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 ( if you are interested in making a donation or contribution.