HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Olami / Personal Essay: How to Survive Cancer at a Jewish Day School

by Rhonda Rosenheck Issue: Attending the Crisis of Leadership
TOPICS : Leadership

The Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School sprang up in the historic downtown core of Toronto in 1998. Opened with ten students, it served Jews who, by virtue of living downtown in the former shtetl, lived outside the current shtetl; urbane, socially conscious Jews who celebrated diversity and the arts and built them into their school. These Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular, gay and straight, single and married parents of Jewish children viewed community more through a lens of inclusion than exclusion. The school’s adults formed what researchers Alex Pomson and Randall Shnoor termed “a community of difference,” meaning that one of the traits members shared in common was gratitude for the many things that distinguished one from the other.

When I became principal a year ago September, I rented right downtown and began socializing with school families. Common wisdom is that there are risks to immersing oneself personally where one serves professionally. Nonetheless, I chose to dive into this community head first.

Ten months into my tenure, one day after school closed in June, I was diagnosed with cancer. Post-surgery radiation treatment began on the first day of school in September and recovery was slow. My board president suggested taking a medical leave and I accepted, elevating the director of curriculum and instruction to interim principal until my return.

Here’s what the school community did for me. One mom knit me a sleeve for the one arm that was cold during treatments because it had to be held away from my body. Several families chipped in on a Kindle, so I would always have something to read without carrying heavy books around. The staff bought me a spa treatment to use during my leave. Butternut squash soup, cookies, and videos arrived on my stoop. A dad checked in with me right before Rosh Hashanah: did I need any last minute food or supplies for the holiday? A mom and her daughters brought food to my door erev Yom Kippur after I declined an invitation to join them at home.

A staff member and her husband ordered a Shabbat meal delivered to my house. A parent showed up with several meals worth of food and sat me down to eat while she cleaned my kitchen on an evening when I couldn’t get up to feed myself. Parents and grandparents drove me to and from the hospital. The board proactively offered me a fully paid medical leave. The co-presidents played an unusually operational role to support my staff. And many others emailed and wrote to send me their best wishes for recovery.

Here’s what happened professionally. The board and I negotiated a delay of contract negotiations; they extended my initial contract by one year, at which point, if they offer me a new contract, it will be for three years. As interim principal, the director of curriculum and instruction, new to the school, made two mid-year hires and did both her job and mine in my absence. The business manager, also new to the school, worked under close board supervision. Important operational and educational initiatives advanced according to plan, and most importantly, good teaching and learning happened every day.

I am healthy, humbled, grateful, and a bit proud in the wake of this experience. I am cancer-free and, thanks to the rest and support I got, well into recovery from treatment. I am humbled by a body that went on strike, grateful for a community that, notwithstanding its non-insular composition, smoothly came together to help, and proud of staff and lay leaders who balanced generosity, realism, and their fiduciary or professional responsibilities, supporting with their wisdom and efforts each other, the students, me, and this precious school during a difficult time.♦

Do you have a special story to tell about your experience in day schools? Share it with the field! Send an essay of 600 words to Haydion@ravsak.org. Submissions from all stakeholders welcome.

In advance of this year’s conference, thanks as always to the generosity of the AVI CHAI Foundation, RAVSAK ran two shabbatonim, one for the current cohort and a second for alumni of the program. The current Sulamites studied Jewish texts about kedushah, holiness. They truly refreshed themselves at the wells of Torah, immersing right away into profound conversations around this notion so central to Judaism and Jewish day schools. They challenged each other, their teachers and themselves to go deeper in understanding the sources and wringing lessons for our personal and professional lives. In sessions with their mentors and colleagues, participants were able to focus on the challenges and successes of translating their Jewish learning into their administrative work in their schools.

The SuLaM alumni were treated to a shabbaton entitled “Literatoyre,” exploring the relationship between modern Yiddish literature and Jewish sacred sources. Dr. Miriam Udel of Emory University shared her passion for Yiddish writings and her broad-ranging knowledge and intellect with an audience of school professional and lay leaders. The effect clearly wore off, as many of the participants have already shared some of the treasures of Yiddish literature with their faculty and students. The alumni renewed their connections of fellowship and shared purpose that help sustain them through the sometimes lonely responsibilities of school leadership.♦

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Attending the Crisis of Leadership

Day school leadership, especially headship, confronts all kinds of crises: regular school crises, driven by finances or parents; short tenure (averaging 2.5 years); limited pool of qualified applicants; and an impossible workload with little room for family life. These articles analyze aspects of the problem and offer remedies that professionals and lay leaders might implement in their schools.

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