‘Those girls are me’

‘Those girls are me’

Community leader/athlete goes back to Brooklyn

Sunni Herman visits with students at Shulamith School of Brooklyn.
Sunni Herman visits with students at Shulamith School of Brooklyn.

When Rabbi Shmuel Klammer, head of school at the Shulamith School of Brooklyn, first came up with the acronym AIM (Alumnae, Inspiration, Marketing) to describe his goals for enhancing the school, he hadn’t yet met Sunni Herman of Teaneck. Now, after meeting her and watching her interact with his students, he has added a second M to his formula.

“It’s for motivation,” he said. “The message of motivation — physical, spiritual, intellectual, and in every other area of life — is critical to success, and Sunni has that motivation in spades.”

For her part, Ms. Herman, who is not only an alumna but the guest of honor at the school’s upcoming annual dinner this year, is delighted to have been given an opportunity to reconnect with the school. Executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Ms. Herman is being honored not only for her many contributions to the community, but for her athletic achievements as well.

The athletic prowess is recent, and a prime example of what the honoree calls her “self-motivation. I’m competing against myself,” she said. “I have been running communities for older adults for 20 years. Four years ago” — when she was 40 — “I became a triathlete. I decided to do something out of the box for myself.”

“I have always biked,” she said; biking was a family affair. (Biking also is one of the three events that make up a triathlon.) That family included her parents Abe and Shelley Pollack, her sister Devorah, who also went to Shulamith, and her brothers Chaim, Michael, Daniel, and Ari. (Three of those brothers now live in Israel.)

Sunni Herman

“We would bike to Manhattan or to Coney Island on a Sunday morning,” Ms. Herman said. “One of us would be on the back of my father’s bike and one on the back of my mother’s, and one would sit on the crossbar on my father’s bike. At the time, my parents didn’t have a car. They both biked to work. When my father was studying for a Ph.D., he would bike there, and when he was teaching at LIU, he would bike there.”

So biking was no problem. “But I didn’t swim and didn’t run,” she said. (Those are a triathlon’s other two sports.) Ultimately, with a lot of hard work and constant practice, that was no problem either.

“My teen idol at Shulamith was Rochie Shoretz, who was a year ahead of me,” Ms. Herman said. (Rochelle Shoretz, the founder of the national cancer organization Sharsheret, died in 2015.) When the two women reconnected as adults, both successful professionals, “Rochie suggested that I do a triathlon,” Ms. Herman said.

“I did it because with a triathlon, the goal is to finish. It was stretching my possibilities. It had nothing to do with my professional life or my family but was something I could do where I felt that I fit in by being anonymous. I also made great friends and became part of a whole new community. It was totally out of my comfort zone. I learned a lot about myself.”

She is now training for her first marathon.

Ms. Herman grew up in Borough Park and attended an all-Yiddish-speaking preschool there. She said that her family knew Shulamith well. Her grandmother started teaching there in the 1930s, and several aunts attended the school in the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, she did not expect to go there. “For first grade, my parents applied to a local all-girls school,” she said. “I was rejected because my mother went to a co-ed elementary school. So I went to Shulamith, which moved to Flatbush when I was in fourth grade. In order for my parents to afford tuition for me and my sister, my mother became the school’s gym teacher,” a position she held for 15 years. “She was a very good dancer, well-known in Brooklyn Israeli dance circles.”

Her grandmother Chanah Peikes Pollack, and her students stand outside Shulamith School in 1939.

“In order to make a living, my mother taught dance and aerobics in the basement of our house in Boro Park. My sister was a dancer, but I was not athletic. My brothers were ice-skaters and played basketball.” Because they sometimes played on Shabbat, “In Borough Park we were considered extremely modern and progressive. But in school I was considered more religious because I was from Boro Park.”

Three things happened this fall that Ms. Herman did not expect. First, “I got a call from Yavneh” — the elementary and middle school in Paramus — “asking me to be a celebrity running coach for the kids’ running program. It was three Thursdays in a row.” She did it during her lunch break. Second, “my best friend since I was 4 — we went to the Yiddish school together — has a daughter in an all-girls high school. She had to write an essay about an inspirational figure.” The friend’s daughter wrote about her mom’s friend, the triathlete.

“I realized that when we grew up, none of our parents did anything athletic,” Ms. Herman said. “No one did races, especially mothers. The fact that she saw me as an inspirational figure brought me back to Borough Park, where we came from. It was an aha moment.”

The third unexpected event was a phone call from an elementary school friend, Frima Shtaynberger, whose husband, Alex, sits on Shulamith’s board. “We hadn’t spoken for many years,” Ms. Herman said. “We used to hang out together.” Apparently, Ms. Shtaynberger mentioned that Ms. Herman’s name came up as an “inspirational athlete” during a discussion of potential honorees for the annual dinner.

“I’m just a girl from Brooklyn,” she said. “I wanted to go back. I hadn’t been back in 30 years. I walked in and the kids were in the gym where my mom taught. They came and surrounded me.” As a sign of respect, the girls stood up. “That was me when I was there. We stood up when a guest came, and here they were honoring me.”

Sunni and Jonathan Herman with their children, from left, Chani, Jacob, and Yael.

Visiting a 10th grade class, and seeing her old chemistry teacher, Ms. Herman told the girls, “you might not understand why you are learning this, but you will use it for the rest of your life. You have to know that you are a woman and Orthodox, and you can do anything you want.

“Envision your finish line,” she told the girls. “Work like anything and figure it out.”

According to Rabbi Klammer, Ms. Herman’s meetings with the girls — she visited the school several times — have been productive. In February, “she ran a workshop for the high school girls. She talked about pushing herself to reach great heights. It’s not about having to be number one, she said, but to get better. A number of girls went up to her got her phone number. They look at her as a person to emulate.” And, he added, “she’s a model in terms of being healthy. I’m personally a fan of eating healthy and exercising, and I would like to see girls do that as well.

“In a phenomenal session in the early evening, she encouraged the high school girls to flesh out the school’s philosophy from a student’s perspective,” Rabbi Klammer continued. “She drew it out of the students and made them think quite deeply. As a result of her initiative and leading the session, it formulated the basis for a brand new student-created website,” ShulamithofBrooklyn.org.

“I went there in February and met with a group of nine elite students from middle school and high school,” Ms. Herman said. “In the middle school I talked about envisioning the finish line. Don’t look back, stick to the plan, and enjoy the journey. In the high school I talked about the qualities of authentic leaders, telling them that managers control and leaders inspire. We talked about the importance of listening and asking questions. Then we brainstormed the message of the school.”

Sunni Herman passes the finish line at her fifth triathlon.

With the additional mandate of helping to market the school, Ms. Herman asked Noah Schultz, a sophomore at Frisch, to redo the school’s website. She also hired a photographer, who sent her pictures to Noah. Using the pictures together with the students’ own words, he put together the new website. The entire process took one week.

“Shulamith is the only girls’ Zionist Orthodox school in Brooklyn,” Rabbi Klammer said. “We play a unique role. Other schools are co-ed, or other girls’ schools are not Zionist. We’re very strongly Zionist. Advocacy is in our curriculum. It’s not just about Yom Ha’Atzmaut or Yom Yerushalayim. It’s an everyday commitment.”

In addition, he said, “We believe in the greatness of the single-gender opportunity for girls, where they can feel comfortable and spread their wings. We strongly emphasize midot tovot” — good character traits — “and draw from multiple groups, not only Ashkenazic but Sephardic, Yemenite, Israeli, and Russian.” The community is very diverse. Some of the girls, he told Ms. Herman, look forward to eating their hot meals in school. They don’t have computers and they don’t have white boards.

“I know that girl,” Ms. Herman said. “I was that girl. When I was 11 my father graduated from medical school. There were five kids. We lived in my grandparents’ house.” What she did have were wonderful memories of the school. “We learned how to ask questions. I was responsible for lighting in the school play and I was editor in chief of the high school newspaper, a year after Rochie. I learned how to do interviews.” She also learned how to build a team and to speak Hebrew.

When Rabbi Klammer unveiled the goals of his AIM initiative, he told Ms. Herman that the school had not built up an alumni base. “In four days, I gathered the phone numbers and addresses of 61 people,” she said. “I’m working grade by grade, getting them to think about their school experiences. I saw myself in those girls. I want to give them a chance. I want to do it for every girl who went through the school and believes in empowering young Jewish girls.”

Ms. Herman and her husband, Jonathan, have three children: Yael is a sophomore at Ma’ayanot, and Chani, a seventh grader and Jacob, a third grader, both go to Yavneh. “Yael volunteers with her friends on Shabbat afternoons at Holy Name Hospital,” Ms. Herman said. “Both Yael and Chani lead groups of kids at the Young Israel of Teaneck on Shabbat. Performing chesed is important in their lives.”

Her approach to her own children, she added, is to have them “show up and be a part of it,” whether racing, working in soup kitchens, or helping out at the Jewish Home. “They totally get it. This is what we do.

“I get a lot of pleasure in having others excel,” Ms. Herman said. “It’s a tremendous lesson for your own children, for them to realize possibilities. I’ve been enormously lucky in my career. The question is, how do you figure out a way to make things work? What is the finish line?”

And now, she said, the journey has come full circle, bringing her back to where she started. “Going back to Brooklyn has brought me home,” she said. “Those girls are me.”

Who: Sunni Herman

What: She will be honored at the 2018 Shulamith of Brooklyn dinner

When: Sunday, April 22 at 5 p.m.

Where: Manhattan Beach Jewish Center, 60 West End Ave., Brooklyn

Why: To raise money for the students of the Shulamith School

How much: $300 per person for dinner reservations. Sponsorship levels vary. For more information contact Michele at (718) 338-4000 ext. 200, or email mchoina@shulamithofbrooklyn.org. Register or donate at https://www.shulamithofbrooklyn.org/dinner

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