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Saturday, June 19, 2021
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One of the best indicators of a professional’s readiness to handle difficult circumstances is whether or not they plan ahead.

By that measure, parents of children in dozens of yeshivot and other Jewish day schools nationwide can rest assured, knowing that the school counselors, psychologists and administrators in their schools have already started planning for the unique challenges of the 2020/2021 school year in a three-day virtual professional conference organized by Prizmah and held in early July.

Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, is the New York City-based network for Jewish day schools across North America. Prizmah partners with day schools, yeshivas, philanthropists, and communities from all denominations, helping them grow their reach and impact and tackle the challenges on their paths to success. Prizmah enhances the ability of schools to excel and is building networks for schools and their supporters to connect, learn and drive impact—deepening talent by investing in professional and lay leaders; catalyzing resources to generate funding for schools to flourish; and accelerating educational innovation, to foster teaching and learning opportunities that empower students.

In April, seeing the quickly changing landscape in day schools as COVID-19 precautions set in, Prizmah’s Director for Educational Innovation Rachel Dratch began organizing a national conference for school psychologists and administrators. The two major objectives of the conference, titled “Mental Health and Wellness: Paradigm Shifts for your Context,” were a) to help train teams of school counselors and other administrators to handle mental health concerns, enabling these teams to become trainers for the entire school faculty, and b) to connect people in the day school field with one another, to expand their networks and encourage the sharing of best practices.

The Prizmah leaders began promoting the conference through the organization’s website, emails, and word of mouth. They also enlisted partners in the field to help plan, raise the profile of the conference, and encourage peers to attend. Two of these active partners in the planning and promotion of the conference were Dr. Bin Goldman, director of psychological and counseling services at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, and Dr. Oshra Cohen, guidance counselor for Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, New Jersey.

The conference featured guest speakers who are respected leaders in the education and psychology fields, such as Dr. Norman Blumental—education director of the Bella and Harry Wexner Kollel Elyon and Semikha Honors Program at Yeshiva University’s RIETS and founder and chairman of the board of education of CAHAL, a partnership of 10 local yeshivot and Hebrew day schools providing special education classes for children with learning disabilities; Rabbi Dr. David Fox—the director of interventions and community education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline; and Ms. Sophie Riegal—a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Duke University who, with her mother (a professional speaker and executive coach), has written two well-regarded books on coping with anxiety disorders.

Discussion topics at the conference included what to look out for when we return to school; many ways to experience, teach and learn about positive mental health skills; how to get faculty and student buy-in; social emotional data and science and best practices; trauma-informed classrooms and red flags, and more. The conference was held via Prizmah’s HD Meeting platform, which is based on Zoom. Prizmah’s Rachel Dratch served as moderator, and the conference featured breakout sessions led by facilitators working with small groups.

The planners were gratified to see a robust response to the conference, with pairs of psychologists/guidance counselors and administrators representing 60 day schools across the United States and Canada participating. The guest presentations were well received and the small group discussions amongst attendees were spirited and informative.

Commenting on the conference, Dr. Cohen stated: “It is clear that this upcoming school year, more than ever, will require a social-emotional approach in order to help our students and faculty cope with the inherent uncertainty that we are all facing. Our administrators and guidance counselors demonstrated a deep commitment to students’ emotional well being while also working to maintain academic and health standards. To me, the conference reinforced that here, too, we are all in this together.”

Dr. Goldman remarked: “School is supposed to be a safe and familiar place. Coming back to school in the fall feels in some ways like coming home to a place you know well. This year, however, won’t be quite the same. Everyone will have been away from the building for close to six months, during which we’ve all experienced incredible stress, loss and/or trauma. Classrooms will be rearranged, faces will be covered. It’s going to take a great deal of learning, planning, creativity, and effort to make school the same safe and supportive learning environment, with the same joy and sense of community as in normal years. But that’s exactly what each of us got into this business to do. This conference gave us a great head start on that work.”

Summing up the intent of the conference and its impact, Prizmah’s Chief Executive Officer Paul Bernstein said: “The program was designed to train not just school counselors, but also other administrators. This comes from the knowledge that mental health and social/emotional wellness can only be achieved by the actions and involvement of the entire faculty and administration of a school. Hence, a pressing issue is to ensure that the entire school is equipped to support students, colleagues and families. At the core of the work ahead is the need to help teachers be ready to help the students.”

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