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The shamash candle on the hanukiyah is the one we use to light all the others. It has no sacred status on its own, but it is essential to fulfilling the mitzvah of the holiday. We tell children it is the “helper” candle, critical to enable the other functions of the hanukiyah to be fulfilled. The term also evokes the image of a community member, often a volunteer, who made sure the synagogue functioned, that people arrived on time, and that the lights were literally kept on.

At Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, we have learned that the partnership between the board and the head of school is a key condition for schools to thrive. Indeed, the first of the four primary areas of focus in Prizmah’s recently launched strategic plan, B’yachad: Towards a Thriving Future for Jewish Day Schools, is Deepening Talent, a reflection of our deep belief in the centrality of the power of people, educators, administrators, and lay leaders alike to transform day schools. You could argue that the shamash is the board and the candles are the school professional team, or just as persuasively vice-versa. What matters is the interdependence of each. One sparks the ability of the other to illuminate, and the two form an essential connection. This Hanukkah metaphor can help deepen our appreciation for the human talent that enables day schools to function.

When schools are running smoothly, we can usually point to a strong relationship between board and head of school. When schools face change, challenges, or existential crises, any friction or dysfunction in the relationship can exacerbate an already difficult situation and reveal a serious liability. Board tension will continue to get in the way if it is ignored. In Prizmah’s recent work with the first 44 schools engaged in our Board Fitness Service, we saw numerous examples that underscore the critical significance of this relationship.

One school (identifying characteristics have been changed to preserve anonymity) had hired a brand-new head of school, let’s call him Hayim. The board chair, let’s call her Judith, also new to the position after numerous years as a board member, made sure to start the relationship off with transparency and a clear message of support. Knowing that taking the job meant that Hayim moved with his family to a new community, one of the first things Judith told Hayim was “we are going to take care of you and your family.” Judith knew that for Hayim to be successful at their school, he needed to have stability at home, and the school made sure the family was welcomed and settled in smoothly. It wasn’t a case of Judith being a nice person, she was sincerely fulfilling what she saw as her responsibility to the school. Judith went further and opened a frank discussion with Hayim about how they would work together, and how they would know they were making progress.

In another case, a well-established team of board chair and head of school faced the challenge of integrating a number of new board members. The new board members, in textbook good practice, had been recruited to the board because of specific backgrounds and skills. Soon after joining the board, the new members made a list of changes they thought needed to happen across the school. At first the chair and head of school felt threatened, and even their close partnership seemed attacked. Using some of the reflective techniques they learned through the Board Fitness experience, they noticed that instead of being reactive to the challenge, as a team they could pivot their approach and recast the “laundry list” from the new board members as a call for help. What would these board members need to do their job? How could the school leverage the perspective of new eyes and value their contributions to help the school? Once they understood the situation from a more reflective perspective, it became a lot easier for the board chair and head to do their job, incorporate the new board members and put their ideas to work.

There is no question that serving as a head of school or a board chair is an incredibly vulnerable job—when you are leading an institution whose mission is securing the Jewish future, the gravity and importance of the work could not be more clear. For lay leaders who are volunteering their time, there are few opportunities to gain support from peers and experts—it can be very lonely. Prizmah recently partnered with the National Board Member Institute for Jewish Non-Profits at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, to offer lay leaders from Jewish day schools across the country an opportunity to delve deeply into understanding the role of lay leaders in a Jewish non-profit. As part of a cohort-within-a -cohort model, Prizmah convenes the day school lay leaders within the program to connect with one another and work through questions unique to their experience. We observed an incredible level of commitment and concluded that the story of lay leaders and day schools has not yet been fully told. The upcoming Prizmah Conference in Atlanta on March 10-12, 2019 will enable lay leaders to work together in a program including sessions designed to address the critical questions lay leaders are facing in their stewardship of our schools.

People are at the core of what it takes to make a school work. Through Prizmah’s strategic plan, we are doubling down our investment in talent and in relationships. Learn more about Board Fitness, the lay leadership track at the Prizmah Conference this March, the Head of School Professional Excellence Program (HOSPEP), focused on supporting new Heads of School, and YOU LEAD, a year-long program for aspiring leaders, together with our other offerings for day school leaders, so that you too can invest in talent. In these and other initiatives, Prizmah is supporting all who act as a shamash, bringing light to others and in the process illuminating the miracles that happen every day in the lives of our children, families, and communities. Wishing you and your families a very joyous Hanukkah! Chag Urim Sameach!