‘My heart sings’

‘My heart sings’

Rabbi Jonathan Knapp reflects on his long career at Yavneh

Rabbi Jonathan Knapp works with students, just before 
covid hit. (All photos courtesy Yavneh)
Rabbi Jonathan Knapp works with students, just before covid hit. (All photos courtesy Yavneh)

It’s probably fair to say that over the long history of formal education, the words “school” and “joy” rarely appeared in the same sentence, except perhaps ironically.

It’s not that people didn’t know about the sheer pleasure of learning, about how good it feels to flex your brain, about the wild excitement of exploration and analysis and intuition, particularly when they are combined. But most schools weren’t structured around that. Education was serious business.

Education still is serious business,, but today educators realize that it’s good to be happy at school; that students learn best, are most engaged, when they’re free to take pleasure in the act of learning.

That’s something that Rabbi Jonathan Knapp learned before he got to the Yavneh Academy in Paramus about 21 years ago, and it’s something that’s he’s kept as one of the school’s central goals.

Now, as the school is set to honor Rabbi Knapp at its annual dinner (which had been scheduled for mid-January, but has been postponed until the covid surge dies down), it seemed like a good time to ask him about his tenure at the school, and his views about the education it offers, which grew out of his own life experiences.

Jonathan Knapp was born in Pittsburgh — “my Steeler allegiances run deep, and they do for all of my children too,” he said — but after his father died unexpectedly, the family moved to Twin Rivers, near Princeton, on the edge of Mercer County, where it meets Middlesex, when he was 6 years old, in 1978.

“It was a great place to grow up,” Rabbi Knapp said. “It was a brand-new community. Everything was walkable — the school, the tennis courts, the basketball courts. And it was a young community, with many kids our age.”

Jonathan went to the local public school, and “I had a very positive experience,” he said. There also was a small Orthodox shul, Shalom Torah, which grew along with the town. That’s where he became bar mitzvah, and where he taught bar mitzvah students just a few years younger than he was. Then he went to Hillel High School in Deal — “it was an hour and 40 minutes away, because we had to stop to pick kids up,” he said. “By my senior year, I was driving myself, and it became 35 minutes away.” After a gap year and a half in Israel, Jonathan Knapp enrolled in Yeshiva University.

“I intended to go into finance,” he recalled; to that end, his undergraduate major was in economics. “But I made myself a pledge that when I finished YU, I would spend a minimum of a year just learning.” He kept that self-pledge and juggled a few part-time jobs to support himself. “I worked for NCSY,” the Orthodox Union’s National Council of Synagogue Youth, “and I was running seminars and Shabbatonim. My first formal job was teaching at Temple Emanu-El.” He taught Hebrew school at that Conservative shul, which then was in Englewood — it’s since moved to Closter. “I stayed there for three years.” By then, he was in YU’s smicha program, earning rabbinical ordination, “and I got married, and I just changed course.

“I said, ‘I think I would like to be a teacher.’”

And that was it.

Rabbi Knapp tried to put the feelings that had guided his life’s work into words as he explained his choice to give up the possibility of a lucrative career for this less overtly glamorous one. “I thought deeply about life, and about my family’s experiences,” he said. “I know that life is precious, and I want to make an impact. I want to do something meaningful. And I felt that because I came to Jewish engagement in more of a roundabout way, maybe not on the conventional path that some other people took, I felt very strongly that I wanted to share the excitement, the energy, and the love with other people.”

Was giving up the idea of a career in finance for the life of an educator hard? “No,” he said. “It just happened. It wasn’t a conflict. It just came clear. And I never regretted it. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

Rabbi Knapp’s wife, Leah, who now is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Teaneck, not only supported but also understood his choice. “We had both spent time in informal education, and she knew firsthand what it means, and the difference it can make,” he said.

This year, Rabbi Knapp bonded with middle-school students.

So the couple moved first to the apartments in Teaneck, “where many of our best friends today are the friends we met there, then,” he said, and “I took a job that combined my passions.”

During that time, Rabbi Knapp also completed a master’s degree at Azrieli, YU’s graduate school for educators.

That job was to teach sixth-graders, seventh-graders, and eighth-graders — an age group that terrifies many teachers but not the ones seemingly born to understand them — and to become the director of informal student programming at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. “I had a lot of experience in informal education,” Rabbi Knapp said.

Because informal education is, among many other things, fun — if it weren’t, kids wouldn’t want to do it, and because it’s after school, on weekends, and voluntary, if they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to — familiarity with the field helps educators make more formal education fun as well.

His job was a new one, and he was perfectly suited for it. His role expanded; “Within a couple of years I did other things for the school as well. I was in charge of the schedule and created and designed a platform for positive student behavior.” As he undertook other responsibilities, Rabbi Knapp learned more and more about how schools work. He also saw more and more evidence confirming his basic approach to education — the importance of joy and creativity in learning.

He believes that education should be enjoyable “because I think the act of learning is inherently enjoyable,” Rabbi Knapp said. “If you are learning, if you are really learning, any subject feels good. If you exercise your body, it feels good. If you exercise your mind, that experience is inherently enjoyable as well. I believe that feeling can be embedded in the educational experience.”

During what turned out to be his last year at JKHA, Rabbi Knapp heard that there was a job opening up at Yavneh. The school was looking for an assistant principal to oversee the school’s Judaic studies. “I was really encouraged to consider it,” he said. He went beyond considering the job to applying for it. “Rabbi Kwalwasser was the principal then, and he hired me,” Rabbi Knapp said.

Yavneh is one of the oldest day schools in north Jersey. It opened in 1942 in Paterson and its history runs parallel to the history of many of the Jews who started in Passaic County and then moved up and over to Bergen. Yavneh moved in 1981, after most of Paterson’s Jewish community already had gone.

Eugene Kwalwasser began his work at Yavneh in 1977 and left, for a well-earned aliyah and retirement in 2006; he was the head of school most of that time. He was a progressive educator, who like Rabbi Knapp believed in the importance of kindness, creativity, warmth, and love.

That made it a good fit for Rabbi Knapp. “When I got there, I was taken by how progressive and advanced Yavneh was,” he said. “The things that they were doing in terms of co-curricular and extracurricular activities were far ahead of their time. I credit Rabbi Kwalwasser with that. He was a tremendous visionary and a very creative educator.

“The school had a great legacy already, at that time, and it was close to 60 years old. It was known to be a school of high academic standards, very professionally run.

“It is a real bracha to be able to inherit a school with all these qualities.

“I am tremendously grateful to Rabbi Kwalwasser,” he continued. “He didn’t know me, and he took a chance on me. He invested time and energy in me. He believed in me. And without him, I wouldn’t have been here.”

He showed lower-school students what a shofar looks like up close.

The school inevitably has changed somewhat since Rabbi Kwalwasser retired, but “most of the core values remain the same,” Rabbi Knapp said. “It is to provide a stellar dual curriculum in a warm, caring, and nurturing environment.

“At the same time, so much has changed. We know so much more about how children learn, and about what works. One of the things that I’m proudest of is that staff are constantly reflecting on best practices. We are always challenging ourselves to get better. To never rest of our laurels.”

When he talks about best practices, Rabbi Knapp added, he’s not talking about just the Jewish world, “but in the larger education world. There is so much that we know now from the worlds of psychology and brain development.

“We are able to help and attend to a diverse group of learners. There are children who come to Yavneh because they are really struggling. Early learning is hard for them. These are children who 10, 15, 20 years ago would not have been successful in a dual-curriculum program.

“I am so proud that we are able to push out the proverbial walls to accommodate those learners.”

Those walls have been extended in both directions, Rabbi Knapp continued. “We also have children who are excelling as learners. They are so motivated! We find that they come to Yavneh because we have programs that provide for them and encourage them.

“We always talk about the children who are so overwhelmed that they get frustrated, but we don’t talk so often about the children for whom learning comes to easily that if the material isn’t presented in a challenging way, they become bored. Studies show that those learners’ performance not only will plateau, it will decline, because they are just not interested.

“This is our niche. We speak to a diverse learning population.”

The way that Yavneh is able to offer an education that works for children on both ends of the learning spectrum, as well as for those in the middle, whose needs can be overlooked so easily, is by personalizing their education, Rabbi Knapp said. “For this, I draw on my experience in what was a very progressive public school. We all played musical instruments, were involved in the school band and in school plays, as well as athletics.

“This is more of a challenge in  a dual-curriculum environment,” he acknowledged, but nonetheless “we offer so much in the worlds of art, music, and technology. We have kids who learn guitar and how to read sheet music. We have art programs. We have electives about chess and engineering. This is all during school hours. We have a creative writing program, a debate team, a stock market game, and so much more.

“This all helps kids develop their passions. I want kids to have outside interests, and to develop their creativity.”

The electives, relatively new offerings for fourth- through eighth-graders, “gives them a chance to tap into their creative side,” he said.

The underlying reason is “our core belief that the school experience should be enjoyable. If you watch the kids come into the building in the morning, you see their energy. They come in skipping and laughing. Sometimes they skip and laugh in the hall. Sometimes people criticize me for that. They say that they wouldn’t be allowed to do that in public school. And that’s okay. I want to hear happy kids in the hall. This is music to my ears.”

These last two years have been exhausting for Rabbi Knapp and Yavneh’s educators, as they have been for every educator everywhere (as well as for every sentient human being, needless to say). But Rabbi Knapp’s work has been aided by “the community of the Jewish schools in our community — and beyond — that have worked seamlessly and cooperatively. The real heroes are the healthcare professionals, of course, but right after them are the educators, and what everyone was able to do to keep the schools open, and to keep them as normal as possible.

Rabbi Knapp reads with young students at Yavneh.

“So on the one hand I have been physically exhausted — this has been very draining — but on the other I feel incredibly rewarded. It has been almost two years of exhausting, but the overall feeling is of extreme pride in the school community.”

That brings up another unusual truth about the Bergen County Jewish school community. “It doesn’t feel competitive,” Rabbi Knapp said. “It feels collaborative.” That feeling is fostered by the truth that there are so many students from so many families dedicated to day school education that each school is free to develop its own specific character, rather than scrambling for the few students available to fill a sea of empty seats. Rabbi Knapp and the other elementary- and middle-school leaders “meet semi-regularly to discuss the big issues that impact all of us,” he said. “We have a very active chat group, where we just check in. We all participate in this. It was in existence pre-covid, and it really helped us a lot during covid.”

Looking back at his first two decades at Yavneh, and forward at whatever might come next, Rabbi Knapp began by defining the school’s values.

“We focus on three things — academic excellence, character development, and religious and spiritual inspiration.

“One of the first things I did at Yavneh was to hire a middle-school psychologist and spent the better part of the next year researching advisory programs in middle schools across the country. There were very few Jewish schools that had advisory programs then. The psychologist designed a state-of-the-art advisory program that gives middle-school students a platform to discuss the subjects they care about. The program is dynamic and ever-changing, and it can be because we didn’t buy it. It is ours.

“A year or two before covid, we built a very robust social-emotional literacy program for early childhood through fifth grade. Now, we teach social and emotional literacy to every child every single week, and those classes are tremendously important.

“It is a deep investment of time, energy, and resources, and my heart sings when I hear about kids going home and telling their parents about it. The kindergarteners call it their feelings class.

“That is part of their Jewish education.”

What’s next? More personalized education. “That means that children who have a particular interest in a subject — science, Torah, engineering, creative writing — can have the opportunity. There will be more opportunity for student choice and student voice. “That’s harder to do in lower school than in middle school, but we are seeing that it is doable, and that kids love it.”

In practical terms, what does that look like? “It’s a kid who had no idea that they like music now playing an instrument and loving it,” Rabbi Knapp said.

The school will continue to emphasize leadership training through “what I call peer-to-peer student motivation,” he said. “Developing student leaders. We have students now who are teaching Mishna to other students during lunch. It is all voluntary, and it creates an energy. The reward is feeling great about having challenged themselves.

“We started the Yavneh chesed team a couple of years ago, and now it is our biggest team. It’s bigger than basketball or soccer, and they do it together, as a team.

“These are examples of our three goals — academic excellence, character development, and religious and spiritual growth,” he said. “Kids who know so much about science and history, who can’t wait to learn more Torah. It is vibrant, and that energy feeds off itself.”

Rabbi Knapp “feels blessed” in so many ways, he said. Part of that comes from his family. He and his wife, Dr. Leah Knapp, have four children. Adina is now in her third year as a teacher at the Shefa School in Manhattan, working with children with learning challenges. Esti is a behavioral technician who works with children in Tenafly, Shira is a junior at Stern College for Women, and Eli is a high-school senior at MTA. In other words, each of their children has taken their parents’ passions and forged their own paths from them.

“And I work with exceptional school administrators who truly have become my closest and dearest friends,” Rabbi Knapp added. “I work with a faculty that is so dedicated to their students and I find it so inspiring. I work with a very supportive and engaged group of lay leaders, the parent body is exceptional, and above all we work with students who make us smile each and every day.

“We are awed by our students,” Rabbi Knapp concluded, 21 years into working with them. “They are our true inspiration.”

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