This interview is a continuation of a series featuring leaders who participated in AVI CHAI-sponsored professional development opportunities this summer. In this interview, Harry Pell discusses the Jewish mission of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, where he serves as Associate Head of School for Jewish Life and Learning. You may also view a video where he describes his school’s Jewish vision below. He participated in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), a program of the Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
Describe your school’s Jewish mission.
When I think about the mission and vision of Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, what I think it really all comes down to is providing students with an experience that is on the one hand fully and authentically Jewish, and at the same time totally connected to modernity, not having to compromise one for the other in either direction and letting that be a foundation not just for college prep, but for life.
One anecdote: Our soccer teams have done pretty well. We play in a public school league. This year the boys’ varsity soccer team made it to the regional finals, a game that happens on Shabbat afternoon, upstate. We begged and pleaded with the public high school athletic association, but they wouldn’t move the time. Our solution was to create a Shabbaton around the experience. We brought up all the kids, parents and fans to spend a beautiful Shabbat together. The truth is, they came in 2nd. But it didn’t matter. The experience they had in terms of not sacrificing their Jewish values for their competition or missing out on the competition to live their Jewish values was supreme, and the Shabbat afternoon part was actually the best part for many. When I asked the kids on Monday morning how their weekend was, they said, “Well, we lost the game. But Shabbat was really special.” If we can do that, I think we’re going to be successful.
What are the Jewish values that animate your school?
Thinking about what’s going on in Israel right now, we’re very much connected to the ahavat Yisrael wavelength. What we do on a daily basis is talmud Torah. In terms of how the kids live their lives day-to-day, there’s the idea of kavod, of respect for one another, for people who are the same and those who are different; the idea of gemilut chesed, that their education is ultimately not just for their betterment, but for them to take their skills and better the world around them.
Our real core value is to teach the kids a way they can live these values so they are not limited to their school, house or shul. They should actually animate everything that they do: how they make choices about college and life, not just within the Jewish world, but in their interactions between the Jewish and general world and the full range of activities they’re going to participate in.
If you asked a student to describe your school Jewishly, do you think you would give a similar picture?
The value that they always pick up on that is really very palpable for them at this age is kehillah, another of our six core values. They like to say it ad nauseam, and to point out that everything that we’re doing is constantly community-building. I think they get the sense by the end that they’re responsible not just for themselves, but for each other, and the next logical step is being responsible for the wider Jewish community and their wider community in general.
What would your ideal graduate look like?
There’s a range of ideal graduates. It has a lot to do with where the kids’ strengths are – some of them in the classroom, some in the arts studio, and some in the fab lab (fabrication laboratory – a place where our kids do cool things like design robots with a chesed-based purpose such as helping blind people navigate where to walk). Each student has a passion they are seeking to further.
Overall, the ideal is that there will be kids that are committed to the Jewish community, and that’s going to be realized in a lot of different ways. Some kids will have a belief system that’s very similar to the day school they’re in; some to the right and left; some have already decided to make their lives in Israel. Wherever they are, they’re going to have a sense that it’s not just about them; it’s about the community, and what that community is going to do for the wider world.
What does being a Schechter school mean for your vision?
We’re living in an increasingly post-denominational age. More and more of our families will say, “We affiliate with a Conservative shul, but actually our practice is more Orthodox, or more Reform.” But if you think about the Solomon Schechter school system and the Conservative movement and this idea of tradition and change, I think that, whether the labels stay the same or not, that actually does very much animate our mission. I have colleagues who I respect greatly who are in schools where, if presented with the soccer phenomenon we had, they would have forfeited the game, because they wouldn’t play the game on Shabbat. Admittedly, there are some halachic challenges to playing on Shabbat or storing the equipment at the field. I also have colleagues who I respect greatly who would have said: “Let the kids who feel comfortable play on Shabbat, and those who don’t, won’t.” I think that the philosophy of our school, both as part of the Conservative movement and as really what we want to give the kids, is: You should never have to sacrifice one for the other. There’s always a way to make them work together. There are things that we give up because of our Jewish identities, but I think they’re not things that we miss. It’s more that we limit ourselves in some ways that actually expand our possibilities.
Tell me a little about your experience at DSLTI.
There are a lot of opportunities for professional development in the Jewish day school field. DSLTI is different – it’s transformative. The idea that you’re going to be part of a cohort within a two-year framework means that you are part of something that’s not just about you and your school, but about leadership development in general. We have a real sense within our cohort that we are affecting the field. I’ve been on some great professional development seminars, but it’s not the same as being with 5-6 mentors and 15 colleagues from across all types of school, from small, medium and large communities. Every way that you could be diverse, we are diverse, and yet realizing that every one of us is committed to the success of the Jewish day school endeavor for me is very powerful.
How does DSLTI learning affect your work at school?
DSLTI graduates speak a different language than other Jewish day school professionals, even very seasoned professionals. I felt that after my first summer at DSLTI when I came back to school. We had a new Head of School who had come through DSLTI several cohorts before. I found that in meetings there was a set of content and language that we spoke that others hopefully will speak someday, but don’t yet. It includes everything from all the things DSLTI does to take successful business models and adapt them for the day school world to the idea of: Are we really living our Jewish mission and vision, as opposed to getting done what is on our to-do list? That affects you from the first time you step into the DSLTI framework.