It takes all of us to make this a Jewish community
I am writing in response to David Bornstein’s editorial on Feb. 12.
For the second consecutive year, David Bornstein has chosen to write an editorial which seeks to encourage members of the Orlando Jewish community to “sit this one out” when it comes to our community agencies (especially the Jewish Academy of Orlando). Last year, I encouraged him to stop by the JAO and take a tour. I’m not sure whether or not he took me up on that offer but had he visited, he would have noticed several developments. He would have visited the school’s new “Innovation Lab,” a leading edge facility that teaches creative problem solving and “Design Thinking” to students from kindergarten to 7th grade. It is so leading edge that other schools who may or may not already have their own innovation spaces are struggling to figure out how to innovate.
At the JAO, the administrators, educators and parents are actively developing new curriculum materials to encourage students to “think differently” in a way that is integrated along with their language arts, mathematics, science (STEM) and—yes—Judaica studies. The JAO’s Innovation Lab is light years ahead of what other schools are doing.
If he had visited the school, he would have seen their new “MindUp” curriculum which teaches children how to master their emotions and how to use mindfulness training to be better students, friends, community members and yes, Jews.
If he had visited, he would have witnessed the joy of hearing Jewish children singing Jewish songs—learning about their heritage, traditions and history. At a time when so much of our people’s history is being forgotten, there is no more wonderful sound than to hear our children growing their Jewish minds and hearts.
But what Mr. Bornstein would also have witnessed—as he mentioned in his article—is a smaller school. Unfortunately, a Jewish education is apparently not as much of a priority as it used to be. That is why the school—a model of individual education that adapts its curriculum to meet the needs of children who are at grade level and progresses along with those that are ahead of grade level—has made these investments in technology, innovation and mindfulness training. The JAO aims to provide the best education in Orlando, not just the best Jewish education in Orlando. The school has a long history of over-preparing students for their next school and it is continuing to do so.
The school’s problems are—as Mr. Bornstein mentioned—many. The burden of the campus debt continues to exert pressure on the JCC and the JAO but the strains on the school are large. The school’s board has recently made the difficult decision to place its building on the market with an eye toward moving back to its original building on campus (which once held 250 students). While some could see this as a sign of weakness, others can (and should) see it as a sign of the school’s recognition that the current rent situation is untenable and that it needs to “live within its means.” While this is one solution, an even better solution would be to do something, which Mr. Bornstein has advocated against.
Our institutions—especially the JCC and the JAO—are not suffering from bloat. Operating an innovative school, a “best-in-class” early childhood learning center and community center cost money. What they need—especially now more than ever—is everyone’s support. For some, that may be going to a program, for others it may be writing a check. And yes, for someone out there, hopefully, it means stepping up to the plate to provide the Jewish campus with the ultimate support—helping to retire our crippling debt. Starting over somewhere else may seem like a better option, but it is far more feasible to pay off our debt, stay where we are and grow our campus to be the center of Jewish life in Orlando.
As Mr. Bornstein mentioned, our community has a leadership crisis. We also have an identity crisis. It is not easy to be Jewish today and—when I look at my young children—I fear for what it will be like for them to be Jewish as they grow up. My wife and I took a strong step forward—we send them to the Jewish Academy and JCC because not only do we want them to have the best education possible but we also believe it is important for them to know our people’s past and present and for them to be a part of a strong Jewish future.
Rather than “sitting back, waiting and watching” I would encourage anyone reading this who is Jewish and once felt a connection to their Jewish identity to step forward. Get involved on your own terms and help us fill that identity vacuum. This community, its agencies and its people are not going to get stronger on their own. Take a step forward—send your child to a Jewish day school. Get involved at the JCC, help us develop newer more meaningful programming on a campus where people want to be. Jump in and make this a Jewish community. It’s easy to sit on the sideline and wait for someone else to do the hard work. Too many people in this community have sat back, waited and watched for too long. Great leaders are important, but even the greatest leaders still need a community that cares enough to be involved.
I hope that next year, Mr. Bornstein and I can write a column together on how our community stepped forward, how our campus financial situation improved and how proud we are to be part of a vibrant Orlando Jewish community. I look forward to taking that tour with Mr. Bornstein to show him all of the great things that we can accomplish when we get off the sidelines and get involved.