| Second Dance |

Second Dance: Chapter 17

This was Akiva’s territory. “I teach stuff like this, I would love to hear some of your best ideas, it’s so relevant to what I do. Tell me a chiddush”


If Shaindy Brucker had looked out of her window at 10:30 a.m., the sight would likely have ruined her morning. Fortunately, she had just finished davening and gotten busy making order with the siddurim, going on a sheimos tear and checking each one for missing pages.

Nothing had been planned. It was a beautiful morning, and Akiva Putterman had gone for a walk to prepare a lecture and he happened to meet Reuven Stagler. Akiva knew that he needed to be more neighborly. The Staglers had invited the Bruckers for Shabbos, and they, the Puttermans, had been left out — not that he minded, but Rina had been a bit miffed about it. She had watched the Bruckers come, and then leave at 2:15, and said, “Wow, that’s a long meal, I guess they all enjoyed.”

They had plenty of Shabbos invitations too, but Rina said she needed friends who weren’t after Akiva’s brilliant chinuch insights or Shea Helberg’s money, and her two immediate neighbors seemed not to care about any of those things.

Akiva didn’t like stopping while sorting out ideas for a speech, but for Rina’s sake, he would make sure the relationship worked.

“Hey, how’s el presidente?” he asked, his tone light.

Reuven, who had been carrying a stack of binders to his car, lowered them into the trunk, then straightened up and laughed. “Well, technically, I’m not president, just chairman, but I’m okay. Lots of work to be done, baruch Hashem, but slowly…”

Akiva nodded. “I’m sure it’s not easy, but you look like someone who has a method to getting things done.”

There was a flash of interest in the other man’s eyes. “That word, ‘method,’ is exactly what I’m working on now. There are so many little issues and I’m realizing more and more that the only way to deal with them is through finding methods. I’ve been doing some online management classes for this, learning new things here and there.”

This was Akiva’s territory. “I teach stuff like this, I would love to hear some of your best ideas, it’s so relevant to what I do. Tell me a chiddush.”

They were standing at the corner of Wilmington Loop and Kent and a few passing cars slowed to wave, or just look at them. Reuven was vaguely aware that this was a real conversation, the type he was interested in having, two serious men talking about serious things, and it was nice for people to see that, their new chairman engaged in discussing ideas with other smart people.

Akiva looked so genuinely interested that Reuven decided that he should probably just tell the truth: He wasn’t learning anything online, but from a private corporate coach the Lauers were paying for — a guy who looked like he was 18 and wore fancy suits and no ties and worked out of a large airy office in Brielle.

He told the truth, and Akiva smiled. “Yah, I think my son-in-law uses him, what’s his name again? The guy who looks like a kid, right?”

This shared confidence contributed to the general feeling of familiarity and Reuven seriously told Akiva about Beckett’s (that was the guy’s first name) major principle.

“Don’t check your emails until noon time, because here’s what happens.” Beckett had said this while walking back and forth, Reuven swiveling around in his chair trying to follow. “Your brain convinces itself that it’s being productive,” he’d explained, “but answering questions from other people isn’t the same as making things happen yourself. You get through that Inbox and you feel like you’ve done something, but my friend, you haven’t done very much at all.”

Beckett had taught Reuven about decision fatigue, how your brain tires at a certain point in the day, and using those crucial first hours of the day answering emails, one by one, makes you weaker in the second half of the day.

“So now, I start with my own to-do list and when I’ve checked off three or four real items, I will consider looking at my emails, but not until then. When my brain is sharp, I want to be doing things, not reacting to what other people have to say.”

Akiva took out his phone and wrote the words “brain productivity/decision fatigue” in his notes. “I love that. Have to think about how to apply it to chinuch, but it’s a great vort.”

Reuven was not going to admit this part, but taking compliments was also something Beckett was helping him with. Reuven Stagler had never really led anything before, and wasn’t used to this type of thing. Beckett had explained the value of all sorts of feedback and how to address it, devoting a whole session to the role other people and their comments play in the evolution of a leader.

“Don’t take criticism personally, and don’t let compliments swell your head. Just listen to what the person is really saying and ask pointed questions that will help you going forward. Don’t react with emotion, and”—Beckett had lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes to say this—“understand that the critic might be your friend and the complimenter your enemy.”

It was quiet, again, and Reuven recalled something else he had learned from Beckett. If someone compliments you sincerely, try to say something gracious in return.

“Oh, I’m sure you knew it already,” he said apologetically. “You live in a world of smart people and ideas, come on. Anyhow, tell me, Reb Akiva, what are you working on now? What’s your next speech about?”

Akiva told him about his new concept, of children tutoring each other, every student getting a chance to teach something, and every student learning from another. It had the potential, he thought, to change schools and empower children.

When Akiva shared the idea, his eyes were wide, his gestures animated and excited. Reuven was jealous of the other man’s passion. He would have to learn how to speak like that too, he thought, like a leader who believed in his own ideas.

They parted from each other, and Reuven felt as invigorated as if he had done exercise, like he had been invited to a party always closed off to him. He was one of the front guys now, he thought, and couldn’t help smiling to himself as he walked back toward his house.

He wasn’t talking about what time Minchah was or where to park, but about ideas. He had come a long way from Queens, 40 years of sitting quietly in the back, a career vice president of sales who had never made the jump, the perfect person for a conversation about the weather or which treadmill was better, but not much else.

As he passed by, Shaindy Brucker stepped out of her house. She’d been blessedly spared the sight of any excess neighborly warmth, but the fact that Mr. Stagler was grinning to himself did make her curious.

She prided herself on getting people, but she had misjudged Reuven Stagler, who had first seemed so square — a predictable, Queensy sort who went to sleep at precisely the same time every night. It turned out that he was filled with energy and was really enjoying his new position.

She was good friends with his wife, though, and she was smart, patient, and devoted enough that sooner or later, the message Shaindy kept sending would get through and Nechama would get on Reuven’s case. It was a no-brainer, a vacant rav position, no real budget to invest, and a perfect candidate next door.

Time would do what seichel would not.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 895)

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