Reflections from Rabbi Andrew Ergas, CEO at Hebrew at the Center
Since March, educators and philanthropists alike have rightly been focused on the “pivot,” meeting challenges that social distancing has put on our school administrators, teachers, students, and families. This nimbleness is essential in a crisis, and it appears uncertainty will continue to demand deft adaptations that integrate safety, learning outcomes, social-emotional needs, finances, and government policy.
Hebrew at the Center (HATC) and other peer organizations have responded quickly and effectively in light of the moment to address the particular requirements of the Hebrew language educator community. HATC served over one hundred schools with free online workshops and seminars on delivering Hebrew education in the virtual context. Further, in responding to issues raised by teachers, HATC retooled its professional development summer offerings. These efforts, like those of so many in the educational ecosystem, dictated a concerted increase in work, new learning and thinking, and a shift in organizational culture.
But, being nimble enough to productively respond to the present tectonic shifts in education cannot completely consume all efforts or preclude commitments to strategic initiatives. It would be a significant mistake to use all our resources to put out fires, undermining the ability to also support pre-COVID strategic goals and delay executing key initiatives.
- At Hebrew at the Center, this balancing act meant providing new tools to the field that matched the needs of the moment while still announcing the selection of the Chicago Jewish Day School (CJDS) as the second Leading in Hebrew school, joining Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital in our more than $1,000,000 investment to support demonstration schools to become paradigms of excellence in Hebrew education.
- It meant restructuring our staff so we could continue to support embedded services as part of our core business while building out a long-term direct service approach for professional development.
- And it informed our decision to both allocate budget and staff towards continued work in the day school space while launching new efforts to engage the Jewish community in conversations about Hebrew, to create a platform to bring new research on Hebrew education to the field, and to begin efforts to strengthen the Hebrew agenda in informal education settings.
The feedback we are receiving from the field confirms this dynamic thinking and action. The hundreds of Hebrew teachers and leaders that participated in our free online programs responded in almost one voice that we were helping alleviate many of the challenges At the same time, our investment in CJDS led to positive support from the organized community, with Lonnie Nasatir, President of the Jewish United Fund, stating “We could not be more pleased to see this bold initiative come to Chicago, building upon the strong engagement with Hebrew education that has always been a hallmark of our community.”
Even in the midst of these extraordinary days, it is important to step back from the Zoom screen on a regular basis and reflect. In reviewing our activity and my own practice since late March, I have identified at least five principles that are helping us coordinate and prioritize our efforts, allowing us to navigate these rough seas:
- Attend to Your Core Purpose: While HATC is no different than many other organizations in that we had neither fully detailed plans nor surplus staff on call to react to the pandemic, we have focused our efforts first and foremost on those activities at the heart of our mission, enabling the revolutionizing of the teaching and learning Hebrew.
- Lean into the Work: This is not a time for slow reaction or paralysis through analysis. Our staff quickly jumped into the fray with new online programming, reallocation of staff time, professional development offerings even when we were only a few weeks ahead of our learners in terms of acquiring expertise, accepting that we would get it wrong sometimes.
- Unleash New Assets: All people working in nonprofits typically have a wider range of expertise and skills than defined by their primary operational functions. We have activated talents within our team that have allowed us to do things we hadn’t considered in the past.
- Strengthen Connective Tissue: Things are changing too quickly to go it alone. There is tremendous wisdom in thoughtful crowdsourcing and the strengthening of networks provides information, effective correctives, and some sense of personal and professional sanity.
- The Moment Demands Boldness: In addition to rapid shifts in our operations and our outputs, we dedicate time each week for big thinking so we can support our major initiatives and generate new opportunities for impact during and after this pandemic. This energizes us and helps remind those we serve and our supporters that Jews have historically triumphed by framing the challenges of the day in the context of a higher purpose.
This multi-pronged approach is also aligning with our supporters. Manette Mayberg of the Mayberg Foundation shared that “The Mayberg Foundation believes now more than ever, that we need to boldly innovate and shift paradigms in the delivery of Jewish education. Those who are already pursuing innovative initiatives know that these take time to build lasting impact. To transmit Jewish wisdom and values for generations to come, we need to maintain our efforts and continue to innovate, even as we respond to the immediate needs that we face.”
I hope very much that we can at some point aggregate our gleanings from these pivots while we continue to assess how big initiatives moved ahead during this difficult time. Our collective sharing and learning can help so many organizations ensure the structures we are rushing to save become bridges to an exciting and meaningful future.