Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter

Not once in my career have I had the pleasure of welcoming children into school in Kindergarten, watching them grow and mature, creating lasting and meaningful relationships, and then graduating them while shepping naches at what and who they have become.

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  In those 23 years of full-time work, I spent three years at the BJE-LA, three years at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, two years at Sutton Place Synagogue, five years at the Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas (SSDS-LV), four years at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), two years at the Schechter Day School Network, one year at Prizmah and I am in my fourth year here at OJCS.

Notice any trends?

I believe deeply in the human need to make meaning through stories and narratives and, thus, have always framed my career (and life) in terms of the chapters I have been able to co-author in the places I have been lucky enough lead.  These chapters have had differing lengths and different degrees of consequence, and those two things are not always so aligned.  I was the founding head of the SSDS-LV (z”l).  That was pretty significant for both me and the school.  My time at MJGDS was an extraordinary time of innovation and change -again both for me and the school.  I was the first – and last – director of an independent Schechter Day School Network (also z”l).  I was part of an amazing team of colleagues who helped birth Prizmah.  The work we are presently doing at OJCS in my first chapter here has been well-chronicled in this blog and thanks to an extraordinary team has exceeded all expectations.

The last time I wrote a “life transition” post, I had described my career as a series of “happy accidents” and I still stand by it, at least broadly speaking.  There is a lot of luck that goes into building a career.  There is also a lot of risk.  I have been fortunate that throughout most of my career, the choices have been mine to make and that when choices needed to be made, wonderful choices were available to choose.  That isn’t always true in this profession and timing is everything.  But to describe my career as a series of “accidents” is also a bit of a dodge.  It absolves me of the choices that I did in fact make along the way and the impact of those choices on the schools/organizations and communities that I left behind, not to mention on my wife and children.

This career didn’t just happen to me.  I largely made it happen and I am responsible for all the good, all the regret, all the accomplishments, all the unmet and unfulfilled expectations, all the extraordinary relationships, all the hurt feelings, and so on.  And that’s just the professional impact.  My children have had to move schools and start over more than once.  My wife has had to reestablish herself in school after school, and here in Ottawa to reinvent herself altogether.

Why have I never stayed long enough to write even a second chapter?

Ego, ambition and wanderlust.

There is value in having an ego and ambition.  They drive you towards achievement and success.  They require you to learn lots and to work hard.  And to be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone – including myself – for having ambition.  When success begets success and that next bigger or more complex opportunity arises, there is nothing wrong with going for it.  However, ego and ambition can also be dangerous, especially when they become ends and not means.  If you are constantly looking towards the next shiny thing, it makes it really hard to appreciate and enjoy what you presently have.  Ego also cuts both way.  It is not a sign of stable ego if you are easily seduced by every new opportunity; it is the opposite.  It is a fragile ego that needs to feel important and who reduces success to simple metrics (How big is the school?  How prominent?  How large the salary?).  It is also a sign of a fragile ego to put your professional ambition ahead of your family’s quality of life.  I have been that guy.  I have chased the ring.  I have picked up the phone.  I have asked my family to sacrifice their peace of mind on the altar of my ambition.

I am also someone who is attracted to the unique challenges of the start-up or the fixer-up, which also explains my career trajectory.  I have only really ever worked in places that were starting up or starting over.  I thrive in bringing order to chaos.  I do less well when order starts to take shape.  The simple truth is that I love to write first chapters.  That’s where a lot of the action takes place and the stories start to take shape.

But I am not the person I was five, ten and fifteen years ago.  What matters to me most and the kind of stories I want to write have (finally) evolved.  And so today, I am thrilled to share with you that after having worked with my board these last few months, that we have chosen here – the Ottawa Jewish Community School, the Ottawa Jewish Community and Ottawa itself – to finally write that second chapter.  For reasons related to my housing situation – and because round numbers are awesome – we will be tearing up the fifth and final year of my current contract and will replace it with a new contract that will keep us here at least five more years.

Why now and why here?

I can give all kinds of personal and family reasons.  My wife and children deserve some stability after 7 moves in 20 years.  My daughters deserve an opportunity to go through adolescence without the added stress of reinvention.  We believe that Ottawa (and Canada) is an ideal place to raise teenage girls in what is already a complicated and sometimes dangerous world.  We have found a neighborhood and support system that facilitates our observant Jewish lifestyle.  We think it will be wonderful for our children (and us) to eventually become dual citizens and for our children to have all the added opportunities (affordable and excellent universities!) that come with it.  We are still just beginning to get to know this city, province and country, but from what we have experienced thus far we feel comfortable and safe and happy here.  For those reasons alone, why wouldn’t we want to stay?

But please don’t think that I am simply settling.  Just because there are compelling personal reasons to stay doesn’t mean that professionally I am simply content to settle.  I may be slightly more mature, but I still carry lots of ambition.  This is not simply a personal decision; this is a business decision as well.

Professionally, I am as happy as I ever have been.  There were lots of challenges behind us and lots of challenges ahead of us (no chance of getting bored here!).  If my first chapter was about helping guide the school from a state of emergency to a state of stability, the next chapter will be about moving from stability to sustainability.  Please don’t think that my ambition about what can be true in Jewish day school has been lowered.  I still believe that Jewish day schools are/can/should be leading the educational (r)evolution and I know that OJCS is on the vanguard.  Our goal here at OJCS is to be the best school and even if we have not achieved it yet, we are definitely on our way.

I am blessed to work with a talented and growing administrative team, a gifted and dedicated teaching faculty, a strategic and nurturing board, supportive and committed donors, collaborative and creative institutional colleagues and a Jewish Federation that works hard to ensure that no one is left off the Jewish Superhighway.  Are there bigger and more prominent schools and Jewish communities?  Yes.  Are there schools with more resources?  Yes.  Does that mean that OJCS cannot become an innovative leader amongst Jewish day schools or Ottawan private schools?  Absolutely not.  The future of education is being written right here.   I am humbled to know that I will have a continuing hand in its authorship.

In the end, when faced with having to make a choice, the choice was clear.

I choose family.  I choose community.  I choose unlimited possibilities.  I choose innovation and excellence.  I choose the Jewish future.  I choose this school with these administrators and these teachers and these families and this board and these donors and these volunteers and this Jewish community.  I choose this time and this place to write a first second chapter.

I choose Ottawa.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

4 thoughts on “Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter”

  1. Wow!
    We are so happy with this news!
    As I started to read… I was getting worried… but when I read the end I was relieved.
    Hoping an OJCS HS will be an additional next step…

  2. Excellent news for my alma mater – Ottawa Jewish Community School (formerly Hillel Academy)!!! Yasher koach!

  3. We are super lucky that you’re choosing Ottawa to write your first second chapter. I have a feeling it will be a page turner! ❤️

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