If The Shoe Fits

This past Tuesday evening, we convened our Board of Directors Annual Meeting. It was such a pleasure to address an overflowing crowd who were there to celebrate our school’s accomplishments, as well as pay tribute to longstanding staff members and induct new board members. Mark Farber is the incoming president who will follow in Ariel Berger’s footsteps. It was an outstanding and inspiring evening; please enjoy my remarks from the event.

This past Shabbat, I attended a family bat mitzvah and enjoyed hearing the bat mitzvah girl chant her Torah portion Sh’lach. As I followed along, I was glad to be reminded of a story we all know well. Sh’lach recounts the history of Moshe sending 12 spies into Israel to scope out the land. They are gone for 40 days and return carrying a huge cluster of grapes, a pomegranate, and a fig. These fruits represent the lush and bountiful land. Like all good stories, there is a twist – 10 of the spies warn that the inhabitants of the land are giants, warriors, and that they will be too powerful of an adversary to overcome. But there are two dissenters, Caleb and Joshua, who insist that the land can be conquered, and that they must stay true to the inheritance they’ve been promised.

Sounds like a familiar story, right? The beauty of the Torah is that even though we read the same parashiot each week, each month, year after year, our lives continue to change, and stories speak to us in different ways. This one reminded me so much of our school – We may be surrounded by “giants,” but guided by our mission, we have ardently pursued the best educational experience possible for our students, and they, along with their families, are reaping the bounty.

It’s true – Epstein Hillel lives amongst giants. There are other schools, public and private, that are much bigger. They have greater enrollments, they have larger endowments, and they have more square footage than us. They may be institutions of learning, but what they don’t possess is the sacred imperative: “V’sheenantem l’vanecha – you shall teach your children.” By choosing Epstein Hillel, our families are fulfilling that commandment, and it’s an investment that will help nurture, guide, and support their children into adulthood. It is an awesome responsibility and sacred task to educate a child, and at Epstein Hillel the outstanding faculty, many of whom are here tonight, take it quite seriously knowing what fruit it can bear.

Our students have taken part in an amazing year which began late in August with the extraordinary renaming ceremony that brought together close to 300 people. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in our school’s 63 year history. In the fall, students were taught by renowned Israeli artist Hanoch Piven to learn about self-expression and individuality. Later in the year, they came face to face with owls to appreciate the beauty and complexity of nature, while also being inspired by Israeli photojournalist Udi Goren who took them on the Israel National Trail. They recently participated in an outstanding Engineering and Design Day which featured challenges connected directly to grade level curriculum. Our faculty was privileged to learn with Grant Lichtman, an internationally known thought leader on the future of education, who commended our classrooms, faculty, and students, while providing stimulating ideas for the future. For such a small school, we have a big and bold vision. We have plans to build a state of the art Innovation Center and have secured more than half the funding to do so. Our school has been featured in not just one, but three national publications, spotlighting our successes from different perspectives. We are a model for other schools big and small in regard to leadership, community building, and strategic vision. That translates to another robust kindergarten class entering in next fall, multiple transfer students, and the inquiries keep coming. We have our challenges for sure, but we are determined and fueled by our continued success.

Malcolm Gladwell gave a Ted talk on this topic – of being the under-estimated underdog, and he challenged conventional wisdom about the David and Goliath story. David was a shepherd who spent his entire career using a slingshot to defend his flock against lions and wolves. He was an expert. His greatest weapons were his expertise and confidence. He conquered his giant not by overcoming a size difference, but rather by, being the best at what he did. And there lies the very important lesson for all of us. Be the best at what you do, and have the confidence to show it. No other school north of Boston provides a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum grounded in Judaism. No other school north of Boston integrates 3-D printers, robotics, coding, and green screen technology with social studies, Jewish studies, and language arts. No other school graduates students who are known for their academic achievements, strong Jewish identity, confidence, and sound moral compass. We may be small but we are mighty. A West African proverb reminds us, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.” We are making a difference in the lives of the next generation of Jewish children, every day. I was so touched last Friday – when a grandmother approached me after kabbalat shabbat and thanked me, not just for what her grandchild was experiencing, but for as she said “what you are doing here” – pointing to this very room. Her comments went straight to my heart. It’s truly sacred work and we are succeeding. I feel it when the voices of our students joyfully recite the blessings at kabbalat shabbat and sing Hatikvah loudly and proudly. It’s a very spiritual moment. Just stop and listen some time; you’re always invited.

There may be giants out there, but I am happy to be that scout, Joshua, who was not afraid of the giants, and entered eretz yisrael. I will ensure that we provide the best educational experience possible for this next generation of Jewish children. Like David, we are armed with the passion, expertise, and the confidence that we will build, grow, and succeed. I want to thank each and everyone of you who are here tonight – for your support (whether it’s volunteering your time, expertise, or resources) and for your belief in me and in our school. Our story is still unfolding and before we start the next chapter, I want to pause and say my heartfelt thanks to Ariel Berger, our outgoing president. (Ariel, please join me) Ariel, I couldn’t have asked for a more driven, analytical, and committed partner in this enterprise. Ariel, I know I will still be able to count on you for your witty and thoughtful insights as we continue to move forward. Mark Farber, our incoming president, is the fortunate successor who will benefit from all your hard work. I am grateful that Mark is willing to step into your shoes, even if they are a little big. Based on how often we see Mark at school, I have no doubt that he will grow into them and it will be a perfect fit. So now that your presidency is coming to a close, we thought it would be appropriate to present you with just a small token of our appreciation. We got you an engraved clock for your desk (at your home office, i.e. the kitchen table, or your work one in Waltham) in the hopes to give you back some time. We know you’ve been extraordinarily generous with all the hours you’ve spent on behalf of Epstein Hillel. We both know that some of those hours happened between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am and on car rides in between during the work week. Ariel, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.