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If you like putting together IKEA furniture, the Torah portions this time of year are for you. Parshat Terumah contains the remarkable blueprint for the Mishkan, the temporary tabernacle or dwelling-place for God that Bnei Yisrael built in the desert and transported with them in their travels to Eretz Canaan. I have especially wondered what it was like to gather all the individual contributions, put everything together, follow all the details that are meticulously specified in the Parsha, and have the Mishkan function, only to take it down, move the community, and set it up again at the next encampment. What did it take to do this in the middle of the desert, repeatedly?

God’s instructions in the Torah, probably more descriptive than most IKEA directions, are meant to ensure that each time the Mishkan is built, the end result is identical. Yet it was human beings doing the building, and I have to imagine that the Levite construction crew probably got better at it each time. In our contemporary world, those who put up their sukkah each fall might relate to this idea, if only aspirationally.

Unlike the Mishkan, most challenges do not have a detailed set of instructions for how to solve them. Sometimes we have to take charge of the design as well as the implementation. When you approach a challenge from a perspective that invites multiple or diverse ways of thinking, you are bound to identify new ways of getting to your goal. This idea is at the core of what The Prizmah Conference is about. In many ways, this is at the heart of Prizmah itself—we are here to enable schools to ensure a thriving Jewish future by enlisting new ideas and expertise in the areas that matter most.

I am very pleased to announce that we are partnering with The Teachers Guild, an initiative of IDEO (the global design firm that pioneered design thinking) and the Riverdale Country School to embed a design thinking experience at the heart of the March conference. In 2011, The Teachers Guild created the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, which has over 100,000 downloads to date. Today, they work with dozens of schools and districts around the country to activate educators to think and act like designers through community, tools, and coaching.

Design thinking is a term that gets a lot of press lately, and for good reason. Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. In the words of IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, “design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

At the Day School Conference, The Teachers Guild will facilitate a full-conference design sprint that will give participants the tools to problem-solve the questions that matter the most to our students and schools. We will divide into design teams to work on these big questions:

  • Financial Sustainability: How might we expand the quality and accessibility of our schools, rethinking our business models and educational practices?
  • Educational Innovation: How might we harness, learn, and build leading practices to foster a culture of continuous improvement and experimentation within schools and/or across the field of Jewish day schools?
  • Deepen Talent: How might we invest in the pipeline of teachers, administrators, and lay leaders, empowering them to transform their schools into vibrant centers of learning and Jewish community?
  • Making the Case: How might we develop a narrative to communicate the impact of Jewish day schools – broadening our community, strengthening our lay leader base, and attracting new families?

The phrasing of each critical question, “how might we,” reflects the kind of optimism with which we approach our work. When we think beyond what constrains us, when we imagine a bright future, we can liberate our minds to think expansively and imaginatively towards a specific end. And we do all this collaboratively, across whatever different backgrounds, types of school, or experiences we bring to the conference. It is that diversity that will actually empower the ideas and deepen the possibilities to emerge from this process.

The Prizmah Conference is a chance for professionals and lay leaders alike to take time away from pressing day-to-day challenges and immerse in an experience that can bring to those very challenges a perspective that incorporates wisdom from throughout the day school field. Like the contributors to and builders of the Mishkan, we know our end-goal, and we are blessed with a framework that can make this experience ever more meaningful. After all, the Mishkan was the dwelling place of God, the precursor of the Holy Temple, the model for our spiritual home for centuries. Similarly, our schools nurture the Jewish souls of the future, creating sacred dwelling places across North America.