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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reflections - September 14, 2013

This has been a hard week to not be reflective. Maybe it was the post on Facebook from a local news station that reminded me that 12 years ago, our view of the world changed. Maybe it was thinking about where I was on that sunny September morning and feeling that same sense of the unknown that followed watching CNN footage of the events in New York, then Washington, and finally a few hours away in Pennsylvania.

Maybe it was remembering the frantic nature of not being able to reach my wife, then my girlfriend, by phone and knowing that her grandparents were flying to New York that morning. Maybe it was seeing the representatives of Pepper Pike's police and fire department lined up outside of school during the Peace Ceremony. Maybe it was watching the flag lowered to half mast.

Maybe it was hearing about the hesed activities undertaken by the 6th grade during their retreat. Maybe it was listening to classroom conversations about teshuva. Maybe it was reading a blog post from a colleague’s wife about the need to apologize and thinking about how we value relationships. Or maybe it was just that all of these thoughts were flowing through my head during the Aseret Y'mai Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that run from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. And my reflections have increasingly turned to Yom Kippur as it has drawn closer and closer each day.

The image that mostly clearly burns into my mind is standing in the congregation watching the chazzan (cantor) and rabbi entreat God on our behalf as the clock slowly ticks down during Ne'ilah, the closing service. We wait with bated breaths (and empty stomachs) as we eagerly listen for the final blasts of the shofar. It is a final opportunity to say the Vidui, the confessional prayer, one more time. It is a chance to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, checking the soul to see if we have lived the life in the past year that we set out to.

As we prepare to close out the High Holiday season, I am taking in all the changes in my life over the past year (new job, new city, new community) and thinking about the ones to come in the next. I am thanking my family, colleagues, and staff for their support and encouragement through all these changes and am doing my best to do the same for them. I am asking forgiveness for  
those I have inadvertently hurt or offended and hoping they will accept my apologies.

Please, God, may we have the strength to ask forgiveness and to recognize the errors of our ways. Please, God, may we continue to grow and behave better to one another as  we go through the process of teshuva. Please, God, may the coming year allow us to  improve the world in which we live through acts of hesed and tikkun olam

Lo Bashamayim Hi

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Eliezer who was so convinced that he was right regarding an issue of Jewish law that he called on various inanimate objects to prove that he was correct. First, the walls of the Beit Midrash, the house of study, shook to demonstrate that his position was right. Then, when his colleagues were unconvinced, he called upon the river to flow backwards, but this did not convince them. Finally, frustrated Eliezer calls upon the heavens to justify him and a bat kol, a voice from above, confirmed that he was correct.

One of his colleagues chastised him, though, quoting a pasuk (line) from this week’s parsha(Torah portion), Nitzavim-Vayelekh, stating that “lo bashamayim hi” (it is not in the heavens). All of sudden, God laughed and agreed with Eliezer’s colleagues that it was up to them to interpret and understand God’s laws. This phrase, through this story, has been used frequently to justify our ability to interpret and bring new understanding to Jewish law. Yet, if you read just a little further, the Torah is trying to tell us even more than that we have the authority to interpret Judaism.

The text continues, saying “It is not over the sea so [that you should] say, 'Who will cross the sea and get if for us, so that we will be able to hear it and keep it?' It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.” So if we learned from the first story that it is in our hands to interpret our sacred texts, what is our understanding of this next verse?

Judaism is about experiences and using it as the lens through which to view the world. This to me is the essence of what our mission is at Gross Schechter is as a Jewish day school. Within our walls, students engage in their Judaism as a living laboratory - thinking, doing, and feeling. They are acquiring more than just Jewish identity; they are building Jewish literacy.

This morning, I visited with some of our preschool students as they were celebrating Shabbat. Seated in a circle, our four year olds were smiling as several of them were quietly seeing just how much challah they could get into their mouths. As we chatted, they were able to articulately state what was special about Shabbat and how it was different from other days. Some shared about specific foods, challah, grape juice, and, of course, chicken soup. Others talked about having friends and family join their Shabbat table. And, from the enthusiastic way that they greeted me, it is clear that these students understand what hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is. For our younger students, this is Jewish literacy.

For our older students, through the generosity of the SaltzmanYouth Panel, our students are engaging in learning and doing as they participate in the Middle School Tikkun Olam program. Just this morning, students visited with residents at Menorah Park, helped out at the Ronald McDonald House, and worked to eliminate invasive cattails at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes which will help maintain and preserve the ecosystem and Ohio's native species. Our 
students are learning first-hand that Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, has us in a variety of settings. They are taking their understanding of mitzvot and putting them into action.

In our preschool yesterday morning, if you had walked by, you would have found an interesting combination of big and little kids. Middle school students were making the first of many visits to their preschool buddies. They delivered a personalized Shanah Tovah card introducing themselves and then got down on the floor to play. The preschoolers were so excited by the visit that after the middle schoolers left, multiple classes began to draw their own cards to send back to their big buddies. This is the start of a year long relationship. And hopefully many years beyond that too.

Even in the short two months that I have served as Head of School, it is readily apparent that Schechter is about talking, acting, and loving engaging in Jewish life. At the end of Parshat Nitzvavim, we are given a choice. We have heard the blessings that await us if we follow God’s commandments and we have heard the curses if we choose otherwise. We are encouraged, as the Torah states, to choose life. A life that is enriched through mitzvot, connected through community, and embraced in the richness of Judaism.We look forward to seeing you all at Monday’s Totally Kosher Rib Burn Off as we continue our tradition to serve as a gathering place for the entire Cleveland Jewish community.

How Might We

Not too long ago, the most popular soap in America was Colgate’s Irish Spring with its deodorizing green stripes. Some of  you might remember this commercial. Proctor and Gamble, the competitors, found themselves spending month after month trying to develop a green striped soap to compete with Irish Spring. Each attempt met with failure when market tested.

Enter a young designer, Min Basadur, who with a simple question changed the focus. Instead of asking, how to make a green striped bar that people would prefer over Irish Spring, he shifted their thinking by asking a question that they had  ignored: “How might we make a more refreshing soap?” Asking this question opened the designers’ minds and eventually led to the creation of the soap Coast, still a top selling brand.

Lovely story, but what does this have to do with Gross Schechter Day School. Earlier this week, we posted a series of  pictures on Facebook of the staff during our opening faculty meeting. If you looked closely, you saw groups of Schechter employees diligently trying to build towers out of paper bags, spaghetti, string, and masking tape that would hold a marshmallow up in the air. This design challenge encouraged our staff to take risks, rethink their assumptions, and then assess the steps needed for project design.

As we talked about our experience with this activity, we explored the values that are important in continually improving  Gross Schechter Day School, such as enthusiasm, innovation, collaboration, transparency, and respect. We then began asking our own ‘how might we’ questions. For example, how might we be more reflective, how might we be more adaptable, and how might we encourage creativity. To help answer the last question, staff offered answers like creating  more open ended assignments for students where there may be no “correct” answer and incorporating more inquiry-based  education across the curriculum. Others suggested finding ways to let kids determine how something will be done.

The essential question of ‘how might we’ will inform our work as a staff throughout this year. Stemming from the larger question of how might we enhance and grow Schechter, the staff will be working in smaller groups to innovate and improve our school, grow a school that our parents our proud of, that our community kvells about, and that achieves our  goals of educating students who can meet the challenges of the 21st century as mensches for life.  I will keep you informed throughout the year as we ask these ‘how might we’ questions and come up with some next steps.  And I will look forward to having some similar conversations with you at my regular Bo N’Daber (Come Talk) sessions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

And It Was Good: A Report on the First Day of School

It has been a good day.
We began with a bright, sunny day as students slowly arrived for the first day of classes. There was  excitement in the air, and it wasn’t just from the coffee and donuts that wonderful parent volunteers from the Kehillat Schechter Committee were passing out. Parents were taking pictures, old friends were greeting each other, and new friendships were forging.  Even our community partners, the Pepper Pike Police Department, were smiling when they stopped by to see how our first day of school was going.
This was good.
The excitement continued to build as we entered the Merkaz to welcome our kindergarten students. Our kindergarteners joined the day school community, in front of their parents and the 1-8 grade student body. I had the privilege and honor of reciting my first bracha, the Shehechiyanu, as Head of School and, in this case, my first blessing as a Schechter parent. Together with my fellow kindergarten parents (my oldest daughter is in this class), we recited Shehechiyanu as we watched our sons and daughters become kindergartners and start the their formal school years.
This, too, was good.
My colleague and friend, Rabbi David Kosak of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah, joined us to offer the Priestly Blessing and to share the story of a young Hillel and his thirst for knowledge. We hope that all of our students model Hillel’s desire to learn and that they grow to be like Ephraim, Manasseh, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as the blessing recalls.
This was good as well.
Our teachers surprised the students by donning wigs and grabbing pom-poms to sing “Gross Schechter is Going to Be Fun” to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s hit. This touch of silliness and spirit brought smiles (and perhaps some laughter, as well) to the students faces. It was just a small part of the enthusiasm that staff has brought in the days leading up to school.
And this was good.
After students dispersed to their classes, I walked through the school and was greeted by “Good morning, Dr. Yares” and “Boker Tov, Dr. Yares.” I am looking forward to longer visits with each of our grade levels in the coming days.
This was also good.
With the arrival of the pre-schoolers next week, we will start the school year with an enrollment of 269, an increase of 4% over last year. And another great year begins.
There is bracha that we say upon hearing good news, ha-tov v’ha-maiteev. Today truly has been a day filled with good news. I began my day with Shehechiyanu, thanking God for allowing us to reach this moment. I end my day reciting ha-tov v’ha-maiteev, thanking God for the goodness that has graced our lives today and with hope for more opportunities to say this bracha in the future.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Some Good Questions

Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi was famously once asked why he became a scientist rather than one of the many other career options available to someone of his intellect. He is quoted as saying that his mother was responsible for making him a scientist. Instead of asking him what he learned in school today, Dr. Rabi’s mother would ask him, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?”

Dr. Rabi’s mother was less concerned about filling her child with knowledge and more concerned about fanning his growing curiosity. Knowledge would come with questioning, but better questions would yield the kinds of information that you need. Last Wednesday’s parent open house at school was a success because of the kinds of questions that were asked. Our conversation ranged over a wide number of topics from my adjustment to Cleveland to promoting the school to the teaching of tefillah to building leaders.

Two major themes emerged from the conversation. The first echoed some of the conversations that I had with parents back in May during one of my whirlwind visits to Schechter. Our parents want to know what is going on in school and we need to do a better job ensuring that information is sent out in a timely and useful fashion. This is more than just letting you know when the next evening program is, it means turning our classrooms and programs inside out (figuratively, of course) and sharing the incredible learning that makes Schechter an experience for life. It means creating opportunities to connect learning to home life and the world around us.

When I think about this school, I also think about how it connects to the families. To that end, we  want to strengthen our partnership with our parents. We’re looking to see how we can make our programs more accessible for families with multiple children.

The second theme focused on dealing with the oft quoted phrase “Schechter is a hidden gem”. Parents, staff, and community members are fiercely proud of the school, but often follow up with comments about how too few people are aware of who we are and what we do. We need to work on building Schechter’s reputation through a variety of channels. We need to improve our “curb appeal” by increasing our signage on Fairmount. We all need to have more conversations about what makes this a great school and keep a positive buzz in the air.  We all need to click ‘share’ on our Facebook status messages to help get the word out.  We need you to kvell about what your kids are doing in school and how they are become mensches.

In addition to those external steps to raise our profile, we need parents to engage internally. As you learned about when you enrolled your children for this year, we have added a requirement of 15  parent engagement hours per family. We will be rolling out a volunteer website in the coming days to help coordinate volunteer efforts. Stay tuned.

Your questions help guide our work to create an experience for life for your children. I want to hear your creative ideas and last Wednesday’s session is only the first of many that I will be hosting throughout the year. Learning, as Dr. Rabi noted, is about asking questions.

In Hebrew, we would say Bo N’Daber. Come and let’s talk. So join me for the next conversation on Thurs., Sept. 12 at 8:15am.

We've Arrived!

My almost three-year-old daughter had an interesting reaction to our move. When she arrived at the house, she began scampering around looking in each room to see what was there. Each look into a room was punctuated by her exclaiming, “wow”, there is a new toy, chair, etc. I had expected her to be excited, but I did not expect her to look at her old toys and furniture in such a new light. For her, everything seemed new, even if it was old, because it was placed differently in our new home and this brought with it excitement for her.

Her reaction has mirrored what I have felt as I have settled into my new professional home at Gross Schechter Day School. Yes, some things are truly new - the office, the much shorter daily commute, and the faces around me. On the other hand, some things are technically not new, such as the challenges and opportunities facing a Jewish day school. What my daughter has taught me is that context is incredibly important and seeing things in a new context can take the mundane and elevate it to a higher level.

As the summer builds towards the start of the school year, I am striving to learn about all things Schechter and getting to know our context better as I work to chart our course for the future. My commitment to you as the new Head of School is to listen, be transparent, and be honest. As the school’s lead administrator, I am partnering with our staff to create a culture of accountability, coordination, flexibility, and understanding. We are building a school that has capacity for growth.

We are already working to strengthen our communications. The staff is hard at work this summer ensuring that your child will have a meaningful year in the classroom and that parents will be more informed about and engaged with the activities happening throughout our school. We will be launching a new website that will make it easier for you to stay informed and create a strong digital presence for Schechter.

During the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to sit with some key supporters of our school and hear why they have stayed involved with Schechter and how they think we can grow. I am looking forward to having many more of these opportunities. We will be setting up a series of open house gatherings during which you can tell me what you love about our school and offer suggestions where you see a place for change. The first one will be on Wednesday, July 31st, at 7:00 PM in the Iris S. and Bert L. Wolstein Media Center at the school.

You will also find me enjoying a popsicle on the Schechter playground on Sunday, July 28th, at 4:00PM -- a program open to all families -- and also at Wade Oval Wednesday on August 7th, at 6:00PM (see attached Summer Family Events Schedule).  Please come, (re)introduce yourself, and enjoy some summer fun with us!


With about three weeks to go before our move to Cleveland, our house on Long Island is beginning to look a lot like a shipping warehouse. We’ve run out of places to discretely stack boxes and now they are beginning to take over the living spaces. As we have packed, we’ve had the opportunity to go through files and clean out the attic.

We’ve made some interesting discoveries along the way (e.g. why did I still have tuition bills from college in a filing cabinet?) and had some moments of warmth as we found early examples of our girls’ artwork and things from our wedding. As we worked to pack up our lives and transport them to another city, these touchstones with our past are making the transition easier, even as we look to eliminate some of the clutter that we have acquired.

I recently spent a very packed two days in Cleveland making a few discoveries of my own, even though we are not quite ready to begin unpacking in our new home. I am continuing to enjoy the warmth of the Cleveland Jewish community and our own community, Kehillat Schechter.  Each conversation that I had helped me uncover and unpack more about my new professional and personal home.

Perhaps the most important discovery is the fierce passion that the members of Gross Schechter’s kehillah have for the school. Parents and staff shared moments of pride for the school, as well as their hopes and requests for the future. Among the highlights were strong academics, caring students, and a staff committed to professional growth. Many people expressed a desire to strengthen our communication, both internally and externally. Also shared was a desire to enhance the bonds that connect us as a kehillah through volunteerism and social activities. As we move into the beginnings of a new recruitment season, we also need to make sure that we build a stronger community presence, so that no one thinks that the gem that is Gross Schechter is hidden.
These, along with our other objectives of continuing to enhance our academic offerings, support our students’ growth, and securing the school’s financial health, will be among the things that the staff, lay leadership, and I will be working on as the summer begins.

In these closing days of the school year, Susan Siegel and I have been in close communication as the transition nears. I am grateful for her help and support, as well as the support from the school’s staff and lay leaders. I join with the community in wishing Susan b’hatzlacha rabba (much success) with her new position in Greensboro.

With just a few short weeks to go, the excitement and anticipation is building.