Apr 2011

The Decade of No

Lisa Schlaff is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program and Assistant Principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, NY. She is a co-founder of Darkhei Noam, a partnership minyan in Manhattan.   Lisa can be reached at lisaschlaff@gmail.com.

My life ten years ago: I lived on the Upper West Side and was deeply involved in the founding of two new Jewish organizations, both of which were cutting-edge in the Modern Orthodox community. Darkhei Noam is a partnership minyan dedicated to maximizing women’s roles in tefillah and SAR High School is a Jewish educational institution committed to engaging students in the grand conversation between Torah and the world. As a scholar-in-residence I lectured frequently about Orthodox feminism. I spent my days thinking about mission statements and the pushing of boundaries.

My life now: I live in the New York suburb and daven at a lovely, but relatively conventional, Orthodox shul. I am Assistant Principal at SAR, still forward thinking, but with 440 students, very much an establishment institution. I have a husband, two children (ages 3 and one and a half) and a third on the way. We do not yet have a minivan, but its arrival is imminent. I spend my days thinking about staff development programs, halakha curriculum, and the ever-growing pile of dishes in my sink.

My transition from boundary pushing innovator to working within the more mainstream Jewish establishment has been an incremental one, largely propelled by the tremendous blessing and need of my growing family. But perhaps because the change has been incremental rather than abrupt, my sense of identity has not shifted in tandem with the realities of my life. I am blessed to deeply love both my family and my work, but struggle constantly with the feeling that, no longer engaged in the excitement of building institutions afresh, that my contribution to the Jewish community is somehow less meaningful.

I often joke about entitling the current chapter of my life “The decade of No.” “No” has become my knee-jerk response to any request extraneous to the immediate demands of my family and career. In the past months I have said no to speaking at my shul, writing for an education journal, starting a minyan, and traveling as a scholar in residence. While “No” slips much more easily off my lips than it has ever before, every “No” leaves me wistful about turning down opportunities I would have enjoyed, and acutely aware that the more often I say “No,” the less often I will be asked.

And so my current challenge lies in internalizing that every “No” means turning down one opportunity but saying “Yes” to another. Turning down a speaking engagement means spending more time at home doing puzzles with my daughter. Turning down an opportunity to publish means spending more time at school with a struggling teacher. I am reshaping my identity to focus on the myriad of small, but meaningful personal interactions I have over the course of a day; discussing summer plans with a student, making a bracha with my daughter, reviewing a test with a teacher. I am slowly reconfiguring my definition of leadership to one that is measured not by public accomplishments, but rather by private moments. This shift has not come easily to me – like many of us, I have been schooled to think of achievement in terms of measurable accomplishment rather than personal interaction. But it has brought tremendous blessing to my life, allowing me to appreciate the kedusha of private moments.