By Rabbi Hesh Epstein
On Tuesday evening, May 20, at 7:00 pm, a packed audience at the Columbia Jewish Community Center was treated to “An Evening with Shimon Waronker”, who spoke about his experience as an Orthodox Jewish rabbinically-educated principal of an inner-city middle school in one of the toughest sections of The Bronx, in New York City.
A graduate of Harvard School of Education and now headmaster of The New American Academy, an innovative public school (PS 770) in Brooklyn, New York, Shimon Waronker began his lecture in a traditionally Jewish manner, asking the audience, “What would you like to hear me talk about?” Saying that most speakers are usually keen on telling you what they themselves are interested in, Waronker suggested that he “would like to talk with you about what interests you”.
With this opening was begun a fascinating journey, which took the audience to ancient Egypt and the story of Passover for lessons about humility, empathy, and courage. From the Israelite Exodus of 1313 BCE, Waronker proceeded to the 9th century to discuss the Islamic origins of modern Algebra and the practical nature of learning then, to 18th century Prussia to understand the militaristic roots of our present-day educational system, and finally to the 21st century to recount the horrors inside of one of New York City’s then 12 worst schools, where he served as principal for 2 years. He told the audience how our current system is failing our children, how the NY State prison system determines the number of prison cells to build from a count of third graders in the state who cannot read, and how our current test-centered instructional model stifles individual students’ development.
Throughout the evening’s journey, Waronker, a former intelligence officer in the United States Army, shared his experience and wisdom about educational leadership, and his view that effective education is about freedom – freedom to question, to discover, and to grow. In this regard, drawing from the lessons of Passover (the Festival of Freedom), he iterated and defined the most important qualities needed for leadership:
- Humility –openness to others and their ideas, and recognition that change is difficult and that the greatest impediment to it is the smug notion that one has figured it all out.
- Empathy – the ability to place oneself in others’ shoes and to develop thereby a relationship with students, parents and teachers.
- Courage – the willingness to express one’s convictions despite coercion, intimidation, or threats.
The lecture was followed by a lively session of comments and questions, which only ended on account of the time running out.