Who are we as a community?
I posed this question to each of you at the very beginning of your relationship with our school; I have used this question to frame each Admissions Tour for the past three years. I then go on to elucidate that this is a school situated within a community, which orients us not around teaching and learning but rather values and relationships. It is only within that values-laden community context that teaching and learning (the act of schooling) then occurs. In essence, I use this as an introductory question to establish that we are a values-first community – everything else comes later.
(Stick with me – this is lengthy and personal)
I am fortunate that my orientation to the world is a natural fit for our school community. This allows me to fully and authentically embrace (and perhaps preach) who we are. I am ceaselessly optimistic, enduringly hopeful, and persistent in my search for goodness, in individuals and the broader world.
As the leader of a Jewish school and community, these are not only my values but they are our values. Rebbe Nachman taught, “A person must judge everyone favorably…it is necessary to search and find in him [everyone] some modicum of good” (Rabbi Joy actually shared this quote, in a different context, in my monthly Coffee Chat this morning). Breslov goes on to extrapolate that by seeking goodness in others, we grow goodness in ourselves and the world. This teaching is often paraphrased in the contemporary vernacular as, “Give others the benefit of the doubt.”
(Not coincidentally, I quoted Rebbe Nachman in my first Note, back in September 2013, in which you’ll find similar themes resonating)
The value I have learned – more than anything else – in my five years in the Director’s chair is that behind every face there is a story. Behind every single person here – you, your child, your child’s teacher, your classmates, your babysitter – is a story. Each person’s story deserves to be judged favorably; each person deserves the benefit of the doubt. By seeking goodness, we grow goodness.
This has been driven home time and again for me. I once had several interactions in a row with a parent in which she would complain about some seemingly trivial aspect of school – conversations in which I was at times yelled at and cursed at. After drop-off one morning she asked if I had a minute to chat. I almost said no, anticipating this as a yet another chance for her to critique something. I’m glad I didn’t say no - holding our values close, I invited her into my office. “I was diagnosed with cancer,” she said, “and I need help talking about this with my children.” Thank goodness for values. This moment led to several very intimate conversations and profoundly changed our relationship.
I learned from this to always listen, to always be empathic, to always judge people favorably. I don’t know your story yet – but I know that my responsibility is to judge you favorably and seek goodness.
In a recurring pattern (this happens to me multiple times a year), a parent will share with me that a classmate is antagonizing their child, either excluding them or being aggressive with them. The conversation often turns to, “What are you as a school doing to prevent this from happening?” The answer is always, “A lot – we are on this, we know what you are describing, and we are pouring resources into ameliorating it.” What I can’t tell you is what the story is behind the child you’re describing (a sentiment emotionally outlined in this poignant article –I’d make this required reading if I could). What I will ask you, though, is to embrace our values and give this child the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean to stop advocating for your child’s safety – please keep doing that! – but it does mean removing blame and replacing it with compassion. It means seeking goodness, even in the antagonizer.
Cohering all of the above sentiments, my four year old son Jonah asked me at dinner earlier this week, “Everybody we know is our friend, right daddy?” I was a bit taken aback. It certainly seemed like a reach. And then I remembered that many of our JCC teachers refer to our children collectively as “friends” rather than “boys and girls” or “students”. And that the openings lines of our school video, spoken by our students, are, “A friend is a human. All my friends are great just the way they are. I say, we can all be friends together.” And that I’ve used the same Vivian Paley quote in two of my Parent Orientation speeches (in 2013 and 2015 for those keeping score at home; get your bingo card ready for 2018!), and also in my final project for my Masters degree: “Maybe our classrooms can be nicer than the outside world.” These are not accidental – they represent our values-first orientation.
So, with that in mind, I responded to Jonah by offering what might serve as a parallel statement: “People we don’t know are strangers”. Jonah embraced this, doubling down: “Daddy, I have a good idea! We can find strangers, and tell them our names, and then we can be friends with them.” I have no doubt that this type of language and this vision of the world comes not from my parenting but from Jonah’s experiences with his teachers last year in Classroom 1 and this year in Classroom 2.
We should all be so privileged to see the world as Rebbe Nachman and our students – to seek goodness, to look for ways to turn strangers into friends. It was a proud moment for me as a father but also as a school leader, to see the values I have spent a decade working on in the 2nd floor seeping out of the classroom and onto my dinner table.
And so I return to my introductory question – Who are we as a community?
We are a place where each individual – each inch of humanity – is embraced as a friend, is seen for the goodness within them.
You are each my partners in this work: Building a values-first community. Leading with kindness. Knowing that we don’t yet know the story behind each face. Insisting on empathy and compassion, on judging others favorably. In a Jewish community like ours, I know of no other way.
Who are we as a community?