Interview with Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D - you may ask him a question, below!
The AVI CHAI Foundation is thrilled that Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D, has joined the team as Program Officer. Dr. Brown was last Head of School at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, and prior to that Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary and Director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education. He has served as principal of the Central Hebrew High School of Long Island; as educational director at Congregation Adath Jeshurun of Elkins Park, PA; and as headmaster of the Perelman Jewish Day School of Philadelphia. He was ordained a rabbi by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1996.
Why did you decide to go into the world of Jewish education?
When I was little, the thing I loved the most and excelled at best was Hebrew School. That was my world, where I could shine. The rabbi of the congregation – Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation in Philadelphia – convinced my parents to send me to Camp Ramah, and as a result my life took the course it did. I wanted to imbue others with my joy and love of Judaism, and the best way I knew was through education. I always wanted to be a rabbi, but I wanted to be an educator-rabbi.
What formative experiences did you have in the early years of your career?
My experiences with Rabbi David Mogilner were formative in learning to think as an educator. Between high school and college, I took his famous course at the Mador program for counselors in training. I learned more from him about education than from all my other educational courses combined, through my doctorate. He wrote the singular best curriculum ever, “The Counselor’s Daily Routine,” which describes every detail of a counselor’s day. It’s not just about actions, but rather the principles behind them. For instance, you wake up the kids individually, because you treat them as individuals. These deduced principles of education seared my soul. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Mogilner, what he taught me, and what he would think of the decisions I’m making.
What is one of your favorite camp experiences?
While I was at Ramah as a counselor and also studying at JTS, I had a wonderful professor of Hebrew liturgy, Avraham Holtz. He taught about the structure of the siddur and how it was accreted over time. As a result, for example, there were yotzrot prayers that never made it into siddur but were still extant. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I had my own loose-leaf version of the siddur and could choose each day a different yotzer prayer? That morphed into an idea of letting campers at Ramah rebuild the siddur on the framework of the skeleton of brachot. Mogilner let me try it out with whole camp. At the beginning of the summer, every camper got a blank binder with the basic brachot. Each night, they could cut out and paste the introductory paragraph to a particular bracha into the appropriate place in preparation for the next day’s davening. In classes, teachers would review the text, and the campers could add commentary of their own, art work, and inserts. By the end of summer, they had their own personalized siddur, which ended up with the full liturgy – but they had rebuilt it. This project was very exciting and shaped a lot of people’s excitement about teaching prayer creatively and spiritually at camp.
What advice do you have for heads of school?
As headmaster at the Perelman Jewish Day School in Philadelphia, it was very important to me to teach the Jewish studies faculty every week. It was a safe space for Jewish educators to talk about their own Jewish development and growth. More good things happened in the classroom because of those sessions than due to any curricular developments I could have mandated. It grew Jewish souls so that the teachers could take risks to try new things in classrooms. I can’t overestimate the power of it if heads want to have an impact on the religious purposefulness of those on staff: teach the staff, and make it evident to the kids that staff are studying together.
What advice do you have for educators in all educational contexts?
I believe strongly in adults as role models for kids. Adults need to strive to be the ideal personality and put their own needs aside when dealing with the needs of children. One thing I learned from Ramah is the 3 A’s: to have an awareness of what’s going around you, an anticipation of what might result from this awareness, and then to create an atmosphere for how to handle it all. One time at Ramah, the youngest kids got royally defeated in a basketball game, and I had to figure out how I would get them to sleep after it. I ended up bringing in a washbasin filled with crabapples and having the kids bob for them, with a prize for the winners. This changed the whole atmosphere of the group – and got them to bed.
Tell me about why you feel education in leadership is important for the field.
I developed DSLTI (Day School Leadership Training Institute) to answer the question of what leaders need to be successful in their jobs running Jewish day schools. In the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of writing and research on leadership, both in the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. You have to know that literature to know the best path for training day school leaders. DSLTI excels in the constructivist approach – it’s research-based and focused not on creating widgets or budgets, but human beings. I’m committed to the notion that leadership can be learned; it’s not an inherent trait in one’s genes.
Tell me about your role and aspirations in your new position here at AVI CHAI as program officer.
I’m a program officer focused on the values of LRP (Jewish literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood). I can get my arms around the literacy and peoplehood pieces: they’re measurable and definable in terms of what it takes to teach them to someone. The challenge is religious purposefulness (R) – how do we get kids to look at the world through a Jewish lens? Impacting the religious identity of kids is the raison d’etre of Jewish day schools: they want to create practicing Jews in whatever denomination they operate in, kids that choose to act out their Judaism. I want to concretize what we mean by R, what are examples and teachable moments in growth and development that help make a school a holy place. What is the basketball coaches’ role; what is the role of linking lashon harah and Internet behavior on the part of middle school students? How do you bring every day values from the mussar tradition into daily interactions in the school? In a way, the “R” especially is very countercultural; how do you do it in a way that families don’t feel their children are rebelling against them? We do it the wrong way by putting the kids in direct conflict with their parents. One alternative might be to get them involved in halakhic discussions in areas that relate to personal experience: sibling relations, personal integrity, business ethics, dealing with parents. Once kids feel those areas of life can be informed by Jewish life and practice, even if they are not observing Jewish rituals at home, they might want to once they have own home.
It amazes me how much The AVI CHAI Foundation has contributed to the field of education. Being part of its sunset, I hope to contribute to ensuring its enduring legacy – I am humbled and honored to be a part of that process.