4 Questions for Daniel Bennett

Daniel, welcome to the Boulder Jewish Day School.  I know you’ve had a great deal of connection with our school over the twelve years you directed CAJE, and that you understand the challenges and strengths of a small school.  A few questions:

What are your plans for change and goals for the 2010/2011 school year?

I’m an interim leader, so by definition my major goal is to help the school be in an educational, enrollment, and financial position in 14 months to attract and afford a top-notch educational leader as head of school.  I don’t expect to spearhead any substantial changes.

That being said, obviously my goals include doing whatever is needed to help assure a continued program of excellent secular education, supporting and inspiring the staff to lovingly guide children on their Jewish journeys, and assisting the board to bring growth and financial stability to the school.

These have been goals of the school since its inception, so in that sense my goals are not revolutionary.  I will find out, however, if the methods the board and I implement to achieve these goals are anything new.

One thing is clear to me:  Boulder needs a day school that does not struggle annually with the question of its existence, and I must do everything I can to assist leadership to make that question disappear.

Our number one goal must be to retain current students and recruit others so we have enough students to form a critical mass in each age cohort and a healthy financial bottom line.  How?

  • a well thought-out and clear community presence
  • a strong business-based foundation
  • a secular education that remains truly excellent
  • a loving Judaic core, both in our learning and our values
  • and a clear plan to let the community know who we are – with the leadership, skills and will to implement that plan

Our presence in the community must be stronger, and we must work hard to feel and behave like an important community asset, one of which all other Boulder Jewish institutions share ownership, one that works flawlessly with the synagogues and other agencies.  The Boulder Jewish community is still emerging, and the day school must be part of its very fabric.

Kudos to outgoing board chair Brian Seigal and his board leadership for assuring a balanced budget for this year and next.  That’s a huge step, one that’s often overlooked: without strong finances, especially in these economic times, an institution cannot succeed.  Brian has left us a solid foundation and we need to make that known to all current and prospective families.

Secondly, the school’s secular program must continue to be strong, and we need to let others know.  Shoshi Bilavsky and her staff have worked hard to achieve the school’s first accreditation and we will publicize that but not rest on those laurels.  Everybody must know that BJDS students are prepared to succeed anywhere when they graduate.  Also, teachers must be supported to provide the finest individualized instruction – really knowing what makes each child tick is the heart of good teaching.

Our soul, of course, is the emphasis we place on the core Jewish values of spirit, learning and action.  More families will want to be part of this school community when they realize that BJDS students internalize the best of Judaism’s emphasis on creativity and social justice, while finding their unique path to spiritual and educational values that are uniquely ours.

Finally, all who love the school must play a role in creating and implementing a very clear marketing plan, extolling through specific examples of successes and data-based marketing, the value of a day school education for the student, the family, the Jewish community and the community at large.

We know it’s not the norm for a position like yours to be one day/week.  Do you see challenges in running the school without a full-time head?

Absolutely there will be challenges.  Shoshi worked very hard as did the heads of school before her; it’s foolish for me or anybody else to think that job can be done in a day a week without a whole group of people stepping up to support the school in a myriad of ways.

The only way we will look back and see this engagement as successful is if I hold far different goals for myself than running the school. Rather, I will need to empower and lead those around me to not only build, but implement, a powerful and dynamic strategic plan to build a strong present and bright future for BJDS.

In the one week I’ve been engaged with the school, I am floored by the passion; nobody has a neutral feeling toward the school.  If the board and I can guide and empower those with specific skill sets and deep passion to be true partners – with responsibility and accountability, we will have a very strong year in 2011-12 and beyond.

  • We will need to empower and support the volunteers – from the board, the parents, and the community – to utilize their unique skill sets with guidance from board chair Stephen Huh and from me to focus their passion, to play specific roles in the day-to-day running of the school and to build its future strategically, thoughtfully, collaboratively.
  • We will need to assure that the staff has the tools and support it needs to focus on every family and child, and feel the awesome responsibility to approach all children  as if each was a lamed vavnick – one of the thirty-six hidden righteous souls for whose sake the world continues to exist.
  • We need to approach the Boulder Jewish community – its rabbis & educators, its institutions, and our funders and supporters – and bring them into our planning process and help them share our passion for day school education.  We need them all, and it is our job to reach out to them and ask for their ideas and assistance.

One day a week?  Sure we can succeed.  But this one will take a village…

I know you came to Denver straight out of graduate school in 1979 to help build Herzl Jewish Day School in Denver.  How does this experience remind you of that, and how is it different?

Well, I was 31 years younger and 50 lbs lighter, ran the Bolder-Boulder 10K in under 48 minutes, played a mean steel string folk guitar and had a full head of hair.  I lived in the mountains, plowed snow, ran an Arabian horse ranch and re-lived Bonanza every day.  None of those things are true today.

But I also didn’t have over three decades’ experience running Jewish educational agencies, a ton of national exposure that taught me our local strengths and reminded me of our challenges, hadn’t started a successful consulting firm or guided a multi-million dollar agency, been a successful fundraiser, or partnered with dozens of wonderful professionals and board leaders who are my friends and mentors.

But the similarities are interesting.  Herzl in 1979 and BJDS in 2010 were both values-centered; each needed to stabilize and assure that crisis management was not part of the day-to-day operations; each had built a solid financial foundation the year before I came on the scene; each had families that believed in the school and a broader community that still needed to be nurtured.

Three decades later, Herzl is a thriving school – not without challenges – but one that has given hundreds of Jewish kids the anchors and compasses that led to their future success and happiness.  The same can be true for BJDS.  Together we can make this happen.

What do you think is the greatest asset you bring to BJDS?

Decades ago a rabbi in Toronto was trying to entice me to leave Colorado, something I’ve not been willing to do since I moved east from Ohio three decades ago.  (Some of you who have lived here a while surely understand why…).  He asked me a simple question: “Do you know what you don’t know?”  Of course I didn’t, and at the time I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what he meant.

Today I think – at least a little bit – I do know.  That’s a huge asset, one that is hard-won and for which I am grateful and work hard daily to maintain.

Once in a while, I still forget the implications of this question and believe I have all the answers.  For those times – and for so many others – I am grateful that I have surrounded myself with friends, a business coach, a loving wife Devorah, two very sharp 20-something step-sons, Kevin and Drew. all of whom keep me fearless and help me remember my commitment to humility and facing the truth.

  • Meanwhile my passion for learning and teaching still burns, but now I know where to turn for help when I need it.
  • I still know that we are all lifelong learners, but I now understand – as I never fully did before – the difficulty we all have carving out the time to spark that curiosity.
  • I believe, as I have for decades, that each of us has a unique purpose in re-creating this world as a partner with G-d – whether we step into that purpose or not – but I now recognize the wisdom of Pirke Avot: it isn’t possible or even desirable to finish that really big task.

But, as Pirke Avot tells us, we’d better get started.

About Rachel Amaru

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One comment

  1. Francine Lavin weave

    A lovely article, Daniel. Really gives the community a taste of who you are and what makes you tick. Good luck in your new position at the BJDS. . . and welcome to Boulder!