From Left to Right: Avi Narrow-Tilonsky (Class 20); Esther Reed (Class 9); Elana Paru, (Class 7); Ami Hersh (Class 19); Lucy Tannen (Class 1).
The following remarks were given at the 2014 Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumni Institute Opening Session in Glen Cove, NY.
I met Phil Miller (WGFA Class 2), just a year ago, when the Wexner Mentoring Program commenced. I had no idea what to expect from him, or quite honestly, from the program. We began with 19 other pairs of mentors/mentees in a day of training with Rae Ringel, (WGFA Class 9), who served as the consultant for the Mentoring Program. This program was made possible in large part through a generous grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. She opened with a quote by Edith Wharton, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” She explained, a mentor is someone who can help ignite something in his or her mentee, as well as reflect back what he or she observes. That image has stayed with me throughout this entire year.
After a series of scripted, and less scripted, conversations on that first day, Phil and I embarked into unknown territory. Even though each of us had been in less formal mentor relationships, this one was different. Where in other instances, the pairing had happened more organically and we knew our partner in advance, Phil and I had never even heard of each other prior to being matched! We had to trust The Wexner Foundation, and more specifically, Cindy Chazan, who knew us both well.
We began speaking on the phone once every three weeks, still getting to know each other in the early months. From the very beginning, I was able to share with Phil my goals for our relationship, and the issues on which I wanted to focus, and we got to work right away!
Throughout the year various leadership dilemmas popped up for me. Each call, Phil would listen and offer tactical advice about my own supervision skills and specific ideas for encountering matters in my work. He not only reflected on his own practice, but also shared examples of his colleagues who were facing similar challenges. He mirrored for me his observations and gleaned for me tactics I might consider, without fail, that could strengthen my own work.
I knew from the beginning that I’d want my mentor to help me explore my growing passion for early childhood education and what it might mean for my career. I didn’t know exactly what this might look like, and I had no idea what Phil was capable of offering! Each call he would ask questions that would push me to really think about this as a transitional moment in my career – guiding me from my background in general Jewish education to focus on this specific cohort with which I was clearly falling in love. He introduced me to his colleagues, many of whom are leaders in the field, to learn about the theories and practices driving Jewish early childhood education today.
In addition to the regular phone calls, each mentor/mentee participated in a site visit. The goal of the site visit was for the mentor to visit with the mentee, observing and offering further support in whatever area(s) were needed. The visit for many pairs happened at the mentee’s place of work, allowing for the mentor to observe a typical day and then process through and offer feedback. Phil, in his infinite wisdom, suggested we do things our own way, and invited me to visit his JCC in Baltimore to see Jewish early childhood education in action. Highlights from our incredible day included meeting more of his talented colleagues, the best kosher Chinese dinner ever – thank you Wexner Foundation — and most importantly, an intense one-on-one with Phil, mapping out my life and thinking about this transitional moment in my career.
By the time of our site visit, I felt tremendous growth in two of the three domains the Mentoring Program stated in its original goals: “Tactical (“how to” and management skills), and Transitional (moving in and out of professional scenarios and positions)…”
From this point on, our work together became elevated, and we began to achieve the third goal: “Transformational (the sense of self that one brings to one’s work).” Phil became my balcony in every situation we discussed, helping me see the big picture and perspectives that I never would’ve considered otherwise. It was remarkable that in such a short, limited time, we were able to build such a strong foundation of trust and openness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the added benefits of being a part of this program. Rae Ringel led a couple of webinars about communication for all of the mentors and mentees, which also contributed to my tactical, transitional and transformational development. Subtle concepts and suggestions that Rae articulated in a way that seemed obvious completely shifted my thinking. Ideas like moving conversations from the past to the present and future, being aware of my own conversational habits as well as those of people with whom I often communicate, and making proper requests and replies. Additionally, every mentor and mentee received the gift of check-in phone-calls with Rae or Cindy. As if Phil wasn’t enough, Cindy gave me incredible guidance, pulling me onto the balcony, encouraging me to take risks and thinking differently about a number of matters.
At our final siyum we came together as an entire cohort. Rae led us in a number of exercises such as a Future Vision Circle – pretending today was February 23, 2015, and finishing the sentence: “This past year has been a great year because…” These exercises were great, you can ask anyone who participated in the program.
A few weeks ago, Phil asked me in the most humble way that is true to who he is, if I was interested in continuing our mentoring relationship. It was all I could do not to laugh, because it never occurred to me that we would stop! I told him, whether he likes it or not, he is in this for the long run. Phil has been both my candle and my mirror – igniting in me what I didn’t even know was possible, and reflecting for me new insights about myself. I am beyond grateful to The Wexner Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation for this incredible gift, and for introducing me to a lifelong mentor and friend.
Emily Walsh, an alumna of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class 19, is the Assistant Director of Education for Youth and Family at BJ, where she oversees the B’nai Mitzvah and Young Families programs. She holds two MA degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Previously, Emily served as a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at St. Louis Hillel at Washington University, and held internships at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California. Emily is also a trained Storahtelling Maven and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.