HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
I am the new head of a Jewish day school who is considering moving my family into a home in the community I serve. While I value the convenience of living in close proximity to my work (and my children’s school), I am concerned about potential difficulties that living so close to the school community may present. How can I maximize the benefits of this arrangement and avoid some of the pitfalls?
Talk about a mixed blessing—this is it! You have highlighted the key issues to consider in your question. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.
There is no question that shortening the commuting distance between home and the work place is a huge advantage, especially if you live in a busy urban area. Given the long hours that heads of school work, the ability to come home for family dinners or just to have a few moments with your spouse and children before a night-time meeting is, as the commercial says, priceless. The time saved in avoiding lengthy drives both morning and evening can well be used for other things. And if you can walk to work, add the benefit of exercise and fresh air. While housing in your school community may be more expensive than in more distant neighborhoods, the money saved in car expenses will likely make up the difference.
In addition to this very practical view is the likelihood that the friends and neighbors in the community, also parents in your school, will share common values and lifestyle with you. They will be the people you want to socialize with, the ones whose children play with yours.
Sounds ideal, right? Only if you understand the boundaries that you must set for yourself, and, to some extent, for your spouse and children, and the potential complexity of social relationships. For while your friends and neighbors will welcome you, befriend you, and genuinely enjoy your company, you will still be the guy or gal responsible for making decisions they may not like, enforcing rules they may disagree with, and, ultimately, evaluating their children.
It is up to you to set the ground rules. Conducting school business in shul, on the sports field, or at a Saturday night get-together is not acceptable. Quick conferences while you stand on line in the grocery store or bakery are taboo. From the outset, you must state clearly that you are available for discussions with all parents and anxious to hear their concerns, but only in the appropriate time and place. No one but you can make others understand this.
On the other hand, just because they are your friends they should not lose the opportunity to talk to you about issues related to their child’s schooling. Set up meetings in your office, not in your living room. Remind friends, if necessary, that your social relationship cannot enter into professional conversations. Your challenge is to be fair and honest. Be sure the response you make is consistent with what you would tell/do for other families. It will not always work. You must recognize that friendships may be strained, either in the short term or permanently.
Living in your school community also means that the parents in your school will watch what you do. Being the role model of the school will inevitably translate to your private life. What you wear, where you shop, where you eat, what you do on Shabbat, which shul you choose to attend—all these things will be noted. As is the case with celebrities (and, in a sense, you are one), the line between public life and private life will be blurred. But on the assumption that we live the values we teach, this does not have to be a burden to you and your family.
By the same token, you may see and hear things that you abhor. What is your role and responsibility? As a member of the community, do you comment on behavior that you witness outside of school (or school functions)? Do you intervene? Do you ignore? Stay away? School leaders have very different views on this—you must think about what you want before settling in.
You should understand clearly what the expectations of your board of directors are in terms of your active involvement in Shabbat or other weekend programs. Because you are part of the community and presumably in walking distance, is there a requirement that you attend school functions on Shabbat or holidays that fall under another administrator’s jurisdiction? Does it “look bad” if you do not go, even though you do not have any specific role to play? Similarly, what about the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah observances of students in your school: must you attend each one? Some? None?
Other choices are more personal. Do you have to invite your school families for Shabbat or holiday meals? Only if you want to. Can you invite some children home to spend time with yours, while not including everyone? Absolutely—all children have close friends. Similarly, can you develop close personal relationships with others who are technically your constituents? For sure, but always bearing in mind the boundaries you have set and the absolute confidentiality and discretion which govern your conversations. Will there be uncomfortable moments in the midst of a social gathering? Undoubtedly, and your ability to ignore, deflect or re-direct the conversation will be critical.
It is easier to live in some communities than others, to be sure. In some instances, there will really be no choice—there is one Jewish community and it hosts your school. In that case, the guidelines above, and others that you set for yourself, will be critical to your comfort. If there is a choice, you will have to balance the advantages and disadvantages, to you and to your family, of settling within your school community.
Cooki Levy is the director of RAVSAK's Head of School Professional Excellence Project (PEP).
Previously, she served as the longtime head of the Akiva School in Westmount, Qubec. Dear Cooki accepts questions from all school stakeholders. To submit a question, write to email@example.com, with "Dear Cooki" in the subject line.
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