Friday, May 03, 2002

May 2002 - The RJJ Newsletter

Yeshivas and day schools are, with few exceptions, fragile institutions. Their enrollments are low, certainly by public school standards but also as measured against most private schools, they are badly underfunded and must make do with inadequate facilities and limited educational enhancements as they seek to scrape together the funds that will permit them to scrape through. Financial crisis is their natural state. It is a small wonder that our schools do as well as they do, that they can offer a dual curriculum, successfully educate students and produce young people who are able to make a meaningful contribution to society and the Jewish community.

To make up for what they lack, our schools rely on the dedication of their staff and the voluntary work of lay people. Teachers who invariably are underpaid, if not also paid late, make an extra effort to reach out to students. A similar commitment is often evident among office staff and administrators. This dedication compensates in some measure for inadequacies that should severely limit the capacity of our institutions to perform well.

Still, yeshivas and day schools have little margin for error. They are punished, at times mercilessly, for every lapse, whether in their academic performance, fundraising activities or how they present themselves to the parent body and community. What might be regarded as a trifling deficiency in other settings comes to be important in our fragile schools. They pay a high price for their defects, as when they fail to understand the obligation to be in touch with parents and the community that nurtures them or when school officials, professional and lay, who are responsible for an institution fail to communicate among themselves.

It probably seems odd to elevate the failure to communicate to the top level of serious shortcomings that adversely impact on the fortunes of yeshivas and day schools. Should we believe that because principals or administrators or lay leaders do not pick up the phone or write or email a school will suffer financial or other harm? The answer – and emphatically – is yes. Our schools are hurt because too often the people in charge live in self-centered, self-contained worlds and out of arrogance or ignorance they do not interact with others who also have a stake in the school. An all too typical example is when a contributor does not receive a thank you note or even a receipt or when the letter that is sent is formulaic and lacks any feeling or personal touch.

After a life-time of activity in the day school world and nearly thirty years as RJJ’s president, I am convinced that the failure to communicate is at the heart of what ails our institutions.

I participate in a foundation that gives priority to Jewish education. It is integral to its culture that persons who are involved in its work share information, seek the opinion of colleagues and constantly interact. Apart from this process resulting in the greater likelihood of goals being achieved, the arrangement forges effective relationships and is consistent with any sense of menshlichtkeit. In one way or another, most effective institutions operate in a similar fashion.

Our schools, however, too often follow another approach. The rule seems to be in yeshivas and day schools that sharing information and seeking counsel are cardinal sins or at least inappropriate. There are day school principals who apparently operate under the mistaken and probably perverse notion that our schools are their private candy stores which they can operate as imperious autocrats. Is it any surprise that lay leaders take revenge in an extraordinary number of situations by exercising their prerogative to remove the principal? There are today a number of training programs directed at day school principals. The cost is high and, from the evidence so far, their effectiveness is minimal, if only because the basic lesson of why and how to communicate is not gotten across.

Regrettably, a similar attitude afflicts many lay leaders and others who are responsible for our schools. They do not attempt to convey their message or describe the situation they are in, even to their immediate constituency, including the parent body and the community they serve. Incredible as it may seem, there is even a failure to communicate among themselves.

What follows inevitably is the neglect of opportunities to benefit the school or to nip problems in the bud. Too often when a letter arrives at a school office suggesting the possibility of governmental or philanthropic support it is not passed around to those who should follow-up. Much the same can be said about fundraising. In short, our schools and their officials add to the problems that our institutions inevitably face.

What I have written here scarcely does more than touch the surface of a critical problem that has gotten worse in recent years. I am disheartened because what we are trying to accomplish is being undermined.