Reflections on the 2022 - 2023 / 5783 School Year
Reflections originally shared at the SJCS Annual Meeting on June 6, 2023.
We come together this evening nearing the culmination of a satisfying, invigorating, and promising year of learning and growth, one whose most meaningful marker, I believe, is the school’s standard-shattering retention of its current students along with all that this indicates about the vibrancy of our educational community and all that it portends for the promising future of the Seattle Jewish Community School.
Situated just a short walk from Green Lake Park, I appreciate that much more the inspiration in the tag line we use at SJCS: “Where Curiosity, Confidence, and Kindness Grow!” You can find these words on T-shirts, e-mail signature lines, and signs throughout the campus.
We also strive to live by them.
And we have no better measures of the successes we have achieved together in pursuit of our mission than the “curiosity, confidence, and kindness” that has flourished among the cherished children in our care – to their credit and as a product of our intentional cultivation as well. With this in mind, my aim is to offer an overview, and a few representative highlights, of the intentionality we have brought to making this a year when “curiosity, confidence, and kindness” grew.
Curiosity. Curiosity has no meaningful life outside personal soil, so our job is to encourage the contexts in which it can take root. Fittingly, honoring “place” – as we do in our core values and in the very name of our school – calls on us to hold as sacred time for awareness of what surrounds us. With the pandemic waning, and access more open and comfortable, we spent meaningful time this year in Green Lake Park: playing, sketching, singing at communal gatherings, coming together for own gatherings, appreciating. The Anafim also took their observations further afield, and the passion they developed for a whole array of birds – and the impressive expertise they developed from that passion – provided testimony to the impetus that taking our time to look around provides for curiosity. By pausing to think deeply about “place,” the Rimonim, in turn, transformed their own Land Acknowledgements from static pronouncements into calls to consider – and to act on – personal and collective responsibility.
Our students encountered many other texts, too – including ones revered in our tradition – as fodder for consideration rather than as definitive pronouncements to be taken in passively. Jewish learning, from ancient times, has prized questions above answers and insisted on multiplicity of meaning. Absorbing that opportunities for reinterpretation are eternal – as we aim for all of our students to do – provides a great spur for curiosity.
Confidence. As with curiosity, meaningful confidence must come from within, though it benefits from strong senses of connection too. In the fall, we found in this year’s Hebrew name – which we can pronounce תפג״ש / TaPhGa”Sh – an invitation לפגוש / lifgosh – "to encounter" and thus to make connections. That is what we did: internally, as with the precious buddy relationships established between the Shorashim and Alim and with the productive, multi-aged campaign teams that promoted our Mascot Finalists. We encountered externally, too, notably in the rich 5th grade Kehillah M’Shulevet partnership we initiated with the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle and the relationships it spawned between our students and residents of the Kline Galland Home.
When – even as a collective that features (and honors!) multiple identities – we came together as a community that shares Jewish identity, we also fortified the bonds that help to secure confidence. This year, our students experienced contrasting versions of the high holiday ritual of Tashlich: with a community-wide volunteer effort to clean the shores of Lake Washington and with personal reflections along the shores of Green Lake. I will also always hold dear the images of our students marching proudly, in costume, through our Green Lake neighborhood to celebrate Purim and of them engaging in field games on Lag B’Omer with other children from across a broad spectrum of Seattle’s Jewish community.
We draw from Jewish history a more poignant awareness, too, that shielding children from the darker features of human experience ultimately undermines their confidence by building it on flimsy stilts that cannot withstand reality. We seek instead, incrementally, with sensitivity to child development and with true confidence in mind, to introduce them to the human condition as it operates and to consider how we best respond. In this spirit, we can find powerful affirmation in noting that the first, second, and third place prizes for 5th and 6th grade Argumentative Writing in the Holocaust Center for Humanity’s 2023 Writing, Art, and Film Contest – open to students across four states – all went to students from SJCS.
Connections matter. And individuals must also cultivate hardy confidence internally. Our aim is thus, always, to hold individuality and individual journeys as sacred, with appreciation for their complexities and with a commitment to giving mistakes an honored role in the cultivation of confidence. When missteps are personal or interpersonal – as they inevitably sometimes will be – we strive never to stint on the time and, frankly, the discomfort that the messy human businesses of self-reflection, personal renewal, and relationship repair all require. I will not share with you this evening from this year’s tales of transgression – though I do have some good stories. Key to what makes them good is the opportunities they provided for all of us to do better. The same holds true for missed marks in the academic realm, as they surely offer some of the very richest soil for students to nurture their confidence. I relished my own opportunities this year to note our students’ accomplishments in their second, third, or fourth efforts.
Kindness. I relished, too, the abundance of kindness I encountered. Much of this is innate in our students, to be sure, or carried from home. We make no claims for having created it, just for tending to the seeds of it with loving care. This work includes steady enunciation of principles of human kindness, along with reinforcement of them in the abundant wisdom of our tradition and its texts and all the many glosses on them. It includes time set aside for appreciation and wonder and personal, non-doctrinaire spirituality. And time set aside for setting intentions, for introspection, and for making amends.
Kindness thrives, too, in the gleam of good examples. In my first two year as SJCS’s Head of School, I have been the beneficiary of an abundance of blessings, led by the abundance of good examples that surround me, partner with me, and uplift me. These include the students themselves. I have told many people over the years that I feel lucky because I have never once been bored in all the time I have worked in schools. At SJCS, I can add to this that, on school days, I have also never been more than a few feet from certain delight emanating from the kids … even when they are a bit naughty … and certainly when they are more than a bit earnest, excited, contemplative, creative, friendly, funny, and so many other good things … as they so regularly are.
SJCS’s good examples also include the children’s parents. Bless you! For your children do not show up in the ways they do by accident. All of us on the professional team are so grateful for the trust you place in us and the treasures you share with us.
And, of course, the school’s good examples include my colleagues and partners, both professional and lay. I have worked in multiple schools over many years, so I do claim for myself the bona fides to pronounce that SJCS’s teachers stand out for their skill and their dedication. This school is all that it is because of them.
I also keep on keeping on, with good laughs along the way, because of my administrative partners, starting with my partner in crime and including every member of the team. You are all dear to me, and I am grateful for – and to – each and every one of you.
The gratitude extends to – of course, of course! – my lay partners, just as the good examples include them – also of course! I will go back to the bona fides of having been in this business for a good many years to add the pronouncement that SJCS is the most effectively governed independent school I have ever known. Indeed, it is only our community’s embarrassment of riches bumping up against our apt aim for efficiency this evening that precludes my reciting a whole bunch of names of a whole bunch of wonderful people.
But I will name one.
The Book of משלי / Mishle (Proverbs) closes with a heartfelt tribute to an extraordinarily productive and thoughtful woman. Near the end, the author – by tradition שלמה המלך / Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) – notes:
רבות ... עשו חיל ואת עלית על כלנה
Rabot … asu chayil, v’at alit al kulana
Many have done well, but you surpass them all
Over two years of a very full term as the President of SJCS’s Board of Trustees, Rebecca Finkel has given to the school the fullness of her time, her heart, and her wisdom. This has been clear to anyone paying any attention, and – as the Head of School – I can add that Rebecca has also contributed so much more that is less visible. Just as the school has been the beneficiary of her service, so too have I been – of her service, her camaraderie, her lively engagement, and her friendship. Rebecca: thank you!
Always growing, never grown. Our garden of curiosity, confidence, and kindness has flourished this year. We regard it, all the same, as always growing, never grown. We have much in store for next year, including the anticipated arrival of several new members of the team, the initiation of a carefully selected new Math curriculum, the active participation in a professional learning community of Hebrew language teachers across the Pacific Northwest, the incorporation into our innovative 5th grade program a new component focused on the distinctive Sephardic Heritage of Seattle’s Jewish community, and the celebration of our school’s 32nd anniversary, with a multi-faceted emphasis on “heart” … or in Hebrew לב / lev, a word whose numerical value in the gematria system is 32.
What a terrific year we have had!
Only to be surpassed by the ones to follow.