Reflections on the 2021-2022 / 5782 School Year at SJCS: "The View From Base Camp"
Reflections originally shared at the SJCS Annual Meeting on June 13, 2022.
Shortly after my arrival in Seattle and at SJCS – during some “getting to know you” and “getting our collaboration underway” banter with Yael Sachs – she suggested that an analogy to “Base Camp” might fit how we were talking and thinking about the work ahead for the school. That ended up being one of the first of many, many contributions Yael made to my first year on the job. She has been an invaluable partner, a new partner who feels like a longtime one.
The more I thought about the analogy and tried it out, the more it struck me as fitting, and not just because I now found myself in an Emerald City, with a myriad of wonders to explore, including snow-peaked mountains to the east and to the west. I had opportunities to elaborate on the theme and to refine it further in early conversations with Rebecca Finkel – another invaluable partner; in my 26th year of working in independent schools, she has become my paradigm of the model Board President.
In suggesting early-on to my colleagues that we could think of ourselves as gathered in Base Camp, I wanted to convey my recognition that I was not arriving at the school at the beginning of a journey, but amidst one. It takes effort to get to Base Camp, and the last several years have, undeniably, involved many challenges. SJCS’s loyal, talented, and wonderful teachers and staff members have weathered tough financial circumstances, a relocation that put those uncertainties behind the school – and a bright future before it – but also presented the inevitable trials of loss and change; they faced leadership transitions as well, and, on top of all of that, a global pandemic whose wearing impact on the entire educational profession has been noted, without being resolved. Getting to Base Camp is a trek.
With that, Base Camp also provides clarity of purpose for those gathered there. Before moving onward and upward, everyone needs to adjust to the altitude, to the new circumstances before us. With ascents ahead, the team needs to come together, to prepare for the opportunities it will pursue, to map its plans, and to exercise the muscles of appreciating the complementarity of our roles, honoring our interdependence, looking out for each other, and bringing each other along. This work has been central to all of our efforts throughout this school year. Circumstances have tested us, and we have proven our mettle.
Two distinct metrics reinforce that sense. Bound by agreements held sacred, the SJCS community kept COVID-19 nearly at bay in exemplary fashion through 2021. When members of our community, myself included, succumbed to the unprecedented contagiousness of the Omicron variants in 2022, we stood by each other, kept our school open with the flexibility we needed to serve the children – their learning and growth and their peace of mind as well – and through it all, we maintained a true sense of communal harmony, whether everyone agreed with all features of the school’s response to the pandemic or not. Indeed, I recognize, of course, that some members of our community would, in some circumstances, have preferred different approaches – yet, through and through, this community responded with grace and understanding. I can tell you with unabashed pride that my accounts of the non-contentiousness around COVID at SJCS made me the envy of my fellow Heads of School.
In balancing sturdiness and flexibility, in sustaining high standards and establishing foundations for future aspirations, we achieved an ideal indicator of our community’s confidence in our school. SJCS’s retention of students not moving from the area, from this year to next, stands at over 95%. That meets the very highest standards in our industry, and it bodes well for our school’s future. We intend to meet communal confidence with continued commitment.
Notwithstanding the journeys involved in getting to Base Camp and the important work that takes place there, Base Camp itself is not our ultimate destination. That surrounds us in the peaks we seek to ascend. Over the course of this year, we have found core inspiration in our very name, reaching for the highest ideals – as we will continue to do – embedded in each of its four words, following the Hebrew maxim: כשמו כן הוא / K’shmo, ken hu (As it is named, so it is, and so it shall be).
We are, of course, a SCHOOL. Providing an excellent context for children’s learning and growth stands at the forefront of everything we do at SJCS. Responsibilities can bind me to my office, all the more in this era of Zoom meetings. But whenever I could see – or hear – learning directly (and not just indirectly), I cherished it. Our students produced lots of standout work, with the Shorashim’s explorations of maps and origin stories, the Anafim’s multi-media work on Rainforest animals, and the Rimonim’s compositions about Places of Power and artistic representations of them serving only as standout examples of the wonder that pervades our classrooms day-in and day-out. The children worked hard this year to advance their acquisition of Hebrew; listening to students new to the school, even in older grades, speaking the language was a distinct thrill. Our program is also multi-faceted. SJCS has a long tradition of excellence in the visual arts, and we were able to bring back regular physical education lessons this year, along with the uplifting sounds of choral music, even if we had to sing outside and with masks. For the last four years, SJCS has partnered with the University of Washington’s Haring Center for Inclusive Education. This year, we took big steps forward in aligning our practices for תמיכה / Tmicha (support) with the Haring Center’s recommendations, and our teachers and צוות תמיכה / Tzevet Tmicha (Support Team) moved forward with deep commitment to forthright communication in the service of the children’s growth. The multiple facets of our educational program came together in SJCS’s new Statement of Educational Philosophy, which will continue to guide our work moving forward.
We are, also, a COMMUNITY SCHOOL, reflecting commitments that move outward in concentric circles. In morning meetings, at the playground, and through all our day-to-day interactions, our focus on the student’s social-emotional growth stands alongside our emphasis on their intellectual development. Like any community, we would just as soon avoid the tests that pandemics and personal tragedy put before us, but we can also take pride in the ways this community responded to the pressures and sorrows it faced. I very much include the children in this. Their thoughtfulness at the saddest moments of this year touched me deeply. It reflected the values of the families raising them, and we should all feel very proud, and hopeful too. This year brought grief, as all years do; it also brought celebration. Rather than a culmination, SJCS’s 30th Anniversary reconnected our community to its founders and sustainers and refreshed our commitment to honoring these ties and carrying them forward. Connecting with many of the school’s previous Board Presidents over Breakfast and hearing their enthusiasm for how SJCS is taking their ideals into a new era was a highlight of the year for me. We looked beyond ourselves as well. SJCS is grateful for the school’s partnership with the Samis Foundation which is taking its generosity to new heights with the Day School Affordability initiative, putting all we have to offer more comfortably within reach for middle-income families. I also felt proud to initiate a joint session of local Heads of School at this winter’s Limmud Seattle program, and I will be proud to represent my school and other schools as the representative of Jewish day schools on the Board of Trustees of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools.
Beyond being a Community School, we are a JEWISH COMMUNITY SCHOOL. How fitting, then, that several of the high points of the year revolved around Jewish life. We celebrated Purim all day, with spontaneity, frivolity, and gusto enhanced by the fleeting sense that the pandemic could be waning. (That day will yet come, and we will celebrate it!) I suspect that if our whole-school field trip the next month to the Matzah Factory at the MMSC Day School had only involved a trip around the block on buses, we still would have had a blast. How much more fun it was to add interactive learning about matzah and to share lunch with other day school children on their playground. Pesach and Lag
BaOmer brought other celebrations, including our simulated Trip to Israel – with far better service than the airlines have been providing lately. These examples of the children’s joy in the Jewish part of their identities were only possible with the collaboration of our professional team and our parent volunteers. Thank you so very much!
Putting it all together: We are the SEATTLE JEWISH COMMUNITY SCHOOL. Our Emerald City provides much inspiration, and we intend to build on that, moving forward, capitalizing on opportunities to enrich the place-based components of our program. Surely another highlight of this year came with the invitation to plant 500 daffodils, as part of an international project honoring the memory of children who perished in the Nazi Holocaust and calling attention to those suffering today in the context of humanitarian crises. I will hold forever dear the image of our students up to their wrists in mud as well as the complementary enthusiasm of the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. I did not expect permission to plant in Green Lake Park. Not only did we get it; Parks & Rec facilitated our efforts, and the Chief Gardener told us the day we planted was one of the best days of his year. We took advantage of the park in other ways, and we moved just a bit further afield in incubating local eggs and watching them hatch – during class! – before sending them off to their permanent home on Vashon Island at the farm of the Levin-Braverman alumni family. Along with Seattle’s natural beauty, our city at its best, promotes a civic culture committed to land acknowledgement – a principle surely dear to us as a people with a deep attachment of our own to a land – and a commitment to social justice as well. Our students take in those principles, and they pay them forward. How proud I felt of them in when they initiated a march to protest the heartless invasion of Ukraine and when our Rimonim students offered presentations to the Board, including ones sharing their sensibilities on gender roles and on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I feel exceedingly blessed in my opportunity to serve as Head of School at the Seattle Jewish Community School. Certainly, that is a product in part of my exceedingly good fortune in my partners: my administrative colleagues; the school’s outstanding teachers; the parents whose bonds and commitments form the fiber of this community; the school’s lay leadership led – and led brilliantly – by Rebecca Finkel and Kristen Cohon; every Trustee, PALC member, committee member, and volunteer whom we acknowledge tonight; and – אחרונים אחרונים חביבים / Achronim, achronim, chavivim (The last are the dearest) – our precious and delightful students. No day in this soggy year was so overcast that they could not brighten it with their curiosity, their kindness, their learning accomplishments, their mischief, and their values. To all of you and to my precious family that keeps me grounded, I say thank you.
Along with great partners, the blessing of this work also involves the opportunities of the future. There is so much we can do – and must do – for the children of our community and for our ailing world. SJCS’s mission and vision are vital. Today more than ever.
- Together, we will “welcome students and families to an inclusive educational community.”
- Together, we will “draw inspiration from Jewish values and intellectual traditions.
- Together, we will “celebrate the joys of learning and community while preparing students to influence their world for the good.”
- Together, we will “make a positive difference in our community and beyond.”
- Together, we will “champion social justice and the dignity of difference.”
- Together, we will “ensure that our graduates will engage with the responsibilities and opportunities before them, guided by formative learning experiences and secure in their identities.”
We have achieved much in Base Camp this year, and we can look ahead to the opportune heights before us.
קדימה / Kadima (Onward and upward!)