I am almost always the first car on the property each morning. This is not new. For the last nine years that I have been a Head of School at a Schechter – five years as founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas and the last four, here, at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School – however early childcare was available…that’s when the Mitzmacher family arrives. My daughters since birth have had the pleasure of dining at school each morning at around 7:00 AM. (You’re welcome!) Why do I insist on arriving so early?
Based on the title of this blog post, you might think the answer is “minyan”. That I try each morning to get to work as early as possible so that I can attend daily morning services at the synagogues in which my schools have been housed.
Despite the fact that minyan begins (here) at 7:10 AM, I had not been in the habit of rushing to drop off my girls to attend. Not that I never attended; I would attend sporadically on my own or to be present at school-related events. But my rush in the morning was really to take advantage of that magic hour of silence before teachers and students arrived. That was my hour to catch up on voicemail and email and to be ready to greet teachers and students at their arrival times. For many parents and students, seeing me in the carpool line each morning is my primary point of contact, one that I take very seriously for communication and community-building. So if I am being honest, when the minyan would be short the requisite ten and I was sent for, there were times when I either went begrudgingly or not at all.
And evening minyan?
Ironically, with all my talk of transparency and role modeling, there was always a disconnect between my schools’ expression of the value of daily prayer and my own personal practice.
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
That is not typically my leadership style, but when it has come to prayer that has been my unstated approach.
And I like prayer!
So much so that it is the focus of my teaching time in the school. I teach tefillah to Kitah Alef twice a week, to Kitah Zayin once a week, and teach a seminar about tefillah to Kitah Chet once a week as well. I love visiting all our minyanim and our monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service. We come each week to Shabbat services as a family and attend all Jewish holidays. So what’s going on?
I think it has to do with my initial visit to the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in the winter of 1994. I have shared about my religious upbringing before, but it is worth mentioning that that morning began with this thing called “minyan” and I can still feel the shock to my system I felt that morning as I watched peers participate in the first Hebrew (only) service I had ever experienced. It was also the first time I had ever seen tefillin. And that feeling of discomfort served both as the catalyst for the Jewish journey my life has taken since…and the roadblock to my daily minyan attendance.
Because, I still feel it each time I put on my tefillin. I still feel it each time I walk through the doors. I still feel it each time I am asked to lead. All those feelings of inadequacy or ignorance or fraudulence…they are still there. Despite all my years of education, my years of teaching, my years of leading those same prayers for children and teens – you put me in a room with 500 children and I am fine. 7:10 AM with 9 other adults? Terror.
And if that’s how I feel…imagine how the average parent in our schools feel.
And in a normal year, this would be the point in my blog post where I would transition into an educational and religious exposition of the value of prayer, linking it to why we engage our students in daily prayer and our aspirations for the outcomes. But for me this is not a normal year. Because my life changed forever almost eight months ago when I unexpectedly lost my father and with that change, my attitude about minyan has undergone a fundamental transformation.
I realize it is a cliche. The process of mourning often has this impact on people. But cliches are often built on a foundation of truth and one person’s cliche is another person’s life-changing experience and this has been mine. And since July, I have attended minyan each day in order to say Kaddish. Any my appreciation for those who ensure that there is, in fact, a minyan is unbounded. And it isn’t always easy to do…there are days we struggle to make ten. This is why my colleague Hazzan Holzer began a campaign this year at the Jacksonville Jewish Center called “Minyan Matters”.
It really does.
And this is the part that I do connect to our school and my newfound appreciation that as a Schechter school we value daily prayer. We value it not only because of the skills it provides them with so that they will never have to feel the discomfort and fear many of us experience as adults with prayer. We value it not only because we hope to inspire a lifelong love of prayer and future synagogue affiliation. We value it because part of what it means to be a community is to provide its members with opportunities to have its spiritual needs met. It is a blessing to have that opportunity with our children each day.
It is a blessing for me to have that opportunity each day as well.
And only by raising our children to appreciate this value can we be assured that when it is our turn in the circle of life to be the subject of someone else’s Kaddish that there will be a minayn in which it can be said.
That’s the Schechter Difference.