AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Meet a Day School Leader: Rabbi Mordechai Schwersenski

Posted by: Guest

July 24, 2015


Rabbi Schwersenski takes notes at Harvard AOL.

Who are the leaders ensuring the Jewish education of our children in day schools across the country? This series features interviews with selected school leaders – including those from Community, Orthodox and Schechter schools from across the US and Canada. We asked them about their thoughts about their personal day school leadership and their goals for their schools. The interviews were conducted while these leaders were participating in leadership training programs supported by AVI CHAI throughout this summer, including the Principals’ Center at Harvard programs and the Davidson School of JTS’s Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).
The series begins with an interview featuring Rabbi Mordechai Schwersenski, the Judaic Studies Assistant Principal at the Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia. Rabbi Schwersenski participated in the Harvard Principals’ Center Art of Leadership (AOL) program.
Why did you go into the field of Jewish education?
I grew up in Cleveland and went to Fuchs Mizrahi School. After spending a few years in Israel at yeshiva, I learned at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore and got my Master’s in Jewish education from Johns Hopkins University. Along the way, a variety of factors impacted my decision to go into education. My mother herself worked at Fuchs Mizrachi. Combined with my father’s inspiring commitment to his children’s Jewish education, this led to education being a regular conversation topic and a great value I grew up with in my home. There were also educators who impacted me – rebbeim who guided me and who I became as a person. I always envisioned myself being able to have that kind of impact on others. Also, as I went through high school, I was involved with Bnei Akiva and NCSY, and I found out that I had skill in working with children. The final piece was my years in yeshiva, where I became passionate about the study of Torah.
What are goals of Jewish education for you personally?
First and foremost, there are the technical pieces of education. The fundamental goal is acquiring literacy. We want our kids to be able to read, write, and study in any general or Judaics subject they wish to pursue. Above that, there is a whole other level: of instilling in kids a love and a passion for who they are as religious Jews. I want any kid in any school I’ve been involved with to know that learning what we do as a nation and a people is not about past history – it is alive, and it impacts their lives. I want to help impact the growth of our children to become inspired and connected to the Jewish people.
What does an ideal graduate from your school look like?
For me, success in Jewish education is not exclusively about having developed a skill set to pursue whatever career the graduates wish – whether it be engineering, law or the rabbinate. It’s also about the fact that whatever they’ve become, whatever their circle of influence is, everything they have gained from Jewish education will allow them to impact others around them in a positive, Jewish way. This includes their spouse, friends, and those they are in contact with in Jewish communal life, such as shuls and schools.
What do you see as the role of the Jewish day school in the larger community?
Day schools have perhaps the greatest impact on the development of the next generation. We see the kids even more hours in a day than the parents see them. Therefore, what we’re giving strongly impacts the tone, attitude, and level of engagement in education that children develop. This impacts not just the children, but also the families, who learn from their children’s experience of education.
The more the day school can partner with other local institutions, the greater the impact can be on the community at large – especially in a small community. For instance, we have a partnership with the largest shul in town, and we do joint programming together. We have a Rosh Chodesh program which connects women in the community with girls in schools. Around the holidays, the local rabbis come into the school to give shiurim to the students. We also partner with local institutions to bring in speakers for adults. Another great example of this partnership happened when our school’s heating broke down in the middle of the winter. The synagogue offered their space for our use. Anyone who davened shacharit at the shul saw that partnership in action.
What do you believe makes for a successful leader?
A large percentage of leader’s ability to be successful is about 1) the relationships that they develop, and 2) serving as a role model, which builds trust. When the students see I am living what I teach and that I believe in what I do, that has a bigger impact almost than what I teach. When teachers know I care deeply about their success and will help them as individuals, there is a reciprocity that develops, and they will give back. A leader needs to develop leadership skills as we are doing here at Harvard – how to conduct supervision and evaluation, curriculum development, etc. – and also develop the skill of nurturing relationships.
What are your goals for the coming school year?
I have way too many to accomplish in one year! My Harvard project for this coming year will be to develop the unwritten curriculum in my school that deals with ethics of behavior and middot. I think often schools have assumed that kids will implicitly learn the proficiencies of behavior: anything from manners to bigger values like chesed, justice. How can we make that unwritten curriculum more explicit in the school? How do you use behavior codes and discipline in a way that is educational and not just punitive, while still giving teachers what they need to be successful when they need to discipline children? Children should feel respected, but with clear expectations of how we want them to develop in terms of manners and conduct.
I also plan to work on some administrative goals like supervision, feedback, and coaching for teachers. I want to make sure I am getting into classrooms on a regular basis. I gave faculty an evaluation form, and all of the teachers are begging us to come into the classroom more. It’s really inspiring. They want our feedback and to grow.
Finally, I want to work on our K-8 Judaic studies curriculum to have a clear scope and sequence, so that teachers know very clearly what the goals are and what proficiencies we’re looking to develop in our students.
What advice would you give those looking to go into positions of leadership in Jewish education?
There’s a lot you can learn about leadership. People sometimes think you either have it or you don’t. But no matter how natural your skills are, you can learn about it, and it will impact your ability to be a leader. Those who have spent time studying leadership will be most likely to be successful. Personally I’ve collected leadership certificates – from YU Lead, Harvard AOL, Consortium of Jewish Day Schools PTI, etc. – and I’ve learned from every program.
Also, don’t be turned off or intimated by the underside of leadership – some are fearful because of the politics, difficulties of dealing with parents, or other factors that you don’t have to deal with on the same level in the classroom. If you have the desire and ability, the positive impact you have will outweigh any challenges you face.
Finally, make sure you have a great mentor. I’ve been successful because I work with a coach, who has made the experience refreshing, kept it exciting, and helped my own growth. You should develop partnerships with staff and fellow administrators. But it is as critical to your growth to have a person who’s on the outside and can help you reflect as it is to have partners in school with whom you can lead the work.

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