Go to the Principal’s Office! You’ve Been “Caught Being Kind”!

If each time the school calls is to inform the parent that their child has misbehaved (or is sick or forgot their lunch), one imagines that when the phone rings and the school’s phone number comes up on the “caller ID”, the parent is not exactly excited to pick up.  But what if just every now and again we are calling to let them know how proud we are of their child?

How often do principals or heads of school get to call parents with good news?

We are on a mission at OJCS to inspire acts of lovingkindness by building a community of caring.  We want to be a school where we proactively avoid unkind behavior through explicit skill-building and incentivizing menschlichkeit, not (only) reactively addressing unkind behavior through meaningful consequences.  Our students are engaged in the work through Knesset (our student government) and our faculty are engaged in the work through its “Minds Up!” committee.  And the administration is eager to play its part as well…

If each time you were sent to the “principal’s office” was because you were in trouble, you probably wouldn’t want to be hanging out in that part of the building.  And if a principal only spent his or her time with students referred for misbehavior, there would be a significant gap in relationships.

As part of developing this spirit of leadership and a community of caring in our school, how wonderful would it be if each of our students – and our parents and teachers – held the additional title of “Kindness Ambassador”!

One step we look to take right away is to empower our teachers to start sending students to us when they do something kind.  We look forward, as an administration, to focusing on positively rewarding kind behavior as much, if not more, than applying consequences to unkind behavior, so that when the phone rings in the home of an OJCS parent and the school comes up on the “caller ID” that the emotion it triggers is excitement and not dread. Pick up the phone when we call…your child may have been caught in the act of being kind!

As promised

Taking a Leap of Fact

There they are…these are some actual members of our current Class of 2030.

All the talk and rhetoric about what we could be, what we ought to be – it is all for these children.  They are not an educational theory to be debated; they are flesh and blood children to be educated.  What we do now matters not in the abstract realm of philosophy, but in the practical realm of whether these girls and boys will be prepared for success in the 21st century in all the ways academic, social and Jewish that can be defined.  They – and all of the children in our school – are what it is really about.  They are the reminder and the inspiration; the goal and the promise.

January this year brings us a wonderful confluence of events – the publication and mailing of enrollment materials for the 2018-2019 academic year and the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat – a holiday celebrating, among many things, the planting of seeds and the harvesting of fruits.  I always marvel when the rhythm of Jewish living intersects with the rhythm of school life – it never fails to create meaningful and new connections.

And so the time has come to see how well we have sown the seeds of confidence and competence; love and caring; rigor and renewal; energy and enthusiasm – have we begun to deliver on the rightfully lofty academic, spiritual, emotional and social expectations our children and parents have for us?

You are likely familiar with the phrase, “leap of faith”.  A “leap of faith” is predicated on the notion that one cannot really know (at least in scientific terms) religious truth and so in the end it is a matter of faith.  You believe…because you believe.

However, as admissions and enrollment packets find their ways into parents’ hands, all of us involved in the sacred and holy task of educating children look to this time of year and hope that we have nurtured the seeds we have sown with success.  We are not looking for parents to make a leap of faith and enroll their children in our schools. We are looking for parents to make a leap of fact and enroll their children in our schools – confident that our school is the right place for their children to receive the education they want and deserve.

The seeds were planted during the summer.  They were watered and nurtured during the fall and into the winter.  As winter moves on (and on and on) and slowly moves towards spring, the faculty, staff, administration, lay leaders, donors, and supporters of the Ottawa Jewish Community School look forward to a rich and satisfying harvest.

We look forward to many, many leaps of fact.

Speaking of facts…

…our work with NoTosh – which we described at length prior to Winter Break launched this week with a first site visit.  We debriefed the project with the full faculty and had our first Design Team meeting.  We look forward to sharing more as the work develops!

…our Grade 9 Alumni Survey has closed (our Grade 12 has another week of collection to go) and we look forward to sharing the results. We are working  on the “French outcomes” deliverable first announced here, but there are other important data points about how well (or not) OJCS prepared students for all aspects of high school that we’d like to share out as well.  [All current Grades 2 & 3 Families, any current francophone families or any prospective family who has questions or concerns about French at OJCS should “save the date” for February 8th.  Our “French Town Hall” will take place that evening; still tweaking the time.  Stay tuned.  Or restez à l’écoute.]

…our work with the Rabbinic Advisory Committee is moving forward as well.  We are currently working through elements of tefillah that will ensure we deliver on our promises of strengthening the “J” in “OJCS”.

The Silent Power of Chanukah

Why are these nights different than all other nights?

Photographed by Chayim B. Alevsky.
Photographed by Chayim B. Alevsky.

Wrong holiday, I know.

But there is actually something powerfully different about Chanukah that has much to teach us about the power of experiences and a pedagogy of meaning…

Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday without a sacred text of its own.  (There is a Book of Maccabees, but it is part of the Catholic Bible.)  Instead of a public reading, we are commanded to bear silent witness to the miracles of the season with a public doing – the lighting of candles in a window.

For me the pedagogical takeaway isn’t so much the “silence” as it is the “act”.  It is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgable amongst us can perform it.  It is an action performed publicly and in the home. And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing.  It is truly an act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.

This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah.  The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma “, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”. Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator.  I think there are two major implications from this:  One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people.  Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work. Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential.  It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.

“Grade 6 w/KISS FM celebrating the 107 purses collected for “Purses With A Purpose”.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our children to go out into the world as part of their Jewish day school experience and make the world a better place by doing social action.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a chanukiah in the window, surrounded by family. Here at OJCS, we look forward to an opportunity to gather together to light the Chanukah candles and celebrate in song on Monday, December 18th at 6:00 PM (note new time) in the Gym.

Finally, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

Where Does Healthy Parent-School Communication Live? (Hint. Not in the parking lot or on WhatsApp.)

I recently described in a post an activity we did as a faculty which introduced Roland Barth’s concept of the “non-discussible” and the “discussible”.  A “non-discussible” is something that is discussed in all the wrong places and all the wrong times preventing the issue from being resolved in a healthy and constructive manner. In the context of faculty, it is about all the things teachers talk about in the lunchroom instead of with the administration (although the administration almost always knows the conversations are happening about them/without them).  In the context of parents, it is about all the things folks talk about in the parking lot or on social media instead of with the school (although the school almost always knows the conversations are happening about them/without them).  In both cases you gauge the health of the culture by the degree to which you move your “non-discussibles” into “discussibles”.  The more willing we are to discuss what matters most in a constructive, healthy, transparent manner with the people who have the ability to address those issues honestly and responsibly, the healthier our culture.  The healthier the culture – whether we are talking about teacher-administration or parent-school – the more successful the school.

I was inspired by one of my rabbi’s sermons over the holidays to revisit a powerful idea from Martin Buber which I think informs this conversation.  [Buber “was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.”]

The basic idea (and I realize that I am butchering it for the sake of brevity) is that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships.  Not merely as metaphor, but as an existential fact.

Now that takes a lot of energy.  So much so that it is perfectly natural to have “I-It” relationships or moments – sometimes I just want to pick up my allergy medication and go home; I am not seeking to have an “I-Thou” relationship with my pharmacist.  I do, however, want to have “I-Thou” relationships with my wife and children and it serves as a useful and sometimes painful reminder of how hard that can be when Jaimee and I (like many busy couples) are forced to use email or text to communicate because we are two ships passing in the night.  It is hard to invite God’s presence into an electronic communication…

Our success in building a culture which facilitates the transition from “non-discussible” to “discussible”, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not we see each other as “Thou’s” and not “It’s”.  Have we done the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our teachers?  With our students and their parents?  We’ll know if we are able to identify the good that comes with each student and share it with his or her parents.  We’ll know if we are able to share the difficult truths which are our responsibility to share and have them received in the spirit in which we will surely wish it to be received. We’ll know if we are able to hear difficult truths about ourselves in the spirit in which they will surely be given, the spirit of genuine partnership where only the wellbeing of the child is important. The spirit of seeing the best in each other, even when it takes a little more energy.  The spirit that exists when we see each other as a “Thou” and not an “It”.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

Finally, during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we engage in the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  Here, in the most public of forums, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.

Easy fasts for all who do so…meaningful reflections for all who feel the need.

Expat Files: Please and Thanks

Let’s talk about yogurt…

Nothing makes you feel more American than discovering what you think is snack-size is apparently appropriate for an adult meal. Nothing crystallizes my emigration experience from America like my search for a Canadian yogurt that doesn’t make me appear Brobdingnagian.

If your spoon doesn’t fit the yogurt container, it cannot possibly contain enough yogurt to be a meal.  Yes?  If the container fits in your closed fist, it cannot have enough protein to get you through four hours.  Right?  Maybe the European alcohol proofing in the beer makes it up on the other side?  I am definitely not starving here in Ottawa.  But I am definitely not satisfied with the yogurt situation. Stay tuned.

In other expatriate news, I have only returned my coffee three times forgetting that the default position for “coffee” apparently comes with milk and sugar.  You can get a joint checking account, but cannot get a joint credit card.  You can get tires at the supermarket and grills at the tire store.  The credit card machine comes to you.  Gambling is apparently legal and bingo is big.  The DVR has become a PVR and like half the channels appear two or more times in your guide, so I have wound up recording the same show like three times too many.

In expatriate educational news, you can be a Supply Teacher or an Occasional Teacher (that is my favorite job title ever), but not a Substitute Teacher.  You can be an Educational Assistant, but not a Teaching Assistant nor Assistant Teacher.  Do NOT confuse “college” for “university”.  You are in Grade Six, not Sixth Grade.  You do not misbehave, you dis-regulate.  (Giving new meaning to the idea of “staying regular”.  Ba-dum-bum.)  You don’t have snack, you get a nutrition break. Washroom (not bathroom).

You get the idea…Canada is a different country.  Brilliant.

I remember moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and revisiting Seinfeld reruns to pick up the nuances I missed upon first viewing.  I am not entirely sure what the exact equivalent is here, but I am considering The Kids in the Hall, Degrassi High and You Can’t Do That on Television for starters (and to totally date myself).

We have officially been in Canada for over two weeks and I am finishing up my second week here at OJCS.  I am very excited and encouraged by it all.  I am looking forward to seeing my kids next week (they are finished with camp and enjoying time with grandparents) and to having our whole family together again and here in Ottawa.  I am looking forward to attending Prizmah’s Governance and Fundraising Academy’s (GFA) conference in St. Louis next week with a few of our lay leaders.  It will be nice to reconnect with my friends from Prizmah and with my colleagues from the other participating Jewish day schools (with extra joy to see folk from my first school, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas).

 

As I ease back into weekly blog posts, I am preparing to (re)focus on my OJCS stakeholder community as one primary audience.  I will begin linking my blog to the school’s website and pushing out new posts through its social media (in addition to my social media).  I will be thinking about how to integrate/revise the school’s existing channels of communication (Constant Contacts, email, GoogleClassroom, social media, website, etc.) to ensure parents, students and teachers have one clear address to find all they need and that all our communication vehicles are driving to that address. I will be sharing transparently about the big issues we are facing, the big conversations we are having, the big decisions we are contemplating, the big news we have to share and anything else worthy of your attention.  [Spoiler Alert: Announcing the OJCS 2017-2018 Faculty coming soon!]  Hopefully you will participate in those conversations by commenting on this blog, by liking/sharing/commenting on social media, by email, phone call or just dropping by for a cup of coffee (no milk, no sugar).

And for those of you who have been with me on this crazy journey across time zones, schools, organizations and countries, I hope you will continue to find this blog worth the read.

Please and thanks.

L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife

“Salt Life” bumper stickers originated in Jacksonville, Florida and are originally stickers on the back of cars that used to indicate a surfer or body boarder whose life is centered on beach. Salt Life is a way of life and dress brand for individuals who adore surfing, boarding, and all things shoreline and wave related. The term “salt life” means a kind of boho beach lifestyle, now it’s also a company that promotes it.

My very first blog post was called “Southern Hospitality” accompanied by the above photo of Jacksonville Beach and was written almost exactly seven years ago.

How do you even try to wrap up seven years of a life?  Images, quotes, data, audio, memories start to flood the mind making it difficult to make sense of what a chapter that long in a life truly means.  We’ve all aged, but our girls have definitely aged in a much more fun way than their parents.  Professionally, I have had the unique (at least in my profession) opportunity to share farewells from each of the three amazing professional opportunities that occupied much of my time while living in Jacksonville.  Our journey from Las Vegas to Jacksonville was to assume the headship of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School. Four years later it was time to say farewell

Next up was my executive directorship of the Schechter Day School Network.  Two years later it was time to say farewell

And just last week, I reflected and said farewell to Prizmah

So, I wouldn’t blame you for being sick of hearing me say “good-bye” at this point.  I’m tired of saying “good-bye” and we don’t actually leave for Canada for another week and change!  But. Professional good-byes only cover so much.  Seven years is longer than anywhere I have ever lived in my life as an adult and pretty close to the longest that I have ever lived anywhere at all ever.  A chapter of life this impactful is worthy of more than a series of professional reflections and thank-you’s however heartfelt.

And to think…that a guy who hates the beach could love a salt life.

Things That Definitely Happened During These Seven Years

  • Maytal went from 2 to 9; Eliana went from 4 to 11.
  • Jaimee and I went from 8 years married to 15.
  • We lived in two houses.
  • We voted in two different presidential elections and had very different feelings about the outcomes.
  • I successfully transitioned saying “y’all” ironically to non-ironically.
  • There were at least 11 days in which I did not sweat.
  • We went a on a variety of road trips only to abuse social media with friendly hashtags like #MitzmacherSummerFamilyRoadTrip2015Day12EatingASandwichInRoanokeVirginiaOnlyToAnnoyFriendsAndFamily
  • I had a love affair with no less than three styles of travel bags.
  • My children can identify each brand of Hilton by their signature cookie.
  • I can identify each airline by their signature customer service approaches to delays-cancellations-rebooks-refunds.
  • I checked “airport shoeshine” off my superficial bucket list (#SuperficialBucketList).  It was pretty awesome.
  • Who likes Mint Juleps?  Apparently we do.
  • I went from a .7 mile commute in Las Vegas to a .5 commute in Jacksonville to a 37-step commute inside my own house.  Take that carbon footprint.  Sure, I’ll be driving the same minivan for 23 years at this rate, but I saved the world from climate change.  You are welcome.

 

When we moved here seven summers ago, lots of folk asked “Why Jacksonville?”  (Just like now we are cycling through a round of “Why Ottawa?”)  Well, despite the risk of cliche, “southern hospitality” was really part of what drew us to this community – its genuine warmth and welcoming nature.  So warm and so welcome, in fact, that we were quite convinced when we first arrived with muffins delivered and wagons welcomed, that perhaps we, ourselves (or really who are we kidding, me) weren’t nice enough to live here. In the same ways that I found my work environment as nurturing and supportive as any I have ever worked in, I would say that we found our overlapping work, school, shul, and Jewish communities all that and an authentic biscuit.  All four of us leave Jacksonville with treasured friends for life.

Las Vegas is a community where (almost) no one is from; Jacksonville is community where (virtually) everyone is from.  We learned in Las Vegas the power of opening up our homes to build community – as teachable moments, for professional networking, to enrich our children, to make a life – and kicked it up a few notches in Jacksonville.  As our annual holiday celebrations grew and grew each year, no guest felt more grateful than Jaimee and I did as hosts. We hope to continue to pay forward the warm welcomes of prior homes in our next chapter.

Speaking of Jaimee…

How blessed am I.

I have no idea how someone can work full time while seemingly being a full-time wife and mother at the same time, but somehow Jaimee manages.  Her organizationals skills are epic and well-documented.  Her cooking skills have evolved past recognition from box-and-boil to multi-course-from-scratch delicacies.  Late-night meetings became biweekly business trips, but somehow everyone got where they were supposed to be.  She’s an amazing educator in her own right, influencing me professionally more than she knows, my closer, my partner, and my bestie.  For the last 18 years, we’ve taken many leaps of faith from job to job and from community to community, but always together.

 

And so we say our final (for real this time) goodbyes as we await the moving trucks in the days ahead…

What happened in Vegas definitely didn’t stay there; what happened in Jacksonville won’t stay there as well.  We will remain connected to the people and places who continue to shape and contribute to our lives as we look forward to all the new experiences awaiting us in Ottawa.  Follow our story on social media if you like, as we will surely follow yours.

We’ll always have flip-flops in January.  #SaltLife Out.

The Spirituality of “Back to School”

Hopefully your summer has been all you wanted it to be and that whatever your goals were for the summer – professional development, vacation, relaxation, rejuvenation, reconnection, spending time with family, etc. – you accomplished them and more.  But as August heads towards September and our earliest schools have already begun to welcome teachers and parents back to school, it seems appropriate to mark the occasion.

In the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Sabbath, by one of my favorite Jewish Open Doorsthinkers Abraham Joshua Heschel, he says, “Judaism is a religion of time (emphasis in original) aiming at the sanctification of time.  Later on, he refers to Shabbat using a similar metaphor – “a palace in time”.

Among the many things Heschel is describing is the value of celebrating and cherishing moments in time. That time can be sacred and holy. For the purpose of his book, it is the Sabbath under consideration.  For the purpose of this blog, it is the idea of how important it is to stop and appreciate the everyday miracles of time all around us.

One of those miracles, to me, is the start of school.

This was a week of firsts for many in our schools, a week of firsts that will be be repeated as schools open their doors across the continent.  First days of school for our kindergartners.  First days of a last year for our eighth graders or twelfth graders.  First days in a new school for teachers and heads (and board members).  First days for new families.  First echoes of laughter and rolling backpacks in hallways that were still and empty just a few weeks ago.  First lessons brought to life from planning and imagination. First hiccups of schools in transition.  First successes.  First mishaps.

First steps to an unlimited future.

I believe in the religiosity of teaching and the teacher-student relationship.  To borrow and butcher Martin Buber, I believe that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships. Not merely as metaphor, but as an existential fact.

One way to measure school success, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mthose engaged in the sacred work of schooling see each other as “Thou’s” and not “It’s”.   Will we do the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our students?  With their parents?

We’ll know if we are able to identify the good that comes with each student and share it with his or her parents. We’ll know if we are able to share the difficult truths which are our responsibility to share and have them received in the spirit in which we will surely wish it to be received.  We’ll know if we are able to hear difficult truths about ourselves in the spirit in which they will surely be given.  The spirit of genuine partnership where only the wellbeing of the child is important.  The spirit of seeing the best in each other, even when it takes a little more energy.

The spirit that exists when we see each other as a “Thou” and not an “It”.

And so…congratulations to the teachers, heads, staff, lay leaders and volunteers who worked so hard for a successful start.  Thank you to all the parents who trust us with your children.  Thank you to the students for your smiles and eagerness.  And as we move from the excitement of the first week into the routines of the first month, let us all cherish the everyday moments too often overlooked – a new skill mastered, a new friend made, a new year begun.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

Shofar so good!

[Cross-posted to the Schechter website and our last Constant Contact.]

unnamedThe Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah begins tonight and is the most well-known of the Jewish “New Year’s” (we actually have four different ones, including Tu B’Shevat). Additionally, since most of us also follow the secular calendar, we have an extra one each year on the eve of December 31st.  And finally, if you are in the field of education, well, the start of school provides yet another “new year”.  Putting it all together, suffice it to say, we have ample opportunities each year to pause and reflect on the year that was and to hope and dream about the year that is yet to be.

This is the time of year that schools engage in all sorts of creative ways to perform tashlikh – a ceremony in which we cast off the sins of the past with an eye towards improving our behavior for the future.  A common activity for our youngest students has them draw a picture and/or write about a behavior they want to avoid doing again – mistreating a sibling, being disobedient to a parent, not being a good friend. etc.  After they make their project, they crumble it into a ball and throw it into the trash. Bye-bye bad behaviors!

Were it only that easy!

All schools count “character education” as part of their mission.  All educators consider it part of their already challenging jobs to help children grow and develop as human beings. Part of what I enjoy about working with Jewish day schools is that we get to make that part of our curriculum explicit.  We are in the business of making menschen and during the High Holiday season, business is good!

This season, hundreds upon thousands of Schechter students will make lunches for those who are hungry and bake honey cakes for the holiday and deliver them to the elderly. Programs like this – call it “service learning” or call it a “Mitzvah Program” – are opportunities for our students to get outside the walls of the building and put into practice what they learn inside.  It is not academic time lost, but rather life-changing experiences gained.  Through programs like this, our students are reminded that there needs to be a proper balance between “study” and “action”, and we can see the “Schechter Difference” in action.

So who will we become this year?  Beyond all our academic hopes and dreams, will this be the year we become who we were meant to be?  Will we live up to our own lofty expectations?  Will we be better children, better students, better teachers, better siblings, better partners, better spouses, better colleagues, better friends – will we be a better “us”?

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special network of schools – thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5775 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!  From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

Aren’t All Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mAren’t all Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

Extended preamble…

Some blog posts evolve into academic mini-treatises with ample hyperlinking both for proper crediting and to stimulate further learning.

Some blog posts are born from a passionate feeling and sometimes read like opinion pieces.

Other blog posts are confessional and lead to catharsis (for me) or humanizing (of me).

The blog posts that are the hardest to write – as we are about to discover – are the ones that are born from a genuine question and a desire to solicit a crowdsourced response.  Not to drive traffic to my blog or raise my social media profile.  But because I am sincerely interested in learning from my colleagues, stakeholders, readers and friends.  I am grappling with a difficult question and I am interested in serious, thoughtful, diverse and challenging answers to help me develop an authentic answer (for me).

The reason these posts are the hardest to write is that within the world of education, and the Jewish educational world even more so, the blogosphere is still largely populated by lurkers.  You are out there and you are reading blogs (which is great), but you do not (yet) feel comfortable contributing to the talmudic chain of commentary that makes blogging so wonderfully Jewish and potentially valuable. I learn some through the process of writing, to be sure, but I learn a ton through the process of collaborating with you through the commentary.

Let’s make a game of it and let’s aim big.  The 20th comment received will receive a prize from me.  That means you have to encourage others to comment as well so you can position yourself as number 20.  Let’s go for it!

End of extended preamble…

 

What is a “Community Day School”?

[NOTE: I am PURPOSELY NOT looking up and sharing definitions nor visiting RAVSAK (the Community Day School Network) for answers.  Not because I don’t think their answers are the correct ones.  They probably are.  But because how people – not just people, Heads of School, Board Chairs, Foundations, Donors, – understand what those words mean is at the crux of what I have been thinking about.]

Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • “Community” and “Pluralism” are not necessarily the same thing but they are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Every Jewish day school thinks of itself in terms of creating community, being a community for its students and parents, being a healthy part of the larger Jewish community it lives in, and has an increasingly religiously diverse student population for whom it tries to craft an inclusive nonjudgmental religious community.
  • To say that a PARDES, Schechter, YU or Orthodox day school is “ideological” and a RAVSAK or Community Day School is “non-ideological” feels like a false dichotomy.

That’s probably controversial enough for now.

I know more about Schechter than anything else and I have firsthand experience heading a Schechter in a Jewish community where it served and serves as the non-Orthodox Jewish day school.  It has a diverse student population with levels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated, secular Israeli, etc., that are commensurate to many other Schechter schools and, to my understanding, many Community Day Schools.

In terms of Jewish ritual and practice, it looks and feels very much in the “center”.  This, too, is similar to many “community day schools” where the “center” is the natural compromise between the various religious communities who make up its population.

Yes, in some cases the driver for Schechter’s center approach is a commitment to Conservative Jewish practice.  Yes, in some cases the driver for a Community Day School’s center approach is a commitment to compromise or accommodation.  But there are also cases where the reverse is true in both settings and lines remain ever-blurry.

More Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools who are explicitly NOT Community Day Schools.  They typically thrive in communities with large enough Jewish populations to sustain multiple schools with more targeted religious purposefulness.
  • There are Orthodox day schools who are Community Day Schools (either by self-defnition or RAVSAK affiliation or both).
  • There are Reform day schools who are Community Day Schools (ditto).
  • If Orthodox and Reform day schools can be ideologically-identified and still labeled “Community”…why not Schechter?  [Fact: There are Schechter schools who define themselves as both.  There are already Schechter day schools who are Community Day Schools.]
  • There are also Community Day Schools who live and breathe a mission-driven pluralism that is clearly nondenominational or post-denominational or trans-denominational.  Whether you want to call “pluralism” an ideology in its own right is a fair question, but the point here is to acknowledge that there are absolutely Community Day Schools whose approach to Jewish living and learning is mission-driven and clearly not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.  It wouldn’t be fair to leave that out.

Here’s why it matters to me.

It is no secret that in recent years there have been a number of Schechter schools who have explored changing their official affiliation status from “Schechter” to “Community”. In a few cases this has genuinely been about a purposeful, mission-driven decision to change the way Judaism lives and breathes and/or to change dramatically the rigor and commitment to Jewish Studies for whatever reason. In many cases, however, the exploration is born from a feeling or hope that by changing their external status it will somehow cause a spike in enrollment or fundraising because it is signaling that the school is now of and for the community in a way that it wasn’t or couldn’t be as a “Schechter”.

This perception remains despite the data proving that the former is not true and the fact that Schechter schools can be and often are as “of and for the community” as any other kind of school.

Changing one’s affiliation status without any corresponding change to mission does a disservice to affiliation by rendering it a business equation. It reduces “Schechter” to a caricature and “Community” to a strategy. It denies both the full meaning of their philosophies and confuses the marketplace.

 

It is also the case (see Jewish Montessori) that schools that don’t see themselves as “Schechter” by its narrowest definition are beginning to explore how they may fit in with “Schechter” by a more expansive understanding of what it means and has to say about Jewish education. And so the lines between schools and networks blur even more…

What does it all mean?  For our schools and for the field?  Aren’t all Jewish day schools “community” schools? And why does it matter anyway?

Don’t just talk amongst yourselves!  Talk to me and to each other.

COMMENT.  (Remember…20th comment gets a prize.  Spam doesn’t count!)

Schechter: Becoming the Adjacent Possible for Jewish Education

So…how was your summer vacation?

Passing the torch to my friend, mentor and new Head of MJGDS, Rabbi Jim Rogozen.
Passing the torch to my friend, mentor and new Head of MJGDS, Rabbi Jim Rogozen.

In June, I wrote my last blog post as head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS) and on July 1, I officially assumed my new role as Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  It has been an extremely busy couple of months and as I have been finding my way in my new work, I put my blogging on hold so as to give me time to decide how to repurpose and reimagine who I am blogging for and what I ought to be blogging about.

If you are regular reader of this blog (and “thank you” if you are!), you know that it was born out of a desire to lead by example.  I had inherited a school that embraced a culture of blogging and it did not seem fair to expect students and teachers to blog regularly if I wasn’t willing to do the same.  And so in July 2010, I wrote my first blog post and pushed it out into the world.

I chose to title the blog, “A Floor, But No Ceiling,” which reflects my belief about teaching and learning – namely that there should be a floor, but no ceiling on expectations, achievements or possibilities for learning.  I imagined my primary audience – if there was going to be an audience at all – would be the stakeholders of the school and I tried to find topics I imagined would be of interest for parents, board members, donors, supporters, etc., of this one Jewish day school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Perhaps it was the forced discipline of weekly blogging.  Perhaps it was my wandering attention span.  Perhaps it was the generous patronage of folk with a much greater online presence than my own.  Perhaps it was the timing.

Who knows?

Over time, it became clear that the blog had developed multiple audiences and I tried to shift both my writing style and my topics accordingly.  I could never predict when a post would resonate or with whom.  And since even today most blog readers prefer to remain lurkers rather than active commentators, it remains difficult to be really sure you aren’t just whispering into the wind.

So…

…having come to believe in the power of blogging, I have every intention of resuming weekly blog posts, beginning with this one.

But…

…who am I writing this blog post for and what will I be writing about?

History teaches that the accurate answer will more likely evolve in time than be what I am suggesting here, but I do have some thoughts to get me started.

As was the case before, this is a professional blog.  I am blogging as the Executive Director of a network of diverse Schechter schools throughout the world doing the critical and holy work of educating the next generation of Jewish children.  I would hope that those who are already stakeholders of their local Schechter schools and for the larger mission of “Schechter” will find this blog a valuable resource.  And I would hope that those who care passionately about Jewish day school, Jewish education and education will find this blog a useful read as I attempt to tackle important issues of the day, share perspective, answer questions, field feedback, and – in my own way – try to create a commonplace of exploration, discussion and celebration for the sacred task of educating Jewish children.

As was the case before, this is a professional blog written by a particularly personality…mine.  I am blogging as Jon Mitzmacher.  I don’t have dual identities and although I respect those who have both professional and personal identities, I neither have the time nor the interest in maintaining them.  My understanding of authenticity leads me to be me.  You will get my love for words you need to look up.  You will get my many ellipses, asides, and occasional snark.  You will get glimpses into my family when appropriate.  You will get the extra 400 words that a more parsimonious (see!) writer doesn’t need to get to the point.

 

My colleague, Andrea Hernandez, who I am thrilled will be one of my daughter’s teachers next year at MJGDS and continues to lead edJEWcon into a bright future, introduced me to a phrase that I loved so much that I both wish I had thought of it and toyed with the idea of changing my blog’s title to it…and that is “The Adjacent Possible”.

It is not a new concept.  A Google search will reveal lots of articles going back to 2010. Here is the definition that struck me from Steven Johnson’s fantastic essay for the Wall Street Journal called “The Genius of the Tinkerer.”

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  The adjacent possible captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.  The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them.  Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

And so goes my “a-ha” moment from the Summer of 2014.

That’s how I see what is happening in Schechter schools – an adjacent possible for the future of education.  That’s what role I see for Schechter in the field – learning from and contributing to a larger adjacent possible for the future of the Jewish people.  Let our ability to serve as incubators of innovation catalyze the field.  Let our thirst for the new and the better stimulate and foster healthy collaborations with our sister networks of schools, foundations, federations, stakeholders, supports and friends, both in the Jewish world and beyond.

What do I hope to accomplish with this blog?

I hope – with your help – to make the adjacent possible.

We’ll start next week with a summer update of all things Schechter.  Your comments and questions on this or anything else are genuinely welcome and if offered, will be addressed.

It is good to be back.