle to strike a balance between making what they know will be wise decisions and bringing in other teachers and community members to create a team which will help a school move forward.

Laurie Landes, another seasoned educator from the Community Synagogue of Rye who has taught for 18 years, welcomed the opportunity to understand how to lead her staff while also empowering them to make their own decisions was a key take-home lesson of the LICSP program.

“Some leadership skills are innate, but then some are learned,” she said. “A good piece of this was involving people and making them key players as opposed to me leading and saying, ‘jump on board.’”

For participants in both programs, the mentorship factor was key, as was the sense that they could serve as each other’s mentors once the programs were officially completed.

Rabbi Herrnson, whose mentor Steven Lorch is head of school at Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, said the two have spoken once every two weeks over the past six years.

“I can’t appreciate enough how valuable his contribution is to my headship,” said Rabbi Herrnson. “It’s an aspect of the program that keeps on giving, a certain strength that comes with being able to vet an idea with someone who understands.”

Allison Oakes, who will be starting as head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Palm Beach County this fall, said the spirit of openness she felt among her colleagues at DSLTI was paramount to her confidence in beginning her job.

“We think if only we could just start our own school...” she joked.

For the participants in these programs, leadership training is not only a way in which to feel empowered to more effectively lead their communities, but it also reaches the heart of building sustainable, productive Jewish community.

As Bob Tornberg of St. Paul put it, “I really do believe I have the most important job in the world.”


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