Tribute to a Mentor

  • by: Paula Rosen

Paula Rosen is Lower School Director, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, Newton, Massachusetts and a graduate of The Lookstein Center’s Principals’ Program.

Jennifer Miller was in the first group of mentors in The Lookstein Center’s Principals’ Program. Her work for Lookstein ended abruptly when she took ill. Her mentee, Paula Rosen, presents this tribute.

One of the pleasures of the school year’s rhythm is the possibility for the extended reflection and learning that can happen during the summer. Since becoming Director of the Lower School at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, I’ve taken advantage of the school hiatus by attending one significant workshop each year. In the summer of 2005, a proposed action plan in hand, I headed for Israel to participate in the Principals’ Program sponsored by The Lookstein Center of Bar-Ilan University. One of the many unique features of the Lookstein program was the promise of working with a mentor during the year in which I would implement my action plan. Little did I know that my learning from my mentor, Jennifer Miller, would go far beyond helping me understand how to bring change to my school.

In the year and a half I worked with Jennifer, we became friends. We spent time together during mentoring visits and at a winter Lookstein retreat, we talked on the phone about leadership and our families, and we shared what was important in our lives as I tried to convince Jennifer to return to Boston from Cleveland to take a position at my school.

In the spring of 2006, when Jennifer and I met at a Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education conference, she hadn’t looked well, but she attributed her tiredness to how hard she was working at the conference. During the fall of 2006, when Jennifer was in Boston to visit her daughter who was getting married, we had dinner. We laughed about the slowing down that came with age, and Jennifer lost her balance as we were getting up from the table.

After the wedding, Jennifer began some medical tests because she was showing unusual symptoms. Fairly quickly, Jennifer was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive, usually fatal, neurodegenerative disease in which patients typically lose the ability to initiate and control all voluntary movement except of the eyes.

What followed was a quiet phase in which Jennifer and her family began investigating possibilities, probabilities, and coping with the reality of what appeared to be an inevitable deterioration. While Jennifer’s cell phone had been disconnected and there was no answer to a call to her school, I received a few group e-mails over the next few months in which Jennifer described her rapidly worsening condition and the incredible network of people who were rallying around her.

About a year later I got an e-mail from someone at the nearby Rashi School saying that Jennifer wanted to celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles and joining in song with her Boston community at Rashi, where she had been Head of School for many years. As I drove to Rashi with a Schechter teacher who was a good friend of Jennifer’s, we talked about whether we would have the courage to choose to live with ALS. We talked of all that Jennifer could no longer do. My colleague and I could not have been more mistaken in the way we were thinking about Jennifer.

There were about 150 people gathered in the Rashi School auditorium. For about 30 minutes, the rabbi who had created Rashi’s Shabbat song program with Jennifer led us in spirited singing of Hanukkah songs. Jennifer was seated in a wheelchair in the front of the auditorium, facing the rabbi, her back to us. I could see that she could move her head and her lips in a bit of a smile, and it appeared that this was the limit of her mobility. At one point, the rabbi said Jennifer wanted to invite all the Rashi alums to gather around her and the hanukkiah to join in signing the blessing while her adult children lit the candles.

After more songs, Jennifer’s wheelchair was turned so she was facing the group. Though Jennifer has no speech, she shared a power-point presentation she had written with a technology-assisted computer. When Jennifer wants to write, a piece of plastic with a sensor in it is put on her nose, and she directs this to a sensor on the computer that lets her type. As her words were projected on a screen, a computer generated voice shared what Jennifer had painstakingly written about her condition, and about the support of her family and friends, a caretaker, and her doctors.

At the time of the Hanukkah celebration, Jennifer was patient #27 of 100 ALS patients to benefit from a new diaphragm pacing study at the Cleveland Clinic, a cutting-edge approach to facilitate breathing in the event that a patient’s muscles cannot maintain this function independently. She was also on an experimental medication, and she was the only person in this country who had both the surgery and was taking the medication. So far, these interventions have enabled Jennifer to breathe on her own, and as she reported, she still “enjoys eating just about everything.” We learned that Jennifer was working with an award winning videographer who was recording her journey and that of her family. Jennifer told us that she planned to turn her writing about this part of her life and the thoughts of those who are with her into a book. Jennifer’s consulting with PEJE was continuing, and she was collaborating with a professor from Case Western Reserve University on issues surrounding emerging literacy for pre-school students.

Jennifer told us that that she is surrounded by people who love and care for her and whom she loves, and that her life is full. All of us know Jennifer as a consummate storyteller. With her characteristic humor, Jennifer told us that when she and her husband were first married, he sometimes would ask her for “just a half hour of quiet,” and that now he longs for those lost half-hours. Jennifer smiled as we laughed at parts of her dialogue and enjoyed the indomitable “Jennifer spirit.”

The most amazing part of the night came when we were told that Jennifer wanted to greet each of us. We were asked to keep it light and not get emotional. As I leaned over her wheelchair to speak with Jennifer, her eyes lit up in delight. She gave me what I had come to know and love – her total attention at that moment and the message that I was important to her. Jennifer’s bright and joyful eyes mirrored those of her children, her husband and her sister. As they watched us with Jennifer, their smiles reflected their delight in being part of Jennifer having what she wanted: to celebrate Hanukkah with people who mattered to her.

When we spent time together in Israel, Jennifer was always at the center of activities. As soon as we were done with a class, Jennifer was orchestrating plans to meet in the lobby for an adventure or to have a quiet conversation over an evening drink. That she was part of the inclusive groups that made trips to interesting restaurants and meandered around Jerusalem to soak up all it offered was not surprising. Jennifer’s openness to finding something in everyone on which to base a friendship, her smile and infectious laughter, and her seriousness in listening to what people were saying helped us all feel we were part of a unique community.

Each day, Jennifer devotes two hours to writing her book, which will focus on the nature of fear. Jennifer’s daughter Carla recently told me that while learning to be patient has been one of her mother’s biggest challenges, having to rely on others has not broken her mother’s spirit. Though she faces fears that she had never envisioned, Jennifer still wakes up each day full of plans and hope, always persevering in the face of her limitations. This summer, Jennifer will be back in Boston to mark the start of a Boston to New York City bike ride that begins at Rashi and that will raise funds for ALS research.

As Carla and I talked about all she has learned from watching her mother’s courage and perseverance, Carla told me her mother has always been “the queen of the teachable moment,” an apt descriptor for one of the mentoring points that Jennifer shared about the importance of finding authentic lessons in my school’s experience. The teachable moment in the Hanukkah celebration at Rashi was about the ways in which our choices define us. Jennifer’s life is rich and purposeful. She is defined not by her disease, but by the power of her spirit.

A few times in my life, I have been lucky enough to meet people whom I consider madrikhim, guides who help me look at myself. In showing me her engagement with life, in choosing to die living rather than to live dying, Jennifer has moved from mentor to madrikha. This is a gift that will remain a part of me forever.

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