Nellie Harris has traveled a long way – from Morocco to Israel to the United States; from doctoral studies in Yiddish to doctoral work in Jewish education; from heading the Solomon Schechter Day School in Westchester to leading a new school in Rockland County.
“Education was always in my blood,” said Harris, the incoming principal of the Rockland Jewish Academy, a pluralistic community day school founded in West Nyack last year. “It was a part of who I was and how I defined myself.”
Most recently the curriculum and instruction director of the Solomon Schechter Upper School in Hartsdale, N.Y. , Harris will take up her new role in August.
Growing up in Israel – she moved there from Morocco at age 4 – Harris was a teacher in the Israel Defense Forces and studied Bible and Hebrew literature at Hebrew University before getting married and moving to the United States.
Enrolling at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “I started doing Yiddish literature. As a Moroccan Jew, that was quite an unusual move,” she jokes. Realizing that although she loved the work it was not likely to be her life’s pursuit, she switched her attention to Jewish education.
Now, after some three decades as a professional educator, she can claim expertise in many areas, having worked as a teacher, teacher educator, curriculum developer, and principal in many schools and institutions.
If her commitment to Jewish education took shape at JTS, it received further impetus from several years of intensive study in Israel as a Jerusalem Fellow, in a program run under the auspices of the Mandel Foundation. Returning to the United States, Harris spent five years during the early 1990s teaching Hebrew and Judaic studies at the Solomon Schechter Day School in White Plains, followed by a stint as senior educator for the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education.
“Then I was recruited by Temple Israel Center in White Plains as education director,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about it, but after months of persuasion, I allowed myself to be persuaded and spent six wonderful years there building a school that took afternoon studies very seriously.”
In that position, she said, she honed her skills in developing curricula and providing professional development for teachers.
Recruited once again by the Solomon Schechter School in Westchester – this time to serve as principal of the middle school – Harris rejoined it, heading first the middle school and later the upper school. But once again a new opportunity arose, presenting a new challenge for the seasoned educator.
“It was time to move on,” said Harris, who lives in White Plains with her husband, Rabbi Robert Harris, a professor of Bible at JTS. They have two daughters, both Schechter graduates and both now in their 20s.
She said she was approached by leaders of the new facility, “a start-up school across the bridge from me that looked very appealing. The potential there is enormous.” She found the idea of moving from a very large day school to a very small one particularly appealing, “especially in an era of innovation, when voices in education – and in society as a whole – are looking for ways to innovate and to reach individuals.” Comparing schools to boats, Harris noted that a small school, like a small motorboat, “is agile and can move easily.”
The Rockland Jewish Academy, she said, has attracted some 70 students during its first year. It is a product of a “non-Orthodox Jewish community that is very eager and determined to establish a Jewish day school and a presence [in the community] through the school.
“They view the school as a sign of the future,” she said. “It’s a strong mission for them and it is my honor to join that mission.”
The job of the school’s administration, she said, is to “figure out a way in which we can establish a critical presence for the many families who live in Rockland County and are desirous of our presence.”
Pluralism “is what the community desires,” she added. “They want to have kids learning side by side and understanding and respecting each other from an early age. It’s an important mission for Jewish educators – [to help students] not just overcome differences but respect those differences and grow because of them.”
Harris, who takes up her position in August, talked about the new school’s “impressive growth.
“It’s incredible what the lay leadership has been able to accomplish by sheer determination – by dreaming, really – and by harnessing the resources of the community,” she said.
Harris said she is bringing significant expertise in teacher education to her job.
“My hope is really to create and work with an already incredible faculty to create a professional team that will take this school to new heights,” she said. “We’re looking to provide excellence in education, both in general and Judaic studies.”
She also aims to be “innovative, to inspire young minds around Jewish values, Jewish learning, and citizenship, [making them] responsible and contributing members of their community.”
Harris said she hopes that so far her legacy has been in furthering professional development, “establishing a culture in which teachers see themselves as learners of their own craft while looking for ways to reach their students, identifying their needs and designing curricula and lessons to meet those needs.”
If she succeeds, RJA students will gain in three areas.
“They’ll have a deep knowledge of their heritage and experience the joy that comes with engaging with Jewish studies and practices; each and every day they will come to a school in which they learn to think critically and creatively; and they will create meaningful relationships with each other, their teachers, and with the community, being embraced by a community that nurtures them to become knowledgeable, productive, Jews.”
Embraced in this way, Harris said, “they can flourish to become amazing adults.”