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).

A Loop in the Chain

I think because of the holidays and the break that I have been thinking a lot about family recently…

There is a bag of very old, not suitable for use, tefillin sitting on the top of one of the bookshelves in my office.  They belonged to my paternal great-grandfather Alexander Mitzmacher.  I never met him and other than the very few anecdotes that have been shared with me over the years by my family, I know almost nothing about him other than the fact that he had a set of tefillin.  I can’t even say for sure that he treasured them or that he ever in fact wore them.  I only know that my grandfather of blessed memory had them in his possession and when I became the first person in my family since (at least) Alexander to put on tefillin they were given to me as just about the only non-jewelry heirloom we have.

We talk often about “Jewish continuity” and “links in the chain” as if there was a natural and smooth transference from one generation to another.  As a parent and educator, I need to believe that we have the ability to influence, guide and mentor the next generation to value and practice that which we consider important through education, experience and the making of memories.  As the observant grandson of Morris Mitzmacher, who jumped out the cheder window in 1922 and never looked back…well, I know that life is a bit more mysterious and unpredictable.

I am an only child (explains a lot, doesn’t it!) who only had one living grandfather and was that man’s only grandchild.  Let’s just say that we were exceptionally close.  He was equal parts proud and bemused by the Jewish journey that led me to a life of Jewish education and ritual observance.  He lived long enough to dance the night away at our wedding.  He died three years before our first daughter, Eliana, was born and six years before our second daughter – his namesake – Maytal joined the family.

I think of him often and marvel at how the boy who escaped Judaism grandfathered the head of a Jewish Day School.  He never stepped foot inside a synagogue again save for my Bar Mitzvah and my wedding and yet, all the while, he continued holding onto a frayed bag of ancient tefillin.  For all those years, he neither threw them out nor gave them to his son (who would have found them equally unnecessary).  Why?

I never got an answer the one time I asked and he was gone before I could ask again.

And so they sit on my bookshelf and watch me go about my work.  They tell a cautionary tale – perhaps had my grandfather had a more meaningful Jewish education he would not have jumped out that window without so much as a regretful look back.  They are humbling – we cannot ultimately control the choices our children make.  They are inspiring – it is never too late to join a Jewish journey, begin a Jewish education or try on a new Jewish practice.  The tefillin were present even when we were absent.

What are the artifacts sitting on your shelves telling silent stories? Write them down, or better yet, tell them to your children.  For by doing so we can do our part to ensure that despite the links and loops life brings us, the chain can indeed remain unbroken.

Radical Transparency: Finding Wellness Through Brazen Vulnerability

I was out of the office this past Monday and Tuesday attending an Alumni Retreat of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  DSLTI is the preeminent preparer for new heads of Jewish day schools and I was lucky enough to be in its fourth cohort.  In addition to the coaching and content that comes during your cohort experience, one of the greatest ongoing values of DSLTI is its robust alumni network.  That alumni network gathers annually for a retreat and is typically a peak experience for attendees.  The topic this year was “wellness” and I was asked to speak specifically  on the connection between “transparency” and “wellness”.  As those were concepts that I didn’t automatically connect, I spent some time proposing and then rejecting possible ideas.

Here’s what I did not talk about:

At first, I thought I would approach it from the angle of how blogs and blogfolios can actually promote wellness in our school culture through small, but meaningful acts of kindness.

Then I thought I would come at it from how my own blogging and social media usage embodies transparency as a personal value that promotes my own self-care – talking about my personal flaws, coping with the death of my father, setting health goals, etc.

My next rejected idea was to talk about how I blog transparently about what I want to be true with the hope that by putting it out into the universe, I set in motion making it actually come true.

Next idea was to explore blogging as a form of personal cheshbon ha’nefesh – a self-accounting to inspire me to do and be better.

My final rejected idea was to explore how we use the concept of the “nondiscussible” to build a professional culture that promotes wellness in the workplace.

The truth is that I could have told compelling professional anecdotes about any of the above slides/topics.  And since many of them are pulled from blog posts I have already written…I guess I already have. But because DSLTI is such an intimate environment, a safe place for heads of schools to get real with themselves and each other, I decided that I would go deeper and more personal.  And so I landed here…

Imposter Syndrome” is a common condition across all professions.  It can be defined as…

…a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.

I can distill my “imposter syndrome” down to three anecdotes reflected in the slide above which served as the heart of my talk…

The handsome gentleman on the left is me at age 13.  I was yet even more handsome at age 10 when we moved from Edison, New Jersey to Fremont, California.  In addition to my amazing Jewish Neil Diamond hair, and owlish eyeglasses, I also brought with me to California an overbite of cartoonish proportions.  My overbite was so large that I could fit two fingers (sideways) comfortably inside.  The solution?  A bionator.

My Google search for a bionator reveals to my surprise its continued existence, since I had imagined it would have been banned by the Geneva Conventions as a source of torture.  In my parents’ great wisdom and to avoid my needing to wear braces until 35, not only did I get to wear the bionator for all of Grades 6 and 7, I also got to wear headgear 18 hours a day.  And one of those days was, in fact, the very first day of school.

In a new school.

In a new state.

I show up for the first day of Grade 6 with my bionator in, Jewish locks pouring through the headgear and owl eyes.  As just one example of how awesome that was, because the bionator took up every inch of space in my mouth, I had to take it out to speak.  And because I needed a toolset to take it out, I had to have prearranged times with my teachers for when I was going to be called on.  (I swear this is all true.) My Math Teacher would tell me that she was going to call on me at 10:45 AM and then at 10:30 AM I would take out my toolset and start unhooking myself.  My time would come, I would say, like, “5x,” and then I would hook myself back together.

How I ever met a friend is an enduring mystery…

That “first-day-of-school-in-a-new-school-wearing-a-bionator” is how I feel each time I walk into a new room with new people.

The hirsute gentleman in the upper righthand corner is me at age 23.  I had taken a year after university to try to figure out what path in the Jewish professional world I wanted to walk down and landed at Jewish Education.  Based on my Reform Jewish background, I should have wound up in the master’s program at the Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles.  And I likely would have if not for the friend of my mother’s who told her that if I was already going to down to LA for an interview at one seminary, that I might as well visit the Conservative one, the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).  So I set myself up an interview…

They told me that my day was going to begin with “minyan” and I said, “Great!” even though I had no idea what that was.  To paint the full picture, I wore my hair that day in a ponytail (which I assumed was more professional), put modest earrings in my four piercings, wore the only long pants in my possession coupled with Naot (Israeli Birkenstocks).  That is how I looked when a grad student met me and escorted me to the school’s beit knesset for minyan.  That morning was the first time in my life I had ever seen tefillin or a Hebrew siddur.  It was the first all-Hebrew service I had ever attended and I was totally unfamiliar with the words and the tunes.

Why I wound up attending that school and the larger Jewish journey it took me on is a longer story…

That “first-time-in-minyan” is how I feel every time I enter a synagogue.

The picture in the lower righthand corner of the slide is not a class photo.  That is the school photo from my first year as founding head of the recently closed Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas.  Grades 1 & 2, 14 students, three teachers and me.  The story of how that school came into existence and how I came to be its founding head is long and complicated.  It is, in fact, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and should you wish to join the exclusive club of my dissertation committee, my mother and my wife, I invite you to look it up and read it.  Needless to say, I was not a typical applicant for this job having never attended, worked or virtually ever stepped foot inside a day school until applying to be a founding head.

I distinctly remember the part of my interview where I attended a parlour meeting for prospective parents at the home of the rabbi who was spearheading the school’s creation.  At that time there were only the 6 students continuing into Grade 2 and prospective parents for what would turn out to be 8 students beginning Grade 1.  Because of my utter lack of experience and network – I was only accepted into DSLTI after I somehow got the job – the only way I could prepare for the interview was to do some light internet research.  I landed on PEJE’s (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, now folded into Prizmah) PDF for launching new Jewish schools and tried to commit it to memory.

At this parlour meeting was a set of parents who had graduated from The Ramaz School, a very prominent Modern Orthodox Day School in Manhattan and they asked me a ton of very reasonable and practical questions to try to ascertain how on earth I was qualified to found this new school.  As I stood in the foyer sweating through my suit, stumbling to express my views on secular curriculum, Jewish curriculum, pedagogy, Hebrew, and anything and everything else about running a school, I was quite convinced that this was the beginning and the end of my career in Jewish day school education.

Why I wound up getting the job and the larger arc of my career that it launched is a longer story…

That  “sweating through my suit” is how I feel at all our town halls.

The feedback from my DSLTI peers when I gave this presentation was instructive.  Many shared with me that they had no idea that I felt that way – I seem so confident or I appear to have a strong leadership presence.  And like most people, I both do and I don’t.  I have obviously grown and learned and failed and succeeded and achieved and done a lot since I was 10, 23 and 33.  But that’s the way imposter syndrome works for us all.

So there you have it.  The simple truth is that I employ a kind of radical transparency not only because I think it creates healthy culture, leads to sound pedagogy, fosters parental buy-in and engagement – which I do.

In a sense “transparency” is my superpower.  It is the superhero cape I adorn that lets me be my best self.  I put it all out there because doing so makes me well and, I hope, promotes wellness in others.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

This will be my last blog post before we go onto Winter Break next week.  Wishing everyone a joyous Chanukah, a Happy New (Secular) Year and a relaxing break.  We look forward to welcoming everyone back to school in 2020!

Leaning Into Forgiveness

I don’t know if it is the schedule, the calendar or my unconscious, but I noticed today, that in just about each year that I have blogged, that I skip from some kind of “Shofar, So Good” blog post heading into Rosh Hashanah right into some kind of “Marching With Fruits & Vegetables” blog post heading into Sukkot (spoiler alert for next week).  Is it just timing or bandwidth that causes me to skip over Yom Kippur?  Is there something about the “Day of Atonement” of which I struggle to find words?

In the hope of answering those questions, at least for myself, I’m going to use this week’s blog post to lean into forgiveness…

Repentance (Hebrew: תשובה, literally, “return”, pronounced “tshuva” or “teshuva”) is one element of atoning for sin in Judaism. Judaism recognizes that everybody sins on occasion, but that people can stop or minimize those occasions in the future by repenting for past transgressions. Thus, the primary purpose of repentance in Judaism is ethical self transformation.[1]

The Mishnah states: To a man who says, ‘I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent’, Yom Kippur brings no atonement. For sins against God, Yom Kippur brings atonement. For sins against one’s fellow man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement until he has become reconciled with the fellow man he wronged.[3]

Before we can ask God to forgive us for how we treat each other, we have the responsibility to not only ask those we have hurt for forgiveness, but to go the extra mile to work on ourselves, so that we are less likely to behave in unkind or unethical ways in the future. That is the “ethical self-transformation” referred to above, and that is the work of this season.  It is easy (and sometimes not so easy) to say “I’m sorry,”; it is hard to grow yourself into the person you want to be.  But that is what this time of year asks us to try to do…

Without falling guilty to oversharing or self-psychologizing, in the spirit of these עשרת ימי תשובה‎ (ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I thought I would pick one thing general enough to my work with students, teachers, parents, colleagues, community, etc., to name as an area for personal growth this year. Doing this publicly, I hope, will inspire others to think about how they wish to grow this year and will provide me with a little public accountability to keep me honest.

A confession.

I am painfully shy.

That is either completely obvious to you or a complete surprise to you, depending on the kinds of interactions you are used to having with me or how well you (think you) know me.  But it is true regardless.  I am really shy and that can leave me a bit awkward in some kinds of social situations.  Sadly, that shyness oftentimes reads as aloofness at best, arrogance at worst.  Of course, sometimes I am just being aloof or arrogant, but oftentimes, I promise that I’m not!  I’m just uncomfortably shy and rendered speechless by that discomfort.  This is not new (to me) and I have, through the years, worked out all kinds of coping mechanisms and developed workarounds that help me do what I need to in order to keep myself and my work moving forward. There are lots of ways that I would love to “self-transform” in this area and I’d like to think that I have been on a journey of self-transformation for quite a while.  But there is one specific way I want to grow this year, anchored in both an apology and a promise.

I want to be more curious.

When I reflect on conversations I have with lots of folk I encounter in my life, I find that I am easily more expressive when asked a question. I can be quite comfortable sharing my opinions, my feelings and my experiences.  In that sense, I am quite transparent.  Where I fall short is asking questions of the other.  I struggle to convey my genuine curiosity about your opinions, feelings and experiences – especially in unplanned face-to-face moments –  and it can leave the opposite impression, that I am only focused on myself and incurious about others.

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 convey my interest or concern in you.  If you left an interaction with me not feeling heard, I am sorry.  If we had a conversation and I didn’t seem as invested in learning more about you than I was in talking about myself, I am sorry.  If you were looking to make a genuine connection and I appeared disinterested, I am sorry.  To say, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” in this case is both trite and true.

I take seriously the responsibility to role model the values and ideals of our school.  Part of what it means to “learn better together” is showing care and curiosity in the other.  Part of what it means to “take responsibility each to the other” is being aware of the concerns and needs of the other.  And part of what it means to “own our learning” is being accountable for one’s shortcomings and seeking to grow.

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 teshuva you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

A Purim Prescription for Pediatric Judaism

It has been a busy Shavuat Ha’Ruach (Spirit Week) here at OJCS!  As we gear up to Purim (tonight and) tomorrow, I thought I would take a moment to pivot away from our children and spend a little time on us – Jewish parents.

When we think about Purim as parents, we probably think most about this: “What shall I dress my children as this year for Purim?”

But hopefully for many families, including ours, the question isn’t what are we going to dress our children as for Purim.  Rather, we ask ourselves what are we going to dress as for Purim?

I would wager a bet that no more than 15-25% of families attending Purim services and/or carnivals this year will come in costume.  Why?

The phenomenon is often referred to as “pediatric Judaism” and I find that Purim is its paradigmatic Jewish holiday.  I Googled “pediatric Judaism” to see who should get credit for its coinage and the best I could come up with was the following from a Reform Judaism Magazine article:

Why, then, the emphasis on what Rabbi Larry Hoffman, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, calls “pediatric Judaism”? “We have planned for our children only,” he wrote in 1996. “In our understandable anxiety to pass on Judaism as their heritage, we have neglected its spiritual resources for adults, leaving ourselves with no adequate notion of how we too might draw sustenance from our faith as we grow up and grow older.”

That sounds about right.

Far too often, even those who are the most engaged – the ones who do affiliate with synagogues and do try to provide their children with Jewish educational experiences – they work to ensure their children experience and participate, but neglect to include themselves.

When as a graduate student in Los Angeles, I first attended a synagogue in which adults participated in Jewish holiday celebrations as adults – active, joyous and engaged – it was almost surreal.  That was not a Judaism for children – costume contests, parades, pony rides and candy (although that may all have been there as well) – but a Judaism that adults took seriously for themselves.  They were not lining the walls watching the children within; they were celebrating the joy of being Jewish for themselves.

What’s the problem with “pediatric Judaism”?

For me it is the perpetuation of the idea that being Jewish, or perhaps more accurately doing Jewish, is something that is only for children.  We are our children’s most powerful role models and teachers and they are surely paying attention.  When they can see that we take something seriously, it is a signal to them that they ought to as well.  Children learn how to be an adult by watching our adult behaviors.  We understand this as parents and so we think carefully about how we behave in front of our children, what kind of language we use, and what kind of values we express and try to live by.  So, too, it is with being a Jewish adult.  Our children are looking to us to see what adult Jews do and it presents us with a big opportunity and a huge responsibility.

I don’t wish to pile on parents.  We will all need to do more if we are ever to cure ourselves of “pediatric Judaism”.  In our schools and our synagogues, we need to reach out to parents and provide them with the support, education, experiences and love they will need to find the courage to try on new ideas and behaviors.  We will need to present a Judaism worthy of the education and sophistication of our parents.  Luckily, Judaism contains within it all that and more.

So…what are you going to be for Purim?  Don’t let your children have all the fun…and don’t let them think that the fun of Purim is only for children.

Chag Purim Sameach!

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 Expat Files: Spellcheque

Will I be marked down for spelling like an American? – Eliana M., Age 11

I was trying to figure out why all of my received emails from Ottawa were totally marked up with red lines…and then for like the 150th time since our move to Canada became official, I was reminded of what on the surface seems totally obvious: Canada is a different country!

I know.  You already knew that.  I did, too.  But like a good American, I really didn’t take all that much time to unpack what that really meant until circumstances required me to.  So, in recognition of all the new experiences emigration is providing me and my family, I want to introduce a new feature of my blog: “The Expat Files”.

Blog posts in “The Expat Files” will focus in on one family’s journey from America to Canada.  I might zoom in on such hot-button issues as which “spellcheck” language I am supposed to click, porting your cell phone number, or why the only doctor who can submit our emigration exams is 300 miles away.  I might zoom out how our experiences with socialized medicine, parliamentary democracy, and state-sponsored media inform what we believe to be true as American citizens.  But, what I imagine I will mostly do, is share a bunch of completely embarrassing situations that reveal how little I know about things that I probably should, but don’t.

Hold that thought.

Two additional sub-features to “The Expat Files” will provide you with an opportunity to enhance your reading experience.  I will include a curated musical playlist and a signature cocktail to accompany each post.  [Thanks to Nancy Davis for the inspiration.]  I can assure you that it is the same playlist I am listening to while writing…

Signature Playlist: For the first post, I offer up Spotify’s “Canadian Pop”. [Parents be warned that a few songs on the playlist are labeled with “explicit” lyrics.]

Signature Cocktail: Ginder Rum Shandy [Parents be warned that the drinking age in Ontario is 19, which is something I totally just looked up and belongs on the aforementioned list.]

I assure you that future editions of “The Expat Files” will focus in on specific events or issues worthy of going deeper than a Facebook update or a tweet.  However, this inaugural edition comes after an embarrassment of embarrassments, so we’ll wrap up with a series of quick hits.

An Unedited List of Things Jon Has Learned, Realized or Mused

  • Why can’t you choose your own car when you rent a car from National in Canada?
  • Do I sing the Canadian national anthem?  Do my children? Different rules for different contexts (stadiums or school assemblies)?
  • Will the 11 Spanish proverbs I remember from Spanish 5 in high school help me learn French?
  • Is Drake a national treasure?
  • Is there such a thing as Canadian Fantasy Football?
  • Will I start writing with English spellings of words?  Should I?
  • This seems like a particularly charged time for an American to transition to socialized medicine.
  • I genuinely look forward to trying kosher poutine.
  • It would be awesome if the Ottawa Senators won the Stanley Cup while we are in the process of moving to Ottawa.  But it wouldn’t be ironic.  Don’t you think?  #AlanisMorrisette #Ironic
  • We are totally psyched for learning a whole new geography through family road trips.
  • I distinctly remember watching “The Terry Fox Story” on TV when I was eleven and at no point did it occur to me that it would inspire my future employer’s biggest fundraiser.
  • It is pretty awesome watching Maytal and Eliana practice French on their iPads each day.  This is going to be such a wonderful opportunity for them in so many ways.

We have less than two months left before the moving trucks arrive to pack us up.  We have so much more to do both here and there. We have so much to learn and to unlearn.  We are sad to leave what has been a wonderful seven years in Jacksonville.  We are excited to begin what will surely be a wonderful new chapter in Ottawa.

You are welcome to join our adventure here in “The Expat Files”.

O Canada? My Serendipitous Return to the Headship

Do they celebrate Purim in Canada? – Maytal M., Age 9

I’m not going to lie.

I distinctly recall the first day of the 2014-2015 school year. It was the first time I drove carpool as a day school parent (only).  I was wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt and as I wheeled through the line, I locked eyes with my colleague Rabbi Jim Rogozen who had just replaced me as head of my children’s school.  He had just returned to the headship after a brief time out and I was just beginning my first year out of the headship after nine years in.  I said goodbye to my girls, waved to Jim wearing his tie and nice clothes, turned up the music and headed back to my new home office to begin the day.

I was not unhappy.

To be clear, I had not been unhappy in my work.  Leaving my headship at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School to become Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network was an agonizing and bittersweet decision.  We were just becoming the school that so many of us had worked so hard to begin to be; the chapter in the life of the school that I was there to help author was not complete.  But I was called into service for Schechter and I ultimately answered that call.  It was both that simple and that complicated.

Now, I realize that nine years sounds like either a long haul or a blink of the eye depending on your vantage, but after nine years of night meetings, living and dying with each enrollment decision, going to synagogue and the supermarket with the potential for bumping into the micro-drama de jour, etc., I was ready for something different.

Like so many of the happy accidents that constitute my career path, these last three years have been a blessing. Having had the chance to be on the national stage, to engage with the foundations, agencies and donors who sustain our schools, to view the field from a different vantage, to visit over 50 schools, to help reimagine what a “Schechter” education can be, to participate in the birth and launch of Prizmah, and to dig deep into educational innovation – these have all been extraordinary professional experiences.  I have learned so much more from my colleagues, first in Schechter, then in Prizmah, not to mention all my colleagues in the field that I could scarcely describe it.

I have also benefited from the opportunity to be more present in my family’s life than ever before.  Despite a heavy travel schedule, when I’m here, I’m more here than ever before.  Breakfast with my daughters each morning, carpool, the ability to participate in school activities, being home for bedtime, I know that these three years have bonded me with my family like never before at ages where my daughters still appreciate my active engagement (tick tock!).

So, with all the benefits that come with not being a head of school, why am I jumping back in?  And why so far North!

Here is the simple truth.

A career is a function of what jobs are available when you are looking, which jobs you get, which jobs you don’t get, which jobs you want, which jobs you don’t want, who else is looking, how each interview is structured (or is unstructured), who you meet when, how you respond, how you are feeling, how other people are feeling, and who knows how many other variables.  It is a remarkably unscientific process considering how important it is for everyone involved.  I wrote about it at length when first considering it from the other side of the search process at Schechter.

When I describe my career as a series of “happy accidents,” I don’t mean to suggest that I wasn’t an active player, that I didn’t make choices or that I didn’t earn the jobs I received (or didn’t not-earn the jobs I didn’t get).  I’m just being real – there are variables outside one’s control, there is a measure of luck, and sometimes the universe lends an unseen hand pushing you towards things you may not have chosen to explore on your own.

I’ve written and discussed many times the almost comical series of events that led me to become the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas considering my professional experiences to that point.  I’ve candidly shared that when “Jacksonville” popped on the list that I assumed it would be somewhere near Miami until I looked at a map.  Yet my time here in Jacksonville made my career. Schechter was a calling I felt compelled to answer.  And Schechter led me to Prizmah…

Once the decision was made to leave Prizmah, I found myself back on the market for the first time in a long time.  Did I consider other positions besides head of school?  I did.  But as my process went on, it became clear to me that my passion for the headship remained intact.  Looking at my options, what was most exciting, to me, was the opportunity to apply all this new learning I have accumulated at Schechter and Prizmah to the craft of the headship.  These last three years have provided me with the humility of knowing how many great ideas other people are working on at Jewish day schools across North America.  These last three years have shown me what can be done at schools of all sizes, flavors and geographies.  These last three years have not had the power of intimacy, relationships, community and impact that nourish my soul.

Winter is coming… – Game of Thrones (HBO) and everyone who finds out we are moving to Ottawa

We may not know the story of Canadian Thanksgiving, Boxing Day, the metric system, or a word of French, but we do know a warm (no pun intended) community when we see it.

Our experiences, both professional and personal, here in Jacksonville were critical in our decision-making process this time around.  I know that with generous donors, a committed Federation, a nourishing board, a passionate community, supportive parents, and talented and dedicated faculty, that you can be a school of global impact regardless of size or geography.  We know that with kindness and love, that our family will thrive regardless of the number of kosher restaurants or the weather.

Putting it all together, when it came time for us to decide on the next chapter for our family, it was clear early on that we would seek to write it in Ottawa, Canada where I have enthusiastically agreed to become the next Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

I’ll have much more to say in the weeks and months ahead about the work, the school, and the move.  We are neck-deep in emigration law and relocation logistics.  I appreciate all the unintentional political jokes moving to Canada provides at this unique moment in time.  I know it will be cold.

But I also know something else.  It will be great.

Saying “L’hitraot, Not Shalom”. Again.

What was a typical workday in the life…

So here we are again.  Sooner than anyone could have expected, but with great excitement about what is yet to come, it time again for me to pause, prepare and repurpose this blog for the next chapter of my journey.

Two years and nearly sixty blog posts later, my time at the Schechter Day School Network – and the existence of the Network itself – draws to a close.

Almost two years to the day, I wrote my last blog post as the head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in which I reflected on what had been and looked forward to what was going to be…a task made easier by my knowing with greater clarity “what was going to be”.  To be transparent, that is not a luxury I yet have, at least in terms of my personal professional situation, but it diminishes not one bit my enthusiasm for Schechter’s future.

The first post I wrote as the Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network was entitled “Schechter: Becoming the Adjacent Possible for Jewish Education”.  In it, I wrote of my hopes for a reborn Schechter:

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.

“[L]earning from and contributing to a larger adjacent possible for the future of the Jewish people.”

Having had the blessing of visiting over forty of our schools, I can say with confidence that Schechter schools are contributing to the future of the Jewish people each and every day. Our schools broadly share assumptions about standards, innovation, excellence, rigor, integration, Zionism, Hebrew language acquisition, centrality of prayer, and much more which simply cannot be reduced to policy or schedule or a prayerbook.  They are big tent schools who serve diverse communities.  They produce Jewish communal leadership in unprecedented numbers ensuring there is a future to reach towards.

“Let our ability to serve as incubators of innovation catalyze the field.”

I am proud of the growing impact of edJEWcon on the field as a result of the stage Schechter has been able to set for its ongoing evolution.  I am staggered by how many of our schools are leading innovation and inspiring the field.  Robotics, STEAM, Coding, Makers Space, Project-Based Learning, 21st Century Learning – pick any slice of the innovative educational future and I can give you 3 Schechter schools who are leading the way.

“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.”

NewOrg.

 

We are proud of this brief, but critical chapter of Schechter’s proud history that we have helped write.  We are excited about the next chapter of Schechter to be written as part of the story of NewOrg.  And we look forward to both knowing and sharing who the authors of that story will be…

As for me?

Well, I hate to end the season and head off to summer on a cliffhanger…

…but it wouldn’t be authentic or transparent to suggest that I know more than I do.  And as of this writing, there isn’t much more I can say other than, “Stay Tuned”!

I can say for sure that when my future becomes more clear, you’ll be able to read all about here on “A Floor, But No Ceiling”.  This blog will again be reborn with new challenges to explore, new opportunities to share, and new issues to grapple with.  I look forward to resuming our journey together soon…

Pausing For Gratitude As A Chapter Begins to Close

[Reprinted by request from our final Constant Contact to Schechter stakeholders.]

Dear Friends,

The emails and updates are coming fast and furious and are coming more and more from OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANewOrg and less and less from us as the transition from what was to what will be grows closer each day.  Critical information about “Membership”, “Conference”, “Fee For Service”, “Staffing”, etc. – the stuff you really need to know in order to better understand your engagement with NewOrg next year and beyond is finally making its way to the field.  And not a moment too soon (and maybe a few moments too late) considering our earliest schools are already beginning to close for the summer.

I am incredibly proud of the work our staff and lay leaders have done over the last six months along with our colleagues from the other legacy organizations to get to this point.  There is clearly much more to do and to come.  Here at Schechter, we will continue through June pushing out information and being available to answer questions and concerns.  I will also be publishing closing blog posts where I have more space to be expansive about what I think these last three years have meant.

But now, I prefer to pause for gratitude.

Without going into the laundry list here, I will simply say that what we have accomplished together during our brief run as an independent network of amazing schools is almost inconceivable.  And it didn’t happen by accident.

It took the vision of Dr. Steven Lorch, Rabbi Jim Rogozen, Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, Dr. Susan Kardos, Rabbi Shelly Dorph and Dr. Elaine Cohen.

It took the leadership of Dara Yanowitz and our founding (and closing) Board of Trustees.

It took the wisdom and advice of our Professional Advisory Board.

It took the partnership of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Camp Ramah, USY, and the American Jewish University.

It took the generous capacity building support from the AVI CHAI Foundation and an anonymous foundation to launch us, and the programmatic support of the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Alan B.  Slifka Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah to help us soar.

It took the excellence, the openness, the hospitality, the candor and the magic of our schools.

But more than anything else?  It took the blood, sweat and tears of our staff.

Our Associate Director Ilisa Cappell, who essentially ran Schechter as “Acting Director” our first year, was the only partner I could ever have imagined going on this journey with.  I have never worked with anyone who complemented me better and who I should have complimented more.  Hiring Ilisa was the best thing I did as Executive Director.

Followed very closely by the hiring of everyone else!  Pearl Mattenson has provided us with wisdom and warmth.  No one is more aptly named than “Pearl”.  Working with her has taught me more than most of my graduate school classes.

Alisha Goodman inherited an organization with no Business Manager, HR Manager, or Development Director and she has managed to wear all those hats and more with tireless effort and dedication.  Her speed at Excel spreadsheeting is only surpassed by her wit.

Andrea Hernandez and Silvia Tolisano are probably more responsible for my career than anyone!  Our work together as school leaders forever changed my beliefs about Jewish education and to be able to continue the work together at Schechter and beyond remains a daily joy.

And of course there is Doree Greenfield who stepped into our most transitory position and very quickly mastered not only the work, but the relationships.  She has been invaluable during her tenure at Schechter.

the-futureWe don’t know exactly what or who the future will bring.  But we know what the past and present has meant.  On behalf of the staff and the board of the Schechter Day School Network, let me thank all our stakeholders one last time and to be clear that we are not saying shalom, but l’hitraot.

This is not goodbye…because we will see you later.