There is a Price to Pay for Having a Price to Pay: Where Should Innovation Live in the Jewish Day School Ecosystem?

[Originally posted in my Prizmah blog, “Innovation Alley“.]

When you live your life by the school calendar – as I have only ever done – you know that we are in the season for closings and openings.  The period of the omer in many Jewish day schools is not simply the counting up from Passover to Shavuot; it is often the mad rush to do all that needs to be done to close out the year in which we are in and to lay the foundation for the year to come.  What is true for Jewish day schools is also true for the organizations that serve them and Prizmah is no exception.  We, too, are in the process of assessing the year that (is) was and setting expectations for the year that is to come.  As I have indicated before, it will be my intent (in a May blog post) to clarify how Prizmah intends to engage with Jewish day schools in the innovation space.  And in the spirit of tying up loose ends, I have clarified and shared my post-Prizmah plans and how to follow my journey when a new (school) year begins.

Here, in my penultimate “Innovation Alley” blog post, I’d like to zoom in on how disruption and collaboration function – or don’t – in the Jewish educational ecosystem.

Fun fact.  JEDLABedJEWcon, and the I.D.E.A. Schools all began around the same time with folks who knew (and know) each other well.  They were each created to be disruptive, innovational forces in the Jewish educational world.  They were each dreamed up by practitioners unsupported and unconnected to the hierarchy (at least at the times of their launches).  They all generated a wave of positive Jewish press around the time of their launch and early work.  They then took different paths, received different amounts of funding and patronage, were (or weren’t) connected to larger organizations and foundations, engaged (or didn’t) in fee-for-service work, added/subtracted leadership, collaborated, shared, etc.  Each one evolved along its sui generis path.  I don’t speak for JEDLAB or the I.D.E.A. Schools.  They speak (wonderfully) for themselves.  What I’m interested in is what they (along with edJEWcon) represent – three different models for encouraging innovation in the Jewish educational ecosystem.

A largely democratic, leaderless, agenda-free, extremely popular Facebook group…

A clear set of ideas for how to transform teaching and learning in a Jewish day school through project-based learning, packaged with coaching and a small network of fellow travelers, at a price…

An ever-shifting collection of ideas about connecting schools interested in 21st century learning through conferences, thought-leadership, fee-for-service coaching, a website…

…what can we learn from these different attempts to encourage increased innovation in the Jewish education space and Jewish day schools?  How should Prizmah think about its role in supporting innovation in Jewish day schools in light of this learning?

Having had the unique experience of shepherding edJEWcon from a passion project of a small Jewish day school, to a signature program of a national organization, to a crossroads as that national organization became part of an even larger national organization, here’s what I presently believe to be true:

  • It is a much sexier story to disrupt from below or from the outside.
  • There is a price to pay for having a price to pay.  Whatever skin in the game you gain through fees you seem to lose in global enthusiasm and participation, especially true for folks who view themselves as innovators, entrepreneurs and disrupters.
  • People love to ask their questions and get answers.
  • You can transform teaching and learning in Jewish day schools.
  • There are truly inspiring educational leaders throughout the system doing amazing work.  And that work remains largely unconnected…

We have an abundance of networks to join, listservs to subscribe to, blogs to follow, etc., but we (edJEWcon, Prizmah, the field) have failed to create a vehicle for facilitating and supporting innovation that truly incorporates the kind of transparent sharing and active collaboration our schools and children deserve.  At least so far…

As Prizmah contemplates its role in this work moving forward, here are some of the guiding questions we’ll be contemplating:

  • Does the world need another network (reshet) for “innovation” or would a “network of networks” be more appropriate?
  • How can we inspire a field wide culture of meaningful sharing?
  • What really is “thought leadership” and does it matter?
  • Where will new ideas come from?  Who is doing R&D?  Who is funding it?

Feel free to add questions or suggestions of your own to the comments below or in any of the social media you used to get here.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.