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A Matter of Principal
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

"When a person sees, hears, or learns about an event, there must be a specific lesson of personal relevance... If this applies with regard to an individual occurrence, how much more so is it the case with regard to a person's career and work, in which the greater part of his energies, abilities, and time are invested." The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, Ch.2"

Nobody will be surprised when Shimon Waronker becomes top executive over America's largest school district with more than a million students and a budget of over 20 billion dollars. Never mind that he's just in his early forties and that he's pretty fresh in the field. Put aside the fact that he's a strictly orthodox, Chabad Chassidic Jew. That, for those who know him, just makes him a more likely candidate.Chabad, Chabad House
Shimon Waronker's claim to fame comes from the trenches - not the military trenches, although he's learned important and practical lessons there - but rather school administrative trenches.
Waronker captured the heart of a nation and became a darling of the media - the Today Show, CNN, and the front page of the New York Times - for transforming a school known as "hell on earth" into a shining example of academic and social wellness. Not bad for a first time principal.
His first day on the job, there was a beating. The victim, a young teenager, suffered brain damage, vision loss and more. After having the perpetrator arrested for assault (with the help of some of the two dozen police officers assigned to the school), Waronker got a personal death threat from the incarcerated student's father, a man who had just been released that day from prison - for rape.
Five gangs controlled the neighborhood and their headquarters was the school, Middle School 22 in the Bronx, where they had taken over the halls, the classrooms, the washrooms and sometimes even the administrative office. That's a pretty impressive feat for students from Grades 5 through 8, until you factor in the failure rate, which puts some of those Grade 8 students as old as 18. The older students would rake in magnificent 'salaries' by roping in the younger ones to do the bulk of their dirty work - drug dealing and other crimes - because under 16, a kid doesn't do time.
Most people, like the previous six principals, would have quit the place within a few months but not Shimon: He had a vision and he was going to implement it. Today, just a few years later, the gangs are gone, the drugs, crime and violence are negligible, the kids are learning, the staff is cheerful and the parents are grateful and optimistic. But how did he implement this unprecedented miracle?
That's the question I asked Shimon Waronker during the question period of his pre-Rosh Hashana pep talk for the Jewish Russian Community of Toronto this week. He said it comes down to three things: Bitachon, Dira b'Tachtonim, and Simcha. In English that's absolute trust in the Creator, an unswerving commitment to doing what's right in the eyes of G-d and man, and indomitable joy.
This was no textbook recipe for social and academic remediation. His answer left me confused and, I admit, a little irritated because I thought he was being evasive. But the more he spoke about it, the more I understood that he wasn't kidding. It's a classic case of "Where there's a will, there's a way."
What is Bitachon - trust? It's like a supercharged faith. Regular faith is when you know that whatever G-d has in store for you is for your own good, even if it is not apparent how it is good. Trust is when you know that it will turn out good in the revealed sense as well. How can we be so sure? If even the patriarchs feared that they may not deserve to see their divine blessings fulfilled, on what basis are we so sure?
The answer is that absolute trust changes our destiny. To exemplify, once, two women were blessed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to conceive after a long time without children. After about a year, one of the women gave birth and the other had not even become pregnant. This second woman brought her complaint to the Rebbe who responded, "What do you expect? Upon receiving her blessing, your friend went out and bought a baby carriage!"
Shimon Waronker, in effect, told himself "The good L-rd put me into this situation, so it has to work out well." Believing that was the first step in making it happen.
What is Waronker's second principle - Dira B'Tachtonim - making the world G-dly? It's about the world living out its purpose. The rules of decency, morality, goodness and kindness don't change depending on race, creed or culture. They don't change with or without drugs or firearms. Each and every person has a purpose in the world and in general it's the same purpose for all of us: To make the world better, according to how the Torah views things.
What will the world be like when Moshiach comes and G-d is revealed? Will there be mutual respect and peaceful coexistence? Pride and dignity? In that case, it's our duty to make it that way now, to the best of our ability. Shimon Waronker saw the plight of today superimposed on a vision of tomorrow and realized that it's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. It is not possible that G-d's plan for society is unworkable, and it's not His will to do it on His own.
The third element is Simcha - joy. Now what has that to do with anything? Our sages teach that two things break through barriers... a king, and joy. In fact the two concepts are related: The Hebrew word for future rejoicing - Yismach - contains the same letters as Moshiach - our future King. One leads to the other.
Here's an example of this principle in action. One day Shimon Waronker returned to MS 22 from a conference to find that a gang had taken over the school's administrative office - literally. The indomitable principal greeted the situation with his characteristic smile, but that only served to irritate one the faculty who said, "How can you smile at a time like this?"
"First of all," Waronker responded, "We know exactly who's involved because the whole thing is on camera and we'll get those guys. Second of all, if I start crying, what's everybody else going to do?"
Waronker is a case study in the Chassidic adage, "Tracht gut, vet zein gut - Think good and it will be good." The way he figures it out, there are only two possibilities: Either Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche were right and life is amoral, meaningless and purposeless, or, there is another way and Judaism is onto something real. Realizing the latter is the only viable option, he's thrown himself into it wholeheartedly and his passionate faith in G-d and human nature is contagious.
He's a living lesson for all of us, that first of all, you can be successful as an orthodox Jew and a Chabad Chassid. Second, with the right attitude you can overcome all difficulties, and finally, there is no situation that can't be fixed.
And if that's not a good thought for ringing in the year 5770, I don't know what is.



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