A school is not a factory
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A school is not a factory

Ma’ayanot’s new head talks about what covid has taught about building community

These four girls are among the more than 100 who performed at Heartbeats at Ma’ayanot.
These four girls are among the more than 100 who performed at Heartbeats at Ma’ayanot.

You know the cliché about how something that doesn’t kill you can make you stronger?

That’s a particularly irritating one, but there is a real kernel of truth to it, and many institutions have discovered that during this odd, harsh year.

Covid, which has killed many people, each of whom is mourned and missed, also has mowed down schools, shuls, stores, restaurants, and other groups that did not have the financial or emotional strength to keep going. 

But many of the ones that have been able to stay open have chosen — or perhaps have been forced — to refine their core beliefs and practices, retool them, and recalculate their courses, stripping away the detritus of the we-do-it-this-way-because-this-is-the-way-we-do-it rut and emerging fresher and stronger.

Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck is one of those institutions. 

This drawing shows what Ma’ayanot will look like when the expansion is complete.

Both the challenges and the possible chances for growth posed by the pandemic are even more vivid when a school has a brand-new head. When CB Neugroschl began her new job, she was taking over at a time when up, down, and sideways all had to be redefined. She had to learn what her students looked like from the cheekbones up.

“Covid was like wiping the slate,” Ms. Neugroschl, who lives in Teaneck, said. “Everything shut down; we had the obligation and the responsibility to deliver on our mission, and that was a charge to reimagine and reshape because we couldn’t assume that anything would remain the same.

“Everybody on our team — our faculty, our leadership, our student life team, our guidance team — everybody understood that change is an equalizer.”

Ms. Neugroschl sees the school as a community, and as part of the larger community. “That’s what drew me to Ma’ayanot,” she said. “School isn’t just a place where kids learn information and get good grades. That’s the standard expectation, but our mission is to take that basic model and amplify it in a holistic way, by looking at the school as a place where incredibly significant personal growth takes place.

“That only happens intentionally. The most amazing thing about being a new head of school in the time of covid is that we all have to be intentional. Everything has to be redesigned. We have to make sure that personal growth is happening, and that relationships are being developed. 

Students celebrate Pink Day, working with Sharsheret to support research studying breast cancer.

“We are not just a transcript factory,” Ms. Neugroschl continued. “The holistic model of growth during these four years of high school must fit the students’ needs, and it can’t happen on its own. You have to be intentional about what you value. You have to build the structure that holds the wiring.”

This covid year, you can’t just throw a little spackle and paint on the structure. You have to rebuild.

“So now everybody has the same question — how do we deliver on that mission?” Ms. Neugroschl said. “Now we have a starting point.”

Ma’ayanot, like all local schools, closed abruptly last March. “We went remote, and beyond that the summer really didn’t happen, so after six months of this sense of disconnection, it became super-clear to us that whatever we want to redesign had to attend to our students’ basic core need. The mission was to build community. We knew that everyone would be in masks and be socially distancing, so this would further the sense of disconnection.

“How could we counter that?”

CB Neugroschl

First, she and her team restructured the day. Ma’ayanot has an average of 80 students per grade; about 60 percent of them come from Bergen County and the rest come from as far south as Hillside, Elizabeth, and Passaic, as far north as Rockland County, and as far east as Westchester County. 

So every week, all 80 or so girls in each grade “would have time together.” There is a range of activities, but every week “they bond or have fun or are thoughtful together. It’s different every week. And we also gave every student a faculty advisor.”

Whichever part of this new structure that will useful after covid will be retained, Ms. Neugroschl said. 

Her own experiences before coming to Ma’ayanot have informed some of her decisions, she said. “Before this, I was the head of school at the Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Queens.” That’s quite a commute, from Teaneck to Central. “Before that, I was an assistant principal at SAR,” in Riverdale. And before that, 20 years ago, she was the director of admission at Ma’ayanot, beginning when the school was just a year old. So her connection to the school is deep.

She can trace her interest in education as a holistic endeavor even further back, however. “I grew up in the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, and I went to Beis Rivka from kindergarten through 12th grade,” with a one-year hiatus at another school, she said. “It is maybe ironic that I decided to devote my life to school, because I didn’t particularly like my own school experience.”

Above and below, students perform at Heartbeats, the first school event opened to outsiders this pandemic year.

Back then, at least in her school, “students’ needs and interests and growth weren’t supported,” she said. “The feeling was that this is just something that all teenagers go through.

“This was a school that was a factory. You just do it. You just went to school.”

Now, she’s dedicated to giving her students an experience radically different from the one she had. “Teachers who are the best and the brightest are devoted to learning, and they know that it is an incredibly exciting moment when you are teaching,” she said.

Teachers must be subject masters — and hers are, Ms. Neugroschl said — but even beyond that mastery “they know that teaching and learning themselves are dynamic. Teaching cannot be just passive, and that can happen only if you are a continuous learner.”

Among the subjects that teachers continue to learn is how to teach; this sense of constant engagement is exciting, even exhilarating, and it binds students, teachers, and staff even more closely into the community.

“Everyone is a participant in the community of learners,” she said. “I may know how to teach calculus, but how do I teach calculus to this particular student, in this particular classroom? Jewish education has recognized that the classroom is not the only platform for learning.”

As covid has begun to recede and the community is starting to reopen, Ma’ayanot also is changing. “We did our first event when we could invite parents and guests,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “It was just two weeks before the end of school.”

A few weeks before that, on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the school had its first chagigah — a party — in the form of a concert outside. “It was incredible,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “Yes, there were tears.”

The event for parents, called Heartbeats, was the school’s annual charity benefit. “Our students perform — music, dance, choir, instrumental and vocal music. All forms of performing and creative arts are only display. “The students sell tickets, and the proceeds go to a designated charity. They raise a lot of money.”

The performances are by and for women only; Ma’ayanot is an Orthodox school, and “it is in deference to halacha,” Jewish law, Ms. Neugroschl said. “It is such a beautiful celebration. 

“We believe that every student should shine. It’s an entirely student-run event, with students doing everything from setting up chairs to picking the charity, and more than 100 students performed.”

This year, the students faced a specific challenge. Usually, they have all year to prepare for the performance; this year, “we had no idea what was going to happen, until Governor Murphy said that we could have larger outdoor gatherings,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “Many of the students were practicing for the joy of it, even without the dangling lure of a performance. But their resilience, and their joy in the performing arts, were abundantly on display.”

The school’s commitment to the performing arts also has influenced its expansion, which had been put on hold for part of this covid year but will be implemented as soon as this year’s classes are finished. 

“It’s a 12,000-foot expansion, and a $6 million project,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “It is a massive student center, which will serve as a multipurpose room, with a stage, as well as offices. A wing attached to the building will lead out to this big assembly space, and then to an outdoor dining patio.”

There also will be a new beit midrash — a study center — “located at the physical as well as the moral center of the school,” she said. “The beit midrash is at the heart of our building, and of our mission.”

Pre-covid, students welcomed the first day of school; the school’s teams are nicknamed Rapids, and by extension the students are too.

“The capital campaign was launched a number of years ago — they raised $3.4 million — and then it was paused, and now we restarted it. We are going to start renovation internally in the first week of June, as soon as the kids are in finals, and we hope to break ground in mid-June. We are committed to have our current building up and functioning when school opens in the fall, and the expansion will be open for the second semester.

“It’s a tight time frame, but it’s so exciting. 

The renovation also will provide another classroom for the Sinai Schools program at Ma’ayanot. “Sinai has made a substantial commitment to the capital campaign,” Ms. Negroschl said. Sinai, which educates a wide range of special-needs students, provides each one with a tailor-made program and has its largely encapsulated programs in mainstream yeshivot, thus giving both its students and the host school’s kids the opportunity to destigmatize special needs and grow a more inclusive community.

“One of the highlights of the performance is the inclusion of Sinai students and Ma’ayanot students,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “We do it every single year, and this year that was no different. It benefits everybody.

“The creative arts are where you touch a certain spirit in very person. Whether they’re performing or in the audience, you’re sharing a spark of creativity.

“It’s all about building community,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “It’s a place for our students to connection and shine, and for everybody to see that our facilities match our mission. We are committed to these areas of growth.”

This covid year has redefined not the idea or the ideal of community, but its practical expression. Ms. Neugroschl is gratified by the opportunities it has presented and is looking forward to applying them next year to newly maskless students, once again able to hug each other.

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