20 Years of Daring

Two decades ago, a group of 20 parents gathered to do something quite extraordinary — launch a new kind of Jewish day school. Our founders had a clear vision of a school that would embrace and celebrate religious diversity; a school whose philosophy would champion a true child-centered educational journey; and a school that would be fully committed to an innovative educational approach. Our founders were aspirational and ambitious — qualities that I am proud to say are a legacy that continues to make Carmel Academy the exceptional school it is today.

There are numerous words that describe our founders: pioneers, visionaries, forward thinkers. The word I choose is daring. Two decades ago, Carmel Academy’s founders dared to dream. As we mark our 20th anniversary I’d like to do so by first honoring the very people who dared to go against the conventional and took the chance on the unknown. Our theme this year is “20 Years of Daring”, which reflects our founders’ pioneering spirit, and the innovative culture that remains a core value of the Carmel Academy educational experience.

Twenty years ago we started as a small school called Westchester Hebrew Academy on a floor of a synagogue with 14 kindergarten and 10 first grade students. Today, as we celebrate this notable anniversary, we do so as we proudly welcome our largest incoming early childhood class this fall and graduate our largest class this upcoming spring — a true testament that our founders’ dream of creating a thriving Jewish day school has come to fruition. Twenty years later, we have graduated 12 classes — close to 200 students — many whom are now young adults taking the roots they planted at Carmel and making a difference in the world.

From its inception, Carmel Academy has had a forward-thinking approach to education — striving to be a beacon of excellence and innovation that draws students, faculty, and thought leaders from near and far. Carmel’s commitment to innovation has earned our school prestigious academic invitations including being one of the first schools in the country to pilot and then adopt the renowned E2K STEM program, as well as being selected to pilot the Judaic and general studies Standards and Benchmark programs. Our innovative mindset has led to groundbreaking programs — ranging from our inclusive PALS program for children with learning disabilities to our Reggio Emilia-inspired transitional kindergarten program.

Our “20 Years of Daring” theme will be integrated into our curriculum, as both students and faculty will be encouraged to take on academic and personal challenges, as well as pursue a variety of endeavors such as studying daring figures in history. In honor of this significant year, we will take a step back into 1997 for a “1997 Day”, gather for a 20th Anniversary Erev Tov Annual Dinner, and formally honor the architects of the school with a Founder’s Day Celebration. We have also designed a 20th Anniversary logo that will be used throughout the year.

What I love about Carmel is that I have the opportunity to continue to envision a Jewish day school that holds the highest standards of education, professionalism and purposeful community. This part of my position is in sync with the ethos of this great institution and one in which I do not take for granted. We begin this school year by honoring our past, celebrating our present and championing our future. This will be a year of reminiscing and celebration, and I look forward to celebrating this wonderful milestone with our entire community.

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Navigating Unchartered Waters

Over the past several weeks Carmel Academy’s Educational Leadership Team has been following the news very closely. As many institutions have published statements of condemnation or praise, we have asked ourselves if there is a particular lens or voice that we can or should contribute to the conversation.

It has become increasingly clear to the Leadership Team and our teachers that our voice must be a reminder of kindness and basic goodness. We are not policy experts and we will not make claims about particular politics. Yet, throughout the unfolding of events regarding the refugee crisis we have seen an animosity, and a description of other human beings that strips them of their humanity and their individuality. This is unacceptable, and is antithetical to Carmel Academy’s mission, vision and principles.

One of the benefits of elementary education is the opportunity to preach and cultivate a sense of pure goodness. No politics can or should be allowed to complicate our moral compass. We are a Jewish educational institution shaped and defined by our values. Our daily efforts propel our students to embody our Brit Middot (Values Covenant), purposely placing at its core behavioral expectations that inspires our holy community (Kehilat Kodesh). In these times more than ever before, we turn to our Brit Middot for guidance as we help our students process these national events.

As we educate your children to be global citizens and find their own voice in never ending conversations about the future of our country, we hope to nurture a critical eye. At the same time, we demand to imbue within them a deep and unfaltering commitment to goodness and dignity. We condemn all rhetoric that demonizes innocent people, and we are repulsed by any language that aims to discriminate based off religion or race.

These are challenging times for parents, educators and children. As we navigate the current educational climate and whatever policy may be established, we demand basic decency. As always, we are grateful for your partnership as we embark unchartered waters.

May the One who makes peace, make peace upon us,
for all of Israel, and for all who inhabit the earth.
And let us say, Amen!

– The Carmel Academy Educational Leadership Team

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Our Children, Our Actions and The Election

This is an extraordinary morning.

After long and difficult months of a campaign, where we witnessed the most divisive and hurtful messages, we woke up to a President elect. The emotions are running strong – whether devastated, elated, afraid or satisfied, I imagine each one of us are experiencing feelings that are moving us deeply.

So here is the question I have received from many of you….what do we tell our children? How do we look them in the eye? My personal story allows me to answer this question with little baggage. I came to this extraordinary country as an 18-year-old. As an immigrant from a Latin American country, I was embraced and received every opportunity to grow personally and professionally. At times, I also felt like the “other” and heard comments that were both hurtful and based in ignorance.

So…what do we tell our children?

We tell them that we live in a great democracy and that it is our responsibility to agree, disagree and take action. We tell them that we are honored to live in a country that has overcome adversity many times. We tell them that our extraordinary nation is one of opportunity, freedom and responsibility. And we show them … we show them to see the “other” without prejudice and fear, we show them to act when we see something that is immoral or goes against our values, we show them that we are responsible for one another. We don’t allow life to go back to “normal” by acting complacent and return to our daily routines.

How? We volunteer at homeless shelters, we engage in letter-writing campaigns, we exercise our democratic responsibility to vote and protest, we invite “others” to our homes and get to know them. We become civically responsible and take action – in whatever political way you lean in. Only by being role models are we going to be able to look at our children in the eye.

Our country needs healing and only people can facilitate change. What I am committed to is to live as a role model for my sons and students. One of the reasons we chose (you as parents, me professionally) Carmel Academy, and a value that I am committed to perpetuate, is the mandate to stand up, volunteer and be counted. We will take a close look at our chesed program … we will continue to teach our students civic, human and Jewish responsibility. We will have days of chesed that include letter writing and supporting issues we value – without politicking.

We will continue to develop critical thinking skills so our students are prepared to make decisions that are based in facts and not emotions.

Our faculty and staff is committed to ensure that Carmel Academy students will graduate with a sense of responsibility to the world…not with a sense of despair for the world.

Together we can achieve this.

With deep prayers for peace and healing.

-Nora

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Tashlich, Casting Off

With the end of Aseret Yemei T’shuvah – Ten days of repentance upon us, I find myself reflecting and preparing. These appear to be contradicting action verbs – reflecting implies looking back onto a past that I cannot change, which includes moments and actions I regret. Preparing implies looking forward to a future I cannot fully envision with the intention of making changes that will avoid the mistakes of the past. Harder than looking forward is letting go of the past.

Letting go of moments of shame and regret is hard. As human beings, we sometimes need a tangible way of letting go. Tashlich, casting off, is a beautiful traditional ritual that involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water.

At Carmel, we teach our students how to let go. Rather than tossing bread, which would be ecologically irresponsible, our students tossed water soluble, non-toxic paper into our campus stream. From our youngest to our oldest, our students wrote individual reflections on this special paper and cast their reflections off into the water. In developmentally appropriate ways our students discussed with their teachers the importance of Tashlich and how it gives us the tools to take stock of who we are and make decisions about who we wish to be in the new year.

Students were asked to look critically at themselves and think about things they didn’t wish to carry with them into the New Year. The individual grade ceremonies included a special walk through our beautiful campus to the stream, songs and stories. Enjoy this video of our students as they perform Tashlich and reflect on what changes they would like to make in 5777.

As Yom Kippur approaches this evening, I too have taken stock of my year and have attempted to let go of things I do not wish to carry onto 5777. As it is tradition, I ask you for mechilah, forgiveness, for anything I may have done, intentionally or unintentionally, to hurt you or dismiss you.

With warm wishes for an easy fast and a meaningful Yom Kippur.

May you, your families, friends and community, be inscribed in the Book of Life!

Nora

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Welcome To The New School Year

The summer has officially ended and with its end come mixed feelings. The relaxed, easy way of summer will be replaced with routines and filled schedules. At Carmel Academy we are ready for the 2016-17 school year! Our school theme for the year is the “Carmel Academy Experience.” We will research, learn, and offer each one of our constituents the type of experience each deserves. Whether it’s faculty, students, parents, extended families or community members – Carmel Academy is about a unique community sharing common values and high expectations. We are committed to each member of our community having the most extraordinary experience offered by any Jewish Day School.

Over the last ten days, our new staff participated in a special orientation geared toward familiarizing them with our school. After interviewing them several times, observing their demonstration lessons, checking their references and ensuring that we had found the best professionals in Jewish education – they were ready to jump in and participate in this orientation. Our discussions included CA educational and religious philosophy, how we bring the best out of our children, how we address their needs and create learning environments that deepen knowledge while fostering creative and critical thinking.

After two intense days with our new faculty, we welcomed our entire faculty and staff for a full week of learning and team building. Building upon our “Carmel Academy Experience” theme, our faculty had the opportunity to play and learn together. Our week included conversations surrounding curriculum development and integration, student needs and the creation of Individual Action Plans (IAP), and communication – internal, external, to parents, classes, grades and school-wide. In the midst of these sessions, our faculty set the classrooms, finalized orders and developed their first unit and lesson plans of the year. As a community of learners, we began every day with a d’var Torah and an opportunity to learn together.

We have just entered the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year and the month dedicated to reflect upon the past year and prepare for the High Holidays. Some Chasidic sages see ELUL as an acronym for the phrase from Shir HaShirim 6:3—Ani LeDodi V’Dodi Li – “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” While reading about this interpretation, I learned that during this month we are to initiate a kind, loving and honest relationship with God as well as with our peers. Elul is seen as a time to search one’s heart and draw close to God in preparation for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We know that this preparation requires us to also search and open our hearts to those close to us — families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, those who are not as privileged as we are … meaning, open our hearts to humanity, and, in doing so, we enhance each person’s experience and better the world.

In keeping with the theme of Elul and of our school year, “Carmel Academy Experience,” our leadership and staff are committed to opening our hearts and ensuring that each one of our children reaches their highest potential, that all parents feel heard, that our community cares for each other and for the world. We are eager to welcome your children tomorrow and are excited to share this year with you!

Enjoy our “fun filled” video…we have a feeling, that this year is going to be a good…good year! Click here to view it.

With warm wishes for a wonderful school year and a month of reflection and growth.

L’shalom.
Nora

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The Power Of Reflection

I spent the last few days at the Day School Leadership Training Institute, a Davidson School Field Program where I mentor and teach new and aspiring heads of schools. My responsibilities at DSLTI include spending three hours per week coaching and mentoring new heads of schools, dedicating three weeks during the summer co-teaching important leadership topics such as vision, mission and Jewish educational leadership; and helping facilitate two three-day retreats per year. During this last retreat, I co-taught an intensive five-session seminar about the power of strategic thinking to further a school’s mission. Often, people ask me why I do this. Aren’t I busy enough? Don’t I have too many school responsibilities to take this time away?

Part of the answer is clear to me – I get just as much from teaching and mentoring as I hope my mentees get from me sharing my professional experiences. This time away from Carmel makes me a better leader. Having the opportunity to think and learn with other leaders in the Jewish educational field, and to give back to a profession that has given me so much is critical to my professional growth. An unexpected yet equally rewarding benefit to mentoring is that the experience has been a strong vehicle for self-reflection. Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino states: “Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection, we might be better off.” This certainly rings true. Life as an educational leader is hectic. Stepping off the treadmill of everyday life and having the opportunity to reflect upon my practice and think of new initiatives invigorates me, allows me to be creative, makes me a better practitioner, and, ultimately, makes Carmel Academy a better school.

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32 Years

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This is me at age 16 with my “first students” on Teacher’s Day, Dia del Maestro Leon Pinelo 1979.

Thirty two years of experience….

It is hard to believe that my career began in 1984, a time when choosing to become an educator was going against the norm. It was a challenging professional environment — there was a freeze in teacher hiring and most talented college students were deterred from entering a career in education. Many of my college classmates were conflicted by the dual messages sent by society and their personal passions. To teach or not to teach? That was the question. Like many of my peers, my quandary was no different. I was graduating with math and psychology majors and an education minor. My desire to teach dated back to my young teenage years. Many of my professors encouraged me to enter the finance or engineering world.

Thirty-two years later, I have no regrets and have never looked back. Not for a moment. Sure these years have had ups and downs. I have seen educational trends come and go. Yet, my own passion for learning has never diminished. As a student of education, I have embraced many initiatives and changes, weathered many educational misconceptions and challenges, and, today, I am proud of a career that has fulfilled both my passions and my intellectual thirst.

I have been asked by many to share my thoughts and opinions about the state of education today – both general and Jewish, from the Carmel Academy perspective and from my own viewpoint. This blog is an attempt to do just that — to share, to hear ideas, to challenge you to think about educational issues and for readers to challenge my thinking.

I hope you will join me in this new venture, provide me with feedback, and share your thoughts. Together, we will have meaningful discussions about a topic dear to our hearts.

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