The Text is Timeless; I am Not: Re-re-reading “The Sabbath”

Or “How I Spent My February Break”.

This past week marked my third required reading of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath as part of my third seminary experience.  As much of a north star as this book has been for my twinned personal and professional Jewish journeys, I am struck by how different and how similar my responses have been from those different waypoints.  My first reading – as a single person studying for his first set of graduate degrees at the University of Judaism – along with other books, helped inspire me to take on a maximal Shabbat observance as it provided me, at that time, with what felt like a rational and modern justification for an otherwise irrational set of behaviors.  My second reading – as a married man with a pregnant wife studying for his doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary – provided us with inspiration and courage for making Shabbat the center of our not-yet-family with hope for what it would mean for us and our not-yet-children.  This third reading – as a nearly half-century-old man with teenage daughters studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion – reaches me at a point in my life where the trickle of sand through the hourglass feels more like an avalanche and the desire to experience time as infinite is palpably more painful.  Shabbat as a “palace in time” in my twenties was a brilliant metaphor; in my thirties and forties it has been a family fortress; as I prepare to enter my fifties, I yearn to make it real.

Heschel’s “Shabbat” is decidedly non-Kabbalistic, but that doesn’t make it rational, however I may have read it in my twenties.  What jumped out at me during this reading of The Sabbath is that I would describe his view of Shabbat as “mythical” – his “palace in time” is not a metaphor advocating better work-life balance (to use a more modern valance), but an actual experience of transcendence.  For Heschel, the value of Shabbat is that it is not the other six days of the week – the goal is not to extend Shabbat’s transcendence into the week or even to devalue the this-worldly occupation of the work week.  Shabbat provides us with a taste of the “World to Come”  so that this life has added meaning.  Eastern philosophy wants us to use the tool of mindfulness to transcend the world through detachment; Judaism wants us to use the tool of Shabbat to experience God in this world through attachment – that’s where the imagery of weddings and couples bleed into reality and fuel transcendence.

In my first two readings of The Sabbath, I was more interested in what Shabbat wasn’t than what it was.  The “palace in time” was more about what I was keeping outside than what I could be experiencing inside.  Shabbat was an oasis of rest, of joy, and of family, precisely because that is not how the rest of the week was experienced.  This reading, perhaps influenced by my other rabbinic studies or by my own midlife ruminations, leaves me more interested in living beyond time than within it.  My understanding of the metaphor is such that it is halakhah which provides the frame and the construction – one can only build a palace in time through normative Jewish behaviors – and as I was coming to these behaviors in adulthood, I was much more interested in building the palace than dwelling in it.  As my children were born and have since transitioned into adolescence, my emphasis has shifted to dwelling in it, but more like a cottage or vacation home than a vehicle for God’s holiness (although there has always been a holiness in sacred family time), in that the reason for weekly visitation is at least as much, if not more, the opportunity it presents for togetherness, rather than transcendence.  Now, as the waystation of empty-nested-ness is within reach, I am forced to wonder who will dwell in this palace in the end?

On Friday evenings, sits a palace in time.  The famous piyut (poem) Lekhah Dodi is the midpoint of that palace’s drawbridge between Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat Maariv – coming literally after six psalms representing the six days who are not Shabbat and (just about) the beginning of the evening service.  It is the liminal moment when Shabbat transcendence becomes available – if the palace had a registration desk and a check-in time, they would both be Lekhah Dodi.  My hope is that the straight line of my temporal life continues to intersect with the sacred circle of weekly time each and every Shabbat, and that Lekhah Dodi serves as both entrance and exit.  And that if I am lucky, in addition to family and friends, meaning and mindfulness, peacefulness and rest; that my palace in time not only be visited by divinity, but that I be capable of recognizing and experiencing it – in my time, in this world.

Ken y’hi ratzon.  Let it be so…

Please know that as the situation continues to unfold in the Ukraine that we are, in grade-appropriate ways, providing our students with both information and opportunities for thinking about how we can respond.  Teachers have been provided with resources, including Jewish prayers for peace, and we are having conversations about a larger school response.

This feels like one of those moments that is bigger than the curriculum…we are a school that values student voice, leadership, global connectedness, social justice, mutual human and Jewish responsibility, etc.   We want to provide our students with all the information and support they need to be educated and active citizens in the world.  If you are looking for family resources, I recommend you start with this blog post from our amazing librarian, Brigitte Ruel.

How Studying to be a Rabbi is Making Me a Better Head of School

We have been conducting a series of “Town Hall” meetings with Middle School classes as part of amplifying student voice [North Star Alert!  “We own our learning.”] and I found myself in Grade 7.  We were chit-chatting at the end and a student raised his hand and asked me a question: “I heard that you were in school or something?  That you are studying to be a rabbi?”

Yup!

And after a little more back-and-forth, the money quote: “Why would you choose to be in school when you don’t have to?!”

Why indeed!

As I am spending my late nights and Sundays preparing my final papers and studying for my final exams, I sometimes wonder that exact same thing!  But as I am preparing to finish my first year (this marks the end of my third trimester) of rabbinical school, I wanted to reflect for a bit about what this journey has meant to me, not only personally, but professionally – how has becoming a rabbinical school student impacted my headship?

I am currently taking my fourth and fifth classes.  (I barely have the bandwidth for two classes a trimester, which is why I am on a long, slow journey towards ordination.)  My first class was a unique “Peace & Conflict Studies” course that dealt with navigating conflict in a Jewish workplace with a spiritual dimension.  My second and third classes were a Liturgy class about the High Holidays and the second trimester (I was grandfathered in) of Beginning Talmud.  I am currently finishing out the Beginning Talmud track and am taking a Halakhah class about “Genetics & Jewish Law”.  However interesting or not you may think those classes sound, let me take a moment to answer my own question.

It feels good to put myself outside my comfort zone and inside a student’s mindset once again.  I look forward to sitting at the kitchen table and doing my Jewish Studies homework alongside my children.

That’s what I wrote last January when I announced that I was becoming a rabbi.  The first part for sure has come true.  (The second part is true metaphorically, if not in practice.)  And that is what I shared with my Grade 7s – that the fact that I am struggling to remember long-ago buried Hebrew, while working in Aramaic trying to unpack talmudic conversation, and having to do so publicly, out loud in front of classmates and teacher, really does give me much-needed empathy for my students.  I have days when I pray that the teacher calls on me because I am totally excited to share my learning, and there are days when I pray that the teacher doesn’t notice me because I am not sure that I understand something and I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of my peers – “student’s mindset” for sure!

Whether it is time management (when do I do my homework?), imposter syndrome (will they realize that I don’t know things?), second (or third) language acquisition (please don’t make me express myself in a language that I am not totally comfortable in!), and so much more – for my students for whom academics are not their strongest suit, this experience has been and will be wonderful for my empathy.  And that empathy will, hopefully, help me think carefully about the kinds of supports those students need to be – and, more importantly -to feel successful.

Of course, for those students who LOVE to learn…me too!  Other than not having enough time in the day or days in the week, I am so enjoying learning again (especially Talmud)!

What is most fun for me, however, is when I can make a direct application between something I am studying and something I am working on.  [Obviously, a Jewish workplace would never have conflict so that class on “Peace & Conflict Studies” wouldn’t apply.  Ha.]  I have the pleasure – which I mean sincerely – of leading services each morning with Grade 6.  One of the things we have studied this year in Talmud is the Weekday Amidah, especially the first three brakhot.  In a wonderful bit of happenstance, that exact sugya of Talmud is one that we were studying – how did the Rabbis decide how many brakhot we should say, what should they be about and from where were they derived?  The fact that I could unpack that in a very grade-appropriate way with our Grade 6s is exactly why I wanted to go to rabbinical school.  Not because it was neat for me (it was so cool!), but because it allows me to subtly enhance the learning of my students and to add their link of learning to the chain of Jewish learning through the ages.

So, one year down, many (many) years to go!  In the meanwhile, I can put my report card on the fridge next to my children’s and I will doubly enjoy Winter Break with both my student and principal hats.

Do you want to see how JK at OJCS will set your child up for success in school?  Do you have a friend or relative with a child entering JK?  Please contact our Admissions Director, Jennifer Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca), to find out more or to book a COVID-friendly tour.  You may also reserve your spot at our upcoming “JK Parlour Meeting” scheduled for Tuesday, December 17th at 7:00 PM (link made available when you RSVP).

We will be sending home information next week about how the school will navigate COVID protocols coming out of Winter Break, including providing families with rapid testing.  Please be on the lookout for an important EMAIL.

We have a VERY EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT to share next week that you are definitely going to want to hear!  No spoilers here!

My 400th Post: Blogging “The Moral Imperative of Sharing”

I published my first blog post on July 27th, 2010, entitled “Southern Hospitality”.  It was during the summer that I transitioned from being the founding Head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas (z”l) to being the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, in Jacksonville, FL.

Why did I start blogging?

Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.

If only I had remained that pithy!

What did I plan on blogging about?

We are a 21st century learning school invested in the continuity of a five thousand year-old tradition.  Our attempts to marry the past and the future into an engaging present will largely be the focus of my blog.

That still sounds about right.

Who did I imagine my blog’s audience to be?

Most of my blogging will center on experiences here at school, but I hope to be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish day school, Jewish education, education in general, and in the kinds of stuff I think happen to be interesting and worth sharing.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Or I’ll still never really know if and who is reading!

Why did I call it “A Floor, But Not a Ceiling”?

Because it represents what I believe the purpose of education to be – to ensure each child fulfills his or her own individual maximum potentials in academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual terms.  For there to be no ceiling has direct implications about what we teach and how we teach it.  I hope to use this blog to discuss these ideas and more.

And so here I am…

…11 years, 399 blog posts, three jobs and one country later.

I did a little research into my stats and metrics, but because I didn’t actually take ownership of my own website until coming here to Ottawa, most of the stats and metrics are skewed towards recency bias.  But there are a few things that (at least) I find interesting.

…here are my “Top 5” categories (a post can be assigned multiple categories):

  1. 21st Century Learning (145)
  2. Jewish Education (133)
  3. Community Building (107)
  4. Thought Leadership (106)
  5. Teaching & Learning (92)

(Crowd favorite “Transparency Files” clocked in at 60.)

…here are my “Top 5” tags (a post can be assigned multiple tags):

  1. Transparency (28)
  2. COVID (21)
  3. Innovation (20)
  4. 7 Habits (9)
  5. Second-Language Acquisition (8)

My audience has grown each year I have been here at OJCS (just like our school!) and so it comes as no surprise that 4 of my “Top 5” posts all come in the last four years:

  1. The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano (1,171)
  2. OJCS Announces $1,000,000 Gift (689)
  3. The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Plans for a “Five-Day, Full-Day” Safe Reopening (495)
  4. Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter (446)
  5. L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife (432)

So, why do I still crank out 40+ blog posts a year with a completely absurd and unacceptable average word count of nearly 900 words?

Because last week a parent emailed me to share some thoughts about something I wrote and it meant something to both of us.

Because I still believe in Dean Shareski‘s “The Moral Imperative of Sharing“.

Because it makes me a better educator, a better communicator and maybe, just maybe, a better person.

Because Silvia told me to.  [Read the post, I am still not able to talk about her in the past tense.]

Because I really believe in this stuff – that the act of putting stuff into the universe matters, even if when and how it matters is unseen or unknowable.

Because it is still true that “Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.”

Here I am and here I plan to remain.  Even when I am not sure anyone is reading.  Even when I am sure that almost no one is going to comment (no matter how desperately I plead).  Here is where I will continue to plant seeds and sow dreams.  Here is where I will continue to be transparent, even when what needs to be said is difficult.  Here is where I will work out new ideas.  Here is where I will (occasionally) let my true personality be seen.  Here is where I will advocate for teachers, for students, and for Jewish schools.

Thank you to everyone who ever read a post, subscribed, shared, commented, encouraged or helped.  It is both a privilege and a responsibility to have a voice.  I feel blessed to have been able to share mine over these 400 posts and I look forward to showing up and sharing out over the next 400 posts.

[Under 770 words! Nailed it!]

Leaning Into Forgiveness 5782

We are right now at the finish line of the עשרת ימי תשובה‎ – the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Each year, I look forward to the opportunity to pick a personal growth goal general enough to my work with students, teachers, parents, colleagues, community, etc.  [Last year at this time, I blogged out my personal growth goals as well.]  By doing this publicly, I hope, it will inspire others to think about how they wish to grow and provide me with a little public accountability to keep me honest.

Of course it feels a bit chutzphadik to name yet another growth goal, as if I have somehow achieved total success tackling my last two!  (I can assure you that I have not – and if you reread the last two years’ posts, you’ll be able to see that for yourself!)  And yet, despite my fits and starts and failures – and occasional successes – I do find value in this annual exercise and encourage you to share your own growth goals with whomever and in whatever ways you are comfortable.  It feels good!

So this year, I am going take a more literal approach and actually focus in on how I would like to do better in the actual spiritual work of the High Holidays.  I will be honest and say that my thinking here has been highly influenced by one of my rabbinical school courses which conveniently was about the liturgy for the High Holidays.  I have been marinating in readings and conversation about what this time of year is truly supposed to be about and have been thinking deeply about how to incorporate a more traditional understanding of teshuvah and forgiveness into my personal practice.

Repentance contemplated, and not verbalized, is valueless. – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Wow.

For this class, I read On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Pinchas H. Peli, published in 1980, and this was – for me – the money quote.

Soloveitchik goes into lots of detail and scriptural sources to prove the point, but to the degree that I use my time during Yammim Noraim to engage in repentance at all, I certainly do not put almost any energy into its verbalization.  His idea here is that it is not sufficient to repent merely as part of an inner dialogue with either oneself or with God; that to make it real, it must have a physical manifestation – you have to say it out loud, or perhaps put it in writing, but you cannot truly do it without putting it into the universe.  Now in the classic distinction between the sins one commits against one’s fellow-person, and the sins one commits against God (which I will discuss below), it is easier to imagine how this might work.  I may not do it each year or with each person, but the idea that I would seek forgiveness from those I may have wronged automatically requires me to put thought into words.  Ideally, I would seek out each person for a heart-to-heart conversation, but a letter or an email would at least put physical form to my repentance.  That makes sense.  But what about my wrongs that are not directed at other people?

I do not believe that I have ever tried to speak out loud or even put in writing my annual thoughts and feelings about repenting for the all the ways I fall short.  At best, I try to use my time and my prayer to engage in an inner dialogue that is sometimes aimed towards God, but I am seriously contemplating adding this notion into my practice as I gear up for next season.  I am not sure whether I would carve out time and space to vocalize or simply to write it out, but if doing so takes me one step farther in being the person I yearn to be rather than the normal, faltering half-steps I normally accomplish, I will have gained much more from this class than knowledge.

 

So during this time of introspection, let me take this opportunity to ask forgiveness for anything I have done – purposely or unknowingly – to cause offense or upset during the last year.  I am sincerely sorry and ask for your forgiveness.  As you ponder the purpose of this season for you and your family, I hope you find the time for introspection and the inspiration for the teshuvah you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

I am going to try really hard to blog out some thoughts, pictures and videos from our amazing COVID-friendly 4th Annual Middle School Retreat!

I Didn’t Want to Have to Write an Israel Blog Post

I found myself nudged early last week – and justly so – by my Jewish Studies Faculty for not having quickly issued a statement about the situation in Israel.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t paying close attention.  I just shared last month my perspective (and my pride) about having my older daughter studying in Jerusalem.  I always try to pay attention to what is happening in Israel, but I have naturally been paying even-closer-attention since she arrived.  I knew as soon as anyone about the current escalation of violence through the WhatsApp message you can see above.  I knew and I cared and yet still I delayed speaking.  Why?

Well, I guess that similar to other issues of national or international import, I am never entirely certain whether it is an appropriate use of my small slice of the blogosphere to add to a conversation in which I bring no particular expertise and no concrete suggestions.  Is there something I can say or offer that will help address what is going on in Israel right now and how we could or should respond?  Do I have something critical to share with our school community about how to process and discuss current events?

The truth is that our school is taught by talented and bright professionals who have access to a myriad of resources.  Our community (in concentric circles of city, province, country and international) provides all kinds of additional expertise which I do my best to funnel to our families, teachers and alumni.  I can be a hub for sharing inwards and a megaphone for sharing outwards, but I certainly don’t think that I have an answer or a perspective that will move the needle in anyone’s conversation or advocacy.

And yet…

Saying nothing at all doesn’t feel right either.  As a Jewish educator – as a Jew – I believe it is appropriate to speak purely from the heart about Israel…

…a place that changed my life in 1988.

…a place that changed it again in 1992.

…a place that changed it once again in 1997 and 1998.

…a place in 2021 that I have sent my older daughter to study, and will do the same for my younger one when she, too, reaches Grade 10 in 2024.

…a place that I anxiously await revisiting.

Because like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I’ve shared this first part before.  I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an extraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience.  (Yes, that is a bandana over my long, long hair.)

My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.

The power of the Israel experience is real.

That’s why we visit.  That’s why so many do our first or second b’nai mitzvah there.  That’s why we have Federation and synagogue missions.  That’s why we send our Jewish day school classes (like I hope we will one day do here at OJCS).  That’s why we send our teachers for professional development.  That’s why we make aliyah.

That’s why the current situation is heartbreaking.

I have no interest in injecting politics of any kind.  I have my beliefs and I am sure you do as well.  I don’t know what the answers are to safeguard our homeland, our beating heart.  I’m not even sure that I even know the questions.  I am sure that the opportunity to experience Israel transformed me and the opportunity to provide that experience to others transformed me just as thoroughly.  To contemplate the idea that one day it could prove too unsafe to visit stirs my soul to anger. To wonder if one day it could prove impossible shakes me to my core.

Our daily prayers call upon us to face our sacred ancestral home.  May a day come when peace envelopes our home, our Israel.

And may that day come without delay…

A Parent’s Perspective on a Teen Israel Experience

I think after last week’s blog post was rendered moot by outside events within hours of publication, you’ll forgive me for seeking comfort in a non-COVID and pretty much a non-OJCS conversation…and I like the idea of talking about Israel as we just commemorated Yom HaZikaron and are now celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

My oldest daughter, Eliana, pictured above in the middle, arrived this week to Jerusalem where she was supposed to be spending her spring semester of Grade 10 as part of the TRY (Tichon Ramah Yisrael) Program.  With her bags packed since January, the universe finally aligned itself this week, and teenagers from all over North America have finally found their way to Israel.  Leaving aside the impossibility that I could be old enough to have a daughter old enough to be doing this, I thought it might be a good opportunity – especially since teen Israel experiences that aren’t the March of the Living aren’t particularly well-embedded in the culture here in Ottawa – to make a pitch and a plea for teen Israel experiences.  (And, yes, I am aware that lots of Canadian Jewish day schools do have Israel trips, and yes, I would LOVE to see us eventually do that here in Grade 8.  But that’s a different post for a different time.)

Like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with Jewish summer camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an extraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience.  My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.  And now as a parent, I am blessed to pass it forward to my children.

The power of the teen Israel experience is real.  Here’s excellent proof (even if a bit dated):

A 2011 study conducted by Ramie Arian and sponsored by iCenter indicated the following:

  • Roughly 11,000 teens traveled to Israel in 2010 – almost the same number that participated in peer-trips to Israel in the late 1990s. One difference, however, is that over 130 agencies took teens to Israel in 2010.
  • The majority of teens traveled with youth organizations, middle schools, high schools, community trips and camps.
  • The mifgash is becoming a normative part of the teen Israel travel experience, with a few select groups extending it to the full length of their programs.

Based on two iCenter convenings of 30 teen Israel trip stakeholders, the following was underscored:

  1. An experience in Israel must be seen as an essential component of Jewish Education. Ideally, students participate in multiple Israel Experiences over time.
  2. The Israel Experience is most impactful as part of a Jewish Educational continuum (pre- and post-trip programming).
  3. Teen years are critical from a developmental perspective to help form identity and relationships.

I am so excited/thrilled/jealous that my daughter gets to have this first amazing Israel experience and I look forward to seeing over the next months and years how it impacts her and our family.  And I look forward to my next daughter’s experience when it becomes her turn.  In the meanwhile, in this week that we celebrate Israel’s birthday, let us pledge not just to celebrate her with flags and falafel, not just with social media posts and tzedakah, but with a commitment to bring as many of our teens to Israel as we can.

And for the folks here at OJCS…are we ready to start talking about a Grade 8 GRAD Trip to Israel?

Why I Am Studying To Be A Rabbi (Now)

[NOTE: This blog post was written before this week’s events in the States and before our school’s transition to distance learning was extended an additional two weeks.  I may have what to say about both in the week ahead, but at the risk of appearing tone deaf, I would like to share the following.]

I guess all the signs were there.  The random Facebook posts about dog ownership (despite being allergic and never having owned a dog).  Growing my hair out (and blaming it on COVID).  Signing a second long-term contract (for the first time).  Buying a house (for the second time).  Something is clearly going on…

While it might seem reasonable that a midlife crisis – as I creep closer to 50 – is in the cards, the truth is that something truly is going on.  Seeds that were planted over twenty years ago are finally coming to flower, as I prepare to embark on a journey that will hopefully not only make me a better head of school, but a better Jew and a better person.  I am pleased to share that I have been granted acceptance to the Rabbinical School at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and with the full support of my Board here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, I will begin my SLOW journey toward becoming a rabbi.

Why do I want to study to be a rabbi?  Why now?  Why AJR?  And, most importantly for current and prospective OJCS families, how will it impact my work as a Jewish day school head of school?

My passion for inspiring Jewish children and families to love and choose Jewish has only deepened during my years in the field, as has my desire to study.  The job of “day school head” is complex, but offers lots of opportunities for teaching, speaking, engaging, and constructing experiences – all of which I believe will be richer and more impactful when I have a more rigorous foundation in Tanakh/Talmud/Rabbinics, Theology, Philosophy and Liturgy.  I certainly have a background in those topics from my prior graduate school experiences, but not to the degree that I would prefer.  I believe that I will be a more empathetic and effective leader (and person) with pastoral training.  Additionally, I simply enjoy the process of serious text study and have yearned for additional opportunities to engage in torah lishmah (roughly “learning for learning’s sake”).

I am choosing to do this at AJR not just for practical concerns (the ability to do it part-time and at a distance), but from my research and my experience, I see AJR as a place where I can learn and grow in a community of like-minded travelers, led by clergy and professors from whom I will be honored to learn with and grow from.  I will be starting slowly, with just one course at a time, until I get my bearings and a sense of my bandwidth.  There are a lot of courses I can take outside the school day, but there will be courses in the future that I will have to take during the school day as well.  My commitment to the Board and to the School is that my work at OJCS will always come first.  I may need to work harder/differently in order to keep all the balls in the air, but I understand what and where my priorities lie.

My desire to go to rabbinical school at this stage of life is not about my career path and more about my career writ large.  The long and the short of it is that I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better and more effective Jewish educator, which is my life’s calling.  I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better person and a better Jew, which is my soul’s calling.

My first class begins in a couple of weeks and I am enjoying the butterflies it is bringing.  It feels good to put myself outside my comfort zone and inside a student’s mindset once again.  I look forward to sitting at the kitchen table and doing my Jewish Studies homework alongside my children.

I will certainly have lots of opportunity to share my rabbinical journey as it unfolds and since it took me 8 years to get my doctorate, we will have plenty of time for me to answer the question I have gotten most frequently in recent weeks: “Will you be Dr. Rabbi or Rabbi Dr.?”  For now, I am simply looking forward to making a good first impression on my classmates and my teacher on the first day of school.

Wish me luck!

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.

Leaning Into Forgiveness 5781

We are right now in the עשרת ימי תשובה‎ – the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Each year, I look forward to the opportunity to pick a personal growth goal general enough to my work with students, teachers, parents, colleagues, community, etc.  [Last year at this time, I blogged out my personal growth goals as well.]  By doing this publicly, I hope, it will inspire others to think about how they wish to grow and provide me with a little public accountability to keep me honest.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

I worry, in general, that one of the challenges we have in the world is a genuine empathy gap.  I think that we find it harder and harder to feel, show and teach empathy.  I think that COVID only makes this harder.  But instead of focusing on others or the culture or the pandemic, this time of year calls upon us to focus on ourselves.  And I want to spend this year shrinking my empathy gap across the stakeholder groups I encounter…

Students

School came really easily to me.  Sure I had some social concerns around adolescence (I am sure being forced to wear headgear to school did not help), but by-the-by school was a comfortable and safe place for me to be.  I had a secure social group and I got lots of positive reinforcement from teachers who recognized and appreciated my natural (and in no way earned) skill set and performance.  I fully appreciate that my experience of school is not that of all, or even most, of my students.  Part of my job is spending meaningful time with students who don’t find school easy, safe or enjoyable.  Their discomfort is made manifest in all kinds of ways – some productive, some less so – but I am making it a goal this year to start with empathy.

Before I leap to judgement or into problem-solving or consequences, I want to do a better job trying to understand their lived experiences.  I hope that helps deepen my relationships with the very students who would benefit from it the most.  I hope it helps me be more constructive in my feedback and my response to students in distress.  I hope it makes me a better principal.

Teachers

I was never a teacher.  My path to day school leadership was highly atypical.  Although I did have a brief stint as a (very) part-time teacher in the late 90s at a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, I came into Jewish day school sideways.  After a brief career in Jewish camping and some time as a congregational educator, my first full-time job in Jewish day school was as a founding head.  I was never a full-time teacher and I never worked my way up from teacher to administrator to principal to head.  I came in as the head and that’s all I have ever been.  This unorthodox (no pun intended) path has its advantages and its disadvantages.  I have always found the biggest disadvantage to be in my lack of empathy.  Do I truly understand what I am asking of teachers if I have never had to live it myself?

We have set the bar very high for teachers at OJCS, with the teachers themselves often leading the way.  COVID has only made it harder to reach towards our North Stars.  This year, I want to make sure that I dedicate time in all my teacher discussions and encounters towards building empathy.  Am I asking the right questions to truly understand the lived experience our expectations demand?

Before I leap to judgement or into problem-solving or accountability, I want to do a better job trying to understand their lived experiences.  I hope that helps deepen my relationships with the very teachers who would benefit from it the most.  I hope it helps me be more constructive in my feedback and my response to teachers in distress.  I hope it makes me a better head of school.

Parents

I am a parent.

I am struggling with how to best express this next part, because I for sure do not wish to imply that my marriage or my children or my family doesn’t have all the same stressors and challenges and flaws as everyone else’s.  It definitely does!  But I think it is fair to describe my marriage as healthy and my children as fairly typical and my family as relatively functional.  Luck has as much to do with this as anything else…

I say this only to state that I recognize that life and luck may not be equally distributed across all families and there are parents in our school and community who are dealing with challenges that I have not experienced.  As the head of school, I am sometimes privy to the burdens parents carry, but just as often, I am completely unaware.  When a parent comes forward with a question or a concern or to provide feedback or for help, I want make sure that I lead with empathy.  Have I done enough work to truly understand a parent’s experience or perspective before I offer thoughts of my own?

Before I leap to judgement or into problem-solving, I want to do a better job trying to understand their lived experiences.  I hope that helps deepen my relationships with the very parents who would benefit from it the most.  I hope it helps me be more constructive in my feedback and my response to parents in distress.  I hope it makes me a better leader.

So during this time of introspection, let me take this opportunity not only to ask forgiveness in general for anything I have done – purposely or unknowingly – to cause offense or upset during the last year, but let me specifically apologize for any moment in which I didn’t show empathy towards you.  I am sincerely sorry and ask for your forgiveness.

As you ponder the purpose of this season for you and your family, I hope you find the time for introspection and the inspiration for the teshuvah you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

Praying With Your Legs: An Expat’s Perspective

A group held a “Justice 4 George” rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. (Leah Larocque/CTV News Ottawa)

I logged into my Google Meet on Wednesday, ready for another adventure in Grade 6 Tefillah, and as each 11-and 12-year old joined up, I noticed that a significant number of them had changed their avatars to symbols and signs of social protest.  Here I sit, an American expatriate living and working in Canada’s capital, heading up a community Jewish day school where expressions of social justice and repair are logical conclusions to curricular content, and while the grownups carefully plan what is and what is not appropriate to teach, to discuss and to do – while I struggle to decide whether and how to use my voice – a group of (mostly) white, Jewish Canadian children with little to no education in American race relations, little to no experience of racism or prejudice, and little to no understanding of police brutality have already left me behind.

Yesterday, I had a chance to participate in a very special program and conversation with our Grade 5 students and Special Guest Tande Maughn and we are gearing up for a Middle School one next week.  But the impetus did not come from me.  Grade 5 General Studies Teacher Melissa Thompson took the lead.  While I struggled to decide whether and how to engage our Canadian Jewish school in an American social protest movement, our teachers – almost none of whom share my American background or education – left me behind.

Why?

Lots of unsatisfying reasons…

In March of 2018 (my first year in Canada), I wrote a response to Parkland and Las Vegas where I expressed my disorientation,

…a strong feeling that I cannot quite put my finger on – somewhere sour between FOMO (fear of missing out) and JOMO (joy of missing out).  I feel motivated to do something, grateful to not have to, left out of a conversation I don’t want to have to be in, but feel guilty for missing out on…I have neither an audience nor an address.

The issue there was, of course, gun violence.

Now even when working in the States, I always took great care not to wade too deeply into matters of controversy and politics over the years.

Why?

Before moving to Ottawa, we spent 12 years in Nevada and Northern Florida deeply embedded in Jewish communities whose purple and [Republican] red political hues contrasted sharply with our deep [Democratic] blue upbringing and bicoastal lives to that point.  We have learned to respectfully disagree with dear friends whose views [on guns] run counter to our own.  We are proud Americans.  We were proud when we lived in California, New York, Nevada and Florida.  We are proud now that we live in Canada.

So there is a part of this that is about having had my cultural and political bubble healthily punctured to welcome people of good intent with very different views than my own brought in.  But I don’t think my reticence is just about being worried about injecting myself (and by proxy the school) into a polarized place.

There is certainly a sense that I don’t know enough about the different history of Black Canadians.  [Just saying “Black” is hard for me to type as I have been conditioned to say “African American”.  When we moved here, one of my daughters asked me what we should call “African Americans” in Canada?  African Canadians?  It is still hard for me to say “Black” without feeling insensitive.  That’s a trivial example of cultural bias for an American living abroad.]  I don’t know enough about the relationship between the Canadian Jewish Community and the Black Canadian Community to make best meaning of this moment.  And so part of my reluctance to speak is fear of being ignorant.

Our speaker in Grade 5 came to us and spoke from her heart and, thus, touched ours.  I told the students that one of the bravest things you can do is to allow yourself to be vulnerable to others.  And so, I should try to live up to that myself.  To say nothing would suggest that I have no stake in this issue, that it neither impacts me nor is it incumbent upon me to participate in.  But as a citizen and as an educator, as a human being and as a Jew, I do have a stake, I am impacted and I do believe it is incumbent upon me to participate.  And I will, like many others, have to struggle to figure out what participation looks like because I am unwilling to remain forever a bystander.  Are we our brother’s keeper? What does that keeping look like on this issue and at this time?

If Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described his marching with Martin Luther King Jr. as “praying with legs,” could risk life and limb to make the world a better place, I can and should do more.  If we want our schools and our children to really matter to black (and brown and impoverished and diverse and etc.) lives in our communities, we will need to do more than engage in hashtag activism and social media blackouts.  We will need to engage with people, even if doing so is complicated by social distancing.  That’s what we did yesterday in Grade 5.  That’s what we are doing next week in our Middle School.  Small steps forward, but steps nonetheless.

The truth is that to stay on the sidelines for fear of political correctness or for fear of getting a few facts mistaken would be an abnegation of our responsibility.  All we can do is our best.  We try to live up to our ideals.  We teach facts.  We provide respectful space for opinions.  We encourage civic participation.  We acknowledge that when one of us cannot speak, then none of us can speak.  And as we have been reminded yet again, when one of us cannot breathe, then none of us can easily draw a breath.

For we are all made in the image of “the God in whose hand thy breath is in” (Daniel 5:23).