Our Chanukah Sparks blog series continues with a post by Susan Siegel, Head of School of the Bnai Shalom Day School. This series explores the moments or series of moments that sparked the day school careers of school leaders and educators. Just as our homes become illuminated by individual sparks that combine to create one glowing chanukiah, the journeys of these individuals are igniting the collective Jewish journeys of countless students, educators, and family members in our communities. In this post, Susan Sigel tells her story and demonstrates how one unique journey can spread the light to others and truly make a difference. Chag Sameach!
Chanukah Sparks by Susan Siegel
Head of School, Bnai Shalom Day School, Greensboro, North Carolina
My journey into the Jewish day school world began in the 1990’s when I was a parent of young children. We lived on the east side of Cleveland and had a plethora of choices for Jewish preschool. I had a background in education and did my homework. We chose to send our girls to the preschool at the Jewish community day school. The school had an excellent reputation and I liked the idea of the preschool being part of a larger school.
The girls loved the school and community. We were impressed by how well the teachers knew our daughters and nurtured their unique learning styles. The girls came home talking about how much they loved their school and teaching us new songs for each Jewish holiday. My husband and I couldn’t help but become engaged in the school and became active volunteers.
When our third child came along, however, we wondered how we could afford a day school education for three children. We had moved to a larger home in an excellent public school system. We knew the girls would go to Jewish camps and religious school at our synagogue. As much as we loved the preschool, we could not bring ourselves to apply for financial aid, and so we moved on. I wept when my youngest daughter transitioned to public school. I knew I would no longer be part of the same kind of school community and that we would have to work extra hard to ensure our children developed a strong Jewish identity.
In 2001, I was ready to step back into the classroom. I had previously taught in public school but took a hiatus while my girls were young, working part-time in Jewish agencies within the community. I missed teaching, however, and after having had a taste of the day school environment decided to apply for an opening at the Schechter school. I was hired part-time to teach first grade general studies. After I spent a year at the school and experienced the full cycle of Jewish learning with my students, I wanted to be there full-time. As the first-grade teacher, I marveled at how my students learned to read Hebrew from their first siddur. A few years later, I moved to fourth grade, where my students learned trope and chanted from the Torah. My last year in the classroom was in fifth grade where my students learned to write Divrei Torah. I joined the parents in celebrating each of these Jewish milestones and beamed with pride each time I sat through an eighth-grade graduation and listened as the students gratefully acknowledged all they had received from their Schechter education.
Eventually, I was encouraged to move to administration. As I honed my leadership skills, I was guided and mentored by many. Being in a leadership role afforded me the opportunity to develop close relationships with young parents. There were some, like me, who had enrolled their children in the preschool, but continuing through the day school was financially daunting. They felt that the public school experience wouldn’t be the same, but would be good enough. When parents confided in me about their concerns, I shared my personal story and encouraged them to stay the course. I suggested they attend the eighth-grade graduation so they could see the final product of a day school education. I wanted them to understand that the investment in a day school education was a gift for their whole family.
After 13 wonderful years at Schechter, I said goodbye and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina where I proudly became the head of B’nai Shalom Day School. I had participated in DSLTI (The Day School Leadership Training Institute) and was ready to take on the headship. I knew the school was the right fit for me the minute that I walked through the door and felt the joyful Jewish environment. Though the Jewish community in this southern town is small, it is vibrant. The school is 47 years old, and was founded by parents with a vision—for their children to grow up with strong Jewish values, and to know who they are and where they came from.
Last week, our school held its annual Chanukah show. A large part of the Jewish community always attends, and it is standing room only. My youngest daughter, who was home from college, came to watch. Afterwards, she told me that she wished she had grown up in a Jewish Day School, and I felt a familiar twinge of regret. I told my daughter that I would love nothing more than to have my grandchildren fully experience a Jewish Day School education.
Until then, I will continue to work towards making Jewish Day School the natural choice for Jewish parents and their families.