In this blog series, we are featuring school leaders and educators who discuss the “sparks” that ignited their careers in Jewish day school education. All it takes is one spark to illuminate an entire chanukiah — or, in the case of day school educators, untold students, classrooms, and communities. Sharing “sparks” in today’s post is Dr. Barbara Gereboff, who has served as Head of School at Wornick Jewish Day School since 2010. She began her day school work as Head of Solomon Schechter Day School in Phoenix, Arizona. Past positions include Education Director at Camp Ramah in Ojai, and the Program Director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Phoenix. Prior to joining Wornick, she was the Head of School at Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills, California for a decade. Please enjoy Dr. Gereboff’s story — and Chag Sameach!
The First Step
By Dr. Barbara Gereboff
Head of School, Wornick Jewish Day School, Foster City, California
Chanukah is the perfect time for me to reflect about the moments that led to a career in day school education. Rabbi David Hartman, z’’l provided a perspective on the miracle of Chanukah that resonates with my journey in Jewish education. He noted that the miracle wasn’t that the oil lasted eight days, but rather that those ancestors lit the first wick at all without knowing if it would last long enough to rededicate the Temple. The miracle was that they took the first step, a leap of faith, in lighting the oil not knowing what the future would be. Similarly I did not set out to be a Jewish educator, but a series of encounters that led me to say “yes” even when I wasn’t clear about what that future would hold were the impetus for my career. These mentors also took risks in asking me to step up and in lighting a path for me.
I can count four different mentors, each who reached out to me at various points in my career to pursue a different avenue in Jewish education. The first was the cantor-educator where I was teaching Hebrew school part time for a few years while finishing my doctorate in health care policy. He asked me to take over the leadership of the religious school, and I did. This was followed by a newly created position as program director for the Bureau of Jewish Education. I worked there for seven years running the community Hebrew High School and creating programs for young parents, teachers and interfaith couples. By this point, Jewish education had become my full-time work. I liked the opportunity to create new programs, to think of ways of reaching different constituencies.
The next mentor who appeared was Rabbi Ed Feinstein. I had been working at Ramah for a few summers as a “yoetzet.” Ed asked me to consider becoming the Education Director at Camp Ramah. I accepted it and developed the education program over the next several summers, and I still return to camp every summer to tell a story, to lead a Shabbat limud or to mentor new teachers.
Back at the Bureau of Jewish Education in the fall, a guest speaker from Israel took me aside and asked me if I had ever heard of the Melton Senior Educator’s program in Israel. At the time, I did not know about it, so this new mentor sent me material about the program and told me to apply for it. I did, my husband was able to arrange a sabbatical and we spent the next year together with our three children in Israel.
The Melton program was a pivotal experience for me. It gave me a year to fill in gaps in my Jewish content knowledge, to hone my Hebrew language skills, and to reflect deeply on my next career moves. Up until that point, I wasn’t sure that it was worth spending so much time teaching Hebrew in American schools. During the course of the program when the only common language shared among my fellow educators in the program was Hebrew, I rethought my earlier position about the centrality of Hebrew language for Jews throughout the world to remain connected and understood. I also made a clear decision to do two things upon my return to the United States: to complete my doctorate with an emphasis on education policy and to work only in day schools or in summer camps.
I realized then that the place where I could have the greatest impact – on children, on families and on teachers – was in these two venues. In both schools and camps, the rhythm of the Jewish calendar and week are lived. In both arenas, there is a strong commitment to community and to profound learning. For me, the work in these two places was stimulating, creative and inspiring.
Upon my return, I accepted my first full-time day school position at a relatively new, small Schechter School. I began as the Judaic Studies director and within a couple of years became the Head of School. At the same time, I began a new doctoral program in education leadership and policy studies. Upon completion of my doctorate, my ever encouraging and patient husband said that it was my turn to find a job that was really fulfilling for me. He suggested that I apply to other schools in other cities, and offered to commute to his University job.
Thus began my 18 year tenure as a Head of a Jewish Day School – 10 years at one school and eight years at my current school. There were moments that were difficult along the way, and I often wondered if I had known how little I really knew at the beginning of each of my ventures whether I would have chosen these paths. I look back now with gratitude to the various mentors who encouraged me to step into unchartered waters. I continue to look forward to work everyday. My career has introduced me to some of the most reflective, caring and thought-provoking people. Along the way, I’ve received an education in marketing, finance, philanthropy, building, remodeling and financing a school. I hope that others who may not have even thought of a day school career will have the faith and courage to jump in to shape the future of Jewish day school education.