By Toby Rubin and Bill Robinson
Recall for one moment, someone who mentored you. Our mentors reveal for us our full potential, and then they inspire and guide us to achieve it. Whether we are a teacher, a teacher-educator, an entrepreneur, or a leader of a legacy institution, our mentors helped us to become the successful Jewish educator we are today.
For the two of us, and for so many others, Bob Sherman was that mentor. Hardly a day goes by when we are not reminded of the myriad ways in which Bob continues to guide us. Abraham Joshua Heschel asserted, we need more text people, for it is the person that the student truly reads. The same holds for our mentors. We have learned much from Bob through his advice, even more from his questions, but most from watching him lead.
Each of us got to know Bob in the 1990’s, but it wasn’t till later that he became our mentor. In 2002, Bob made a bold move and successfully recruited me (Toby) – a civil rights lawyer whose Jewish education was virtually tabula rasa before being a Wexner Heritage Fellow (1996-1998) to direct the second cohort of the Tikea Fellowship for Educators of Jewish Teens (at the SF BJE). I needed deep and ongoing learning about adult pedagogic theory and the field of Jewish education, and Bob provided it. Through articles, books, participation in the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute and along with hours of joint reflection and discussion on the materials and my lived experiences, I received an informal Master’s degree in Jewish education. Over the years we worked together, Bob never veered from his commitment to my professional growth as the BJE’s Fellowship Director to Associate Director/Programs to Interim Executive Director, making me wiser through mentorship, additional learning, and thought partnership.
Most importantly, Bob took a visionary’s leap with me. He made available the SF BJE’s infrastructure to support my/the community’s need to create an educational space that would accelerate the success of those putting out new approaches to making Jewish wisdom manifest in the world. The two-year pilot that led to establishment of UpStart as an independent organization proceeded with Bob’s enthusiastic backing, guidance on content, and faithful holding of the tensions at the time that resulted from our working with these “outside of the mainstream competitors” in a way that wasn’t exactly within the “black lines” of “Jewish education.”
Soon thereafter, Bob left for NYC to revitalize the NY BJE. During those first months, Bob asked me (Bill) to come join in. I jumped at this doubtful opportunity, because I knew that if not now I would never have the immediate experience of learning from Bob. Of course, the seemingly insurmountable challenge of turning around a central agency for Jewish education, when almost all others were being streamlined or closed up, was also enticing. For seven years, we worked exceedingly closely, developing a new strategy, merging with another organization (SAJES), hiring capable and creative people, and re-branding.
But, what truly made the BJE of NY into the very successful Jewish Education Project was the culture that Bob fostered in the agency. Every morning at work, Bob would “make the rounds” stopping to talk to all the staff, hearing about their personal lives and querying about the work they were doing. Through these informal conversations (as well as formal ones), the staff would feel noticed and valued. They would rise to their potential; we became a community of shared learning and common pursuit.
In my (Toby’s) many years as a Jewish community lay leader prior to my career switch, I had been an “outside” coach and mentor to many of my non-executive level professional partners. So many of those encounters involved helping them “manage up” to find a way to develop themselves within a system that was surprisingly inhospitable to their own professional growth and organizational success. In my years as part of Bob’s professional team, I discovered how an executive director could support and inspire one’s staff from within, creating a vibrant culture of learning that nurtured new thinking and growth toward and into mastery.
I (Bill) took all that I learned during these seven years with Bob and applied it when I became the Dean of the William Davidson School at JTS, creating there the Leadership Commons. So much of my success there I owe to what I learned with Bob over the 7 years I spent at the Jewish Education Project. What makes me most proud of my time at JTS is when my faculty and staff express their appreciation to me for listening to their desires and helping them to feel they finally have permission to realize them.
We learned all this from Bob.
He once referred to me (applicable to both of us) as his Virgil guiding him into the depths of hell. What we think he meant was the willingness of each of us, in our own ways, to fearlessly embrace risk in pursuit of innovation. While we may have been Virgil to his Dante, it was truly Bob who gave us permission, the resources, and the guidance to make the journey – one we made together.
We are not the only Jewish educators who Bob has mentored. In every position Bob has held, he became a mentor to his staff and board, inspiring and guiding their growth. Many stayed and others went on to creative endeavors elsewhere. Bob’s students-formal and informal-have made widespread and indelible contributions to the field of Jewish education throughout North America and Israel.
This Thursday, we will gather at the annual gala of the Jewish Education Project to celebrate Bob as he wraps up his extraordinarily effective tenure. Please act quickly to join us in honoring him, by attending or donating in his honor! Ahead of this special event, we offer these simple words in honor of our mentor, colleague, lover of poetry and dearest friend, who taught us to dream and helped us make those dreams a reality.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
“Dreams,” by Langston Hughes
Toby Rubin worked at the San Francisco BJE from 2002-2008, after which she became founding CEO of UpStart. Bill Robinson worked at the Jewish Education Project from 2007-2014, after which he became Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. During 2008-2014, the two of us worked together with Bob Sherman to bring innovative mindsets and practices into Metro NYC.