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Through a Jewish Prism

Ann Pava joins new national day school initiative that tills common denominational ground

By Cindy Mindell

paul bernstein

Paul Bernstein

WEST HARTFORD – This year marks the launch of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, a first-ever partnership between the five U.S. day school associations. Led by founding CEO Paul Bernstein, the non-profit organization merges three denominational movements – PARDES (Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools), YUSP (the Yeshiva University School Partnership), and the Schechter Day School Network – as well as RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, and PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education).

With seed money from the AVI CHAI Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, Prizmah offers all Jewish day schools a “one-stop-shop” opportunity to strengthen and grow holistically. Schools can address needs in governance and development, teaching and learning, leadership, and will receive concierge and customized services that are tailored to meet their individual needs. The organization places an emphasis on the individual needs of schools – be it religious needs and sensitivities, communal needs, or demographic needs – meeting each school where it is at, and helping it reach desired milestones and objectives.

Seeking a name, the organization started off last year as NewOrg, recently adopting Prizmah, the Hebrew word for “prism,” as a metaphor that best reflected its purpose.

“The Book of Proverbs teaches that the Torah is a light unto the nations,” explains Ann Pava, a West Hartford resident and longtime day school supporter who serves on the national board of the new partnership. “When light passes through a prism, it splits into many dimensions and colors and yet remains one light. The founders felt that this really represented what the organization is going to be.”

Pava was inspired to join the organization a year-and-a-half ago, when the plan first began to take shape.

“I read about NewOrg and thought, this is the organization that I have been dreaming of because I am such an incredibly strong believer in Jewish day school education and a very strong believer in the Jewish community and the Jewish people,” she says. “I have supported so many things in the Jewish community and all the studies show that kids who get a Jewish day school education from kindergarten through 12th grade come out as strong, committed, knowledgeable Jewish people and are involved in all aspects of Jewish life. They’re the strongest leaders on college campuses through Hillel; they are working in Jewish communal service in all different kinds of Jewish organizations at a percentage rate that is so much higher than the rest of the world. So we know that Jewish day schools are really important for the future of the Jewish people.”

But we also know, Pava points out, that day schools are in a state of crisis, struggling with enrollment and retention.

“I personally lose sleep thinking about how we deal with this,” Pava says. “And then I read that there’s an organization that has the same beliefs and recognition of the importance of the Jewish day school world and the Jewish community in general, and they’re going to be supporting and addressing the needs of Jewish day schools in a way that’s never been done before.”

Pava learned that Kathy Manning was board chair of the new organization. The two women had served together at the Jewish Federations of North America, Manning as national chair and Pava as national philanthropy chair.

“One of the smartest, most extraordinary women that I know, who has committed herself like no other to the Jewish people, had taken on the leadership of Prizmah, and I wanted in,” says Pava, who was named to the board this summer.

As one of her first contributions, Pava hosted a luncheon in August for Manning and founding CEO Paul Bernstein, where they learned about the Greater Hartford Jewish community. West Hartford was one of the first stops on the duo’s “listening tour” around the U.S.

“I feel that it is so important that communities on the small side be part of the national discussion,” Pava says. “If you take a look at the Jewish day school world, you see the L.A.s and New Yorks and Baltimores and New Jerseys and the places where day schools are huge and are just a different animal. I find that national organizations – at least in the day school world where I’ve been involved – tend to focus their energies on the places that are really big. I think that it’s the communities the size of West Hartford and smaller that are struggling. I thought that there needed to be a voice at the table for those communities because otherwise Jewish life will only exist at its fullest extent in the communities that have the largest numbers of Jews. I want to make sure that day schools in smaller communities are able to attract teachers and rabbis and Jewish communal professionals. They’re so incredibly important. We want to make sure that Jewish life survives outside of the major metropolitan areas.”

Bernstein and Manning spent the entire day in the community, visiting the three day schools — the Bess & Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, and the Hebrew High School of New England — and meeting with some 25 community leaders from the day schools, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, and Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.

“At the end of the day, when we sat down for dinner, the first thing that Paul said to me was, ‘This is a community that really loves each other and really gets along, and you do not see that in other communities,’” Pava says. “And it’s true: everybody here not only gets along but really loves and cares for each other and it was evident to outsiders, which is not always the case in a Jewish community. I felt extremely proud; there’s really no ‘them and us,’ and I think it especially showed through the three day schools and the support that the Federation and Foundation have for them. It’s really like a day school team. The fact that Paul and Kathy spent the day here is, I hope, a reflection of what it means to have someone who is not from a big city at the national table.”

Bernstein corroborates Pava’s experience.

“What I saw was really strong support right across the community and a determination that kids can get to day school if that’s the right thing for them,” says Bernstein. “We’re so excited to have Ann Pava involved with Prizmah, and that she invited us to see the West Hartford community first-hand. That’s what it means to serve nationally: you really are accessible and understanding of communities everywhere and not concentrated just on the bigger ones.”

A native of London, Bernstein graduated from the Rosh Pinah day school in his hometown and went on to Cambridge University, where he was active in the Union of Jewish Students, later serving on the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

In 2003, he co-founded Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) in South Africa, a nonprofit focused on global health, education, and child protection. He returned to London the following year to lead the organization globally through its growth across several countries. In 2010, when Bernstein was tapped as CEO of the Pershing Square Foundation, he and his wife and two children relocated to New York.

“We first chose a day school for our kids and that’s how we decided where to live,” he says. Bernstein spent the next five years steeped in education-related work. The foundation was the second-largest funder of the Cory Booker-Mark Zuckerberg education reform efforts in Newark, N.J. Bernstein also served as chair of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Newark’s Future during its five-year operation.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about education issues and seeing brilliant things that I often would think, wow, why don’t we do that in my kids’ day school?” he says of his motivation to join Prizmah. “When Prizmah was being put together, it was a real opportunity to stay focused in education, to follow my passion around Jewish day schools, and to do something that would have national impact.”

Now, he gets to help bolster the case for Jewish day schools across the U.S. Bernstein sees two major challenges that Prizmah will work to overcome: expense and perception.

“There are a number of areas of evidence supporting why day school education is valuable,” he says: “Many Jewish leaders come from day schools. Many people in the wider community who are products of day schools ground what they do in their lives positively in their day school experience. A day school really anchors a Jewish community.”

Bernstein acknowledges that the very value of day school education is a subject of wide debate in the U.S.

“Sometimes I think there is a perception that, by choosing a day school, you are diminishing the quality of what a child might get and I don’t see that,” he says. “There is plenty of opportunity to increase the quality, but also numerous examples of very high-quality educational experience for kids and excellent outcomes for them. We have to face up to the two challenges: first, not just how do we say that there is quality but how do we both deliver it and also demonstrate that it’s being delivered; and second, how do we address the financial challenges that families face? We know that it’s a substantial issue for many, many people.”

In its inaugural academic year, the organization is focusing on strengthening all 400-plus Jewish day schools across the country, through the best programs and services already offered by the various denominational day school movements.

“Beyond delivering our services and delivering them to the whole community is the question of how do we – not just this year but for the long term – serve the entire school community in the best possible way?” Bernstein says. “How do we build networks among schools? How do we evolve the programs and services that we offer in order to improve them? Over the next year, we’ve taken this bold step to bring five organizations together, and making sure that’s it’s effective and done well is an important priority. In order to feed off all of that, a big part of what we’re doing and what I’m doing personally is visiting schools and meeting with staff, and really engaging closely with the communities that we seek to serve in order to really understand their needs better and better.”

To find out more, visit prizmah.org.

CAP: Ann Pava

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