In the Face of Tragedy: 10 Lessons Learned by a New Head of School
By Mark Shpall
August 30, was my first school day as the head of de Toledo High School, a Jewish community high school in West Hills, CA. Coming into my first headship, I assumed (hoped??) my first year would be free of issue or controversy. Less than 2 months later, our community was shaken with back-to-back-to-back tragedies.
On October 27, our community was rocked by the news out of the Pittsburgh area that a gunman had walked into Saturday morning Shabbat services and brutally murdered 11 people whose only commonality, whose only “crime,” was that they were, like us, Jewish. This mass shooting struck at the core of Jews all over the country, and especially vulnerable, Jewish teenagers, who were now scared that the religion they loved placed a bulls-eye on their backs.
In the midst and aftermath of dealing with the Tree of Life tragedy, ten days later and less than 20 miles from campus, a gunman rampaged through a popular, local hangout, the Borderline Bar and Grille, and shot 12 people dead. Now our students were feeling it was not just their religion that might get them killed but even their local hangouts were deadly.
And less than 24 hours after the shootings at the Borderline Bar occurred, the massive Woolsey fire broke out in our literal backyard. By the time the fires were contained, these two fires covered an area larger than the entire city of Detroit. These fires caused the evacuation of approximately 45% of our school families, many of whom were out of their houses for over a week. One family from our community lost their home entirely.
As the fires raged around us, our school – as the closest Jewish institution – had the opportunity to open our arms and doors and provided space, supplies, and comfort to families and institutions. During this time, we hosted four separate meetings or prayer services for 3 separate groups, created space from our impacted facility for a “pop-up” day camp (so parents dealing with the results of the fire had a fun and safe place to take their children), a separate space for a local temple’s Early Childhood Education program, and set up office space for the staffs of 3 separate temples and 1 day school, all who needed a place to run their business, help their congregants and families, and start dealing with the mitigation and recovery efforts.
As our campus slowly returned to normal, I started the process of reflecting and trying to identify the lessons that I (quickly) learned during these tumultuous first days as a Head of School all which all stem from the same source, Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh baZeh, all the people of Israel are responsible for one another.
Lesson #1: Be vulnerable, take action and be willing to make mistakes
It was immediately clear that there is no playbook on how to deal with acute traumas to your community. We needed to follow the wisdom of Ezra 10:4, “be strong and do it.” The response from the school could not be the same and could not be academic or sterile. It required the leadership from Board to administration through the faculty to connect deeply with our students, families, and communal institutions to try and determine what was needed and take action.
For the tragedy in Pittsburgh, a special moment to remember the victims and talk about how to create a safe society was quickly organized. During the fires, time for students to be at home, and opportunities for students to give back were implemented. In short, there was no “one right” approach. Responses and solutions were needed immediately and not all of the decisions were going to be perfect. We knew that we could not let “the great be the enemy of the good.” Had we tried to be “right” or “perfect” with each and every decision, we would have been paralyzed instead of energized.
Lesson #2: Do not be reactive
The flip side of lesson #1 is that you cannot be reactive. Following the Tree of Life shooting, the immediate reaction was a call to close school for at least a day and ensure everyone felt safe. We received numerous emails and calls from families and students expressing that they were fearful to return to a Jewish school that might be the next target. However, after numerous conversations with professionals, both educators and mental health practitioners, the decision was made that going back to school immediately would create a sense of normalcy for our students. Learning from lesson #1, that decision was made after careful consideration and not as an immediate reaction. As the prophet Isaiah (7:4) taught, be careful, keep calm, and do not be afraid.
Lesson #3: Trust your educators; they have the real pulse of the students and faculty
While still reeling and mourning the loss of life from the Tree of Life shooting, we were confronted with the Borderline massacre. My immediate reaction was to create a special program to deal with the emotions I assumed were coursing through our student body. While my reaction (see lesson #2) was to immediately create an educational program after the shooting, I was wrong. The recommendation from our educational team, which was different than my reaction, was to start the school day as normal. Their advice was heeded and it was exactly what our community needed at that moment.
However, within the context of a normal school day, the educators also created safe spaces for the students and faculty to engage in open discussion, to grieve, to provide mutual comfort, and to support each other as a community. Had we decided not to open school that day, our students would not have been able to have their community around them to help cope with the unexplainable tragedies and the resulting emotions.
Lesson #4: Embrace the paradox: you have to turn the focus off of you but remember that all eyes are on you
In moments of crisis and trauma, leadership is not about the leader. It cannot be about the “me” or the “I.” The job of the leader is to empower those around him/her to step up; to set the stage and create the structure to allow for a unified and thoughtful approach.
On the other hand, as a history teacher, I am keenly aware of the old saying that “when the king sneezes, the rest of his subjects get a cold.” The affect and emotions of the leader will have a significant impact on those inside and outside the institution. I was constantly reminded that when I left my office, even following difficult or emotional phone calls, I needed to have a smile on my face and give off the perception that all was calm and being taken care of.
Lesson #5: Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate!
Many voices are better than one. As Proverbs 11:14 says, ”without strategy the people fall, but with many counselors there is victory.” Before reacting and setting policies and approaches into motion, reach out to your leadership team. Their ideas and insights should be different than yours. Allow all these ideas to be aired and vetted. This approach will sharpen your response and ensure that other perspectives are considered. This approach will also help to build the leadership capabilities within your teams in the long run.
Lesson #6: Remember that optics matter and that different constituencies need different messages
As a school, there are various groups that are impacted in different ways. Students looked at the multiple tragedies differently than their parents did. The parents looked at it differently than the faculty who looked at it differently than our Board did. It is therefore important to ensure that each of their perspectives and needs were addressed. How? Remember that in times of crisis and stress, there are many that will want to assist you. Do not shut them out. Have allies in each of the different groups to read your communications to make sure those different perspectives are addressed and honored.
Lesson #7: Over communicate
As the leader of your organization, these constituencies will be looking to you to inform them, to guide them, and to reassure them. In Exodus 32:1, the people of Israel decided to make a golden calf because they were left in the dark by Moses. Without frequent and helpful communication, the community will create their own narrative to fit the limited facts at their disposal. Do not delay communication nor rely on another organization to be the conduit of information. Also, think deeply about the mode of communication. In some situations, a live meeting might be required; for many situations, an email is sufficient; at other times, a phone tree or a pre-recorded voice message that goes out to your community will be best. Be intentional.
Lesson #8: You may get motion sick going from the 30,000–foot level down into the weeds and then back up again in the space of minutes
These critical situations will require you to think big and to think small simultaneously. What does the community need? What immediate needs do we need at our facility? What do our students need? Do we need to bring in more maintenance to keep the campus clean? Do we need more security to take care of the needs of the other groups we are opening our doors to? What are the intentional decisions you are making and how might those translate to the moment and a year from now? Most importantly, how are your responses in line with the mission statement of your institution?
Lesson #9: Don’t ask how or why, just help! Just be present and roll up your sleeves and get to work
In Pirkei Avot 1:15 it teaches, “say little and do much.” In the midst of a crisis, those affected generally cannot think beyond their immediate needs. As leaders and community resources, you have more clarity and perspective, so dive in. Try to anticipate their needs and offer to handle them. One of our families lost its house in the fire. As the family came in to try and figure how to get their son back in school (since his backpack and books had been lost in the fire), we grabbed their son school supplies from the workroom, found him spare textbooks, and told the father that we had an open office for him to work out of since he did not have access to his business. They could not even think to ask, let alone know who to ask or what to ask for. Do not wait for the victims to try and decide what they need, but show up, roll up your sleeves, and take care of them.
Lesson #10: Look inward and outward: this is a time to model your values
In the space of less than 24 hours, multiple Jewish organizations were displaced or lost. In that moment, when all eyes turned to de Toledo High School to accommodate their needs, it would have been easy to say no or limit the number of organizations who had access to our campus. The logistics, taking space away from our students, the costs of extra manpower for maintenance and security would have all been easy justifications to turn them away.
However, if our mission statement is to “raise the next generation of Jewish leaders,” how could we say no? This was truly the time to model “loving our neighbor as we would ourselves.” (Leviticus 19:18) That is why the overwhelming answer was “yes, what do you need.” Was this an imposition? From one perspective it was. Did students lose places to meet and a gym to play in? Absolutely. Would we do it again? 100%! This was the moment that we could live our values. This was an educational and leadership moment for our students to stand up and make a difference, even at the expenses of their own time and comfort.
Exactly three weeks ago, the Tree of Life tragedy occurred. The emotions, lack of sleep, the time away from family, and the need to keep the school running as smoothly as possible all took a toll. However, the lessons have been invaluable. While there may be no playbook, the real world lessons that can be learned will help guide me the next time unforeseen events occur.
Mark Shpall, MA.Ed, J.D., is Head of School, de Toledo High School, West Hills, California.