Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter

Not once in my career have I had the pleasure of welcoming children into school in Kindergarten, watching them grow and mature, creating lasting and meaningful relationships, and then graduating them while shepping naches at what and who they have become.

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  In those 23 years of full-time work, I spent three years at the BJE-LA, three years at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, two years at Sutton Place Synagogue, five years at the Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas (SSDS-LV), four years at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), two years at the Schechter Day School Network, one year at Prizmah and I am in my fourth year here at OJCS.

Notice any trends?

I believe deeply in the human need to make meaning through stories and narratives and, thus, have always framed my career (and life) in terms of the chapters I have been able to co-author in the places I have been lucky enough lead.  These chapters have had differing lengths and different degrees of consequence, and those two things are not always so aligned.  I was the founding head of the SSDS-LV (z”l).  That was pretty significant for both me and the school.  My time at MJGDS was an extraordinary time of innovation and change -again both for me and the school.  I was the first – and last – director of an independent Schechter Day School Network (also z”l).  I was part of an amazing team of colleagues who helped birth Prizmah.  The work we are presently doing at OJCS in my first chapter here has been well-chronicled in this blog and thanks to an extraordinary team has exceeded all expectations.

The last time I wrote a “life transition” post, I had described my career as a series of “happy accidents” and I still stand by it, at least broadly speaking.  There is a lot of luck that goes into building a career.  There is also a lot of risk.  I have been fortunate that throughout most of my career, the choices have been mine to make and that when choices needed to be made, wonderful choices were available to choose.  That isn’t always true in this profession and timing is everything.  But to describe my career as a series of “accidents” is also a bit of a dodge.  It absolves me of the choices that I did in fact make along the way and the impact of those choices on the schools/organizations and communities that I left behind, not to mention on my wife and children.

This career didn’t just happen to me.  I largely made it happen and I am responsible for all the good, all the regret, all the accomplishments, all the unmet and unfulfilled expectations, all the extraordinary relationships, all the hurt feelings, and so on.  And that’s just the professional impact.  My children have had to move schools and start over more than once.  My wife has had to reestablish herself in school after school, and here in Ottawa to reinvent herself altogether.

Why have I never stayed long enough to write even a second chapter?

Ego, ambition and wanderlust.

There is value in having an ego and ambition.  They drive you towards achievement and success.  They require you to learn lots and to work hard.  And to be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone – including myself – for having ambition.  When success begets success and that next bigger or more complex opportunity arises, there is nothing wrong with going for it.  However, ego and ambition can also be dangerous, especially when they become ends and not means.  If you are constantly looking towards the next shiny thing, it makes it really hard to appreciate and enjoy what you presently have.  Ego also cuts both way.  It is not a sign of stable ego if you are easily seduced by every new opportunity; it is the opposite.  It is a fragile ego that needs to feel important and who reduces success to simple metrics (How big is the school?  How prominent?  How large the salary?).  It is also a sign of a fragile ego to put your professional ambition ahead of your family’s quality of life.  I have been that guy.  I have chased the ring.  I have picked up the phone.  I have asked my family to sacrifice their peace of mind on the altar of my ambition.

I am also someone who is attracted to the unique challenges of the start-up or the fixer-up, which also explains my career trajectory.  I have only really ever worked in places that were starting up or starting over.  I thrive in bringing order to chaos.  I do less well when order starts to take shape.  The simple truth is that I love to write first chapters.  That’s where a lot of the action takes place and the stories start to take shape.

But I am not the person I was five, ten and fifteen years ago.  What matters to me most and the kind of stories I want to write have (finally) evolved.  And so today, I am thrilled to share with you that after having worked with my board these last few months, that we have chosen here – the Ottawa Jewish Community School, the Ottawa Jewish Community and Ottawa itself – to finally write that second chapter.  For reasons related to my housing situation – and because round numbers are awesome – we will be tearing up the fifth and final year of my current contract and will replace it with a new contract that will keep us here at least five more years.

Why now and why here?

I can give all kinds of personal and family reasons.  My wife and children deserve some stability after 7 moves in 20 years.  My daughters deserve an opportunity to go through adolescence without the added stress of reinvention.  We believe that Ottawa (and Canada) is an ideal place to raise teenage girls in what is already a complicated and sometimes dangerous world.  We have found a neighborhood and support system that facilitates our observant Jewish lifestyle.  We think it will be wonderful for our children (and us) to eventually become dual citizens and for our children to have all the added opportunities (affordable and excellent universities!) that come with it.  We are still just beginning to get to know this city, province and country, but from what we have experienced thus far we feel comfortable and safe and happy here.  For those reasons alone, why wouldn’t we want to stay?

But please don’t think that I am simply settling.  Just because there are compelling personal reasons to stay doesn’t mean that professionally I am simply content to settle.  I may be slightly more mature, but I still carry lots of ambition.  This is not simply a personal decision; this is a business decision as well.

Professionally, I am as happy as I ever have been.  There were lots of challenges behind us and lots of challenges ahead of us (no chance of getting bored here!).  If my first chapter was about helping guide the school from a state of emergency to a state of stability, the next chapter will be about moving from stability to sustainability.  Please don’t think that my ambition about what can be true in Jewish day school has been lowered.  I still believe that Jewish day schools are/can/should be leading the educational (r)evolution and I know that OJCS is on the vanguard.  Our goal here at OJCS is to be the best school and even if we have not achieved it yet, we are definitely on our way.

I am blessed to work with a talented and growing administrative team, a gifted and dedicated teaching faculty, a strategic and nurturing board, supportive and committed donors, collaborative and creative institutional colleagues and a Jewish Federation that works hard to ensure that no one is left off the Jewish Superhighway.  Are there bigger and more prominent schools and Jewish communities?  Yes.  Are there schools with more resources?  Yes.  Does that mean that OJCS cannot become an innovative leader amongst Jewish day schools or Ottawan private schools?  Absolutely not.  The future of education is being written right here.   I am humbled to know that I will have a continuing hand in its authorship.

In the end, when faced with having to make a choice, the choice was clear.

I choose family.  I choose community.  I choose unlimited possibilities.  I choose innovation and excellence.  I choose the Jewish future.  I choose this school with these administrators and these teachers and these families and this board and these donors and these volunteers and this Jewish community.  I choose this time and this place to write a first second chapter.

I choose Ottawa.

Jewish Day Schools As Incubators of Jewish Leadership

What is “Jewish leadership”?

Does it refer to Jews who serve in leadership roles?  Is it about Jews who lead in accordance with Jewish values?

The first is common; the second is rare.

We’ve been thinking about it a lot at OJCS.   We have come to believe that Jewish day schools can serve as incubators for Jewish leadership because they have the opportunity to encourage and inspire both.

I had the privilege of addressing this topic last Shabbat when I spoke at Congregation Machzikei Hadas and it went well enough that I was encouraged to blog about it this week.

About three, four, years ago I had the opportunity to visit Donna Klein Jewish Academy  in Boca Raton, Florida and I can still recall how each time we entered a new classroom, how a student would automatically pop up, come over, introduce themselves, tell us what was happening in the class, and then offer to answer any questions we may have. Class after class after class.  No prompting from teachers.  I further noted how each teacher had a personal mission statement on the doors of each classroom.  The hallways were labeled in both Hebrew and English with each of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

That was how I was first introduced to the “7 Habits”.  I further learned how CAJE-Miami helped provide training for many of the Jewish day schools in South Florida to receive training in The Leader in Me – which helps schools bring the 7 Habits to life – and provided some Jewish value translation work to ensure they could live throughout the Jewish day school experience.  And, with some stops between then and now, that is how it came to be that OJCS began prototyping its own version of the 7 Habits this year.

I have been blogging about the details of this prototype as we have introduced each new habit (and, yes, I am actually now one behind) and in preparation for last Shabbat I came across an article from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that helped me connect some dots.  “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership” is the title and the symmetry was too good to pass up.  As a first step, I expanded upon a visual already created by CAJE-Miami and I created a visual that integrated Rabbi Sacks’ “Seven Principles” with the “7 Habits” with Jewish values. What I did conversationally, was link each of the “sevens” with Jewish text and real examples of what it looks like in a school or classroom.  In a nutshell, I tried to answer the question of what happens when a Jewish day school moves Jewish leadership from the implicit curriculum to the explicit curriculum.

Here’s a graphic organizer to help you get oriented:

You may note that all of the “sevens” are further divided along Rabbi Hillel’s famous dictum from Pirkei Avot 1:14 (again borrowed from CAJE-Miami) – the first three focus on the individual, the second three on the relationship between the individual and community, and the final on, let’s say “timing”.  So.  How about we explore what this can look like in real life and in real classrooms?

  • #1: For me, the relevant texts are the juxtaposition between the lack of responsibility taken by Adam in the Garden of Eden (the serpent made me do it!) and Cain (Am I my brother’s keeper?) and how Moshe responds when he sees a Hebrew slave being beaten or when he discovers Yitro’s daughters being harassed by shepherds.  In terms of examples, in our school being proactive and taking responsibility lives in both formal structures like Knesset (student government) and informal structures like prototyping.  Two recent examples come to mind.  A member of Knesset pitched us on letting a student co-own the school’s Instagram account to make it more student-friendly. Also, the entire Grade 4 pitched us on allowing them greater access to student blogging:

The prototyping culture we are creating encourages and incentivizes students to take responsibility, to be proactive and in the parlance of our “North Stars” to truly “own their own learning”.

  • #2: Here we look to Sefer D’varim (Book of Deuteronomy) in which during the last month of his life, Moshe sets out a vision and a set of laws to secure it.  When we think at OJCS about the future, about “beginning with the end in mind,” we want our students to learn how to envision a future for themselves and then learn how to communicate and achieve it.  We provide them with opportunities to develop these skills through a variety of student-led experiences with both high and low stakes.  We collaboratively goal-set with each student around academic and behavioral outcomes, for example, as we head down a path that will likely end in student-led conferences (replacing parent-teacher conferences).  We also provide students with opportunities to plan and run clubs such as our “Detective Club” and “Alien Club”.
  • #3: Thinking about “putting first things first” and an overall sense of timing leads me to Rabbi Tarfon who said in Mishnah Avot 2:16, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In the life of school, this resonates with all the ways we are trying to help our students navigate time management and executive functioning.  We now offer a Study Skills Elective each week.  We offer twice-weekly Study Hall.  We are looking at an Executive Functioning Boot Camp model for next year.  We are looking at tools like Google Calendar and Google Keep.  Another way we think about “putting first things first” is building on the success of our Middle School Retreat in helping create a sense of community and shared expectations for our middle schoolers each and every year.
  • #4: This next one is a little dense, but is actually one of my favorite teachings about leadership.   Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a leading theologian and philosopher from the Reform Movement, wrote an article years and years ago in which he asserted that (religious) leadership should model itself on the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum. “Tzimtzum” as described by Isaac Luria is the idea that in order to create the world, God had to contract Godself in order to make room for creation to take place.  In other words, sometimes leadership is about making space for others to lead.  These ideas are embedded in two of our North Stars – “We learn better together” & “We are each responsible one to the other” – and live in the commitment we have made to project-based learning and conflict resolution.
  • #5: The Torah teaches that a king must write his own Sefer Torah which “must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:19).  Leaders learn.  At OJCS, this lives in the North Star of “A floor, but no ceiling,” and in our emphasis on personalized learning.  This year we are prototyping “Genius Hour” projects as just one example of letting students lead with their passion and letting their passion lead to their learning.  In terms of “seeking first to understand and then be understood” we are working with JFS to provide “Kindness Workshops” to our students to help them skill-build towards active listening.
  • #6: Here I am going to quote directly from Rabbi Sacks in his article when he says, “One of Judaism’s greatest insights into leadership: The highest form of leadership is teaching.  Power begets followers.  Teaching creates leaders”.  We provide our students with lots of opportunities to learn through teaching and to learn leadership skills by “owning their learning”.  Whether it is a Grade 6 WE Day project, leading a Rosh Chodesh assembly, designing a Hebrew Escape Room or interviewing residents at Hillel Lodge, our students develop the skills to see projects through, to dream dreams, to speak publicly, and to organize.  These are all the building blocks of leadership.
  • #7: There are no shortage of examples of stressed out and overwhelmed leaders in the Bible.  Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah – just to name a few – all at some point prayed to die rather than carry on as a Jewish leader.  That is certainly an extreme example of the toll leadership can take, but we acknowledge that stress is very real for our students and families.  It is partly why one of our North Stars is “Ruach” – we have intentionally and explicitly named joy and spirit and wellness as a guiding value in our school.  Studying in school (and teaching!) is supposed to be joyful.  We do our best to provide wellness and mindfulness into the school day.  It is why we remain committed to Art, Music and PE as part of a well-rounded experience.  Students deserve to feel successful and joyful and not each student is going to find that in the traditional academic subjects. It is why we have a “Ruach Week” and a Middle School Retreat.  It is also why we are looking at advisory and guidance models.  The emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our students is important for them as human beings, and as future leaders.

We cannot take for granted that what was once true will always be true.  It has been true for generations that the leaders of Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues have come from the ranks of Jewish day schools; and flourished as a result.  If we want that to continue – if we want to secure the Jewish future – our schools will need to work to make what was once implicit, explicit.  Jewish leadership requires Jewish leaders who know how to lead – not just as Jews, but Jewish-ly.  Ken y’hi ratzon.