Rabbi Naphtali (“Tully”) Harcsztark of Teaneck put much thought into crafting a profile of the ideal teacher in 2003, as he prepared to become the founding principal of the SAR High School, a coeducational modern Orthodox school in Riverdale, N.Y.
“There are a lot of people who go into education because they love the material they teach but they’re not necessarily interested in teaching kids and all that goes on in kids’ lives,” he said. “Others go into education because they really enjoy spending time with kids.
“What we’re looking for are people who care deeply about the content and also are interested in getting involved in understanding what goes in the lives of kids and in working together with other teachers.”
Modeling that very sort of fusion — and instilling an unusually strong fusion of general and Judaic studies in the high school — led Rabbi Harcsztark to receive the Covenant Foundation’s 2017 award for excellence in Jewish education. (He was one of three recipients.)
“Each of the 2017 Covenant Award recipients is a dreamer, and each brings a breath of optimism for the field,” Covenant’s executive director, Harlene Winnick Appelman, said.
The New York City-based Covenant Foundation, a program of the Crown Family Philanthropies, “works to strengthen educational endeavors that perpetuate the identity, continuity and heritage of the Jewish people.”
At the awards dinner, set for November 12 in Los Angeles, during the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, each recipient will receive $36,000, along with $5,000 for his or her institution.
The other awardees this year are Meredith Englander Polsky of Matan in New York and Temple Beth Ami Nursery School in Rockville, Maryland, and Dr. Jane Shapiro, co-founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning in Skokie, Illinois.
The foundation cited Rabbi Harcsztark for having “imagined a new model of what a Modern Orthodox high school could be — one balancing tradition and modernity, and promoting vigorous dialogue and debate — and made it a reality. Under his exceptional and visionary leadership for the past 16 years, SAR High School has become a national model of Jewish education adapting to and embracing 21st century realities and equipping students and teachers in new, novel, and empowering ways.”
Before Rabbi Harcsztark, 52, founded SAR High School, he spent nine years as associate principal of Judaic studies at SAR Academy elementary school. He also was the spiritual leader of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck and he taught Judaic studies as a teacher at the Frisch School in Paramus.
He introduced a concept he calls the “grand conversation” into SAR High School’s mission statement. This “conversation between Torah and the world,” as he puts it, is rooted in the belief that integrating secular and sacred scholarship enriches both.
For example, biology classes learn about organ donation and genetic engineering from scientific, ethical, and halachic perspectives, while literature classes are taught to compare the reading strategies and literary theory of biblical and secular texts.
Judaic and general studies teachers study together, discuss and debate issues within modern Orthodox education together, and attend Shabbaton weekends together.
“Our model of collaboration reflects open thinking to our students,” Rabbi Harcsztark said. “It informs the way that teachers interact with students and encourages students to develop a voice of their own, fostering a culture of professional growth for teachers and an atmosphere of vibrant learning for students.
“Most importantly, we, as a school community, engage the issues of the day — feminism, sexual orientation, race — in a transparent and forthright manner through community meetings and class discussion.”
Dr. Gail Bendheim, a member of SAR High School’s board of directors, nominated Rabbi Harcsztark for the Covenant Award.
“Tully has fully internalized a mindset centered on the constant dialogue between the religious and the secular,” Dr. Bendheim said. “He teaches that being open to new ideas, wherever they emanate from, is central to being someone who can make the world a better place in a uniquely Jewish way.”
Rabbi Harcsztark readily acknowledges that this approach is easier to accomplish on paper than in practice.
“It is a very difficult balance to strike,” he said. “There has to be a strong commitment to both sides of it — to halacha and learning Torah, and to an openness to hearing people in the broader sense. Often people choose one significantly over the other, so either it becomes more difficult to take in the ideas that are out there, or Torah falls by the wayside. It’s a hard thing to pull off. You always feel like you have mixed results.”
His own commitment “to both sides of it” stirred some controversy in 2014, when he ruled that two female first-year students at SAR could continue wearing tefillin at morning services, as they had done at their Solomon Schechter day school. In Orthodox practice, only males from bar mitzvah age and up wear tefillin.
Looking back, is he still comfortable with that decision? “Yes,” he said. “It was not a decision rooted in feminist principles but in inclusiveness. There are all kinds of very committed Jews, and I think it’s important for adults in our community to recognize and embrace that. And to become that kind of adult, you have to see that as a kid.
“This particular school has different kinds of kids and we should embrace that as long as we stay in the bounds of what halacha can support. And I think it does in this case.”
He stresses, however, that “I was making a local decision for my school.”
The way this ruling has been implemented, the one or two girls each year who come from schools where they have been trained from their bat mitzvah to wear tefillin have been allowed to continue to do so. Rabbi Harcsztark said he wouldn’t support the idea of a female student who had not been trained in this way to begin wearing tefillin in high school, and none has asked to do so.
“We support women being as involved as possible in learning and davening,” he continued. “From a role-modeling perspective, we have both men and women teaching Gemara and Tanach” — Talmud and Bible — “and we have a beit midrash of five male and five female college graduates who learn here part of the day with kids in groups.”
Raised in Brooklyn, Rabbi Harcsztark went to Yeshiva University’s high school for boys (MTA), received a B.A. from Yeshiva College, rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and an M.A. in Jewish history from its Bernard Revel Graduate School. He was a fellow at New York University’s Tikvah Center of Jewish Law and Civilization in 2010-11 and was a LEAP Fellow at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015-16.
Rabbi Harcsztark, who has lived in Teaneck for 25 years, co-founded Davar, a grassroots learning community dedicated to “bringing scholarly voices that don’t usually get a platform in the context of community shuls into the Teaneck community.”
He and his wife, Rebecca, a clinical psychologist, have four children, who are 27, 24, and 17. The two youngest are twin boys. One of them goes to the Torah Academy of Bergen County and the other goes to SAR. The family belongs to Congregation Rinat Yisrael.
“When the Covenant Foundation called to say I was chosen for the award, they said they intended to invite not only my wife and children but also my siblings and my mother, who live in Israel,” he said. “I found that very meaningful.”
Ms. Appelman, the foundation’s executive director, told him that the Crown family is sensitive to the fact that the families of Jewish communal professionals witness the daily difficulties involved in this calling and should also have an opportunity to see how communal work can lead to success and approbation.
“This is about championing Jewish education as a career, and I would like to encourage our graduates to go into Jewish education,” Rabbi Harcsztark said. “I feel blessed to be working in a place where there are talented modern Orthodox educators.”