Reflections on the 23-24/5784 School Year

Chazak, Chazak, V’NitChazek/חזק, חזק, ונתחזק

“We have been strong, we have drawn on strength,

and we will move forward together with strength”

David Zimand, Head of School

As I stand with you this evening, nearing the culmination of a dramatic and complex school year, I draw inspiration from two sources. I will come back in a little bit to the second one – really the preeminent one. For now: my additional inspiration is the Hebrew language and the opportunities it provides for delving into passages and even individual words to find layers of meaning – an intellectual tradition we carry forward at Seattle Jewish Community School with commitment and pride.

In synagogues this past Shabbat, congregations reached the culmination of the third of the five books of the Torah: Vayikra/ויקרא (traditionally called “Leviticus” in English). Once the Torah reader reached the final verse, those following the Ashkenazi practices of Central and Eastern European Jews stood and recited these words:

Chazak, Chazak, V’NitChazek/חזק, חזק, ונתחזק

That often gets translated as something along the lines of “Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen each other.” A tight, direct translation of the words would be more along the lines of “strong, strong, and we will get stronger.” In contemporary Hebrew, we would use the verb form N’Chazek/נחזק over NitChazek/נתחזק – Bo’u N’Chazek Echad Et HaSheni/בואו נחזק אחד את השני – to convey “let us strengthen each other.”

Direct translation can suck the life out of poetry! The tradition involving these words does, after all, represents a collective, mutual enterprise. Everyone rises. Everyone calls out. And the reader repeats. More to the point – especially when we bring to the fore a core principle of Jewish textual analysis that we cannot regard any words as extraneous – we have to consider that the doubling, even tripling here of forms of the word chazak/חזק (strength) must carry significance.

I suggest this evening that, for our community, as we close a noteworthy year – remarkable in so many ways – many of them wonderful, and others just the opposite – the resonating theme of “strength” considered from multiple perspectives, fits our circumstances notably well.

Chazak, Chazak, V’NitChazek/חזק, חזק, ונתחזק

  • Chazak/ חזק- We have been strong. Triumphant even.
  • Chazak/ חזק- We have drawn on strength. As we have needed to.
  • V’NitChazak/ ונתחזק- And we will move forward together with strength. For this is what our commitment to our children calls on us to do.

Chazak, Chazak, V’NitChazek/חזק, חזק, ונתחזק

 Chazak/חזק (“We have been strong.”)

Last fall, in laying out my goals for the year ahead, I shared with the Board of Trustees a number of benchmarks to keep in mind. I did so with an open-eyed understanding that, if we could not achieve them, we would need to think carefully about our economic model and how we might need to adjust it to sustain the school effectively.
We exceeded every single one of those benchmarks.

  • In kindergarten recruitment. Our incoming class is full, and we already have a very healthy list of strong prospects for the following year.
  • In bringing in at least a few students as lateral entrants beyond kindergarten. We did so, and we provided a haven for several displaced Israeli students as well.
  • In non-moving retention. Fully 96% of students eligible to re-enroll have done so.
  • In parent participation in our annual fundraising drive. We hit 100%.
  • In a net increase in contributions, including from non-current parents. Compared to last year, total giving this year increased by more than 70%. With the number of gifts more than doubling, including from 80 new donors and 58 “recaptured” donors – those who had not given in several years – and this year is not yet over.
  • In indications from our forecasting tool that we are on a path to annual budgets that will not require draws from our reservesIn fact, with the coming year’s budget, we have cut our deficit nearly in half (and could still do better than that). Even with conservative estimates, we are on track to eliminate our deficit in two years and still to have a cushion of reserves at that time.

 Along with all of this, the year brought other achievements as well:

  • We maintained strong relationships with community partners and established new relationships as well, including through joint programming. These partners have included Camp Kalsman and Camp Solomon Schechter; the Center for Holocaust and Humanity; Congregations Beth Shalom and Ezra Bessaroth; the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition, Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice Northwest, and Jewish Coalition to Defend Trans and LGBQ+ Youth; the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Family Services, and Jewish Federation; the Kline Galland Home; Limmud Seattle; PJ Library and PJ Our Way; the Seattle Sephardic Network, Sephardic Bikkur Holim Congregation, and Sephardic Brotherhood; the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington and Stroum Jewish Community Center, and Temple Beth Am.
  • Clearly, we take very seriously that “Jewish Community” is our middle name. We also cherish our relationships with the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, POCIS Seattle, Puget Sound Independent Schools, and Seattle Parks & Rec (especially the folks in our favorite park), and I am proud to serve as a trustee of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools. Next year, SJCS will become a member of ParentEd Talks, making available to all of our parents outstanding and free parent education presented by leading natioweeksnal experts. And we are all looking forward to the reopening of the Green Lake branch of the Seattle Public Library.
  • We received funding this year from the Better Together Program (for our partnership with Kline Galland), the Engage Program (for our partnership with PJ Library), Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools (for our Seattle Sephardic Heritage Initiative), the State of Washington (for our Ridwell program) and – of course, of course – generating the most profound gratitude – from the Samis Foundation, a communal supporter of Jewish education like few others, in so very many ways. We are so blessed and so grateful.
  • With excellent guidance from our fractional marketing consultant, we vastly improved our Facebook and Instagram feeds, truly capturing the spirit of our learning community; we upgraded our website; and we established a repertory of four well branded and well-organized publications distributed on different cadences, for different purposes.
  • Our Hebrew teachers participated in a regional professional learning community with teachers from schools in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver – a pilot initiative that will carry over into next year.
  • And our students headed out on engaging field trips – starting with a journey via public transportation to see our Seattle Mariners (our first-place Seattle Mariners). The children filled every space they entered, most of all their own classrooms and the school’s hallways, with their abundant curiosity, their burgeoning confidence, and their engrained kindness. I was myself the beneficiary of that kindness, and I carry with me the sweetest of comfort provided to me by the children of SJCS during my own period of mourning.
  • When personal circumstances within our community, unsettling circumstances around our city, and terrible circumstances across our world called for it, we leaned in, met the difficult contexts forthrightly and in age-appropriate ways, so that our students could – and emphatically did – rise to the occasions.
  • Our students also crafted Beat-style poems and creative stories; they developed enthusiastic expertise on cetaceans and taught all of us about lesser-known Jewish holidays; they deepened their appreciation for the distinctive Sephardic heritage of their hometown community; they received their first personal siddurim/סידורים (prayer books) and chumashim/חומשים (five books of the Torah); and tomorrow our extraordinary Shorashim kindergarteners will stage a special production in this very space; anyone who wishes to linger after this meeting is welcome to help us get it ready and to come back tomorrow morning for the show. 

We have indeed been strong.


Chazak/חזק (“We have drawn on strength.”)

It behooves us in the context of all of these shared accomplishments to consider the core sources of our strengths at SJCS so that we may continue to nourish them and draw on them. The Hebrew language provides useful inspiration here too. Like other Semitic languages – very much including Arabic – Hebrew relies on three-letter roots and then presents them in different forms to give them inter-related meanings. The relationships within these word families represents a key feature of the language’s poetic beauty. The word we use for “charity,” for instance – tzedakah/צדקה – comes from the root צ, ד, ק, signifying “justice” or “righteousness,” so we might more fully think of the word tzedakah/ צדקהas meaning “righteous giving.” The three-letter root of chazak/חזק – ח, ז, ק – also takes on many forms, and these provide fitting openings for a nuanced understanding of the “strengths” that power and sustain SJCS.

Consider four examples: l’hachzik/להחזיק means “to hold fast”; chazaka/חזקה offers a legal term with ancient roots expressing the presumption that an existing state will continue; chizuk/חיזוק involves “reinforcement” or “fortitude,” of the sort we wish for our friends and loved ones dealing with trying circumstances; and chozek/חוזק puts the word in its “construct state” – called smichut/סמיכות in Hebrew – which involves pairing it with another word to convey a connected expression, so that chozek yad/חוזק יד, for example, means “hand strength.”

The notions of strength captured in these words coming from the Hebrew root ח, ז, ק do not emphasize brute force or transformational power, but rather point to the strength of solidity, commitment, and securing with fortitude. Likewise, even as we embrace all the very best of what our modern world puts before us, we also hold fast to the values, connections, purposes, pursuits of wisdom, and commitments to mutual respect that bring goodness to life. We aim, most of all, to transmit these to our children, and to fortify them with the iterations they will form of timeless values, so that they may carry them forward and spread their goodness.   

These ideals, I believe, express the essential sources of strength at SJCS, not just this year but throughout the history of the school. They have provided the strengths that energized our triumphs in 5784 and the strengths that also sustained us through the trials of 5784. SJCS will always welcome chozek yad/חוזק יד (hand strength) to be sure, but the core of its strength has been, is today, and will always be chozek lev/חוזק לב (the “strength of the heart.”) How fitting it has been during this complex year that the ancient Hebrew system of gematria, pairing letters with numbers and assigning values to words, expresses 32 – the age of our school – as lamed-vet/ל-ב or lev/לב, the Hebrew word for “heart.”


V’NitChazek/ונתחזק (“And we will move forward together with strength.”)

In just under two weeks, we will confer diplomas on Avi, Dylan, Ezra, Hemi, Isaac, Jake, and Mitzi, our Lehavot/להבות, our “flames.” With that, we will bring SJCS’s 32nd school year to a close. And while we will surely miss the daily presence of our newest alums, we also have much to look forward to in our 33rd year.

  • A few weeks ago, I announced several enhancements to our administrative team. Earlier today, I shared one more piece with the faculty: that our excellent Behavioral Health Counselor Mekhala Koshy will add to that position the role of Director of Student Support Services. I am simultaneously looking forward to collaborations with all of my partners and excited for the ways sharper delineation and division of responsibilities will increase both the efficiency and reach of our team.
  • We have a charming, robust group of kindergarteners on their way, and worthy successors to the Lehavot as our “senior” class –otherwise known as 5th graders – along with new mixes in our cohorts in between.
  • Our very successful, intensive 18-month Self Study toward Re-Accreditation by the Northwest Association of Independent Schools – which engaged all of my colleagues, ably led by Gabrielle Azose – has already generated many internal insights and external accolades. It will also provide us this summer with a Visiting Team Report that will offer very good guidance, with an emphasis (we already know) on all the ways our school can use its transformative recent successes as a foundation for advancing its systems and professional practices.
  • With our Self Study work complete, and given all that we have achieved toward the objectives of our current Strategic Plan, the Board, Yael, and I will turn to a mid-way refresh, including consideration of how we might most thoughtfully manage the opportunities for growth ahead.
  • And, we will keep on keeping on, in educational program, in recruitment, in fundraising, in communication, in financial management, in Jewish life, and in community building, presenting good reprises of all that went very well this year and refinements of all that could have gone better.

Kadima!/קדימה (Onward!) 


Hakarat HaTov/הכרת הטוב (Gratitude/“Recognition of the good.”)

I noted at the start of my remarks that I stand with you this evening drawing inspiration from two sources, but I withheld the preeminent one. It transcends this evening, for it has inspired me and it has sustained me every day of this year, in the aftermath of October 7, 2023, and also in the aftermath of February 22, 2024 – the day I lost my mother. And that inspiration is this community, and the children and the mission at its heart. I have had a very good run in my career, and I hope for more good years to come. However many these may be, SJCS will always stand on the short list of my greatest good fortunes; I feel abundantly blessed to devote the apex of my career to this community.

Two years ago, in the context of this annual meeting, I shared what I called the “View from Base Camp” considering with you the work we needed to do to prepare for ascents.

Our SJCS Community no longer gathers in Base Camp. We are climbing heights, and I am abundantly grateful for all of my partners along on the trek. Indeed, I cannot consider closing this year without thanking my colleagues.

Pretty much everything we the other professionals do on behalf of the children and the mission would be pointless were it not for the work of the teachers. I have much to express in gratitude to every member of the team – to all of our educators – which is to say everyone who works at SJCS – for, to the credit and good fortune of this institution, all of us are devoted to the learning and wholesome growth of our children.

On this night, when we can sit back, take a deep breath, and honor past resilience, present success, and future possibility, I wish to cite, in particular, the teachers who followed their calling in Northgate or even on prior SJCS campuses, and who then made the journey to Green Lake, notwithstanding its uncertainties – before, during, and after the move – and who remain with us to this day, on our mission-driven ascent, as we continue – in defiance of conventional physics – to ground the children and to push them ahead too.

To Shoshana, Mihal, MG, Gabrielle, Debbie, Beth, and Amy: this evening, its satisfying reflections, its celebrations, and its hope are yours as much as anyone’s. Seattle Jewish Community School is what it is because of you, and we are all deeply grateful.

And what good fortune it has been for all of us that Yoav and Sarah; Ray, Mekhala, and Kristin; Julie and Julia – J&J! – Joyce, Josh, and Jade – three more J’s! – Hadas, Daniel Greer, Daniel Gabel, and the entire BASE Team came to join the journey along the way. As did our top-notch partners: Pam, Lara, Judith, and Jordana.

I began my thanks noting that pretty much everything the rest of us do would be pointless were it not for the work of the teachers. In saying that – and in standing by it – I certainly do not mean to suggest that the “rest of us” have not done excellent and invaluable work. Where Theresa Glatstein and Ross Diamond are concerned, let’s bump “excellent” to “extraordinary.” A wise mentor of mine – Dr. Bruce Powell – often emphasizes schools’ existential triangle, noting that their very existence rests on an excellent program, strong student recruitment and retention, and raising funds from engaged stakeholders. This has been a banner year for SJCS in all three of these realms. For the latter two, abundance of credit goes to you, Theresa, and to you, Ross, and we are all grateful.

Which, unless I have made a terrible and inadvertent mistake, leaves just one more partner on my professional team at Green Lake.

This has been a very good year for me professionally. It has also been a very difficult one, both professionally and personally, one when events in the world and in my own family were heart-shattering, pulling me apart, including almost literally in a geographic sense. Stepping aside is not easy, even in ideal circumstances, but I do want to note that my circumstances – where “stepping aside” is concerned – are, in fact, ideal, notably in the person of Yael Sachs. No Heads of School exceed my blessings in their core associates.

And very, very few share my extraordinary, good fortune in being able to say what I can say tonight – that every employee’s name I have mentioned is the name of someone continuing with SJCS next year. Seattle Jewish Community School is special. Seattle Jewish Community School is blessed.

If time allowed, I would name every parent, every community supporter, every member of the PALC – led with abundant good cheer and commitment by Claire Smith – that name I will mention, with gratitude – every member of the Board’s committees, notably including each of the trustees themselves, and – best of all – every student at our school, the world’s greatest generators of twinkles in the eye. Time does not allow, but the deepest appreciation for all the individuals who make up the collective of this community – our blessed community – holds very strong.

But one personal thanks does remain. I could share multiple examples of what Kristen Cohon has done for the school and for me. Just representative ones will have to suffice. School first. Kristen is SJCS’s staunchest cheerleader, and she always looks beyond herself to the long term. It is no mere coincidence that she completed her term as transformative President of the Parent Association with a robust succession plan underway and that, as she has announced tonight, the same will be true of the Board.

This I can share: I know slightly in advance that the Visiting Team report I referenced earlier will cite SJCS’s Board for “major commendation” – not a typical feature of such reports, but one we can feel very proud of and can attribute to all the Board members led by Kristen and, since the last Visiting Team’s report, by Rebecca, Ronnie, Don, and Natasha as well, and by all the leaders who proceeded them.

Chazak U’Baruch/חזק וברוך

Your strength on behalf of this institution is a blessing.

And on a personal note: I will always hold in my heart the kindness, wisdom, and purpose that Kristen brought to making me hear what I needed to hear: that the best ways I can make sure I am taking care of the school include making sure that I am taking care of myself.

This is the most humane, thoughtful, communal, values- and mission-driven school community I have ever known. I could not be prouder to serve as SJCS’s Head of School.

Thank you.