Rivy  is completing her sixteenth year as head of Seattle Hebrew Academy. Stay tuned for next steps, in the meantime you can listen to her podcast, The Poem.The Parsha.The Podcast. recorded each week together with the poet and SHA teacher, Adrienne Query-Fiss.

Finding Strength in Otherness: Women's Leadership in an Orthodox School

In her pivotal work In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan lays out the concept that women are “living at once inside and outside the framework”—an observation that absolutely resonates with me as an Orthodox woman leader and head of school. 

Orthodox women, even in 2022, in varying degrees and depending on setting, are still “the other” vis-à-vis communal life, whether within the confines of the synagogue—where there is separate seating, differentiated roles and ritual practice—or even in protocols or etiquettes in social settings, communal events, praxis and visibility during lifecycle semachot. This otherness is palpable.

Leading Through Otherness 

The feeling of being “other” is real. In the realm of school life, how might this complicated “otherness” inform school vision and practice positively? 

For me this otherness, integrated into my persona, to a very strong degree underpins my stance and leadership practice in my sixteen years as head of school of the Seattle Hebrew Academy. From the beginning, the school’s bylaws had to be changed in order for me to be allowed to serve as the first female head in the school’s history of more than six decades.

To “live at once inside and outside the framework” is to identify and feel for “the other,” to deeply know the experience of not being fully comfortable in postures of power, not at ease with and perhaps philosophically against having the coffee made, phone calls cued up or notes written on my behalf in the office, and absolutely not acculturated to a heavy-handed authoritarian stance as an educator, the common “sage on the stage” posture in the classroom or at the school assembly.

Upon reflection, I had begun to adopt a non-hierarchical, more democratic stance as a “boss,” as educator and as a colleague. To me, to be “other” is to feel deeply for the weak, to give space for all voices and to be sensitive to the potential hurt of the disenfranchised. 

Is this a purely a personal penchant or an adoptable ideology?

Finding Our Vision

Coinciding with assuming my current position, I had been invited in 2006 to participate to the Visions of Jewish Education Project, which sought to develop a “vision” for our own particular schools. Here is the way that the project articulated the notion of “vision” (as outlined in the introduction of Visions Of Jewish Education, by Seymour Fox, Israel Scheffler and Daniel Marom):

Vision, as we understand it, is not simply ideological preference. It implies both comprehensive understanding and guiding purpose. It places the work of education in the setting of a present that is an outgrowth of the past but that also contains within it the seeds of a future to be grasped creatively through imagination and effort.

With these words taken to heart, together with the guidance of the faculty of the MTEI Visions project, I set out to develop a Visions Project. 

I wanted so much for the school as its new head: growth for the teachers, a healthy involvement for lay people and of course a transformative and inspiring education for the students. My mind raced from ideas of hands-on learning to student leadership, from the need for rigorous academics and to schoolwide chesed initiatives and then to professional development and nurturing school culture and on and on. These are areas we desperately need, but what is the vision driving those activities that will happen in this school? What will be the ethos, the overarching idea that will provide a litmus test for our decision making?

Student Dignity

After soul searching and much self-reflection, I realized that the outstanding school that I wanted a share in creating was a school where the honor of each student was at the center of every conversation.  Whether the topic concerns school mission, parent culture, teacher growth, curriculum, hallway norms, differentiated instruction and certainly if it involved discipline, I knew that student dignity could be the framework for a fruitful outcome and the nexus for building out ripple rings of culture. 

What is student dignity? What does it look like and how does one have it permeate an entire school staffed with teachers with dramatically different backgrounds, sensibilities and preferences?

I began with a deep dive into the Jewish texts and then creating a study booklet with sources, questions and materials for our entire staff and board to consider through the year at meetings and in-services. This value of student dignity came alive; it was adopted into the new SHA mission statement, created by a six-month effort of a board and community task force:

  1. We provide our students, families and community a school of excellence, founded on love of God & Torah and inspiring academics within an atmosphere of Kavod HaTalmid, student dignity.
  2. We develop students of character and integrity through the pursuit of Torah knowledge and secular studies, connection to the State of Israel and commitment to our Ashkenazic and Sephardic heritage. 
  3. We prepare future generations to lead lives of service and mitzvoth and to perpetuate our Torah and traditions in Seattle, Israel, and worldwide.

Kavod Hatalmid became the animating ethos for our social-emotional curriculum called Project SHAlom, leading to its adoption as a schoolwide approach to student behavior, with a 35-minute video documenting its adoption available on our website for all to view.

A Different Leadership Voice 

This stance from a place of “otherness” began to inform leadership actions that I am committed to assuming and implementing. Over the years, I have heard from staff that as a woman I lead differently: hands-on, less ego, attention to detail, caring about children’s happiness and creating an overall less authoritarian feel to our school.

Being “other” led me in many directions.

Thinking deeply about the experience of anyone walking onto our campus building. How does that feel for a first-time guest? What is experienced from the parking lot, to the walkway, in the hallway, into the restrooms and on into classrooms. What kind of welcome will they receive?

We created a checklist for all events seeking to anticipate all needs, and there are always warm greeters along the welcome route. 

Are all families comfortable at SHA, no matter their spot on the Jewish spectrum?

The creation of a Jewish values-driven parent "Working Together Handbook" was created addressing these sensitivities.

How do middle school girls feel when they stand on the sidelines as their male peers lead in the morning minyan?

We moved our middle school girls into their own tefillah space after I spent a year at morning minyan. 

What about songs and textbooks with pictures where there are consistent depictions of the nuclear family of abba, ima, yeled, yeldah? How does the child not in such a family feel?

This one is tough, with so many materials coming from other places. We did change the lyrics of the children's "Shabbat Angel" song though: "First we light the candles, then we go to shul!" 

Must students stand when a rabbi—in the Orthodox world, a man—walks in the room, but never for a female scholar?

We sidelined this practice, thinking that if learning must not be interrupted to greet the Messiah, we would be okay to allow students to remain seated. 

I believe that if you work in a school you are a teacher, meaning every adult in a school is a teacher. Therefore, every adult—the office staff, the custodial staff—in the school is part of our learning community.

We all sit together. We study Torah and pedagogy, we plan activities, we consider our values and their implementation together as a community. 

The seeing of "the other" leads to the belief that as a head I cannot not expect others to do anything that I am not ready to do myself. That includes sweeping the floors, shoveling the walks and if necessary, cleaning up accidents in the kiddies' washroom. 

This kind of stance truly builds bonding moments and memories that last a lifetime. 

How to address this issue of "otherness"? Let the words of Emmanuel Levinas guide us as we encounter the "other"; they offer a truly compelling value for educators: "In the face the Other expresses his eminence, the dimension of height and divinity from which he descends."