May 24, 2024
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Steve Freedman to Lead Solomon Schechter

Steve Freedman is not into labels. At Hillel Day School in metropolitan Detroit, where he has served as head of school for the last 16 years, he has developed his own perspective of a unified Jewish community, and supported it by welcoming students from a wide variety of backgrounds into a vibrant, modern Jewish school community.

As he prepares to take the helm as head of school at New Milford’s Solomon Schechter of Bergen County in July, he also brings with him a unique set of student-centric educational approaches, including having supported a policy at Hillel Day School of no homework in kindergarten through fourth grades. These are policies that are steeped in research and based on the idea that work at home doesn’t help a student at young ages; rather, clicking with a parent or a special person, working on a shopping list, playing, negotiating, compromising and problem-solving does. “Imagination and making up rules help a child define boundaries, resolve conflicts. People undervalue play as a critical skill for children,” he explained. Freedman also seeks to reduce stress and anxiety on children in these younger age groups, which he believes are at the highest levels they’ve ever been. He emphasizes strong social/emotional skills as an important part of the academic environment.

At younger ages, Freedman, said, structured activities like homework can rob children of that balance they need to learn all those other skills. “As they approach the middle grades and high school, there is value to homework, but even then, for a high schooler to be doing more than two hours of homework a night, the research shows that it starts to have negative impact,” he said.

“Steve’s vision and successful implementation of a progressive dual curriculum education at Hillel Day School – and his national reputation in both the Jewish Day School and independent school worlds – make him a perfect fit to lead Schechter Bergen forward,” said Adi Rabinowitz, Schechter’s board president.

Schechter welcomed 425 students this year, ranging in age from 3 to 14, in a nursery through eighth grade co-educational environment, teaching a dual curriculum Hebrew and general studies. Schechter is the only Jewish day school in Bergen County to have earned the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS) accreditation and it is also accredited by the Middle States Association. This year it was authorized as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, the only Jewish day school in the northeast to have achieved that title, and only one of three Jewish day schools nationwide. Students who matriculate from Schechter attend high school at a variety of private and public schools, including Frisch, Ma’ayanot, SAR, Ramaz, Heschel, the IDEA School, the Golda Och Academy, the Bergen Academies, Horace Mann and suburban public high schools.

“Schechter works to develop confident, intellectually inquisitive and compassionate young adults who can go on to contribute to the Jewish and world communities. Steve’s commitment to and experience in delivering such an education will enhance the seamless trajectory of the exceptional programming at SSDS,” Rabinowitz said.

‘We Share Israel in Common’

At Hillel, Freedman explained, one of its most exciting attributes was that students came from varied backgrounds. “It doesn’t matter whether you belong to B’nai Israel, which is the conservative shul; Young Israel, the Modern Orthodox shul; or Temple Israel, which is Reform,” he explained. “We all share Israel in common. That’s our commonality. So come and let’s learn and let’s live together and let’s respect each other and not be so judgmental. We’re in this together.”

“I see a school like Schechter as the ideal home for Jews who want to come together, who want to be unified, who want to bring that message out to the larger Jewish community and the world,” he said.

Freedman has led sessions on leadership and change at PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, now Prizmah), RAVSAK (the Jewish Community Day School Network) and other organizations, and serves as a mentor for new heads of school. He serves on the ISACS (Independent School Association of Central States) Accreditation Review Committee and serves as team leader for ISACS visiting teams for schools in the accreditation or reaccreditation process. He also serves on the Board of JI Interactive and AIMS (Association of Independent Michigan Schools).

Freedman replaces outgoing head of school Ruth Gafni, who has served at Schechter for the past 16 years as well. Both outgoing and incoming heads of school are said to be moving on to be closer to family members. Freedman, with his wife, Joan, have two children who live in the metropolitan area and two others who live nearer to the East Coast than Michigan. “Our careers were launched in New York and eventually we left with two babies to go back home to Philadelphia to be with family. After 13 years in Philadelphia, our family, which grew to four children, was ready for what would be an experience of a lifetime, living in Michigan and being a part of the Hillel community. Now, we will return to New York, to once again be near family,” he wrote in a letter to the Hillel community.

Freedman explained that his vision of achdut (unity) is influenced by the teachings of Avrohom Infeld, who discusses the concept of Jewish peoplehood as five shared elements: a memory (not history), the brit (Sinai/giving of the Torah), family (“we families fight, but we stick together,” Freedman said), a common language (Hebrew) and a common land (Israel). “We shouldn’t be looking for uniformity, we should be looking for unity, and an element of respect, that we as Jews may look at our relationship with God differently, but we hold so much more in common,” he said. “We have to figure out how to be unified if not uniform.”

“If you ask about the unique aspect of Schechter, I would say to you that this is a school that welcomes all Jews as part of the family in an environment where we will work, in a very authentic and engaging way, to prepare our children for this world that they are going to inherit, but also the tools, the skills and most importantly the love [required] to live a meaningful and purposeful Jewish life,” Freedman said.

Addressing Critics of Israel

In recent months and years, as a global rise in anti-Semitism has been witnessed, particularly on college campuses, so too has a rise in organizations run by Jews that are, in essence, “anti-occupation.” How does Freedman answer to such individuals, particularly from groups like IfNotNow, a group he had to expel from his campus at Hillel Day School last Yom Ha’atzmaut when they came to protest an Israeli band that had come to play for the elementary school?

“As a family, the first thing we have to understand is love. Family loves each other, in all its imperfection. Israel is part of that family. The first thing we have to teach our children is why they should love Israel. Why is Israel so essential to who we are? Why has it always been essential to who we are? From the moment that land became ours to the centuries when it wasn’t ours, and we always yearn to go back. There’s never been a break in that connection and love for Israel… Everyone suffers because of the conflict,” he said.

“IfNotNow, show me anywhere where it acknowledges the right of the state of Israel to exist. I understand that some of these students who went to days schools or synagogues maybe feel like they didn’t get the full picture, but being angry doesn’t give you the full picture. Deciding, hook, line and sinker, that everything was a lie actually has them acting the same way that they accuse their Jewish teachers of, which is they’re not thinking critically.”

“We have to do a better job of educating our children, that I agree with,” Freedman said.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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