Fresh from her stint as the first woman chair of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) board, Kathy Manning, an attorney and communal leader in Greensboro, N.C., was looking for a new way “to make an impact” on Jewish life when she was asked to chair the board of a new organization, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. (Prizmah is the Hebrew word for prism.) She accepted and helped oversee the complex merger of five national day school organizations: the Orthodox Yeshiva University School Partnership (YUSP), PARDES (Reform), Schechter (Conservative), PEJE (which helps day schools with governance and fund-raising issues), and RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. Prizmah, which began its work last spring, is sponsoring its first national conference in Chicago, Feb. 5-7, and has more than 900 educators, administrators and lay leaders registered.
We spoke with Manning by phone.
Q: How and why did Prizmah come into being?
A: There was a determination by some in the day school world, particularly among major funders, that it would be more efficient to have one organization that could deal with schools across the religious spectrum.
The Avi Chai Foundation played a key role in encouraging each of the five founding groups to get together. [Editor’s note: There was also a sense that the groups could not sustain themselves without support from major funders.] One premise was that none of the groups’ board chairs could be the new board chair, and the same with the existing executive directors. That had to be difficult for them, working themselves out of jobs, but it was the right decision because it took away politicking. Each of the five executive directors received a six-month contract to stay on with Prizmah. Our overall goal is to enhance educational excellence, help day schools with their financial vitality, and build the day-school field..
Of all the lay leadership opportunities available to you, why did you choose this one?
My three children went to our local Jewish community day school and thrived there. I chaired the school’s board twice, 10 years apart. Having had experience with the merger that created JFNA, I was asked to look at the initial plans for Prizmah, and was impressed with its thoughtfulness. After several meetings and conversations, I was asked to chair the board and agreed because I loved the vision of bringing existing organizations together and draw on their strengths, being able to offer their individual programs across the spectrum. I felt that creating an organization where different streams can emphasize what they have in common while maintaining their own religious identity would be a great role model for the Jewish world..
What was the search like in choosing a CEO?
We chose someone out of the box; Paul Bernstein was most recently CEO of The Pershing Square Foundation here. He has served on the board of a Jewish day school in London (where he grew up and attended a Jewish day school) and has management experience in the fields of education, philanthropy, social impact, government and new media. He has experience with start-ups, and in a sense Prizmah is a start-up.
What’s on tap for the national conference in Chicago?
We see it as our coming out party, and we have worked hard to make it first-rate. The theme is “the power of story,” because stories are powerful and our voices are stronger when brought together. We have a wide range of sessions and topics, and Jane McGonigal, the world-famous game designer, will be the keynoter (for details: prizmah.org).
What are the key challenges for Prizmah?
Besides fundraising, which of course is important, we need to make the case for the value of a Jewish day school education, particularly to millennials. We believe that education is not just about being prepared for college but for a successful life. Day schools can give young people the tools to navigate life based on fundamental Jewish values and ethics in how to conduct yourself as a person. That’s the unique worth of a Jewish day school education.