Pausing For Gratitude As A Chapter Begins to Close

[Reprinted by request from our final Constant Contact to Schechter stakeholders.]

Dear Friends,

The emails and updates are coming fast and furious and are coming more and more from OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANewOrg and less and less from us as the transition from what was to what will be grows closer each day.  Critical information about “Membership”, “Conference”, “Fee For Service”, “Staffing”, etc. – the stuff you really need to know in order to better understand your engagement with NewOrg next year and beyond is finally making its way to the field.  And not a moment too soon (and maybe a few moments too late) considering our earliest schools are already beginning to close for the summer.

I am incredibly proud of the work our staff and lay leaders have done over the last six months along with our colleagues from the other legacy organizations to get to this point.  There is clearly much more to do and to come.  Here at Schechter, we will continue through June pushing out information and being available to answer questions and concerns.  I will also be publishing closing blog posts where I have more space to be expansive about what I think these last three years have meant.

But now, I prefer to pause for gratitude.

Without going into the laundry list here, I will simply say that what we have accomplished together during our brief run as an independent network of amazing schools is almost inconceivable.  And it didn’t happen by accident.

It took the vision of Dr. Steven Lorch, Rabbi Jim Rogozen, Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, Dr. Susan Kardos, Rabbi Shelly Dorph and Dr. Elaine Cohen.

It took the leadership of Dara Yanowitz and our founding (and closing) Board of Trustees.

It took the wisdom and advice of our Professional Advisory Board.

It took the partnership of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Camp Ramah, USY, and the American Jewish University.

It took the generous capacity building support from the AVI CHAI Foundation and an anonymous foundation to launch us, and the programmatic support of the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Alan B.  Slifka Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah to help us soar.

It took the excellence, the openness, the hospitality, the candor and the magic of our schools.

But more than anything else?  It took the blood, sweat and tears of our staff.

Our Associate Director Ilisa Cappell, who essentially ran Schechter as “Acting Director” our first year, was the only partner I could ever have imagined going on this journey with.  I have never worked with anyone who complemented me better and who I should have complimented more.  Hiring Ilisa was the best thing I did as Executive Director.

Followed very closely by the hiring of everyone else!  Pearl Mattenson has provided us with wisdom and warmth.  No one is more aptly named than “Pearl”.  Working with her has taught me more than most of my graduate school classes.

Alisha Goodman inherited an organization with no Business Manager, HR Manager, or Development Director and she has managed to wear all those hats and more with tireless effort and dedication.  Her speed at Excel spreadsheeting is only surpassed by her wit.

Andrea Hernandez and Silvia Tolisano are probably more responsible for my career than anyone!  Our work together as school leaders forever changed my beliefs about Jewish education and to be able to continue the work together at Schechter and beyond remains a daily joy.

And of course there is Doree Greenfield who stepped into our most transitory position and very quickly mastered not only the work, but the relationships.  She has been invaluable during her tenure at Schechter.

the-futureWe don’t know exactly what or who the future will bring.  But we know what the past and present has meant.  On behalf of the staff and the board of the Schechter Day School Network, let me thank all our stakeholders one last time and to be clear that we are not saying shalom, but l’hitraot.

This is not goodbye…because we will see you later.

I Heart Israel

NormalDSC_0052I have really debated whether or not to write this for quite a while…

…similar to other issues of national or international import, I am never entirely certain whether it is an appropriate use of my small slice of the blogosphere to add to a conversation in which I bring no particular expertise and no concrete suggestions.

Is there something I can say or offer that will help address what is going on in Israel right now and how we could or should respond?  Do I have something critical to share with our schools about how to process and discuss current events?  Our schools are led by talented and bright professionals and lay leaders who in this day and age have access to a myriad of resources.  Sure, I might be aware of one or two they are not and could help by making them available, but it would be hubris to think that I have an answer to address this that they don’t or that they couldn’t easily find.  And yet…

Saying nothing at all doesn’t feel right either.  As a Jewish educator – as a Jew – I have to speak purely from the heart about Israel…

…a place that changed my life in 1988.

…a place that changed it again in 1992.

…a place that changed it once again in 1997 and 1998.

…a place that I anxiously await revisiting.

…a place that I have waited their whole lives to share with my children.

Because like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an 13736_195079166057_1485454_nextraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience. I unfortunately decided to pose in the awkward position you find me in the lower, righthand corner of this picture.  Yes, my hair is shoulder-length.  And yes, sadly, I am wearing socks with sandals.

My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.

The power of the Israel experience is real.

That’s why we visit.  That’s why we do our b’nai mitzvah there.  That’s why we have Federation and synagogue missions.  That’s why we send our Jewish day school classes.  That’s why we send our teachers.  That’s why we make aliyah.

That’s why the current situation is heartbreaking.


I have no interest injecting politics of any kind.  I have my beliefs and I am sure you do as well.  I don’t know what the answers are to safeguard our homeland, our beating heart. I’m not even sure I know the questions.  I am sure that the opportunity to experience Israel transformed me and the opportunity to provide that experience to others transformed me just as thoroughly.  To contemplate the idea that one day it could prove too unsafe to visit stirs my soul to anger.  To wonder if one day it could prove impossible shakes me to my core.

As the sun makes a slow descent and brings with it the spirit of Shabbat, I can only pray. Other days of the week lend themselves to advocacy, but not this one.  Our worship calls us to face our sacred ancestral home…may a day come when the peace of Shabbat envelopes our home, our Israel.

And may that day come without delay…

Remembering My Dad

2013-08-02 14.47.33“Yizkor?!  I don’t even know her!”

That would have been the title of this blogpost if I had any real courage.

Because there can be no reminiscence of my father of blessed memory without at least one awful pun and, although timely, that is simply awful.

If you were to come to my house (and you are certainly welcome to visit!), and ask either of my daughters for a tissue, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that they would respond, “Tissue?!  I don’t even know you!”

And up in heaven, in between an eternal binge-watch of “Law & Order” and “Hardball”, a figure in an Oakland A’s baseball cap and a T-shirt purchased in heaven’s gift shop would smile in recognition.


Although yizkor comes four times a year, for me, this one – at Yom Kippur – always feels like yizkor with a capital “Y”.  Maybe it’s because of the solemnity of the day.  Likely it’s because of its proximity to his yahrzeit (20 Av).  Regardless, this liminal week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, in addition to all the other spiritual work required to perform teshuvah, has become an annual exercise to think about my dad, his impact on my life, my own fatherhood, and my work in a field where we are often called upon to be in loco parentis.

To help me do this, I have added the following prayer written by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov from his Likutey Moharan (2:7) to my personal prayerbook:

Dear God,

teach me to embody those ideals

I would want my children

to learn from me.

Let me communicate

with my children – wisely

in ways

that will draw their hearts

to kindness, to deceny

and to true wisdom.

Dear God,

let me pass on to my children

only the good;

let them find in me

the values

and the behavior

I hope to see in them.


There are days when it feels like it happened years ago.  There are days when it feels like it never happened.  And there are days where it feels like it is happening all over again.  I am assured that this is all normal and I am sure that it is.  What have I learned over the these last two years of fatherlessness?  Well, there is nothing more clarifying than experiencing family pain.  There is nothing like watching your parents’ love to remind you to cherish the love you are lucky to have.  There is nothing like watching your parents’ vulnerability to encourage you to treasure your children.  I continue to pray that as a result of this annual unwelcome reminder of life’s fragility that I will be a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and a better educator.2015-07-13 10.54.41-2

As part of that process, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.  I look forward to working on myself to be the best “me” I can in the upcoming year.

And I hope to take the lessons of my father of blessed memory to heart as I try to follow his footsteps on the journey of my own fatherhood…

Saying L’hitraot, Not Shalom

This is the opening assembly of my first day of school at MJGDS.
This is the opening assembly of my first day of school at MJGDS.

So, I guess this is it.

Four years and 177 blog posts later, it is time for me to officially say good-bye. Or, more appropriately for a whole host of reasons – see you later.

It is “see you later” for my Jacksonville community because we will continue to be part of it – as parents, congregants, and active community members.

It is “see you later” for the blog because after a couple of weeks of transition, packing, and setting up the literal “home office”, I will be reintroducing “A Floor, But No Ceiling” and repurposing it in alignment with new my job as Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.

I cannot think of better words of farewell to offer other than those that I shared with our community during our annual L’Dor V’dor event celebration to those whose generosity allow our schools to thrive and succeed.  And so without further adieu, I bid “l’hitraot” for now…


I got the call during Maytal’s third birthday party that I was coming to Jacksonville and it was just a few weeks later that I first had the chance to address this community at a L’Dor V’Dor brunch honoring Judy Reppert for her years of service, while wearing Jack Mizrahi’s borrowed clothes as my luggage had not made it with us on the journey.  So it is only fitting that my last chance to address this special community comes again with L’Dor V’Dor.

It seems like only yesterday that Jaimee, Eliana, Maytal and I were on an airplane from Las Vegas to Jacksonville to begin this amazing experience of being part of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, the Galinsky Academy and the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  And now, four extraordinary years later, my chapter in the story of our schools is drawing to a close.

There is much to be proud of what we have accomplished together during my time here. Our day school’s almumni’s achievements astound; our volunteer’s passion is unmatched; and our faculty’s love unrivaled.  The Martin J. Gottlieb Day School’s reinvention as a leading 21st century learning institution with an international reputation for excellence is an achievement that required the vision and courage of a synagogue to found and maintain a Jewish day school in Jacksonville, Florida and the generosity of a Jewish community that continues to believe in the power of Jewish education.  And assuredly, none of it happens without the remarkable Mel and Debbie Gottlieb who help give us the tools to build and rebuild a school deserving of their beloved son Marty’s name, of blessed memory.

Two years ago we launched Galinsky Academy – in honor or the enduring spirit of selfless L’dor V’dor shown in the lives of Samuel and Esther Galinsky – and announced the naming of the DuBow Preschool, whose gift endowed to the Academy demonstrated not only the DuBow Family’s commitment to the Preschool’s future, but to all our children as it helps allow all our schools and programs to deliver on their promises and inspire our children to do and be their best.

Galinsky Academy declared our intent to provide Jewish children of all ages the highest quality education possible.  Galinsky Academy consists now of all the schools of the Jacksonville Jewish Center – the DuBow Preschool, the Bernard & Alice Selevan Religious School, the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, and our youth and high school programs. It represents our commitment that all of our children – regardless of the path their parents choose – will benefit from the finest teachers, an engaged clergy, the highest-quality curriculum, innovative informal educational experiences and the most cutting-edge technology.  Galinsky Academy simply is a Jewish learning organization like no other.

There is another reason I feel it appropriate that I am being honored as part of a L’dor V’dor event as it is only because of L’dor V’dor that we have been able to raise the bar at our schools and it is only because of the opportunity and support of this community that the Schechter Network took an interest in our school and in me.  The career path I am about to embark on simply does become available to me if I had not been blessed to wind up in this nurturing and special place.

There is so much yet to accomplish in the Martin J. Gottlieb’s and Galinsky Academy’s bright futures, but I leave with the confidence that the chapter of history that we have written together will carry our amazing schools and programs forward to the next chapters to be written in the many years to come.  As it says in the Mishnah: “Lo alecha ha’mlacha legmor…” – “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, neither are you free to exempt yourself from it.”  (Mishnah: Avot, 2.16)  I am already working closely with Rabbi Jim Rogozen during this period of transition, but knowing him and our schools as I do, I know that in his capable hands we will only go from strength to strength.

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to personally thank many of the people who have worked so hard to advise and support me.  Thank you Don Kriss, Hazzan Holzer, Rabbi Olitzky, Shereen Canady, Lois Tompkins, Gayle Bailys, Scott Zimmerman and Lori Schoettler for your collegiality, your collaboration, your guidance, your talent and for making this such an easy place to work.  Thank you Rabbi Lubliner for your mentoring and your trust.  Thank you to Mauri Mizrahi, Gaby Bubis and Alyse Nathans who have chaired our day school and academy and have guided them with strength and care.  Thank you to Michael DuBow and Fred Pozin for your engagement, wise counsel and commitment to our schools.  Thank you to all the committee chairs and committee volunteers – too many to mention – whose gifts of wisdom and wealth behind the scenes make it all possible.

Thank you to Talie Zaifert for four years of admissions excellence and friendship. Thank you to Carol Wagnon for pioneering our professionalization of development.  Thank you to Jessie Roman for being the consummate team player.  Special thank you to my executive assistant, Robyn Waring.  She is the glue that holds the place together. She puts on band-aids and puts out fires.  She’s the best.  Extra special thank you to Edith Horovitz whose energizer-bunny-spirit and remarkable rapport astound and who has been as much a teacher and a friend as she has been a remarkable Middle Vice Principal.  Thank you to my teachers and to all our teachers.  A curriculum is a piece of paper.  All the credit for our schools’ accomplishments goes to you. I am proud to have been your head of school and academy.

Thank you to all the parents and the students.  Thank you for entrusting me with your children.  The responsibility for your children’s education has been the most sacred and holy responsibility I have ever had.  I will miss terribly the daily interactions with students, parents and teachers that have defined my professional life for nearly 15 years.  But I paid my tuition and my synagogue dues on Monday…so I am ready for the carpool line and congregational life!

Please know that my commitment to the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School does not expire when my contract does!  In July, when I become the head of the Schechter Network, proud to call MJGDS one our flagship schools, I will remain inspired to do my part – with you – to carry this dream forward into the years ahead.  I am grateful to Schechter for working with me to re-imagine what leadership can look like in order to allow me to continue to live in this amazing community and to send my children to this amazing school.  I am also ready to continue my commitment to L’dor V’dor.  We continue to live in difficult economic times and we hope you will continue to be inspired – as my family is – to support this fund each and every year as a key component to sustaining the future of our schools, our children, and our community.

It is humbling to officially take my place in the chain of educators who have ensured the past and now hand off to another to secure the future.  So, thank you for giving me a second chance to interview when I blew the first one!  (True story.)  Thank you for the extraordinary lengths you have gone to make us feel welcome.  Thank you for taking care of me and of my family.  Thank you for inspiring me to be my best and for supporting me when I wasn’t.  Thank you for opening doors I never imagined possible and working with me so I could walk through them.  And above all, thank you for your unwavering commitment to Jewish education.

A night like tonight celebrates what we already know to be true – that Galinsky Academy has succeeded in becoming so much more than a place where children learn, but a place where families find community.  A chapter in our family’s story like this one confirms what Jaimee, Eliana, Maytal and I already know to be true – that the Jacksonville Jewish Center has become so much more than a place where our children go to school and I go to work, but our community…our home.

Todah rabah rabah.

Preparing to say good-bye…

[Programming Note: I regret that I need to delay my final “Transparency File” introducing the 2014-2015 MJGDS Faculty for one additional week.  We have been working hard on our budget and will need until next week to make it final.  I cannot issue contracts until that time…and so even though I do not expect much drama in the announcement, I do need to wait until teachers have signed contracts before I announce them!]


I posted this last night about an hour before Graduation.

And then I hit them up with one of these before diplomas…


I actually do not often speak with notes, but because I like to offer them some personal words, some inside jokes, some Jon-isms, I do occasionally jot them down.  Those that were there will understand the full context…those that weren’t…you might get a taste for how we do things here.  Or, I should say, how I used to do things here…

Last night really marks the beginning the of the end of my time as Head of School of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School and Head of the Galinksy Academy.  Although I will be here through June, with the last day of school with students next week and with teachers, the week after, my time is being spent winding down, trying to take it all in, and reflecting on what I have learned during my four years at this remarkable institution.

This is my 175th blog post.

I never blogged before coming here.

My blog is entitled, “A Floor, But No Ceiling” because that is what I feel our primary responsibility is to all the students entrusted to our care.  That if you place your child in our school, that we will know them better than anyone can and, thus, will have the ability to push them (with love) reach their maximum potential.  That although there has to be a floor (grade level) for each student, there should never be a ceiling on growth.  They should fly as high as their talent and drive can take them.

I hope during my four years we have lived up to that high bar…I know we have tried our very hardest.

My blog is also described as, “How one Jewish Day School Head marries 21st century learning with a 5000 year-old tradition”.  This is a reflection on my educational philosophy about Jewish day school education and probably makes up the content of the majority of my blog posts.  As we shall see in a moment, it is probably the case that I have written more towards the “21st century learning” pole than the “5,000 year-old tradition”, but it is the dialectic between them that is at the heart of my interest as an educator.

To test that theory, let’s look at a Wordle representing the 174 blog posts I have written to date:Wordle_-_Create

Not bad!  Outside of some miscellaneous words (we obviously spent a lot of time blogging about “Whack-A-Haman”!) that the algorthym picks up, this is not too far off from what I would believe is the appropriate content for a blog that has attempted to have the parents of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School as its primary audience and the larger fields of Jewish day school and education as secondary and tertiary audiences.

I am honestly not sure yet how the blog will transition when I transition.  I will have a different audience to be sure, but have not yet figured out what that means in terms of what I will be writing about.  I have a few weeks to think about it before the blog moves from this site to the Schechter Network site at which time I will reintroduce it (and me) and attempt to lay out what new shapes and directions this blog will take.

In the meanwhile, I will spend my final blog posts here continuing to reflect on my experiences and fulfilling my responsibility to communicate essential information and truths to our parents.

Thanks to all who came out to graduation last night.  It was a special evening for all. I am looking forward to our VPK “Moving Up” Ceremony at the DuBow Preschool next Tuesday and to teaching during Shavuot here at the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  I am also looking forward to honoring and saying our official good-bye to my colleague and friend Rabbi Jesse Olitzky on June 4th as part of our closing L’Dor V’Dor Donor Appreciation Event.


[Yes, I’m there too…but come to say good-bye to Rabbi O.!  We’re not going anywhere!]

Walking Through the Open Door

Jon & ElianaIt seems like only yesterday that Jaimee, Eliana, Maytal and I were on an airplane from Las Vegas to Jacksonville to begin this amazing experience of being part of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  And now, nearly four extraordinary years later, we know that my chapter in the story of our school will draw to a close at the end of this school year.

It was almost a year ago that I shared publicly that my next professional challenge was going to be the assumption of executive leadership for the Schechter Day School Network.  I wrote at the time:

Typically opportunity requires you to close one door so that you may open the next.  And sometimes, life is such that a door is closed for you and opportunity requires you to open the next.  Rarely does one have an opportunity to reach for the next open door while the current door remains (in some ways) open!  But that is the blessing the Schechter Network and the Jacksonville Jewish Center has afforded my family and we are humbled by it and grateful for it.

At this time last year, it was assumed that I would complete my contract here at MJGDS, which would carry me through the 2015-2016 school year.  I entered this year and spent most of it preparing for an additional year of transition.  But because we had the opportunity to begin the search process early, we have been blessed to find someone worth bringing in sooner than later – my friend, colleague and mentor, Rabbi Jim Rogozen!

I am filled with mixed emotions!

I am excited about pursuing my next opportunity with Schechter.  I am saddened to not finish my commitment to MJGDS.  Honestly?  I have not had very much time to process what is happening and have missed lots of opportunities to emotionally appreciate my final “this” and last “that”; my emotional transition will now be condensed to mere weeks. What I do know is that as the days begin draw down, I will find as I go about my regular routine that I will experience many moments of pride in what we have accomplished, sadness to say farewell to the many deep relationships I have formed with students, teachers, families and staff (at least in their present forms), but mostly gratitude for the opportunities we have been given here in Jacksonville…

None of this happens for me if I had not been blessed to wind up in this nurturing and special place.  My commitment to Galinsky Academy will not expire when my contract does!  In July when I become the head of the Schechter Network, proud to call MJGDS one our flagship schools, I will remain inspired to do my part – with you – to carry this dream forward into the years ahead.  Now that the transition is actually happening, I am still very grateful to Schechter for working with me to re-imagine what leadership can look like in order to allow me to continue to live in this amazing community and to send my children to this amazing school.

I will have more to say about this transition – as I walk from that one open door to the next – my reflections on my time here, and more, once I’veOpen Doors had more time to process.  There is so much yet to accomplish in the Martin J. Gottlieb’s and Galinsky Academy’s bright future, but I when I do leave, it will be with the confidence that the chapter of this school’s history that we have written together will carry this school forward to the next chapters to be written in the many years to come.  As it says in the Mishnah: “Lo alecha ha’mlacha legmor…” – “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, neither are you free to exempt yourself from it.”  (Mishnah: Avot, 2.16)  I look forward to working closely with Rabbi Rogozen during this period of transition, but knowing him and our schools as I do, I know that in his capable hands we will only go from strength to strength.

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.

1174922_10151413569977168_1156741566_n 2

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 ([email protected]) if you are interested in making a donation or contribution.  

Lessons from Dad

Me & Dad


It is amazing how much life takes place in a relatively short of amount of time.  Three years ago, I blogged about my aspirations as a parent and a principal on this exact same day on the Jewish calendar – on the morning of what will soon be Kol Nidre and the beginning of Yom Kippur.  They feel newly appropriate.  Three years ago we were new to this community, this synagogue and this school.  We had had a great transition and were full of excitement about what the future would bring.  We had plans, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns and a whole host of other emotions.

And I had a father.


Of all the myriad of changes that has taken place between now and then, this one looms largest even though it is sometimes difficult day-to-day to always understand how.  There are days when it feels like it happened years ago.  There are days when it feels like it never happened.  And there are days where it feels like it is happening all over again.  I am assured that this is all normal and I am sure that it is.


Now that I have been blogging for a few years, I am sometimes moved to revisit prior posts and see how they hold up over time.  Occasionally, I am inspired to update in light of new realities.  This is one of those times, as I revisit words of prayer written by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov from his Likutey Moharan (2:7) that now speak to me with the same words, but with new meaning…

Dear God,

teach me to embody those ideals

I would want my children

to learn from me.

Let me communicate

with my children – wisely

in ways

that will draw their hearts

to kindness, to deceny

and to true wisdom.

Dear God,

let me pass on to my children

only the good;

let them find in me

the values

and the behavior

I hope to see in them.

I now read those words of three minds – as a son who lost a father, as a parent of two and a principal of many.  It reminds me why our faculty handbook quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, saying, “We need to have more than textbooks, we need text-people”. We can have the best books, most well though-out curriculum, and the most sophisticated technology – and hopefully we either do or will soon – but without the right people what does it really amount to?

And we can have read all the best parenting books and have our children in all the best schools and extracurricular activities – but without us parenting as our best selves, what can it really mean?


Among our traditions during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur include the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  For my part, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.  I look forward to working on myself to be the best “me” I can in the upcoming year.  For me, my mother, my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my teachers, my students and their families – I hope this year to live up to the words of Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Heschel.

And I hope to take the lessons of my father of blessed memory to heart as I now follow his footsteps on the journey of my own fatherhood…


To everything there is a season…


Life does move on…

A friend who came last week to pay a shivah call who had recently lost a parent of his own, shared with me that although you would think the goal of shivah is to provide the mourner with ample quiet time to grieve, reflect and reminisce; that, in fact, it is to exhaust the mourner to such a stark degree that any return to normalcy is welcome.  I do not believe that explanation is sourced in Jewish tradition, but I do second the emotion.

And so I have returned to school, to work, to synagogue and to life.  Return is bittersweet – I am glad to be home and welcome the opportunity for meaningful work to fill the void grief left behind.  But it also makes it way too easy to forget that I am still grieving.  I am embracing Jewish grieving rituals – continuing to wear the keriah after transitioning from the shivah to the sheloshim, attending minyan daily to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, refraining from participating in overly social or joyous occasions, etc., – because they provide opportunities to remind me that I did, indeed, lose my father and to reflect upon all that that means.  And after sheloshim comes the rest of a year of mourning…and I will explore how I intend to commemorate that phase when I enter it a few weeks hence.  But now it is time to turn my attention back to matters at hand and what is at hand is the beginning of an exciting school year at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School as faculty and staff prepare to return on Monday (!) for an action-packed “Pre-Planning Week”.

 The Transparency Files: Pre-Planning Week

At the beginning of the summer, I blogged about our expectations and plans for faculty to use their summertime for professional growth.  I blogged about my summer reading and how it has impacted my thinking heading into another year.  In the spirit of transparency, I would like to share with you what we will be thinking about and working on next week – a week dedicated to ensuring the first day, week, month, etc., of the 2013-2014 school year is full of wonder, discovery, meaning and success for our students.

Here’s the scoop:

Monday, August 12th

9:30 – 10:00 AM                                 Continental Breakfast & Welcome Activities

10:00 – 11:00 AM                                Team-Building Activities – The Transition Cafe

11:00 – 12:30 PM                                Work in Classrooms

12:30 – 2:00 PM                                  PTA Preschool & Day School Lunch & Teambuilding

2:00 – 3:30 PM                                    Lower School & Middle School Faculty Meetings


Tuesday, August 13th

8:45 – 9:00 AM                                    IT

9:00 – 9:30 AM                                    Student Advisory

9:30 – 11:30 AM                                  “7 Habits”

11:30 – 12:30 PM                                 Student Advisor Meeting & New Faculty IT

12:30 – 1:30 PM                                  Lunch & Learn w/Rabbi Olitzky

1:30 – 2:00 PM                                    HR w/ DuBow Preschool Faculty

2:00 – 3:30 PM                                   Work in Classrooms


Wednesday, August 14th

8:30 – 9:30 AM                                   Brunch & Learn w/Rabbi Lubliner

9:30 – 10:30 AM                                  Summer Book Club Groups

10:30 – 11:30 AM                                “Square Peg” Alum & Mom

11:30 – 12:30 PM                                 Lunch [JS Faculty Working Lunch]

12:30 – 3:00 PM                                  Hebrew Faculty Webinar  

12:30 – 3:30 PM                                  Work in Classrooms


Thursday, August 15th

8:30 – 9:30 AM                                   How to talk to parents about “Square Pegs”

9:30 – 10:15 AM                                  “Wonder”

10:15 –12:00 PM                                  Work in Classrooms / MS Faculty Meeting

12:00 – 1:00 PM                                  Lunch

1:00 – 3:30 PM                                    LS “Meet the Teachers” & MS Work in Classrooms


Friday, August 16th

8:00 – 9:00 AM                                    Final Nuts & Bolts

8:30 – 11:45 AM                                  Middle School Orientation

9:00 – 9:30 AM                                    Final Fine Tuning

9:30 –12:00 PM                                   Work in Classrooms


A few things jump out at me…

You can see that Square Pegs has taken on a life larger just one of the books from the Summer Book Club.  A number of teachers and administrators have read it and we believe its message has great resonance for our school.

You can see our belief that the 7 Habits may provide a common language for students and teachers to continue our 21st century learning journey .

You can see in “Student Advisory” the first tangible fruit of having an in-house Community of Kindness Coordinator.

You can see our ongoing commitment to Jewish learning through our “lunch and learn’s”.


But more than anything, I hope you can see our dedication to lifelong learning, our desire to be our very best, our devotion to our craft, our love for children, our passion for education, our acknowledgement of our sacred responsibility to teach, our respect for the whole child, our emphasis on personalized learning, and our promise to deliver “a floor, but no ceiling” for each child we have been entrusted with.

I say it each year, but only because I sincerely mean it.  This year is going to be our best year ever.  And that is because of who comes walking through the door Monday morning.

Welcome back MJGDS Faculty & Staff.

My father, myself…

My father, myselfIt has been only four days since my father passed – only two days since his funeral – and it still hardly feels real.  We have been overwhelmed by the amount of well-wishes, prayers, words, and deeds of consolation that have come pouring in from our families and friends from all the many stops life’s journey has taken us.  It is impossible to convey the gratitude we feel towards those who have taken the extra step and gone the extra mile.

I managed to get through the eulogy I delivered on Monday and a number of people who were there and an even larger number of people who were unable to be there have requested a copy.  I realize that a significant number of people who read this blog do so for professional purposes.  And although I do occasionally weave personal anecdotes and information through my posts, I typically shy away the overly intimate.  But life is not so easily compartmentalized…

Last week, when I thought things were headed in a positive direction, I blogged about how I believed this experience would be make me a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better person…and most of all, a better son.  I am still hopeful.  But that last one will be awfully bittersweet for an awfully long time…

To my father…

My father was in the best shape of his life when he passed.

This was an irony that was lost on no one, including him, during the week he spent fighting back against the stroke that eventually took him from us.

“Why get in such great shape to have this happen?” he said in the hospital.

At the time, I believed it was to give him the strength to survive it. To suggest that it was to give him – and us – sufficient time to say goodbye today seems cruel, but perhaps in time will be a comfort.

It is easy to make fun of my father.  He certainly had his shticks.

Expressing his political opinions too loudly at the risk of confrontation was a frequent occurrence.  Hopefully heaven has MSNBC…

Treating each part-time tax return like a full-time job.  Hopefully heaven has an Internal Revenue Service…

Eating cereal with warm milk was a daily meal that never seemed appealing to the rest of us.  Hopefully heaven has Cheerios…

Reading book after book after book after book.  Hopefully heaven has a Nook – and good customer support…

A childhood filled with such puns as “Jerry Rice and his brother Fried”.  Hopefully heaven has a generous sense of humor…

Baseball caps and T-shirts from wherever he had just visited. Hopefully heaven has a gift shop…

Checking his messages with obsessive regularity well into retirement.  Hopefully heaven has voicemail…

Taking out the garbage was the one household chore he could be counted on to perform. Hopefully heaven collects the trash…

Changing hotel rooms to avoid noise or the potential for noise was commonplace. Hopefully heaven has a corner room…

Nicknames for the ones he loved most.  Hopefully heaven has my dad…

But my father was more than shtick, although it wasn’t always easy to see.  Expressing his deepest emotions did not come easy for him, but there was never any doubt they were there.  He understood his primary role in life was to take care of his wife, his sister and me and the successful performance of that role was his greatest pride.  Even through their darkest times – the lost pregnancies of my youth and the lost jobs of my teenage years – he was there to protect us and to shield us from life’s difficulties.  He took it all on and mostly kept it all in.  He would bear the weight so we would not have to.  Maybe that took such a toll on his heart that it didn’t leave space for some of the words we sometimes wanted to hear, but his actions spoke loud enough.  It now falls to us to ensure those actions continue to speak on his behalf so that his memory endures.

When I delivered my grandfather’s eulogy eleven years ago, I expressed gratitude that he had lived long enough to see me married and regret that he had not lived long enough to meet his great-grandchildren who were not yet.  Oh how he would have loved our Eliana, named for his wife, and Maytal, named for him.  One of the last things my father said was that he planned to bless the challah at Eliana’s wedding as his father had done at mine…

Oh how he loved his granddaughters…they were his pride and his joy.  Getting down on the floor with them and playing in the pool were his greatest delights.  My father’s father was such an important presence in my life and all I ever wanted for my father was to have a chance to be the same in the lives of my children.  My heart breaks to know he will not have a chance to watch them grow and it shatters to think that they will not have a chance to really know him and that, perhaps, they will be left years down the road with few memories of their own.

These last years were good ones.  For that I will be grateful.  He was slowly coming to terms with retirement and striking the right balance between keeping busy and finding purpose.  He was proud of his work with the IRS and with H&R Block and with good reason. He was proud of his volunteer work with NARFE and within our Jewish community.  He traveled to Israel for the first time and many trips were planned.  He was working out regularly, had lost weight, and was proud of his newfound strength and energy.  He had spent his whole life working and working and thinking about working and now it was time to finally relax and enjoy his wife, his children – for Jaimee truly was the daughter he never had, and his grandchildren. And in the space between his 44th wedding anniversary and his 71st birthday, his time simply ran out too soon.

And so it is left to those of us who knew and loved him best to keep his memory alive.  I am counting on you to share your stories with me and my children so they will always have their Grandpa to guide them, to protect them and to inspire them as they grow up in a world diminished by his absence, but better off from having had Michael Mitzmacher – shticks and all – in it.