Head Notes

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Adam Eilath

In preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, our 4th and 5th grade students learned about the laws of building a Sukkah with their Jewish Studies Teacher, Ms. Dominguez. The requirements for building a Sukkah are numerous but most center around an attempt to recreate an experience that the Ancient Israelites had in the wilderness. That experience can largely be summed up in the following way: Even though the wilderness was frightening, the Israelites felt protected by G-d. Thus, the primary goal of sitting in the Sukkah is effective. We are meant to feel somewhat vulnerable but also somewhat protected.

Indeed, the walls of the Sukkah can’t be too high, or else they would provide too much shade. Nor, can they be too short or else they would not offer enough shade from the sun. Similarly, the roof of the Sukkah cannot offer so much shade that one would not be able to see the stars. However, the roof must offer enough shade from the sun and be able to withstand most strong winds. All of these laws point to a concerted attempt to create an emotional and physical balance for us where we feel both vulnerable and protected.

I have been thinking about how teachers have to strike this balance as well. Of course, students must feel safe in their learning environments. However, teachers need to work hard for students to feel a little bit uncomfortable in their learning environments. Students need to feel that they are being stretched, that they are able to take risks and that they are not always given every single tool or step necessary to solve a problem. At the same time, they need to know that their teachers are their to support them, that mistakes are welcomed and appreciated in their communities, and that they always have someone to go to if they get stuck.

This past week, I saw our teachers creating these “Sukkah” like environments in their classrooms. In Kindergarten, I saw Ms. Debra teach students the skill of inference while practicing estimating the number of beans in a jar. At some point in the lesson, the students were far off in their estimations, and although the teacher could have given the students obvious hints to get a more accurate answer, she chose to have them count the beans and form an empirical, student-driven understanding of the concept of inference in estimation. Similarly in 4th grade, students were conducting an experiment with Ms. Braitman and were tasked with determining the impact of different masses of water on a land formation. Students were given very few hints on the accurate answers and assessments of the experiment. Ms. Braitman masterfully led them in an exercise where they made incorrect assumptions about the experiment and learned by reflecting on their thinking.

As we continue celebrating this beautiful holiday, let us all think about how we can bring the spirit of balancing vulnerability with safety to our lives and the way we learn.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

As a competitive swimmer, my strongest stroke was freestyle. However, towards the end of high school when I stopped physically growing, my times plateaued. I was incredibly disturbed by my lack of improvement, so I invested everything I had into practicing harder to better my swimming times. I swam longer practices on shorter intervals and worked harder than ever before, but my times saw no improvement. The challenge wasn’t my work ethic, it was my horrible freestyle technique. A strong freestyle looks like a knife slowly twisting through the water. My freestyle could have been compared to a golden retriever frantically searching for a lost ball in the ocean. I couldn’t keep my head straight and surely lost precious seconds as it bounced all over the place.

Changing my head positioning and technique would have required patience. I would have had to slow down and given up being the fastest swimmer during practice. While it was quite easy for me to have discipline around my effort and work ethic, it was quite challenging for me to develop the discipline required to unlearn old bad habits. In reflecting on all of the ways I fell short of my aspirations in my swimming career, I remain quite frustrated with myself for not slowing down and investing in what was important.

We are nearing the end of the “Days of Awe.” As Yom Kippur approaches, so many of us have personal improvement goals that we will be thinking about over the next few days. Indeed, our students have been engaged in the same sort of reflection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, all of our students have gone to the lagoon and engaged in age appropriate Tashlich reflections.

As we think about the best version of ourselves we strive to be, it is important to not only think about the effort needed to achieve our goals, but the tools we have in place. As was the case with my swimming, sometimes we exert great energy without achieving results. In the spiritual and moral dimensions of our lives, we should be careful to not only focus on energy and effort, but also on attaining the right skills and tools to improve ourselves.

In the Bible, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is referred to as Yom Hakippurim (Day of Atonements). This semantic difference has great significance. The plural version speaks to the fact that each of us has an individual path that we need to discover on our path to atonement. No two people have the exact same path to being a better person.

We all have incredible moments of realizing that a pivot or learning a new skill can all of a sudden change our outlook, productivity, or the way we relate to one another. Especially in these days, when we seek out moral and spiritual improvement, let's not rely on bad habits to reinforce a false sense of progress. I encourage us all to find creative and new ways to reach our goals.

Tizqu Leshanim Rabot Veneimot (May you merit many pleasant years),
Adam Eilath

Tashlich 2019
Adam Eilath

Over the course of Rosh Hashanah I tried hard to listen to the sound of the shofar. I closed my eyes and tried not letting myself get distracted by the sounds around me. I even attempted meditating before the shofar was sounded. I was always able to hear the shofar, but I was never able to exclusively listen to the shofar. Listening, it turns out, can be very hard.

I’ve felt the same way throughout the month of Elul. Every morning our Wornick students have gone up to the front of the Ulam Gadol during Tefillah to blow the shofar. I’ve been captivated by the image of students enthusiastically attempting to blow the shofar the loudest. However, something always distracts me from hearing the pure and unfiltered sound that comes out of the shofar.

According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to amplify the sound of the shofar. One is not allowed to blow the shofar into a microphone, or in a cave that would cause the sound to be amplified. In fact, one has to be careful not to blow a shofar in a room that has any sort of echo. The reason for this law is clear; the shofar transmits its meaning not by how loud it is, but rather through its natural and authentic sound.

Over the past two days, I have been thinking about how listening to students is as challenging as listening to the shofar. It’s easy to hear the words students are saying, but it is far more challenging to listen to them in an unfiltered and undistracted way. Our students have so much to share with us, but fully listening to them can be an elusive goal. Too many times we are distracted by work that has to get done or meetings that we are running late for and we are unable to really listen to our students. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to students because we think we have heard it all before. Sometimes it’s hard to take what students are saying seriously. 

At synagogue, my Rabbi explained that being good is not simply the result of us flipping a switch and acting better. We have to create rituals, structures and systems for ourselves that provide opportunities for us to be better. For example, if we want to change our eating habits we need to pack healthy snacks for us throughout the day to ensure the right choices are available. Similarly, if we want to be better listeners of our students, we need to create the right opportunities for listening to happen. A former head of school advised me to spend time eating lunch with students. This has turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to fully listen. Carving out time to be in the classroom and ask students what they are learning has also proved to be a remarkable space to fully listen to our students. Over the course of the next year, I want to encourage all of us, parents and teachers alike, to carve out opportunities to be fully present and listen to our students. Let’s bring the mindset and approach of trying to listen to the shofar into our interactions with one another. At home, I encourage parents to carve out time to listen and reflect on your students day. At school, we will continue to create more opportunities, like “lunch bunch”, morning circle time, middle school advisory, and “havurot” that provide students' opportunities to be listened to, and listen to one another.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

I have been a competitive swimmer for most of my life. As a high school freshman, I participated in a two-week intensive training camp in which collegiate swimmers returned home and we all endured six-hour practices daily. One Friday morning, the coach surprised us at the end of practice with a race in which we had to swim an extra two miles for time, (the equivalent of approximately 140 laps at the PJCC pool!). Toward the middle of the race, I began picking off the older swimmers one at a time. With a few hundred meters left, I passed a swimmer who was home from Stanford University and who would later go on to represent Canada in the Olympics. When my hand touched the wall at the finish, and I emerged from the water, I saw that I had won. He turned to me and said, “Jew,” sandwiched by curse words. It wasn’t the first (or the last) time that I experienced anti-Semitism as an athlete, but his words shocked me. Instantly, I fell from the top of the world. That morning, I had obtained a significant accomplishment, but this person reduced me to my religious and cultural identity and made me feel small and insignificant. Or I should say, I allowed him to have that power over me. As parents and educators, how do we raise children who don’t allow others to have this kind of power over them?

When I saw the news about the anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic graffiti at Burlingame High School, I couldn’t help but recall the hatred I experienced growing up as Jew, which extended beyond athletics. At times, I wanted to repress my Jewish identity, and I also felt unsafe, angry, and distracted. The graffiti at Burlingame High School wasn’t the first anti-Semitic event in the Burlingame public schools; middle school families have reported numerous cases of anti-Semitism in the past year, and last April, a Jewish high school student’s locker was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. I see a direct correlation between anti-Semitism in California’s public schools and national political and social trends forcing us to occupy un-nuanced forms of political expression and identity.

In the current political landscape, Jewish voices are falling victim to a new, binary political world. For example, Jews holding Israeli flags have been asked to leave feminist marches or have been admonished for having a Jewish table at a college club fair because Israeli symbols “make minorities and people of color feel uncomfortable.” Synagogues across the country have been the targets of both the extreme left and the extreme right in experiencing graffiti, harassment and violent attacks. The current political climate appears disinterested in hearing from Jews and disinterested in nuanced perspectives, while Jews -- due to our history -- happen to hold some of the most nuanced world perspectives.

Perhaps the most concerning example of this is the new proposed California Ethnic Studies Curriculum, which is temporarily on hold awaiting feedback from the Jewish community. This curriculum claims to set forth an education in “ethnic studies,” while actually providing a veiled, highly political agenda that encourages more black and white thinking. In this new curriculum, Jewish contributions to American culture are omitted. In this new curriculum, Jews are portrayed as only white and imperialist when a significant percentage of us trace our roots to Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. In this new curriculum, the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement and the #MeToo movement are presented as one and the same. I cannot imagine young Jewish voices feeling safe in the classroom if this new curriculum becomes required in California’s public schools.

All of this keeps me up at night as I mull over our joint responsibility to Wornick students and graduates. It pains me to imagine our beautiful children, singing with joyous voices in our Ulam Gadol, feeling anything but proud of their identities when they graduate from our school. First and most importantly, the safety and security of our students must continue to be our chief priority. I assure you that we continue to closely monitor local events and take numerous measures to protect our campus and students. Second, our students need to have strong identities in a world that has increasing expectations of them. A parent of a recent Wornick graduate shared with me that her son is often asked, “What is the Jewish perspective?” on a range of contemporary hot-button issues at their public high school. We must be committed to helping our students cultivate and develop an understanding of themselves so that others do not dictate one to them or hold power over them. Our school supports and nurtures a variety of identities, and it is completely within reach for each of our students to have a rich understanding of who they are and where they come from. Third, understanding, finding and inhabiting nuance is an essential tool that our students must harness. Our students who can go out into the world and build communities that bring together seemingly disparate parts of society will undoubtedly be leaders. Finally, it is clear to me that our obligation does not simply extend to the students in our building. I will work with our team to reach out to our alumni in public schools and on college campuses to offer our support and guidance. As a Jewish Educator and a North African Jew, I have been asked to speak at the Instructional Quality Commission in Sacramento which will be evaluating the future of the Ethnic Studies Curriculum. I plan on doing whatever I can to ensure that the educational world that our graduates will encounter is safe and welcoming of their identities and ideas.

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath

When do we know that we have had enough? How do we know we are satisfied with what we have? I was thinking about that question while I held the Challah bowls with my colleague Ms. O’Donnell on Friday while dismissing our TK-5 students. Most students were satisfied with one piece of Challah but many students came back around to see if there was extra for seconds or thirds (or even fourths!). Now, I will admit that Challah is a hard thing to resist. But, I also empathize with the desire to gather as much as I can when something great is available. Finally found the perfect pair of shoes after years of searching? Why not buy two just in case they won’t be available again? If the local supermarket is finally selling the coffee you have been waiting for all year, why get one week of beans when you can ensure that you have beans for the whole month?

In this week’s Torah Portion, there is an incredible statement about the power of moderation. In speaking about a day laborer working in another person’s field the Torah commands, “When you enter another person’s field, you may eat as many grapes as you want until you are full, but you must not put any in your bag (to take with you)”. The simple message of this law is: eat to your heart’s content while you are in the field, but don’t try and save any for later. Enjoying things in moderation and being satisfied with your lot, is intimately related to our ability to be happy and see the glass as half full. As my three year old daughter has learned at preschool, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor who studies the connection between wealth and happiness, offers us an insight into this problem. He argues that there are two central questions humans ask themselves to determine whether they are satisfied with something in life: Am I doing better than I was before? And, am I doing better than other people? Norton argues that these questions apply not only to wealth, but to attractiveness, height and other things people fret about.

What if we focused our energies on the present and not on the past or the future? That is how I read the Biblical prescription to eat grapes and not hoard them for later. It is an ancient and powerful call to focus on the “bounty of the now.” This week, let’s enjoy the moments we have with our children without worrying if they will still laugh and play with us when they are older. Let’s appreciate what we have, without worrying about what our friends have. Let’s be proud of the grade we earned without concern for our friends who got higher or lower grades. If we focus on the present, we will learn to enjoy the present and ultimately, be more present. 

In partnership,
Adam Eilath

Mission Statement

Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School develops students who are socially and academically prepared to meet their full potential as engaged leaders committed to a life steeped in Jewish ethics and values.

About Wornick

Enrollment: 176
Grades: TK-8
Average Class Size: 14
Accreditation: 
California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
Membership: 
National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)