AVI CHAI Program Officer Rabbi Dr. Steve Brown called for vignettes showing what religious purposefulness looks like in Jewish day schools – and day school leaders have answered. Here is one from Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of Gann Academy, whose program Chanoch L’Na’ar has received partial funding from AVI CHAI. If you have an example of religious purposefulness in your day school, you can submit it here.
Above: Rabbi Baker speaks to Gann students in the school sukkah (Craig Byer Web & Social Media Specialist Gann Academy)
By: Marc Baker
Over the past several years, our school has undertaken a school-wide character and Jewish identity development initiative that we call “Chanoch L’Na’ar” (CLN). The program is based on the principles and practices of the Mussar movement adapted for a modern, pluralistic community. It is anchored in the learning of Jewish middot (character traits/inner qualities) through traditional texts, and the practice of hitlamdut (non-judgment self-reflection) done individually, in chevruta and in supportive communities (va’adim).
Our vision is twofold:
- The language and worldview of middot – with their deeply Jewish contexts and connotations – will shape the language and culture of our entire school. They will become a lens and a framework for thinking about character and identity development in and out of the classroom, in both the Jewish and the not-specifically-Jewish aspects of the educational program (such as athletics).
- All members of our community will come to understand that habits of heart are essential for a growth-oriented community where students, educators and leaders are committed to intellectual and moral rigor as well as Jewish (ethical, cultural and spiritual) meaning and depth. Such habits include reflective practice, personal and professional openness and vulnerability, setting small, realistic goals for improvement, and listening and empathy. Ultimately, this is about creating a community that sees, values, and helps to develop the neshamot (souls) of its inhabitants, students, teachers and leaders alike.
To these ends, our effort to strengthen the moral and religious purposefulness of our students and our culture began with the adults in our community. We have launched several faculty-administrator va’adim in which teachers and administrators from all areas of the school are practicing this work and beginning to translate it into their practice with students.
Last year, together with our Mashgiach Ruchani (Spiritual Advisor) and director of the CLN program, I decided that if we want this kind of religiously purposeful language, culture and practice to impact the whole school, we need to start with the school’s senior leadership team. The team consists of Jewish and non-Jewish administrators who are responsible for all of the major areas of school life, including the educational side of the school as well as Admissions, Finance and Operations, and Development. This was a somewhat unusual va’ad due to the diversity of the group and the fact that, while all other va’adim were completely optional, here we created a new, mussar-based approach to leadership development in which everyone was expected to participate.
In our third or fourth meeting (it took several meetings for the group to develop trust and comfort with each other and the approach), our team studied the middah of seder (order, organization, structure). I chose this middah because for years we have been talking about improving the “operational effectiveness” of our school and ourselves as leaders. As one parent once put it to me, we do the “big things” really well, but we could stand to focus more on some of the “smaller things” that affect all of our stakeholders.
As an introduction to the middah, we studied several texts, including the well-known “tafasta merubah lo tafasta – one who takes on too much has taken on nothing”, and a text from Rabbi Simcha Zissel Seif of Chelm, which compares all of the middot to pearls on a necklace and compares the middah of seder to the clasp.
What ensued was what I see as a powerful example of religiously purposeful leadership development. First, studying the middah of seder through these texts helped our team to see and unpack the nuances and complexity of the Jewish middah of seder (as opposed to just using a Hebrew translation for a concept we already know and understand). While we’ve talked about operational effectiveness for years, it was only through learning these Jewish texts and through the lens of seder that we really began to peel away the layers of our own personal and professional practice and of our school’s culture around operations. For example, one team member felt passionately that the pearls are more important than the clasp and questioned why we would be focusing so much on the clasp. She acknowledged that she tends to resist efforts to “professionalize” or “operationalize” our culture because she fears becoming an impersonal bureaucrat. Another team member confessed that she might overemphasize the clasp because she fears that, with all of the energy and resources we put into the pearls, they might at any point just fall off the necklace and scatter. Our study of the other text (tafasta merubah . . .) led to an important conversation about organizational overload and our own tendencies to take on too much as leaders and as people.
Jewish learning and the middot in particular became a powerful framework for my leadership team’s reflection not only on our individual strengths and challenges, but also on our school’s culture, its organizational middot. I believe that real change and growth, both on the individual level and on the school-wide level, only happens when we slow down enough to look honestly and deeply at ourselves and our culture. And then, once we have identified opportunities for improvement, we commit to regularly observing ourselves and each other, and to taking on what mussar calls kabbalot, small commitments to change ourselves and our practice in the area of particular middot. To me, this work of personal and professional growth is spiritual work in and of itself. When our work also becomes a laboratory for Jewish learning and leadership, and for deepening the Jewish neshama of our school, this is, to me, what religious purposefulness is all about.
Marc Baker is Head of Gann Academy.