Apr 16, 2011

ssdsa.org: "System-wide collaboration – Remaking the Schechter network image"

ssdsa.org: "System-wide collaboration – Remaking the Schechter network image"
April 14th, 2011
Uri Cohen is director of development at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, and is a member of the steering committee of the Tri-State Schechter Consortium. Prior to his work at Schechter Manhattan, he served in fundraising capacities at Hillel and other Jewish organizations.

Uri Cohen

At last month's day school conference in Los Angeles, collaboration was in the air. In this new era of economic austerity, strategic planning, and collaborative use of resources, the 600+ attendees were focused on how to structure things such that we really can accomplish more together than we can apart. This has never been more true, in theory or in practice – particularly at the Tri-State Schechter Consortium, comprised of 11 Schechter schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

In fact, our world will never be the same again.

Here is a sneak peak at the language you're going to be hearing a lot more of over the next few months: "Schechter: Engage the world." As the Director of Development for the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, that's a concept with which I am proud to be associated. "Engage the World" – that's really quite literally what we want our students to do! We want them to be knowledgeable enough, connected enough, confident enough, and smart enough to be able to engage their Judaism with their Americanism and global citizenship, their tradition with their present, and their futures with their values. "Engage the World" means we stand for going out to explore the universal, with the perspective of our Jewish particularism. The idea is "know who you are, and get out there and explore!" To use another very Jewish expression, "Go and learn."

I bet this sounds familiar to a lot of you – but not necessarily from what you've seen or heard either from insiders – those of us engaged in he day-to-day work of running schools – or from outsiders – those from whom we hope to hear praise and receive support. You do, however, probably recognize it from the students, curricula and teachers, the dreams we have for them, and the ways our graduates behave and achieve in their lives already.

Now it's time for the world to know what we've stood for all along.

"Engage the world." "Learn How to Think, Discover Your Sense of Self, Become a Global Jewish Citizen."

This all came out of the efforts of the Tri-State Schechter Consortium – a system-level collaboration of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Schechter Schools, spearheaded by the Schechter in Queens, and supported by the Solomon Schechter Day School Association. This project has been brought to life further by commitments of professional and lay leadership, as well as significant financial support from the Schechters in Manhattan (NY), Nassau County (NY), Bergen County (NJ), Brooklyn (East Midwood, NY), the Golda Och Academy (NJ), Ezra Academy (CT), Raritan Valley (NJ), and Reuben Gittelman (Rockland County, NY).

Guidance and significant financial support for this project came from the Jewish Education Project and UJA-Federation of New York. Here's how it happened:

Back in 2006, the folks at Schechter Queens thought, "we Schechter schools should work together to advance our own cause. We share a name and a common educational philosophy, and we should leverage that to our advantage." They proceeded to devote financial and human resources to developing their idea into an initiative that could achieve its aims. It took some time for this idea to percolate and take a form that caught on with lay leaders and professionals in other schools. Finally in the spring of 2009, a gathering took place at JTS, with representatives from 10 Schechter schools, JTS, United Synagogue, the Schechter Association, and PEJE. Rabbi Josh Elkin (Executive Director of PEJE) spoke with the group about what collaboration could offer us, and Kim Hirsh from UJC in Metrowest shared with us different models of collaboration currently in use in other parts of the country.

Kim challenged us to begin collaborating – no matter how small the scale. "But how?" we said! In New Jersey there is a donor-driven collaboration. In San Diego and Boston there are Federation-driven collaborations. How can we do that here? With 300 day schools in the New York Federations' catchment area, no donor or Federation could meaningfully support them all.

Kim and Josh told us that people would take notice, but we had to begin ourselves.

Then a magical thing happened – the President of Schechter Queens said, "We believe that we must collaborate. We believe this so strongly, that we are putting $14,000 on the table to get started. Who is with us?" Instantaneously, the meeting now had teeth – not just a bunch of talking heads, but a real working group with real potential to achieve real results. Within seconds we had commitments of another $5,000 each from the Golda Och Academy and Schechter Manhattan. We were off and running with $24,000.

One of the most common pitfalls in any collaboration is teamwork and group dynamics. Teamwork is difficult with individuals, and the effect is only magnified with organizations represented by multiple people. So our first act as a newly formed consortium was to establish a steering committee made up of lay leaders and professionals from a number of schools, and our second act was to hire Deborah Grayson Riegel to be our group facilitator. She led us through a number of meetings in which we explored our shared voice, shared values, and helped us discover that the association between us is strong and potently meaningful.

As 2010 unfolded, Kim's promise came true. The Jewish Education Project (then known as the Board of Jewish Education of New York-SAJES) heard about our collaboration, and took an interest. As UJA-Federation of New York's central education agency, the Jewish Education Project (then known as the Board of Jewish Education of New York-SAJES) was seeking to address the challenges put forth in UJA-Federation's To Go or Not To Go" marketing study, which revealed that most families who have day-school-aged children and do not choose day schools for their children a) do not know that day schools even exist, and/or b) do not differentiate day schools from Orthodox yeshivot.  The Jewish Education Project approached the Consortium with the idea of re-branding the Solomon Schechter day schools, as a major part of an overall project to increase non-Orthodox enrollment in day schools.

This enrollment challenge is, of course, one of the main reasons for our collaboration's success, by the way. Getting more students in our school's doors is obviously critical to our success, as individual schools and as a network. Anything we can do to improve our community's understanding of what we do will help – hence our collaborative efforts. More students means stronger schools, a stronger Schechter network, and a better Jewish community for tomorrow.

And so, a joint effort between the Jewish Education Project, UJA-Federation of New York, and the Tri-State Schechter Consortium was born, and has developed the branding language you're starting to see, a new logo you'll see soon, and much more.

We hired a consulting firm called BBMG, which did a lengthy discovery process to uncover the known and unknown truths about Schechter. They interviewed parents, visited secular private and Jewish Community, and multiple Schechter schools, talked with teachers and students, spoke with parents who were Schechter flag wavers and also those who were skeptics, community leaders, outsiders, insiders, and many others. Then they crafted recommendations based on those truths. They said things like, "Conservative Judaism can stand on its own beyond the Conservative Movement. While the Movement (a set of institutions) is experiencing a significant malaise, Conservative Judaism (a philosophy of living and believing) – in its tradition of excellence, exploration based in Judaism and 21st Century America, and significant communal and personal meaning is alive and well. Everyone knows that the modern scholarly Jewish tradition of excellence was born and raised in Conservative Judaism – embrace it!"

Solomon Schechter the man was an explorer of the highest caliber. We run our schools in his image – just like the Montessoris, the Waldorfs, and the Heschels do their namesakes'. Just like Schechter explored the world from a place of confidence, tradition, and meaning – so we train our students to do each day.

Our work with BBMG continues – and there is much yet to do. We are working on an "Engage the World" website that will fully flesh out our new brand, and also help prospective parents find their local participating Schechter school where they can find all this great stuff. There will also be an "Engage the World" brochure that will make the case for why parent should choose a Schechter school, leaving the schools free to make the case for why their Schechter school. We will continue our conversations about co-branding, and will be rolling out more deliverables later this spring, and then beyond into the fall.

I'll leave you – and entice you – with one of the core statements of this brand strategy – I hope you'll join us! I'm happy to talk with anyone who wants to listen about this, and I can also share our "Ten Tips to Successful System-Wide Collaboration" document we handed out at the conference in LA.

"Welcome to a place where curiosity rules. Where
children learn to honor timeless traditions and think for
themselves. Where they're encouraged to ask bold
questions, confront paradox and discover new
connections. Where critical inquiry feels like fun, and
lights go on in unexpected ways.!Welcome to a place
where students see links between Moses and Macbeth,
anthropology and architecture, biology and Bible.
Where children understand empathy so deeply that
they relate to characters — real and fictional — across
every era in time and draw guidance from them for
living today. Welcome to a place where everything feels
accessible, nothing is o!-limits and students yearn to
engage the world!

Welcome to Schechter."

Feel free to be in touch!

Uri Cohen – uricohen@sssm.org, 646-472-5395.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
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