Not surprisingly, the first connection I made to Margie Berkowitz was through her grandsons.
In early 2003, when I applied to be Director of Informal Education at Prozdor, I was a lowly assistant teacher at The Rashi School, trying to figure out what to do in Jewish Education, and doing a great job of not being noticed. Luckily, Margie’s grandsons, who attended Rashi at the time, put in a good word with her and I can’t help but think that it helped me land that job.
For those of who know Margie, or her extended family, it’s certainly not a surprise that my first Margie story relates to her family. You can’t go very far in Jewish Boston without meeting a Berkowitz, or a Tarmy, or a Smith, or a Wolf, or a Glasgow, and it’s fair to say that members of each of those families have impacted my life in special and meaningful ways over the past eight years, and will continue to do so in the future.
About a year after I got the job at Prozdor, Margie and I traveled together to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, on a small educators’ mission run by the JCRC. At the time, my position at Prozdor had evolved into planning trips and Shabbatonim, directing one of Prozdor’s branches, teaching some classes, and doing a fair bit of writing. I vividly recall us sitting in the back of the multi-passenger van that was bouncing up and down on the pothole-filled streets of Dnep, talking with Margie about how each of the trip participants had assumed a personality on the trip. Margie described herself and another of our fellow travelers as the “Ambassadors”, and then went through each person sharing her thoughts. When she got to me, she paused, thought, and said, that I was “the wild card.” What did that mean, I asked her. Her response was that it meant that I was a little hard to read but also full of surprises.
I’d like to think that I’ve been a pleasant surprise to Margie over the past eight years, and imagine that the biggest surprise I’ve provided her is to have been appointed as her successor as Director of Prozdor, beginning this summer. Margie is a mentor, a friend, a leader, a guide, a confidant, a trusted ally, and an honest critic, and at different times over the past eight years I have seen all of those facets of her. I will miss them all as she retires in a few short weeks and as I try to adequately serve as her replacement.
Since that bumpy ride in Dnep I’ve been fortunate to share many incredible memories with Margie, both at Prozdor and around the world. We planned classes and school-to-school exchanges together, we traveled to Israel together with this year’s Pirke Dorot participants, we’ve seen incredible teachers and administrators come and go, and over time developed a close relationship that is hard to really describe.
Although I’d heard rumors and whispers of Margie retiring, when I found out in December that this year would be Margie’s last, I was still surprised. What would Prozdor look like without Margie? How would it evolve? It’s funny- when I read the email from Hebrew College, one of the first things I did was tweet about it. I went back and checked my tweets, and here it is, from December 8:
margie berkowitz is leaving @prozdor after twelve amazing years as director. a lamed-vavnik if there ever was one. we’ll miss you.
In the aftermath of the announcement I gave no thought at all to applying for her job. Who was I to do so? But after our trip to Israel together I sat with her in her office and she encouraged me to do just that. With no delusions of grandeur, and with chances that I put at 5% of actually getting the job, I put in my name and resume for the position. Now, four months later, it’s remarkable, humbling, and still surprising that I will be following in her footsteps.
The impact that Margie has had on the Jewish community of Boston over her illustrious career cannot be overstated. Here are just a few pieces of her legacy in Jewish Education:
-As the principal of congregational schools and the director of both Camp Yavneh and Prozdor she has touched the lives of thousands of individuals.
-Through her family and her ever-growing number of grandchildren she has transmitted a joyful love of Judaism and Jewish education and given her own time and energy to serving as a relentless advocate for The Rashi School, where her grandchildren have all attended.
-Through her mentoring and personal guidance she has nurtured a new generation of Jewish educational leadership who will carry on her vision of Jewish education well into the future. Looking at the positions that her former understudies have gone on to assume is staggering- heads of day schools, heads of camps, directors of synagogue school and community organizations… it’s an impressive list.
-Through her leadership she has made Israel Education and the development of school-to-school partnerships between Prozdor and the Alliance School (from 2002-2010) and Prozdor and the Hebrew Reali School (from 2006 until today) in Haifa a top priority. If nothing else, Margie’s tireless push towards fostering Israel connections and pushing an agenda of Israel education rooted in a love and commitment towards Israel will be her greatest gift to Prozdor and to me.
On Sunday evening, June 5, the entire community has a chance to honor Margie’s contributions not just to Prozdor, or Hebrew College, or Yavneh, but to Jewish Education in Boston. Hers is a legacy that will endure, and I invite you to join in celebrating her at the dinner in her honor (you can find information on that event by clicking here).
Long after June 5 is over, and long after I begin at Prozdor, Margie’s vision and the lessons I have learned from her will impact me. I can only hope to lead the school with the same kind of vision and passion that she demonstrated not just at Prozdor, but throughout her life. I think it’s fair to say that in 2004 there’s no way either of us would have envisioned that I’d be writing this blog post about being the next Director of Prozdor, and I’m also pretty certain that even in January we both would have been skeptical that this would happen… but sometimes things work out in funny ways.