Leaning Into Forgiveness 5781

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

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

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

Students

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

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

Teachers

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

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

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

Parents

I am a parent.

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

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

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

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

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

G’mar chatimah tovah.

Leaning Into Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

A confession.

I am painfully shy.

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

I want to be more curious.

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

So during this time of introspection, let me take this opportunity not only to ask forgiveness in general for anything I have done – purposely or unknowingly – to cause offense or upset during the last year, but let me specifically apologize for any moment in which I didn’t convey my interest or concern in you.  If you left an interaction with me not feeling heard, I am sorry.  If we had a conversation and I didn’t seem as invested in learning more about you than I was in talking about myself, I am sorry.  If you were looking to make a genuine connection and I appeared disinterested, I am sorry.  To say, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” in this case is both trite and true.

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

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

G’mar chatimah tovah.