Rabbi Joshua Elkin is the Executive Director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (www.peje.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The high drama found in the book of Devarim is unmistakable: the revered leader Moshe is addressing the people of Israel in the twilight of his life and just prior to the entry into the promised land of Israel (Canaan), which he will never experience, Moshe steps back from the day-to-day demands of leading the people, and provides a highly reflective recapitulation of the entire Israelite experience. This week’s Parasha, Ki Tetzei, figures prominently in the series of discourses that comprise this concluding book of the Torah. Amidst a substantial compilation of laws, Moshe manages to focus the people’s attention on such critical values as honesty, fairness, and compassion. This reflective distillation helps the people to see the big picture and to embrace an ethical way of life.
Just as Moshe disciplined himself to pause to take stock (and to take a balcony view, as Ron Heifetz describes it), so too must we adopt a similar stance during this pivotal month of Elul. The traditional practices associated with this last month of the Jewish year – blowing the Shofar each morning, reciting Psalm 27, reflecting on our behavior during the past year, reciting Selichot prayers starting a week and a half before Rosh Hashanah, and seeking forgiveness directly from those we have wronged – are all designed to jolt us out of our normal routines and into a different zone where we can successfully both take stock of where we are in our lives and take concrete steps to do better in the coming year. It is an awe-inspiring and daunting process, but one which provides us with the greatest opportunities to emerge from Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the intervening Ten Days of Repentance with new perspective and fresh energy.
I believe that we need to bring this reflective process into the lives of our Jewish organizations, where Wexner alumni devote so much of their energies. I know Jewish day schools best and so I will focus on them. The demands of the day-to-day rhythm of school life all too often require the incessant energy of professional and volunteer leaders, thereby leaving little if any time to reflect and take stock. We must adopt strong structures which can provide the discipline to step back and see the bigger picture. In fact, I believe that adopting a reflective stance may well be one of the defining capacities of the truly successful day school over the long run.
Through our learning at PEJE, as we have worked with so many day schools and their leadership, we have strongly advocated for two standing committees designed to grow and sustain reflective capacity within the leadership of a school. One is a Head Support and Evaluation Committee, which helps the senior leader to focus on key goals for the year, to receive support and coaching, and to participate in a routine annual performance review process designed to promote ongoing improvement. Some feel that this is not the job of one committee; they prefer a Support Committee, and a separate Annual Review/Evaluation Committee. There is no one absolutely correct way; the main point is to get the job done. Regular reflection and taking stock yields high dividends for any day school leader and for his/her school.
But we must not neglect the other half of the leadership partnership in our day schools: the volunteers who serve on the Board and who work on the active committees. Time to reflect for these leaders is just as critical. How does this get done?
The only structure we have encountered that has the capacity to work effectively is a small, empowered Committee on Trustees, which is charged with creating a reflective culture for the Board. In this culture, goals are set for the Board as a whole, and for each individual member; each meeting is reflected upon to promote learning on how to govern better; the future composition of the Board is a standing priority agenda item year round; and an annual review of the Board’s performance is routinely performed. More and more day school boards are forming such a committee to help ensure their strategic value and effective performance as governing bodies.
The reflectivity of this very influential committee is no more powerful than when it turns its attention to identifying and recruiting new Board members for the school. This is hard work; the committee members have to be honest, candid, and thorough as they reflect on the needs of the school, and on the volunteer skill sets required to address those needs most effectively. Each slot must be preciously filled to ensure that all Board members are aligned with the mission, prepared to contribute time, wisdom, and resources, and ready to be cogent ambassadors to the broader community. By nominating some experienced Trustees, often from other high performing organizations, a Committee on Trustees can upgrade its Board’s performance in very marked ways.
Much more has been written about the Committee and Trustees. I recommend the Trustees Handbook from NAIS, as well as The Board Building Cycle from BoardSource.
I urge each of you to follow the example of Moshe as a reflective leader and of our people in Elul, as we engage in hesbon hanefesh (reflecting on ourselves). Take the time to reflect as well upon your leadership and governance work and capitalize on your vast network of talented potential leaders. Once identified, they can be recruited, oriented, trained, and developed. The caliber of leaders around the table of a day school board room unquestionably has a profound impact on the quality of a school. Let’s work to make the Boardroom of our day schools (and the Boardroom of our other Jewish educational organizations) the preferred place where Jewish volunteer leaders feel that their time, expertise, and dedication are most appreciated and most impactful.