Mentor in a Speedo

I have seen a lot of tweets, likes, and comments to this March 30th NY Times op-ed article, “What I Learned at School” by Marie Myung-OK Lee.  In light of the heated national conversation about education and teachers currently taking place – those of us who care about education feel compelled to make the case in a variety of ways.  The most personal way is to share stories.  Sharing stories is amongst the most unique and special things human beings have to offer each other and the world.  I was asked this week to share a story about a day school teacher who touched my life…which I cannot do because I am not a product of the day school world.  [See my prior blog posts here and here for a more intimate look at my Jewish upbringing.  See here for my thoughts on current events.]  But I have been deeply influenced a particular mentor in the field of Jewish education and I thought in the spirit of the moment, I would write about that relationship.

[As a side experiment, I have looked up my mentor on Google, but have not contacted him in at least five years or more.  I’ll be curious to see if this blog post finds him…and even more curious if he appreciates the portrait I have painted!  In the spirit of transparency, I’m taking risks and naming names!  If I hear anything, I’ll update the post.]

[As an aside to the side experiment, I am going to forgo blogging convention and not muddle the portrait with a zillion links to the websites of all the organizations I am about to shamelessly namedrop.  They can all be researched should you wish to know more.]

[As a postscript to the aside to the side experiment, I’ll return next week with some thoughts about adventures in standardized testing and getting ready for Passover…probably not in the same post.]


I have many fond memories of my foremost professional mentor, Dr. David Ackerman, but unfortunately the one that leaps out is the image of him sporting a Speedo at the pool or on the beach during the two and a half weeks we traveled together in Israel during the summer of 1998.  At the time, I was the Director of Teen Programs for the Bureau of Jewish Education-Greater Los Angeles, and as such responsible for the BJE-LA Ulpan Summer-in-Israel program.  Dr. Ackerman was my immediate supervisor at the Bureau – a relationship that had already repeated itself in a remarkable variety of work and educational settings over just three years.

My first memory of Dr. Ackerman was on my tour of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where I was applying for a Masters in Education.  Truthfully, I was really only there because I was already in town applying for the same degree at Hebrew Union College (HUC).  Not to repeat myself and to make an exceedingly long story as short as I can, I had been raised in the Reform community of Fremont – a suburban town in the East Bay of Northern California.  My parents were (and are) committed liberal Jews who prided themselves on synagogue affiliation, attendance and participating, but found ritual practice largely unnecessary.  I followed in their footsteps as an active member of our NFTY chapter, avid Reform summer camp attendee, and then as I moved into college, Reform summer camp staff person.  During my senior year at UC Berkeley, I decided that I enjoyed engaging in Jewish activities not only during the summer and that perhaps it would be a fulfilling career indeed to become a Jewish professional.  After a wilderness year, I decided that Jewish Education was the career for me, and then began to think about graduate school.  Hebrew Union College was the logical destination as the Reform movement’s graduate school, so application and interviews for HUC-LA were made.  It was only as an afterthought that I decided to visit LA’s other Jewish seminary, the University of Judaism which was more closely aligned with Conservative Judaism.

And so, straight out of mid-90’s liberal Northern California, I arrived on the campus of the University of Judaism.  I went small “c” conservative by wearing actual pants, putting my long hair back into a ponytail, and opting for studs instead of hoops in my multi-pierced ears.  I had only been paying mild attention to events until it was time for my one-on-one with Dr. David Ackerman.  He was in his first year as the Dean of the UJ’s Fingerhut School of Education at the time and what struck me most in our first meeting and has stayed with me ever since is his incredible capacity for inflicting calm.  His demeanor is almost always mild-mannered and unassuming.  I would learn later as colleagues that there is a degree calculation in his affect, but that came later.  In his calm way, in the course of a thirty-minute meeting, he convinced me to leave my comfortable Reform surroundings behind and embrace the risk, challenge, and excitement of living and learning a completely different way of being Jewish.

Over the next five years, Dr. Ackerman was there to mentor me academically, personally, and professionally.  I was the only student in my class to have Dr. Ackerman as his or her student teaching advisor.  I was placed in the school he had most recently run before assuming the deanship.  As I struggled to fit in at the UJ, he was there to smooth out my many, many rough edges.  He used to regale us with stories of crazy students and out of control parents from his former professional life and again and again impressed upon us the need for maintaining outward calm in the face of all sorts of chaos.

We were the only class that Dr. Ackerman recruited and graduated in his too-brief time at the UJ.  Fortunately, for me, upon leaving the UJ, Dr. Ackerman took a position at the BJE in LA and promptly hired me in my first full-time position in the field.  And that is how I found myself amused to see my mentor strutting on the beach in Tel Aviv in a Speedo.  It is also how I got new insights as to how he really thought and worked.  I got to see moments of candor, episodes of anger, and the occasional profane word or story.  They were all object lessons that I would try to bring into my own work in the field.

Time went on and I eventually left the BJE to move to New York and began the career that led me here to Jacksonville, with five wonderful years in Las Vegas sandwiched between.  Occasionally during my time in New York, I would check in with Dr. Ackerman – David, I guess by now, for advice on this issue or the other.  He helped me decide on my next educational step and even provided thoughts on possible dissertation topics.  If I ever write a book, he is sure to get a shout-out on the dedication page.

We have very different personalities to be sure.  But whenever in my career I am confronted with a difficult parent or a challenging student or concern over enrollment bubbles up or when board members worry over lack of fundraising (none of which, of course, happen here!), there is a piece of Dr. David Ackerman instilled in me that allows me to channel an outward calm that would otherwise not be there.  It doesn’t always come through and it doesn’t always work, but when it does, I think about him and silently thank him.  And hope he has moved on to more appropriate swimwear.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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