Starting a Movement: The Story Of Lamplighters

Here’s a question I get asked all the time: Why did you start a school?

And the truth is, there isn’t one answer– just some memories, stories and truths that hold a deep place in my soul.

I remember my teacher in seventh grade, a sixteen year old girl who had just graduated high school– an utter genius with an encyclopedia of knowledge. We conducted mock Beis Din court cases and delved deeply into rich chassidic texts. She taught us in ways that brought Jewish law and mysticism to life– and made the teachings relevant, even to us twelve-year-olds.

She was shy and slightly awkward. As a teacher, she was inexperienced. She didn’t have nifty tricks up her sleeves or tried-and-true lesson plans. But what moved me most about her was how much she inspired us to connect with what we learnt and how she believed we were capable of so much– and so, we delivered. (Years later, as an adult, I saw her in my neighborhood and shared how she literally transformed my life. She was shocked.)

I remember my Math teacher in grade school who did not divide our multi-age class by grade level but allowed us to learn at our own pace. We were given the keys to our own ignition, allowed to navigate the pages of algebra, fueled by our own determination to learn and master more– I will never forget the joy I felt as I cruised along at my own rhythm. (That’s when I loved Math. My teacher in high school would change that.)

I also remember my high school principal, Mrs. Kenny Deren OBM, and a conversation with her that colored my perception of what true education is.

After a month in ninth grade, my teachers and parents entertained the possibility that I would skip to tenth. I went to visit Mrs. Deren to discuss the option. “Mama’le, there are two kinds of learning. You can learn vertically, adding more to what you already know, or you can learn horizontally, delving deeper and deeper into the breadth of what you are already learning. Education is not only about the vertical path– its more about the horizontal one.” With those wise words, she instilled in me the respect and awareness that learning was not just an accumulation of facts, but a deep process of internalizing what we learnt.

But school is school. And for me and many of my friends, not all of our experiences were stellar. There was boredom, frustration, and moments were I felt totally disengaged- and uninspired.

But these moments seem to pale in comparison to stories I heard of those who, for some reason or another, left the education system scathed, burnt and broken.

Stories of children who did not fit into any box, however large or small, however hard those around them tried to force them in.

Stories of people with hidden geniuses that only erupted eons after many less-than inspiring years in school, their childhood marred with feelings of wasted time and potential.

Stories of people who, even after years in yeshiva, felt disillusioned with Jewish community, leaders and practice.

Stories of exasperated, well-meaning teachers who lacked the resources to truly impact a particular child and make a difference that mattered.

Stories of young adults frustrated, their skills less than stellar, ill-equipped to make educated choices and pursue their dreams.

And more stories… And even more stories that would compel anyone to want to change our educational system.

But mostly, when asked why I started a school, I think about my oldest child. His smile full of light, his mind so creative and full of questions, his soul so sensitive– and my fears that he, like so many others, would graduate the traditional school system affected, not fully actualized.

When my oldest child began his journey into schooling, I turned into The Picky Mom (we all know one). I visited many, many playgroups before I decided on the right one for him: one where the teacher was warm, intuitive and saw the ‘light’ in my child. And when it came time to send him to school, I explored as many options as I could, visiting classes, meeting teachers, asking questions, talking to other moms- I had to find the right place for my son. It had to be an environment that truly nurtured him.

In all honesty, it was not an easy quest.

Eventually, my husband and I settled on one of the local, larger schools. His teacher was young, devoted and full of life. And while it was unlikely I could follow in my mother’s footsteps and volunteer at my child’s school (I went to a PTA meeting with large hopes that didn’t materialize), I told myself that eventually, there would be ways I could get involved. And that hopefully, my son would get what he needed.

One day, I saw a Facebook post about a “child-centered” after-school program in the neighborhood. I eagerly registered my three-year-old son. The program was smaller and more personalized than the the local, larger school he attended. The educator was stellar; the environment, warm. The materials encouraged meaningful exploration. It felt like a deliberate environment, one where thought and care were present in every detail.

Once, around pick up time, another parent there casually mentioned her wish of starting a school like this, one that nurtured the “unique spark of every child.”

She said it with such nonchalance, but the suggestion held so much impact for me.

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Suddenly, unexpectedly, something totally clicked inside me. It felt like all my past experiences came together into one defining moment– a moment that would become a lifejacket for me, carrying me through challenges that would rip inside of me as I felt the weight of so many souls on my shoulders.

In that moment, as she uttered the words, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could start a school like this?” I thought to myself with all the confidence in the world: YES! We could do this! As impossible as it sounds, we could totally start a school that truly gave our children the opportunity to become empowered, life-long learners.

This is possible.

I started talking to other moms, friends that I knew who like me, felt dissatisfied with the system, wanted more for their children. And although many felt like I did, most seemed afraid to step outside the predictability of the system. A new school held too many unknowns.

Eventually, through conversations and shared dreams, we recruited some incredible, like-minded, pioneering families to our cause.

And one night, gathered around our dining room table over introductions, open dialogue and maamarim of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, we shared our vision for a school and dreams for our children: We wanted them to be in an educational environment that respected them as individuals and nurtured their inherent genius. We wanted our children to learn with educators that were committed to unearthing the  full potential of each student. We wanted them to find true fulfillment as passionate Jews, exhilarated by their unique purpose in this world. We wanted them to be creative and confident Chassidim, deeply inspired by our Rebbe’s teachings. We wanted them to become agents for change and spread light through the world.

We wanted them to be Lamplighters.

And with that, our Yeshivah was born.

Last month, I facilitated a workshop at the Jewish Montessori Society’s North American Conference. There was a group of about eight Heads of School, sharing our challenges and aspirations for our schools. And in answering their question, “Why did you start a school?” I realized that beyond all the incredible examples I was afforded, beyond how broken the educational system may be and beyond my own dreams for my child, the reason I did what I did is simple.

When I really ponder about why I started a school, I know that it is because from my deepest being, I believe it is absolutely possible to make a sustainable difference in Jewish education– to create a full-blown revolution. I believe we can transform our schools. We can create a model of education that will impact children the world over.  We can innovate in ways that unearth the potential of every Jewish child. We can inspire life-long learners that are invigorated by their Judaism.

And through all our initial challenges of starting a school, when almost no one believed we could do it, the sense of possibility never left me– the  belief that no matter what, we could do this; that no matter what challenges came our way, this was attainable.

Like at the start of the second year of Lamplighters, when I assumed position of Executive Director and had to wear many hats: education, operations and development. I was way out of my league. I felt so frustrated that I didn’t have the tools needed to ensure what happened in the classroom supported my vision. It turned into a tumultuous year. I battled to keep my dream alive and maintain positive relationships with the school community, even with growing animosity. Eventually, eight families and three staff members left Lamplighters. I suddenly faced confusion from families and staff, loss of resources, and growing rumors in the greater community about Lamplighters and my efficacy as a leader.

It was an incredibly emotional time for me. It was really, really hard to keep the school alive. Ultimately, founders, parents and staff banded together around our original vision and did not lose hope. Somehow, Lamplighters survived– and thrived.

When I send email after email out to prospective donors and do not hear back, I feel dejected. But I tell myself that there is no reason in the world why someone would not want to support our mission- I just need to push harder.

When I have limited resources and do not believe I can pull through- whether  how to make payroll month after month or afford the light fixtures and toilets for the school building right before the beginning of the academic year- the only way for me to meet my challenges is to believe miracles are possible (and probable). (In the case of the lights and toilets, thank Gd, we secured a donation of materials. Installation occurred a couple days before school started.)

And this is what I’ve learnt: when we open our eyes to what’s possible and act with courage, we hold a power like no other- and magnificent things happen.

We become agents for meaningful change, inspired by Above.

We do anything and everything to fulfill our dreams.

We act with passion, determination, vision and purpose.

We feel enthused by our cause and are inspired to give to others.

Ultimately– we become Lamplighters.

(This article is in no way an exhaustive history of our school and all the wonderful people that are a part of its story- that would take volumes. If you’re curious to learn more about Lamplighters as it stands today, you can watch our video. And I will definitely be revisiting this topic in future Hevria posts.)