AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Supporting Different Elements of the Community: Interview with Dani Rockoff

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

July 22, 2014

This interview is a continuation of a series featuring leaders who are participating in AVI CHAI-sponsored professional development opportunities this summer. In this interview, Dani Rockoff of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas discusses Matmidim, a track which he directs at his school, offering more rigorous Judaic studies developed by observant teachers. Rabbi Rockoff participated in the “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership” program at the Principals’ Center – Harvard University. Read more about the experience here, and hear Rabbi Rockoff discussing the Jewish mission of his school here or below.
Tell me a bit about you and your school.
I’m with the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, in the greater metro Kansas City area. The school was founded in 1966. It’s a community day school that recently affiliated with RAVSAK. It has 230 kids in grades K-12. I’m also the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in town.
Five years ago, we started a Judaic studies track in the school called Matmidim, offering more rigorous Judaic studies developed by teachers who are observant. I’m now the director of the program.
What was the impetus for starting Matmidim?
It was an ongoing discussion for a couple years. The feeling was that there was a need to attract and retain Orthodox and/or traditional families who wanted a certain type of Judaic studies education. We had this idea to have a teacher who is a role model of what they’re teaching and to create a social group of kids who can support in the classroom the level of observance they see at home and at synagogue. After several attempts to start different schools, we tried this initiative with a pilot program in kindergarten. It went very well. Now it’s a K-4 program, we’re adding a 5th grade next year, and plan to add more every year.
How is the initiative perceived in the rest of the community?
A community day school is very diverse. Families send Jewish kids to Jewish day school for a wide variety of reasons; it doesn’t necessarily mean they all have the same curricular goals. We talk about pluralism, we talk about diversity; it has to go in all directions, to accommodate the needs of all the different kinds of Jews. What else is a community day school there for, if not to support the different elements of the community?
Surprisingly, the most commonly asked question is how do parents and kids react to there being a separation. The truth is that kids in both tracks get along really well; they’re together for general studies and everything else. The community loves the idea that all our kids are learning together. We have 18,000 Jews in Kansas City, and the feeling is that we want to be one community, that we really want to be a klal Yisrael working together and learning from one another, to be role models for one another.
How has Matmidim impacted your school overall?
The kids are in the same school together, and have lunch and recess to develop social bonds. One parent board member whose child is in the other program says her child looks up to peers in the program and asks them questions. Also, it has led to more Reform families joining the school, because they feel the other track now better suits what they would be looking for. Likewise, I feel comfortable teaching Orthodox Halacha. At the same time, any family who wants to can join the track, as long as they are willing to be supportive, even if not practicing, at home. Over time, I hope we can demonstrate that what our track produces is not just the orientation, observance of halacha, or social group, but that value-wise the kids in the program are receiving a text-based education. The kids come out knowing how to read Chumash and how to daven. Perhaps other families might want their children to have that rigorous Jewish education too.
We are also exploring ways to enhance our Judaic studies offerings across the board. One staffing decision we made for next year is to bring in shlichim from Israel, which our school hadn’t done in a long time. They are going to teach in both programs – they have the Hebrew language, and also are observant – and in this way act as a bridge between them. This helps solidify the common value system in terms of the centrality of Israel and creates a general avira (atmosphere), you could say.
Do you think other communities could learn from your model?
We do think we’re doing something that other communities could learn from, and we’re proud of that. I could also see it being divided differently in different communities: for instance, to create a track for Israeli students in a community with a large Israeli population.
What characteristics would you say are specific to day schools in a small community?
In small communities, every family counts. We don’t take any family for granted. We have a very good public school system, a strong home school population, and strong private schools. Having the value to send to Jewish day school takes a lot of investment, and few have the mindset of it being the default. Despite the challenge in the numbers, in my mind there’s no more important entity than the day school, especially in a place like Kansas City where there’s only one in town. If it didn’t exist, I have no doubt that we would disappear over the next few decades. One discussion right now is should we have a high school. We do, and it’s small – people who look at the numbers might think it’s not worth the investment. But that’s what makes the community and causes other Jewish institutions to thrive. The day school is what attracts Jewish educators and Jewish professionals to town. The graduates are the ones who become the leaders; they come back and lead the community. The theme of our dinner was, “Planting Seeds for the Future,” and that’s how we see it. There is a strong base of support from the community, including from Jews who don’t send their kids to day school, because they understand that idea and how important day school is for the community.
How did you come to participate in this Harvard program?
I’ve been the religious advisor to Matmidim since the beginning. Starting this year, I’m stepping into a more formal role of directing the program alongside the Judaic studies director, reporting to the Head of School. I called AVI CHAI program officer Steve Brown and said: I have a Master’s degree in education, and I’ve taught at some schools. This project I’m working on is complex, with a lot of moving parts, community pieces, and players involved. I don’t know what my future will be, but what can I do to help give myself skills in the next two-three years to further it? Steve said this Harvard program sounded like it might be the right dose: a weeklong program which comes with a network to support you in the effort. Just finishing the third day of the program, it’s been amazing to have such high-level exposure to someone like Kim Marshall speaking on teacher supervision, team building and problem solving on Project Adventure, and learning how to go deep beneath the surface to get to the root problems we need to solve with Dr. Kegan this morning. That’s not to mention this AVI CHAI cohort of people to work with. The 10 of us come from different schools and totally different situations, but we share the common Jewish mission. It’s a real affinity group, and affinity groups are very powerful.

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