The Talmud of COVID: Leadership in Times of Challenge
As we enter the Thanksgiving season, leaders and CEOs have a chance to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of leading our institutions during these tumultuous times.
I am proud that Gann was one of the first schools in our region to open safely in person this past summer. Now, as the adrenaline of the summer planning begins to fade, I find myself reflecting on some of the difficult questions my team has faced over these past several months. For example, what is the role of an institution in dictating individuals’ personal behavior when what happens on nights and weekends poses real risk to our community? How do we provide maximum support to our employees while ensuring that key functions of the institution are maintained at the level of excellence needed to survive the pandemic? Do we allocate all of our resources in the short term to get through the challenges at hand or keep the longer term in mind?
As we prepare for Yom Kippur, we reflect on this unusual year and the experience of living, working, teaching, and parenting in a pandemic.
I am thrilled to report that Gann Academy successfully reopened in person this past August. In order to reopen safely, we had to reinvent every aspect of running a school. Within six short weeks, we rewrote Gann’s schedule, transportation protocols, homework policies, and more. We even figured out how to play team sports while physically distancing and masked. Our goal was to ensure the highest levels of safety for our faculty, staff, and students while maintaining key elements of the Gann experience.
We, alongside communities across the country, are angered and saddened by recent moments of racial violence and injustice, including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, and Tony McDade. Our tradition teaches us that every person is created in the image of God, b'tzelem elohim, and our hearts are broken by the loss of life and divine spark embodied in each of these human beings and the injustices that our African American communities continue to suffer.
This past weekend, we commemorated the Jewish festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is the ancient festival that is also known asChag Ha’Bikkurimor the "festival of first fruits." The first fruits were the choice crop brought to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. As the Torah states in D’varim 26:2: "You shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your Land that your G-d gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that your G-d, will choose."
As a child growing up in Boston, I used to eagerly await Grandparents Day at my Jewish Day School. My grandmother, Savta, would take the train from New York City (the center of the universe in her humble opinion) to visit my school in Newton. She would schmooze with the other grandparents, kvell when we performed Hebrew songs, and then go back to the Upper West Side with deep satisfaction, naches (pride), and some sort of existential confidence in Jewish continuity. I suspect the event also secured Savta serious bragging rights among the other Jewish grandmothers of the Upper West Side! For my part, upon reflection, so much of my emerging Jewish identity as a child became connected to Savta’s pride, to her immigrant life story, and to the beauty, rituals, and rhythms of her Shabbat and holiday table. While in some schools, Grandparents and Friends Day is a “nice to have,” at schools like Gann, connecting with grandparents is essential to our sacred mission of Jewish education.
It is a true sign of the strength of our community that even in such challenging times, there has been an outpouring of support for Gann Academy. Students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members have all reached out to see how they could help our beloved school.
As soon as we made the tough decision to move Gann to online learning last week, our team had to pivot to ensure that a new plan could be put in place for students, for employees, for our business functions, for development, and for prospective students. Over a short period of time, I witnessed an abundance of creativity, teamwork, and agility across all departments at Gann.
Gann Academy students and teachers engage in character development as part of our Mussar program. Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice based on the idea of cultivating inner virtues as a way to live an ethical and meaningful life. One of the key virtues in Mussar practice is savlanut (patience). In this age of multitasking, texting, and online shopping, we aren’t used to being patient. Instant gratification is the norm. If we need to make a decision, we have plenty of information at our fingertips.
There has been much community conversation about the rise of anti-Semitism as of late. Gann students in 2020 are confronting many more overtly anti-Semitic remarks and acts than I did when we were growing up in the 1980s. From swastikas in Newton, to the derogatory comments Gann students have received about their Kippot, our students face a different and more challenging reality.
Tomorrow, Gann students will join hundreds of Jewish teenagers for a community day of service to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Gann is proud to partner with Jewish Teen Initiative (JTI Boston), a network of nearly 1,000 local teens engaging in individualized educational and social justice projects in the Boston region.
Shavua Tov: Parashat Shemot - How Should Leaders Listen?
Pick up any leadership manual, and you’ll find the same suggestion for new leaders: spend your first several months listening and learning. Taking this advice to heart, I spent the past year meeting with dozens of current students, parents, alumni, alumni parents, teachers, staff, community members, and colleagues from other independent and Jewish schools.