Chaim Y. Botwinick

Leading Our Jewish Day Schools During the War in Israel

photo from unsplash

The last time I wrote or posted on the topic of managing crises impacting our schools, was when we were all battling the ravages of the COVID epidemic.

I can vividly recall how our Jewish day schools and yeshivot responded to the pandemic, as well as the energy, sensitivity, creativity, grit and leadership our Jewish day school and yeshiva  professional leadership exhibited during this frightening period of time. It was indeed a crisis of epic proportion which none of us in school leadership positions ever experienced or confronted.

As heads of  school and as principals, we are faced with a variety of new and evolving challenges unsurpassed in our careers. We no longer serve only as instructional  or educational leaders, but as professionals who now have the tremendous responsibility to inspire, lead and guide our teachers, rabbeim, parents and students, irrespective of the crisis.

The horrendous barbaric tragedy of October 7th, the Israel-Hamas war and the rise of global antisemitism have catapulted our Jewish communities into a daunting new reality. To be sure, the leadership role which our heads of school and principals enjoy and assume today is a responsibility and achrayut  we never anticipated or trained for.

As members of  the Jewish community, each one of us feel the angst, fear and continuous worry regarding the impact of this war. Most of us have family, relatives, or friends now fighting in the war. We are continuously being mispalel (praying)  to HaShem for the welfare and well-being of Achienu Bnai Yisrael and for the safe release of innocent children, women and men who are still being held hostage in the tunnels of Hamas gihenim.

Since October 7th, we wake up each morning, engage in tefilah and assume our school administrative leadership roles and responsibilities as heads of school and as principals, all the while as we continuously think and worry about the horrendous conditions and circumstances of our brothers and sisters in Israel are now facing. We try to sublimate these difficult and depressing feelings in order to provide strength and chizuk to those we supervise and those who depend upon us for strength and support.

At the same time, we try to hold ourselves back from emotional spillover into our leadership positions. To be sure, we must always force ourselves keep in mind that our faculty, staff, fellow administrators and students look to us for positive strength and assurance that GD willing, all will eventually be ok.

The stresses and strains in maintaining this level of leadership can take its toll. Irrespective of our leadership positions, we are all human beings with real feelings, sensitivities and emotions. We are not robotic and each one of us are responding to this crisis to be best of our ability. Most of us, try desperately not to be restrained or paralyzed from giving chizuk, positivity and support to our faculty and staff. And for those school leaders who  do not or could not provide this support, their leadership effectiveness unfortunately becomes somewhat marginalized  resulting in a perceived lack of  leadership which may eventually lead to personal frustration  and. burnout.

In light of the aforementioned, I would like to respectfully offer several leadership challenges or strategies which heads of school and principals may provide during this crisis.

They include……..

Creating”safe spaces” for faculty; engaging in positive communication by carefully listening to and hearing what our faculty and staff are saying and feeling; encouraging  and facilitating faculty sharing and interaction sessions; increasing the frequency of faculty check-ins and supervisory meetings;  creating faculty environments which support and celebrate positivity, more faculty conversations, meetings and sharing sessions which encourage and facilitate collaboration, partnership and achdut; providing all teachers and staff  continued chizuk through offering and sharing Jewish principles, Torah thoughts and values aimed at reducing anxiety levels and increasing positivity ,bitachon, emunah and chizuk.

In addition to the above strategies, school professional leadership must make concerted efforts to continuously reach out individually and collectively to their faculty and staff, in order to inquire about their state of mind, dispositions, feelings and concerns. Faculty should be treated as extended family while maintain healthy and respectful boundaries.

If there was ever a time for heads of school and principals to provide empathetic leadership to their teachers and staff, now is the time.

The daunting challenges we are all currently facing in light of the current state of affairs in Israel and round the globe is a reminder that we are all vulnerable and that HaShem runs the world.

Our evolving role and responsibility as day school and yeshiva professional  leaders  requires and demands that we step-up to the challenge and provide our rabbeim, teachers and staff the support and chizuk  many of them need and maybe desperately require.

As we know, we are all created B’zelem Elokim – in the image of GD. As leaders we are all especially honored and privileged  to provide our faculty and staff  with a level  leadership which helps them confront and navigate the turbulent seas of uncertainly.  To be sure, the leadership we provide can be viewed as an island of security and sanity in that sea of  uncertainty

Let us hope and pray that HaShem blesses Acheinu Bnai Yisrael with a victorious end to the war, and an end  to the hate, violence and suffering now enveloping the world.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011