A WORD in the Hand is Worth Two in the CLOUD

My last few blog posts have been long and heavy…so, let’s switch gears.

Readers of this blog know a few things…

…I will make bad puns.

…I will take 200 words to say something better said in 20.

…I will use a complicated word to say something better said simply.

…I love ellipses.

…I will worry aloud that only my mother and the people she shares with on Facebook read my blog.

…I will insert a punny Spotify playlist.


…I love word clouds.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea, in a nutshell, word clouds (through an algorithm only they know) takes any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  Another great feature is that, not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a word cloud representing the sum of all its written content.

For many years, I have used word clouds to visually summarize the content of this blog and compare it to years past in order to reflect on whether I am living up to its goals.

I will have to wait a bit longer to do a comparison on how things evolve here at OJCS, but even a quick glance at the current state of things is illuminating.


It is definitely not perfect, but it hits many of the high notes.  The two most important mission/vision issues under exploration?  Jewish mission/vision and French outcomes.   The most important paradigm shift?  Transparency. Digging deeper, you can see interesting patterns in what we are emphasizing (time, new, share, etc.) or what might be missing (innovation, technology, personalization, etc.).  Either way it really gets you thinking…

If you see something interesting in the OJCS word cloud..let us know in the comments!

Quick Pedagogy Epilogue:

Who is using word clouds in their schools, classrooms or organizations?  You can check classroom blogs, school websites, the Torah, your mission statement, a behavioral code of conduct and so on.

How fun!

So…let’s word cloud up!  Find a text that is meaningful to you, create a word cloud, and find a way to share it.  If I can write a post with less than 400 words, you can do it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Problem Does Our School Exist to Solve?


For three years, during my time at Schechter and at Prizmah, when I was not a head of school, it seemed so easy calling on folk to take seriously the responsibility and the power of blogging.  Now that I have been back in the headship for all of seven weeks, I can’t imagine when I will ever have time to blog again!  I know what kind of person people say Karma is, but s/he should really meet my good friend Hubris.

Getting back into weekly blogging, apparently, is harder to do than it is to type, but slowly, slowly, I will get back into shape.  In the meanwhile…


If you are a parent, I strongly encourage you to read carefully the email from this past Monday and the handbook it came with.  If you have any questions or concerns, I even more strongly encourage you to email or call us sooner than later.  We really want the first day of school to be as smooth and celebratory as possible.  Let’s deal with any confusion or preparation beforehand for all our collective sakes. Also, remember (or know) that we have “Back to School” Night super-early this year – September 14th – so you will have ample opportunity to ask additional or deeper questions about the calendar, schedule, program, discipline, homework, curriculum, Google Classroom (hint, hint), etc., sooner than later.  You don’t have to stress about each detail by the first day of school – let’s focus on a positive, enthusiastic, ruach-filled beginning to a terrific year.  The conversation begins on the first day, it never ends.


Finding the problem is an essential part of learning – one that students miss out on when we pose the problem to them first. – Ewan McIntosh

The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer. – Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM

You might think from the above quotes that I am going to launch into an educational conversation about teachers and students and learning.  And perhaps in a future blog post I will – there is much wisdom to apply to shifting paradigms, flipping classrooms, student-centering and passion-driving in our classrooms.  But in this year of change, I actually want to zoom out a bit and ask us to consider how creating a healthy culture of “problem finding” will ensure we engage in the right kinds of conversations to move our school forward into its next phase of growth, innovation and renewal.

I have spent much of the last few weeks meeting with teachers, parents, board members, rabbis, donors, Jewish community colleagues, volunteers and just folks who care enough to share an opinion (which I genuinely appreciate).  Those conversations often feel (to me) like the process of pulling back the leaves of a never-ending onion (which kinda sounds delicious).  One layer takes us to another as we peel away initiatives, programs, schedules, budgets, and eventually assumptions just trying to figure out what that layer was originally put into achieve.  In other words, we frequently seem to be offering a chain of solutions in search of the right problem.

Let me try to walk through one relatively benign example that impacts such a small number of our students, you may not even be aware it exists…

We offer a pull-out, one-period-a-week, mixed grade (3-6), “Special Interest Learning” (SIL) class for “gifted learners”.  It provides them an “opportunity to be creative, innovative, (and) think critically”.  [BTW – I am not offering an opinion or making a decision about SIL.  It just lends itself to this conversation.]

How many questions does this raise?

Why one-period-a-week?  Which period?  Why those grades (in a K-5 & 6-8 school)?  What interests?  Don’t all our students deserve an opportunity to be “creative, innovative…” and to think critically?

What problem was SIL in search of solving?  What problem does it actually solve?  What problems does it unintentionally create?


Again, that is a benign example.  There are critical and more highly charged examples whose examinations are overdue.

What problem is our voluntary, middle school “Orthodox” and “Traditional Egalitarian” minyanim trying to solve?

What problem is Core and Extended Hebrew trying to solve?

What problem is Extended French trying to solve?

What problem does OJCS exist to solve?  

You get it.

As we prepare to welcome back our teachers next week (the subject of next week’s blog), I am encouraging and inviting us to find the right problems…

Let’s be brave enough to ask questions we might not know the answers to or whose answers we might not like.  Let’s be open enough to revisit our core assumptions and proud enough to assert what’s currently excellent.  Let’s have the courage to show up for difficult conversations and the vulnerability to really show up.  Let’s take risks and make mistakes.  Let’s dream boldly and work tirelessly. Let’s advocate for our children and respect our teachers.  Let’s make this the beginning of something special.

One thing I know for sure.  The future of education isn’t coming to OJCS.  It is OJCS.  Be excited.

The Transparency Files: The 2017-2018 OJCS Faculty & Hebrew Pilot Program

We are, but 19 days from the return of our amazing teachers, followed soon thereafter by our incredible families and children! Can you believe it?  Me neither!

Readers of my blog know that any blog post that comes labeled “The Transparency Files” is likely geared towards a primary stakeholder group and that it will share information, ideas, news, issues, etc., that I assume are new, newsworthy, important and potentially worthy of conversation.  If you search for prior “Transparency Files” you’ll find posts about homework policy, scheduling, behavior management, evaluations, standardized test scores, new programs, etc.  You’ll also find introductions of faculty and staff.

But before I share for the first time the full make up of the Ottawa Jewish Community School’s 2017-2018 Faculty & Staff, I want to…

…talk very briefly about “transparency” as a core value.

…introduce an exciting Core and Extended Hebrew Pilot for Grades 4 & 5.

…introduce our new teachers.

This much would normally occur over 2-3 posts, but because I have a sneaking suspicion that OJCS parents will be unusually interested in this post, I am going to pack it full and keep you (them) in suspense.

Transparency as a Core Value

As I prepare for the return of teachers and students and the full opening of my third headship, I am more sure than ever that our success as a school will be directly related to how deeply embedded “transparency” becomes as a core cultural value.  When I say “transparency” I don’t mean to imply a lack of discretion or oversharing; when I say “transparency” I mean to imply honesty, candor, open and healthy communication, trust, vulnerability and faith.  Transparency requires relationship and demands respect. Transparency raises the bar.  Transparency tears down walls and uproots silos.  Transparency lives in the classroom and in the boardroom.  Transparency forces clarity.  Transparency means you don’t only get to share the good news.  Transparency fosters humility.

I take transparency seriously because it guarantees accountability.  I believe in transparency because it engenders relationship-building. I have seen the power of transparency transform and the lack of transparency destroy.  I cannot guarantee that all my decisions or ideas will be well-liked or even the right ones.  (I can actually guarantee that they won’t be.)   I can guarantee to operate in a spirit of transparency and I invite you to join me on the journey.

Hebrew Pilot Program for Grades 4-5

Speaking of transparency…

I must admit there is a bit of chicken-egg to this one, to be honest, because it was really the next item on the list (new teachers) that allowed us the opportunity to launch this pilot.  Not that we wouldn’t have wanted to have done it anyway, but (again chicken-egg) it probably should have come as a more organic conversation about the role of Hebrew in our school and a larger conversation about revisiting our Jewish mission/vision – both incredibly important conversations that we will (transparently) begin this year. But when it dawned on us (and by “us” I mean Keren Gordon, our amazing Vice Principal and schedule-whisperer) that we might have a chance to pilot an enhancement to our Hebrew program…well…we couldn’t resist.

As OJCS families know (hopefully!), our French program goes deeper beginning in Grade Four with our “Core” students continuing to have a differentiated French language period and our “Extended” students adding on a second subject – Social Studies – with French as the language of instruction, thus providing an “extended” exposure to French.  [Please note that I am purposely not launching the significant conversation-to-come about French immersion in this blog post, but that I am not ignorant of its pressing nature.] When it comes to our Hebrew program, however, we use the same “Core” and “Extended” terms, but with different meanings (I presume not only to confuse me).  In Hebrew we have been using “core” and “extended” only to describe level, not contact time.  That’s where the pilot comes in.

With extraordinary gratitude to two of our master Hebrew Teachers, Ada Aizenberg and Rachel Kugler – both of whom gracefully and enthusiastically accepted a rather late-in-the-game adjustment to their teaching portfolios to take this pilot on – OJCS “Extended” Hebrew students in Grades 4-5 will, like “Extended” French, have one period of high-level Hebrew instruction and a second subject – Judaics – with Hebrew as the language of instruction, thus providing an “extended” exposure to Hebrew.

Does this solve Hebrew fluency at OJCS?  Nope!

Does this clarify the Jewish mission/vision of OJCS?  Nope!

Will there be unintended consequences – both good and bad?  Yup!

This is a pilot – an opportunity to try something new and to learn from it.  We absolutely think it is a step in the right direction to enhance Hebrew fluency at OJCS.  We absolutely think it will contribute to the larger conversations coming.  We are absolutely thrilled about it and hope you are too.  And if you are an OJCS parent of a child going into Grades 4-5 and have questions, concerns, feedback, etc., I look forward to those conversations most of all.

Introducing New Faculty

As of this writing, we have three new teachers joining our incredible faculty of returning teachers and I wanted to share a little bit about them so you can be as excited as we are.

Lianna Krantzberg will be joining us as our Kindergarten Educational Assistant.  Lianna has her B.A. and B.Ed. and may be a familiar face to OJCS families from her time here during her student placement or her work at Camp B’nai Brith Ottawa.  Lianna brings new energy and new ideas and we are thrilled she has chosen to launch her career at OJCS.

Shira Waldman will be joining us as our Kindergarten Judaics, Grade Four Core Hebrew, Judaics & Art, and Middle School Girls PE teacher. Shira has her B.A. and B.Ed. and may be a familiar face to OJCS families from her time working at Ganon Preschool.  Shira brings extraordinary warmth, range and creativity and we look forward to what she will add to our school.

Melissa Anders will be joining us as our Grade Six General Studies Teacher.  Melissa has her B.Ed. and an M.A. in Educational Technology and will soon be a familiar face to OJCS families.  Melissa has significant experience teaching in Jewish day schools throughout Canada.  Melissa brings a remarkable set of skills and we look forward to her contributions to our growth as a 21st century learning organization.


OK…I think that’s quite sufficient.  I don’t typically do a 1,000-word preamble, but I hope you found it informational and useful.  I have no more caveats or contextualizations.  I simply have gratitude to be working with this gifted and loving group of teachers in the sacred work of educating our children.  Without further adieu…

The 2017-2018 OJCS Faculty & Staff


  • Ann-Lynn Rapoport – General Studies
  • Shira Waldman – Hebrew and Judaics
  • Marlène Colbourne – French Studies and Physical Education
  • Bethany Goldstein – Music
  • Lianna Krantzberg – Kindergarten Educational Assistant

Grade One

  • Ann-Lynn Rapoport – General Studies
  • Ada Aidenberg – Hebrew and Judaics
  • Marlène Colbourne – French Studies, Physical Education and Art
  • Bethany Goldstein – Music

Grade Two

  • Janet Darwish – General Studies
  • Bethany Goldstein – Hebrew, Judaic Studies, Art and Music
  • Marlène Colbourne – French Studies and Art
  • Linda Signer – Science and Physical Education

Grade Three

  • Julie Bennett – General Studies
  • Rachel Kugler – Hebrew, Judaic Studies and Art
  • Aaron Polowin – French Studies
  • Brian Kom – Physical Education
  • Bethany Goldstein – Music

Grade Four

  • Chelsea Cleveland – General Studies
  • Shira Waldman – Core Hebrew, Core Judaics and Art
  • Ada Aizenberg – Extended Hebrew and Extended Judaics
  • Stacy Sargeant –Core French
  • Aaron Polowin – Extended French and Études Sociales
  • Brian Kom – Physical Education
  • Bethany Goldstein – Music                                

Grade Five

  • Deanna Bertrend – General Studies
  • Ruth Lebovich – Core Hebrew
  • Rabbi David Rotenberg – Core Judaic Studies
  • Rachel Kugler – Extended Hebrew and Extended Judaics
  • Aaron Polowin – Core French and Physical Education
  • Stéphane Cinanni – Extended French and Études Sociales
  • Ruth Lebovich – Art
  • Josh Ray – Music

Grade Six

  • Melissa Anders – General Studies
  • Noga Reiss – Core Hebrew
  • Ruthie Lebovich – Extended Hebrew and Art
  • Rabbi David Rotenberg – Judaics
  • Aaron Polowin – Core French
  • Stéphane Cinanni – Extended French and Études Sociales
  • Stacy Sargeant – Leadership Program
  • Shira Waldman – Girls’ Physical Education
  • Josh Ray – Boys’ Physical Education and Music

Grade 7

  • Deanna Bertrend – English and Social Studies
  • Josh Ray – Math, Science, Boys’ Physical Education and Music
  • Stacy Sargeant – Core French
  • Stéphane Cinanni – Extended French and Études Sociales
  • Noga Reiss – Core Hebrew
  • Ruth Lebovich – Extended Hebrew and Art
  • Rabbi David Rotenberg – Judaics
  • Shira Waldman – Girls Physical Education

Grade 8

  • Stacy Sargeant – English, Core French and Social Studies
  • Josh Ray – Math, Science, Boys’ Physical Education and Music
  • Ruth Lebovich – Core Hebrew and Art
  • Noga Reiss – Extended Hebrew
  • Rabbi David Rotenberg – Judaics
  • Stéphane Cinanni – Extended French and Études Sociales
  • Shira Waldman – Girls’ Physical Education


  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Deanna Bertrend – Student Life Facilitator
  • Stacy Sargeant – Special Education Advisor
  • Rabbi Howard Finkelstein – Dean of Judaic Studies
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Keren Gordon – Vice-Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

Here’s a super-secret sneak peak at our summer preparations for those of you who had the stamina to scroll…

See you soon!

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.

People of the Book (Club)

There’s always a flurry of excitement – particularly in the bibliophilic circles of Jewish education – when the next book that we are supposed to read comes out.  I’m as guilty as anyone else.  Exhibit A: Screenshot_8_28_15__8_46_AM

We are usually not content to just be excited about our books, we want a way to demonstrate that excitement and be part of a community equally excited.  There are lots of ways that folk do that.  Exhibit B: If you glance down to the bottom, righthand corner of this blog, for example, I am happy to share with you my Shelfari so you, too, can know what I am reading and maybe you might find a book you would enjoy as well.

Your_ShelfWhen I go to conferences or other professional development experiences, what notes I do take wind up being lists of books and blogs that I hope to read if I have been inspired by the the learning.  I look to my mentors, my colleagues, my social media, and my listservs to see what they are reading so I can read it too.

If you are reading this blog, the odds are pretty decent you engage in similar behavior and have a stack of books (physical, virtual, or both) awaiting your attention.

But let’s say, through some miracle confluence of work efficiency, family harmony and unicorn dust, that you actually find the time to read that blog, article, journal, or book.

What then?

The question I am interested in exploring is, how do we take what we read professionally and apply it to our practice?

I am confident that what you consider your “practice” changes the question.  How a classroom teacher applies his professional reading to practice will be different than how a head of school applies her professional reading to practice.  Recognizing the great variability in what people read and their job descriptions, I want to lay out a few ways that people try to get from here to there.

The Book Club

Whether the chardonnay-sipping-the-book-is-simply-an-excuse-to-get-the-gang-together or the annotated-notes-outside-facilitated type, whether in person or virtual, one tried and true way to translate theory to practice is to form, lead or participate in some kind of “book club”.  I have (and still am) been in them all.  I have required teachers to be in them with formal protocols for participation.  I have been in voluntary ones with folk across the wide world.  The efficacy of the book club experience is entirely dependent, in my experience, on the expectation of a deliverable.

I think “book clubs” are tremendously motivating for people and have the highest odds of getting people to “read the book”.  But then what?  Are there expectations for the reading? Are there questions to answer?  Applications to work expected?

Collaborative Note-Taking

There are lots of way that folk do this presently.  Anything from Evernote to GoogleDocs to TwitterChats (and a million more too many to list) all represent opportunities to share notes about a reading experience with lots and lots of people.  What you lose in intimacy might be gained in having a permanent record easily organized.  What you lose in motivation might be gained in the forced reflection of putting pen to paper (or more realistically keystroke to screen).  Ease of annotation via ebooks makes collaborative note-taking simpler than ever…

…with the caveat that the odds are the only time you have to read is on Shabbat and holidays which render ebooks problematic for many of us.

The Book “Report”

Here, I mean simply that there is an expectation of applied practice which is shared. There are tons of examples to choose from.  I have seen schools where teachers are expected to present at faculty meetings about the impact of their professional reading.  These presentations can range from the least formal (speed-geeking, think-pair-share, etc.) to super formal (PowerPoint, Prezi, etc.) with lots of room for creativity (mini TED-style talks, hatzatahetc.) in between.  This is the most labor-intensive, but likely forces theory into practice most effectively.

As we collectively finish welcoming the rest of schools back to session in the weeks ahead, as life conspires against our best intentions with regard to professional reading, here’s hoping your stack of books is not simply consumed, but impactful.  I look forward to learning with you and from you in the year to come.

First glass of wine is on me.

The Musical Chairs of Greener Grass: The JDS HOS Search Process


I came across this comic strip last week while I was busy with one of my new tasks – coaching candidates and schools through the head of school (HOS) search process.  As I have been deepening my engagement with candidates, search committee chairs and executive recruiters, a number of thoughts have occurred to me and I thought since this is (still) the season, they were worth sharing out for feedback and discussion.

The Most Inexact of Sciences

Up until this year, my experience with the JDS HOS search process was exclusively as a candidate.  Over the course of my career, I have applied for a variety of positions.  I applied for RAVSAK schools; I applied for Schechter schools.  I applied at large schools; I applied at small schools.  I applied to schools that used a variety of executive search firms; I applied to schools that ran their search processes in-house.  I was a finalist for some positions and I never made it past the initial screening call for others.  In the end, I felt blessed when offered jobs and I felt disappointed when not offered other ones.

What was most consistent across these search experiences was the incredible inconsistency.  Everything was very different from school to school, without any discerning pattern.  Schools asked that I teach students and/or parents and/or teachers and/or no one.  At different times I was asked to prepare…

  • divrei Torah for faculty.
  • …PowerPoint presentations for the board.
  • possible marketing plans.
  • possible development plans.
  • analyses of the current school based on supporting documents.
  • analyses of the current school without supporting documents.
  • inspirational speeches about my vision of education.
  • etc.

In deference to time and space limitations, I will refrain from detailing further variances in everything from which stakeholder groups I did and did not meet with, how long I did or did not visit, and the ways in which I was and was not treated.  Suffice it to say that there was an extraordinary degree of difference between one school’s search process and another.

Looking at it now, I can see that on the one hand it makes sense and is actually helpful. Each school is different and experiencing different approaches to the search process can help the candidate discern a cultural fit.  Plus, the experienced and/or coached candidate knows what questions to ask and which people to see so as to ensure they have the information they need to make an informed decision.

On the other hand it, looking at it from a 20,000 foot perspective, shouldn’t a process as critical to school success as identifying the “best-fit leader” should have some data-driven standardization to increase the odds?  [I am not sure it is a financial issue.  Some of the most thorough and affirming (even if I didn’t get the job) processes I went through were at small schools who handled their searches in-house.]

All It Takes Is One (Human) Mistake

One theme that runs through all my experiences and conversations is the impression that it can actually all come down to one ill-timed smirk, one distracted conversation with an unknown influencer, or one offhand comment to a sensitive stakeholder.

Once, I came down with a pretty bad head cold the day before I was to fly out for a finalist visit and had to decide whether to gut it out or to reschedule.  I opted to stock up on over the counter meds and go for it.  The air pressure on the plane took out my hearing for the entire finalist visit!  Even though I felt lousy, I thought I had done well.  When I was informed that I had not gotten the job, part of the feedback I received was that there people who had felt that I had spoken so loudly [because I couldn’t hear myself speak!] that it raised concern that parents and teachers would think that I was an angry person.

Now was that the (only) reason why I didn’t get the job?  Who knows?  I would like to think not, but like so many candidates before me, those are the types of stories that stick with you as you go through the rounds.

The Missing Peace

Now that I am working with the schools as well as the candidates, I have noticed another phenomenon.  Schools often search for a new leader to fill the missing 30% of the prior leader.  If you read the job descriptions for most HOS positions, you will see a list of attributes, skills and experiences that I cannot imagine any one human being possessing.  Let’s say the best of candidates might have about 70% of the complete set.  In large schools, you can try to complement the remaining 30% by rounding out the administrative team.  In small schools, you can try to complement by using lay leadership and volunteers, but that tends to be a riskier proposition.

This may be one reason there is both a crisis in small schools and in HOS wellness.

The pressure to be everything to everyone can be extremely challenging for the leader, no matter how much coaching s/he receives.

The temptation to seek what’s missing in the next leader can lead a school back and forth and back again trying to continually fill a gap that can never fully be filled.

Grass is Greener

To be fair this happens on both ends.  Let’s say any headship has about 70% of all the things one could hope and dream for in a position – salary, lay support, faculty excellence, fundraising capacity, etc.  In a world of scarcity, one can also be tempted to seek that which is missing in your current headship, thereby perpetuating a search for something that doesn’t exist.

There is no perfect school and there are no perfect heads.


To be clear, I have certainly moved from position to position for the purpose of furthering my career.  And schools have every right to expect the best from their heads and to seek new leadership if and when they feel new leadership is called for.  At the level of the individual leader or school, it all seems fairly straightforward.

And yet…

I do wonder at what cost to the field this elaborate game of musical chairs is taking?  If the average length of tenure for a head of school (2.7 years) is less than that of a successful change of school culture (3-5 years)…

…well at some point in every person’s career and in each school’s search, the music will stop and there won’t be a seat left in the game.

Who wins then?

Reflections on the Census: Size Matters

1871-schoolhouse-626265-mSmallness is embedded in the Jewish day school world, the inevitable consequence of geographic and denominational diversity.  For each of the four censuses, approximately 40% of day schools have less than 100 students.  Smallness is self-perpetuating because a small school has a limited curriculum and limited facilities, and this feeds the perception in homes of marginal religiosity that it is preferable to send their children to public school that are tuition-free and have a substantially wider range of educational offerings and extracurricular activities.

– Marvin Schick, A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States – 2013-14 (The Avi Chai Foundation, 2014)

There were very few surprises (in my opinion) to what came out this week in the census of Jewish day schools.  That doesn’t render the situation any less sober, however.  The data from the census matches with our (Schechter’s) data with regard to small schools.  We can spend hours and hours debating the merits of varying affiliations for small, non-Orthodox Jewish day schools.  (In fact, we have!)  But in some ways the truth is both more simple and more challenging: Large schools in large Jewish communities are doing well.  Small schools in small Jewish communities are struggling.

That’s the story.

I know this firsthand having been a head of two small (let’s redefine “small” here to being less than 150 students, in which case, the percentage climbs well over 50%) Jewish day schools.  I know the challenges, the frustrations, and – sometimes – the successes.  In small schools, you sometimes feel like Sisyphus, but now with two conjoined boulders of “enrollment” and “fundraising” that you keep trying push up that hill – with a razor-thin margin of error that larger schools just can’t understand.

I remember my first or second summer in Jacksonville when, due to the economy, we had three families move out of town.  Three families.  Not a big deal right?  Well, those three families paid full tuition on their 11 children.  Do you know how big a hit to enrollment and budget 11 full-pay students is in a school of 130?  To live and die on each child, on each donation, on each Federation campaign, on each Federation allocation meeting, that’s life in a small school.  To be doing well by percentage (of Jewish families from the community enrolled, of parents contributing to the annual campaign, etc.), but being on the brink by reality (it costs a lot of money to run a good school), that’s life in a small community.

I know this firsthand, now, as the head of a network with a preponderance of smaller schools.  I receive the requests for support.  I see the impact on the dedicated professionals and committed parents.  I hear the stories of triumph and despair.  I feel the joy of intimate Kabbalat Shabbat and the power of community small schools provide.  I meet the families whose lives have forever changed through their participation in the Jewish life of small schools.  I meet the families whose lives have forever changed by the closure of their small school.

The economics of the ecosystem in the Jewish day school world at present create a situation where the resources available to help schools are too cost prohibitive to make available to the exact schools who need them the most.  And so schools who are doing well are provided with a path towards doing even better…and schools who are struggling are kept on a path towards a destination unknown.

It isn’t for lack of effort, by the way.  In the same way that it just costs a lot of money to run a “good” school…it costs a lot of money to provide schools with “good” resources.  I see this every day.  We do not lack the knowhow (or more accurately, we do possess some knowhow) or the desire.  We do lack the means.  The foundations can only fund so much, the networks can only fund so much, the program providers can only charge so little, and the schools only have what they have to contribute.

It can feel at times like we are chasing our tails while our schools sit by and struggle to make do with less and less.

We can do better.

We have to do better because the future of our schools and with them, our people, depends on it.

What will it take?

A vision based by research and funding unlike that which we have ever produced would be a good beginning.

We don’t lack for vision.  Or visions.  And there has been some (a little) research.  But in many ways we continue to operate on faith.  Here is how I expressed it as the head of small school back in 2011:

With increased competition from Hebrew charter schools, independent schools, and suburban public schools AND a perilous economy – we have to brand Jewish day schools as being the kind of school most likely to provide a high-quality learning experience – that we are the future of SECULAR education because we are JEWISH.

Totally flips the script on prospective parents. “Too Jewish?”  No such thing.  Parents looking for excellence in secular education should be more concerned with “Jewish enough?”

To be financially sustainable really only requires two consistent streams of revenue: tuition and fundraising.  You can only increase tuition revenue by adding students. You can only add students if you have a great product.  And I absolutely believe this to be the case.  But as a philosophical concept, it doesn’t really help.  Because all I’ve done is suggest that if you want your school to be really successful it should be a really good school.

You don’t need me to point that out.

No you don’t.

If you don’t believe there is an answer it is hard to keep going.  Fear comes often from a place where you feel you have no control.  If I can just do the right thing, the right result will follow.  If I just make my school good enough, people will come and donors will give.

Won’t they?

How do you know?

What if they don’t?

What if we have great schools and people still don’t want to come?  What if the permanent costs for sustaining excellent small Jewish day schools cannot be supported by the communities who need them most?

This is an issue beyond network and beyond politics.  This will require all the collective wisdom and capital that can be mustered.  This is why Schechter is working so hard to specifically meet the needs of small schools.  This is why I am so pleased to see this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference theme of “Systems Intelligence” and why I am thrilled that the NAJDSC will have sessions that explicitly focus on meeting the needs of small schools.  This is why I am so pleased to work with such great colleagues at other networks, foundations, agencies and organizations who are equally committed to getting it right.  This is why I have optimism despite the data.

We are committed to working together with our colleagues at other networks and with funders to address the needs of our small schools.  In order to be a system not of “have’s” and “have-not’s”, but of “have’s” and “soon-to-have’s”, we are going to need all the intelligence that’s available.

Let’s get to work.

A Sukkah for Orly

[This was originally published on September 18th, 2013.  In honor of Esther Ohayon’s first yahrtzeit, I am republishing with an update on Orly’s progress and important information about how you can support the family and continue to keep Esther’s memory alive.  If you are inspired…please give.]


esther ohayon-1By now it is likely that you have heard, read or seen the news of the traffic accident that took the life of our beloved DuBow Preschool Teacher Esther Ohayon and placed her daughter, Orly, an MJGDS graduate, into stable, but critical condition as they attempted to simply walk to attend Kol Nidre services at Etz Chaim Synagogue last Friday evening. There are no words to describe the loss of a teacher as sweet and beloved as Miss Esther and a world where a child as kind and loving as Orly must endure such tragedy. The shock has not yet worn off and the sorrow is only beginning…

By now Esther’s body has been returned to Israel for burial and Orly remains hospitalized with a long convalescence ahead.  For those in our local community, we will share information about possible memorial services once they are decided and, for now, despite the multitude of fundraising vehicles that have been created to support Orly and her family, we are honoring Etz Chaim’s Rabbi Fisch’s request that those looking to help make their donations directly to his discretionary fund.  (You may contact Etz Chaim directly for more information.)

Teachers, parents and children returned to school on Monday and we summoned the courage to comfort when appropriate, to shelter when necessary, and to love with ferocity. Our faculty met with Jacksonville Jewish Center Senior Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner for the purpose of providing information, planning communication for parents and especially children, counseling the bereft and to take a moment as a faculty to mourn the loss of a colleague and a friend.  Clergy and social workers have been available to meet with parents and students in the Preschool and the Day School to offer counseling and to answer any questions.

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Miss Esther was my younger daughter Maytal’s teacher a couple of years back and Orly was in my first graduating class.

My initial message to families ended like this:

I wish there was something more hopeful, more encouraging I could add to lessen the blow, but I, too, am both at a loss and feel the loss.  It is in such times as this, that I feel blessed to work and live in a community such as ours. The collective strength and love it possesses will be relied upon by us all as we do only what we can – to ensure Esther’s memory everlasting, to pray for Orly’s recovery, and to finally learn the lesson of life’s fragility and ensure we treat each day as if it could be our last.

And it is in the spirit of wishing I had something more hopeful to add and in the spirit of recognizing life’s fragility that I am moved to share what our students are doing today – on a rainy afternoon headed into what is supposed to be the joyous holiday of Sukkot.

The sukkah itself is a symbol of life’s fragility.  We are commanded to dwell in these temporary structures as a physical reminder of that fact.  As frustrating as it can be to deal with rain and wind while trying to enjoy meals on Sukkot, I actually appreciate the tangible opportunity to remind my children, and myself, that we are at the mercy of a life unpredictable.  To remind ourselves that there are those less fortunate for whom a sukkah would be a step up.  To remind ourselves that when we return to our homes and our lives when the holiday concludes, there are many who cannot and do not.

And so I cannot imagine a more fitting symbol than the sukkah as I think about Orly Ohayon.  No one knows more about life’s fragility than she.  And as we return to our normal lives after Sukkot, Orly upon recovery will never know normal again.

As hard as it is to find something hopeful in a situation such as this, I must share that as a principal I am inspired by an act of lovingkindness that the Middle School of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School is performing today.  Recognizing that holidays come whether we feel like celebrating them or not and recognizing that those staying in the hospital with Orly would be without, our students, under the leadership of our Middle School Vice Principal Edith Horovitz and with the additional help of students from Torah Academy (housed at Etz Chaim Synagogue), are on their way to the hospital to build a sukkah for Orly.  And even though she will be in no condition to dwell in it, it is in her honor and the honor of her mother’s memory that it is being built.

Esther Ohayon was a teacher of young children.  She loved, nurtured and protected them. She was their sukkah.  And so we will build a sukkah in her memory so that, in some small way, she can continue to love, nurture and protect those who now care for her own child.

This is what it means to be a true community of kindness.  This is what is means to be a true community.  This is what happens when students grow up in a school where learning about things is not sufficient.  This is why we do weekly mitzvah trips.  Learning must lead to action.  Learning must inspire us to make the world a better place.  Learning must make a difference in the lives of others.

So on a rainy Wednesday in Jacksonville, Florida, we will build a sukkah for Orly that she will never dwell in.  But by doing so we will honor the memory of Esther and demonstrate our love for Orly.  I pray this Sukkot that even as our joy is tinged with sadness, that we take the time to celebrate this happiest of holidays with loved ones and friends and as a result of a tragedy unfathomable, to finally learn the lessons of life’s fragility.

Chag sameach.


October 7, 2014 – Update

As I was getting ready to walk to synagogue this past Erev Yom Kippur, I was thinking about Esther and Orly and revisited this blog post.  It struck me how easy it is to be motivated in the moment, when the emotions are fresh, and how hard it is to stay motivated when the moment passes, and we – the lucky ones – return to workaday concerns.  So when the holiday ended, I reached out to Edith Horovitz, the Middle School Vice Principal of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, where Orly graduated from and to Shereen Canady, the Director of the DuBow Preschool, where Esther worked, to see how Orly is doing, how the family is doing, and most importantly, what we can keep doing.

From Edith Horovitz:

Orly is looking great!  She is here with her sister for her senior year of High School.  All of the schools dedicated all tzedaka on Friday in Esther’s memory.  The Day School collected over $300.

From Shereen Canady:

I saw Orly and Ilana recently and both look well.  Ilana will be here a couple more weeks and then will go back to Israel. Orly’s other sister, Simi will be coming mid-October to stay for a while with her.

We dedicated our preschool Shabbat in memory of Esther last Friday.  Rabbi Lubliner spoke about her and joined us.
All 3 schools collected tzedakah and we collected over $600. 

Chabad had a nice event planned in Esther’s memory.  The Megah Challah Bake was well attended by women from Chabad, the JJC and Etz Chaim.  We advertised it to our folks and several of our moms and some teachers attended.

By the way, Orly’s birthday is Oct. 13.

I was pleased to hear the news and look forward to more updates as time goes on.  But now I would suggest that as Esther was always there for her students, her colleagues, and her family, let’s continue to be there for hers…now and forever.

In honor of Esther’s memory, in celebration of Esther’s life, in support of Orly’s journey, in the spirit of community, let’s join our schoolchildren in the act of giving tzedakah.  

Please contact Shereen Canady (scanaday@dubowpreschool.org) if you are interested in making a donation or contribution.