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Building Bridges, Leading Journeys: Interview with Rabbi Fred Elias

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

July 31, 2014

Harvard

Group shot of the 2014 AVI CHAI LEV cohort.


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, Rabbi Fred Elias of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, New Jersey discusses his past work as school rabbi, and new position in the school as middle school co-principal focusing on Judaic studies. Rabbi Elias participated in the “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership” program at the Principals’ Center – Harvard University. Read more about the experience here.
Tell me about your school.

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County is an age three through grade 8 school affiliated with the Solomon Schechter movement, serving a wide variety of families who range from unaffiliated to Orthodox. We pride ourselves on our dual curriculum, an academically excellent environment in both general and Judaic studies. It pushes our students to think critically about decisions they make, academically, spiritually and socially/emotionally, guiding them to a love of Torah, mitzvot, Israel, Hebrew language, and a desire to love their general studies subjects as well.
Tell me about your personal journey that led to your holding this position.
When I finished rabbinical school at JTS in 2009, I was also working at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. After graduation, the camp found another partner, Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which also lacked a rabbinic presence at the time. Ruth Gafni and Paul Resnick designed this 50-50 position between camp during the summer and school during the year. It was the innovation before the Nadiv Fellowship, which came to fruition a year or two after that.
What do you see as the value added from a camp/school crossover?
The experiential model of joyful Judaism at camp lends a lot when infused in a school environment. You can see the way camp touches both faculty and students, and you can learn about how to do that. One of my first missions upon coming into day school was not classroom-based – though I did teach, because we felt that would be invaluable for me to build relationships with students and faculty members. But a lot of it was bringing missing elements into the school, connecting the dots: Why do we do all this study about Judaism – why is this important? What are the ways we express ourselves through connecting to the Jewish people, Israel and to the Torah? These elements can be engaging and life-sustaining past students’ time in the school.
Tefillah is one area in which this particularly comes into play. I often speak of tefillah in the school as being very important – beyond students’ ritual competencies of chanting. Not only do we want our kids to go into shul as adults and feel comfortable praying in that environment, but we also want them to want to go into that shul to begin with, which is actually quite distinct. Someone might be ritually competent but not have had the experience where they feel like shul is a place they want to be. A lot of elements of camp can lend themselves for the opportunity to evolve the school and the role of tefillah.
Tell me about your current role in the school.
For the last five years, I was the school rabbi, and I have also been an instructor in 7th and 8th grade rabbinics and an academic advisor. I want to know the whole student and what they experience in the school beyond just in the Jewish classes or who they are in the Jewish realm: how they experience their day in our school, what their needs are academically, and how can they grow and learn. This information has afforded me a great niche in understanding the students, faculty and parents and how to bridge the gaps that can exist between them.
This coming year, I was promoted to co-principal of the middle school, a shared position with the principal who will oversee general studies. It’s a solidification of the work that we’ve done in the school of elevating the Jewish studies to be seen as an important partner to the general studies.
How does your wider community relate to or understand your school’s mission?
In the course of my five years in my school, we’ve come a long way in identifying what we are while being inclusive of everyone as much as possible. Families can come to us and feel comfortable with who they are, but at the same time know that we stand for certain halachic principles.
Similarly, we want to get across that Jewish studies is also important in educating the child for what many perceive as the general studies skills requirement – not just what you have to learn because you go to a Jewish school. How does the study of Talmud add to inference skills, logical thinking and critical thinking? What does looking at a Jewish text in Chumash add to academic knowledge beyond just knowledge of Chumash? By creating interdisciplinary units within Jewish and general studies, we have been able to demonstrate to parents that in our dual curriculum these things go hand in hand.
In what ways have you helped families explore what Judaism means to them?
I think the key is to find what they already like and take very seriously in their lives and take that as the gate of entry into finding something meaningful in Judaism. As an example, this past year, we had break-out minyanim to make 7th grade tefillah more engaging. One was “baseball as a path to G-d.” It involved a required, rote tefillah piece to send a message that this is not exclusive of that. Then it looked at book passages and TV clips that showed milestone baseball events, and why were people so excited in this moment?  We likened that to the High Holidays – we look at those days as the “World Series days” of Judaism, as opposed to when we flip on the TV on a random night.
Similarly, we seek to do this for families on their journey. I have a Conservative pulpit as well, and I always try to think about what each family is looking for. It’s a jigsaw puzzle – matching people together with likes that they share with other people.
What would a successful graduate of your school look like?
Beyond the very important academic achievements, a marker of success is that students feel that they can go into a high school and feel very prepared, both in general and Jewish studies if that’s where their path takes them. But we also we want them to have the confidence and techniques – the life competencies – to master a skill which they didn’t think they could do. Ten years from now, there will be jobs we can’t imagine yet, but we hope our students will feel confident applying for those jobs based on their skills to do something they never learned about before.

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