Jul 072014
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Summer is a great time for day school leaders to take a step back and reflect on their work. In this series, we interview leaders who are participating in AVI CHAI-sponsored professional development opportunities to do just that. This interview was conducted at the “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership” program at the Principals’ Center – Harvard University. Read more about the experience here.

Arye Sufrin at the AOL Harvard program

Arye Sufrin at the AOL Harvard program

Tell me a little about yourself.

My name is Arye Sufrin. I work at the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Boys’ High School as Assistant Principal. My primary focus there, in addition to student programs and student life, is on the Judaics side, which involves the curriculum and supervision. I’m passionate about getting people excited about Judaism and about learning, in both Judaic and general studies, and I’m passionate about having relationships with my students: whether that means inviting them over for a Shabbat meal or keeping in touch and dancing at their weddings. I’m it for the long term as opposed to just the semester class.

How would you articulate the mission of your school?

We are a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high school. Our goals are to infuse a passion for religious growth, Torah values, and Jewish pride. As my Head of School Dov Emerson says: You may not be a rabbi one day – but the truth is that you will be. One day you will be the lawyer in a law firm, or the accountant in an accounting firm – which I was, by the way, I used to work for Deloitte and Touche, so this concept resonates with me. They don’t know if you had smicha or not, but they’re going to view you as their residential rabbi. Our goal is that our students will walk into that firm with a sense of Jewish pride for who they are and what they represent while living the values of Torah – being able to bring them into the secular world and live a meaningful and enriched life.

How do you believe Jewish studies can light a Jewish spark in students?

I believe that Judaic students should be more than just an intellectual experience. Part of the experience is intellectual: helping students see the depth and wisdom of Torah, which include the great minds and commentators who help us analyze, synthesize, and understand Torah and Halacha. But any Judaic studies class also has to be something that becomes real; that becomes alive. In my Gemara class, you don’t just take tests that ask you to take the written material and regurgitate it back. In every class, there’s collaborative learning. In the yeshiva world, we call it chevruta; in the educational world, we call it collaborative learning. Chevruta is about more than two people reading to each other. It’s giving them the tools they need to guide each other, thought-provoking questions to discuss and different skills to focus on. They become teachers and not just students.

We also use technology. Our school has a 1:1 laptop program. Sometimes technology can be as simple as the students reading Gemara and uploading it to YouTube for their parents to see; sometimes it’ll be making iMovies, podcasts and wikis. When we were looking at the 39melachot in Mishnah class, each student had to pick two melachot that spoke to them and make a movie. The movie showed their ability to be creative and think outside the box, and it also demonstrated their understanding of the material.

I believe in the black and white understanding of the text, and that has to be part of the material; but I believe it’s the classroom’s responsibility – teacher and student – to take those texts and make them alive. Whether peer to peer learning, teacher to student learning, collaboration, or technology – it’s the experience they will remember.

What have you learned while here at Harvard that is applicable to your school’s context?

I’ll give you an example that I heard this morning. Professor Kegan noted that research states that people who lose weight tend to gain back 107% back. The point was that losing weight is more than just dieting, more than just a technical skill. It has to be a mindset. It’s more than saying:  I’m not going to eat cake. It’s the way you live your life, being self-aware, and eating healthy. If you have that mindset, you’ll keep the weight down. That resonated with me. I think that’s the direction that Judaic studies curricula have to go. We’re not teaching them just for the sake of their having the technical skills. We want the skills to become a mindset; we’re teaching what it means to be a proud Jew, to take that, share it with the world, impact and inspire the world. If we figure out ways to make it more exciting and get the kids more engaged and passionate, it could really impact the next generation in ways we haven’t seen in the history of the Jewish people.