As I first interviewed for an Associate Teacher position at our nursery school, in March of 2008, I sat in Ilana Ruskay-Kidd’s office, then school director. She asked me if I knew much about the Reggio approach to education and I squirmishly answered, “No, but I’m a good reader!” She patiently offered a cogent explanation: the teacher’s job is to research with the child what it is they are interested in. She supplied an example: if you notice a child stroking a stuffed animal in the classroom, you should wonder – are they finding comfort in the familiarity of a dog because they have a pet dog at home? Or, do they find pleasure in the sensory feedback of the plush fur? Or, are they imagining a fantastical story about the dog going on a journey? I still often return to this example as a succinct explanation of the Reggio approach.
Well, I got the job, and ever since that moment I have been learning from Ilana, who would be my boss for the following five years and whose office I would then inherit. I learned from Ilana what it looks like to be a school leader, to be an empathic educator, to be a Jewish scholar, to be fair and sensitive while balancing many perspectives. If you’ve ever seen me pause mid-conversation or speech, I am likely thinking before speaking, “What would Ilana have to say in this moment? What values would she find present here?” The key ring to what is now my office still has Ilana’s name written on the label, in slowly-fading Sharpie.
I hope that her vision and values last even longer for our school community. More than anything, what I learned from Ilana is to see the spark of Godliness in each and every one of us. To see beauty in human variation; to find wealth where others would see deficiency.
This past Monday, Ilana was honored with a Covenant Award for her work surrounding that value – for seeing shefa (Hebrew for abundance) where others saw remediation. Ilana left the JCC to found Shefa, the first Jewish day school that serves children who need a specialized educational environment in order to develop their strengths while addressing their learning challenges. Her remarks at the award ceremony shed light not only on Ilana and Shefa, but on the journey of our school – of where we find our values, of how we see each other, and of our responsibility to build a community that celebrates the ways in which each child grows differently. I encourage you to read her remarks, copied here in full, and to watch this short video prepared for the occasion.
Ilana Ruskay-Kidd’s remarks at the Covenant Award ceremony, November 13th, 2016:
I want to begin with a story about my son Daniel, when he was around 7 years old.
One evening, Daniel declared, "I don't feel comfortable, and you are not respecting my comfort.” "What do you mean?" I asked him. He pointed to our newly re-glazed bathtub and explained that he preferred the tub bumpy. He liked it when our pre-war bathtub had its layers of enamel peeled away in jagged shapes, when you could see the veiny surface and rough layers beneath. I tried to convince him that it was nice to have a smooth re-glazed bathtub to bathe in. "Isn't it great that it is so clean and shiny?" I asked. "No," Daniel declared. "I like it bumpy. I am more used to it that way. You know how food can be too sugary. That's how a smooth bathtub is to me."
As Daniel lay in his tub that night comfortably scrubbing his little body, I thought to myself that he was adjusting to this new territory, and that I had successfully made my case. But then he lifted his head from the bubbly water and announced, “You know Ema, it is still bumpy underneath the smooth surface. I can feel it." I reached down to confirm his report. And as my hand swayed beneath the water I realized that Daniel was discovering a deep truth: for our prior experiences always lie beneath our new layers. The ragged enamel is indeed beneath the smooth resurface.
Our job as parents and as educators is to respect and appreciate the cracked edges. Every one of us has cracks, has imperfect spots and blemishes. I am reminded of the kabbalistic notion of tikkun olam. In this conception, the universe and the kedushah within it began whole and then burst apart, creating millions of shards of the divine within the material of creation. In this vision, there is an inherent brokenness, and an inherent divinity, within creation and within us.
My mother used to say that her job as a parent was not to ruin us. In this teaching she was communicating her belief that we are all made betzelem elohim, in the image of God, perfect with all of our imperfect cracked edges. She saw our imperfections as part of what makes us holy. Our job as parents and educators is to help smooth some of the rough edges while simultaneously honoring the ways in which our cracks make us who we are, creations from God, perfect in our imperfection. Our job is to always remember that insofar as we see our children’s smooth and shiny surfaces, there are layers beneath. We celebrate both the smooth and the jagged.
Our responsibility as parents and educators is also to always remember what is possible. Regardless of background, learning style, or cracks, there is always potential. The first moment when I became inspired to be a teacher was when I was 17 years old and began to work with an extraordinary 1st grade teacher in Harlem who believed that her impoverished students would learn to read. Despite the poverty, despite the deprivation, she believed they would crack the code and read. And they did. They didn’t all read well, but they all exceeded the low expectations and the limited vision that so many others had for these children in the inner city. This teacher’s fervent belief in their potential was core to their success. When we believe that children are capable, competent and full of potential, there is no limit to what can be achieved. And so, our job, every one of us in this room, is to help raise children, and to educate parents, to both accept and love every crack and bump that lies beneath while also always keeping our eyes on what is possible.
As recently deceased musician, Leonard Cohen writes:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
I want to thank the many people who have brought light into my life and inspired me to do my work. First, my amazing family who has been the most supportive cheerleaders, patient as I have worked and sometimes been distracted or stressed, encouraging when I feel worried, and always willing to offer good counsel and advice. I also want to thank my colleagues and mentors who have taught me through the work that they do every day what it means to be an educator, a Jewish professional and a “text person,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes. And finally, I am grateful to the Covenant Foundation’s staff and Board and the Crown family for creating this opportunity to bring light and visibility to the holy work of Jewish education.