Transition at Schechter
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Transition at Schechter

As head of school Ruth Gafni moves to Ramaz, Steve Freedman replaces her in New Milford

Last summer, Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s outgoing head of school, led a delegation to South Africa, where they donated books to a school in Langabuya. Here, she stands with the school’s head, Dalindyebo Fiki. (Photos by Leah Silberstein)
Last summer, Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s outgoing head of school, led a delegation to South Africa, where they donated books to a school in Langabuya. Here, she stands with the school’s head, Dalindyebo Fiki. (Photos by Leah Silberstein)

If you’re lucky (and you happen to be a school), continuity and change are in a constant dance with each other. A sort of formal dance, a minuet, each leading and ceding, bowing to each other at the end.

Leadership transitions are the times when those dances go from being symbolic to real, and when they matter the most.

Often continuity or change are set in stark opposition to each other at those times, as new leaders either vow slavish replication to the past or decide to tear down everything and rebuild from rubble.

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford is changing heads of school. At the end of this school year, Ruth Gafni will head to the middle school at Ramaz, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Steve Freedman will leave the Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit — Farmington Hills, Michigan, to be precise — for Schechter.

Both are leaving positions they’ve held for 16 years to head to new challenges; both talk about the schools they’re leaving with much love and see themselves as good stewards, handing off a jewel.

Steve Freedman is coming to Schechter not because he wanted to leave Hillel — and certainly not because Hillel wanted him to leave (it most certainly did not) — but because family and opportunity and the East Coast beckoned.

He is coming from a school that started as a Schechter school — in other words, that was counted as part of the Conservative movement, although it accepts children from across the Jewish spectrum — but became a community school a decade ago. “We’re a halachic community day school now,” he said. “We didn’t want our affiliation to be a perceived or real barrier to Jewish parents wanting to send their Jewish children to a Jewish day school.”

Although there aren’t many Jews left in the city of Detroit, there are about 63,000 Jews in the metropolitan area, he said. It’s a big, thriving suburban community. (Sound familiar?) “It’s very centralized, with a strong federation and agencies, that work together very closely,” he said. “It’s one of the strongest Jewish communities in the country.”

Mr. Freedman grew up in Philadelphia; he and his wife, Joan, are high-school sweethearts, he said. Both of them are educators.

When he was a child and a young adolescent, his Conservative synagogue’s Hebrew school did not inspire him to think that one day he’d be a Jewish educator, Mr. Freedman said; in fact, he thought that he’d like to spend his life as far away from Hebrew school as possible. But things change. He looks at his career, he said, as divine retribution for his behavior all those years ago.

Of course, he protests a bit too much. What happened is that he started teaching at a local Hebrew school when he was in college — it then was Beaver College, now is Arcadia University, and remains in Glenside, Pennsylvania — and realized that he loved it.

Soon after the couple was married, they moved to New York, where Mr. Freedman earned graduate degrees in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He taught at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle for a few years, and she taught at the Schechter school in Manhattan, and then he went back to Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, the place where he’d first discovered his passion for Jewish education, and his vision of himself as a Jewish educator. He stayed there as its education director for 13 years.

He went to Hillel from Beth Sholom, which means that he’s had only two major jobs. Through them, he’s had the chance to learn firsthand and to influence the two major ways that Jewish children learn about Judaism — in congregational schools and day schools.

“I love the synagogue world because of the variety it offers, and I am really passionate about the day school world,” he said. “There is not a day that I’m bored. There is not a day when I’m not excited to be at school.”

Steve Freedman will start as the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County’s new head of school this summer.

Mr. Freedman was sure that he would retire from Hillel; he’s now 60, and he did not see retirement as a state he’d wish to attain soon, but he thought that when it came, in maybe nine or so years, it would come in Michigan.

Then fate, or at least coincidence, interfered.

“We have four children, and the two youngest live in New York,” he said. (The other two live in the South.) “Our youngest son got married in June. His bride is from White Plains. We love our daughter-in-law, and her family is awesome. When we were planning the wedding — which was at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, which is beautiful — we were always a little too far away.” His next-youngest child, a daughter, also lives in Manhattan; she and her “awesome boyfriend,” as her father puts it, have no plans to leave.

So the thought of moving back east implanted itself in both their heads. But it was just a thought. A fantasy. Their jobs were back in Detroit, even if their pasts and their children were here.

“And then I turned 60 over the summer, and we went away for the weekend to celebrate, and part of the conversation was when are you going to be coming back home?” he said. The idea bubbled up a bit more.

“And then, when we got back to my kids’ apartment after the weekend, on that Monday, a longtime friend, Dara Klarfeld” — a Conservative rabbi who is the CEO of the recruiting firm DRG, which specializes in placing rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish professionals — “asked me when we’d be coming home. I said in about 9 years, and she said how about now?”

That’s when he first heard about the opening at Schechter in New Milford. He wasn’t sure what to do, “but my wife said to call her back. So I did.”

Discussions followed, and eventually “I met the people here,” at the Bergen County Schechter, “and I was really blown away by their menschlichkeit. They’re warm, wonderful, caring people, and that tells you a lot about the community.

“And I discovered that their thinking and goals and aspirations for the children and for the community aligned with ours, and that was exciting.

“And then I thought maybe I should do this. So I went through the interview process, and then they asked me to consider the position — and here we are.”

Steve and Joan Freedman plan to move to New Jersey in June. “Probably to Teaneck,” he said; the family most likely will join Congregation Beth Sholom there. “We want to be in a Shabbos community,” he said. “We don’t have that now, and we are really excited to have it.”

He’ll be moving from a school that had been Conservative but then shed that affiliation to a school that proudly calls itself part of the movement. That’s not at all a problem, he said. “I’m not a label person. I don’t think it’s important. I think that Schechter is a school that embraces and understands the importance of diversity in the Jewish community, that this is a place where Jewish families can come together and learn all aspects of Judaism, studying Tanach and rabbinics and chaggim and tefillot, connecting with God, and how mitzvot can connect us to God and the Jewish people, and a place that provides a deep and meaningful Jewish and dynamic general studies education.”

The Hillel school shares those characteristics, he said.

But in moving from one school to another, he’ll be able to look at the new school in a new way, influenced by the knowledge he’s gained at Hillel but widened and clarified by the lack of familiarity that a new place — new light, new shapes, new corners, new gardens, new students, new colleagues — necessarily provides.

Ms. Gafni has been at Schechter for 16 years, and she taught public school in Ridgewood for about that long before she got to Schechter. She’s brought much innovation to Schechter; she’s instituted the International Baccalaureate program in the middle school, where students are encouraged to think and work in interdisciplinary ways, to learn that there aren’t hard edges or discrete boundaries that wall disciplines off one from the other. She’s won awards and fellowships; she’s brought an understanding of Jewish life as both vibrant and at home in the larger world to the school, an effort that culminated last summer in a trip to bring books, fellowship, and love to a school in South Africa.

Now she’s transitioning out of the school she has loved and shaped with great hope for its future as well as for her own.

“There is a great alignment between Steve’s vision in his school in Detroit and ours here at Schechter, in terms of programming, values, culture, and a common shared language that will allow for a seamless transition,” she said. She’s looking forward to a “professional partnership, where we can learn from one another, and that could serve us for years to come.

“I’m looking forward to learning from him and learning with him.”

Although she is sure that the school needs the freshness of vison that Mr. Freedman will bring it, and that she needs the freshness of vision that Ramaz will bring her, Ms. Gafni’s connection to Schechter is strong.

“I love this school,” she said. “It has been my home. It really means the world to me. It is my third child, and I am sending that child off to college now.

“I feel so blessed, coming in here every single day, every single morning. I love my students. I love my families. I really feel privileged to have been part of it.

“This forever will be part of who I am, and who I have become.”

One of the great values of seeing a school through new eyes, Mr. Freedman said, is the ability to see not only what should be changed or could be improved but also to see what works wonderfully. It’s the ability to see the marvels right in front of you.

“Human beings have a tendency to focus on what’s half empty,” he said. “Sometimes we lose sight of our blessings.”

That’s not likely to happen as Steve Freedman takes over from Ruth Gafni next September. Instead, they both will focus on what’s half full. “You want it to be joyful,” Mr. Freedman said. “You want school to be a happy, joyful learning environment.” It already is, and will continue to be, he added.

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