Feature Stories

Stamford bids farewell to top Jewish educator

Dr. Ilana De Laney (second from left) with Kulanu students (l to r) Emily Riordan and Mollie Steinmetz, both of Stamford, and Joan Fanwick of Wilton, at Kulanu’s recent graduation ceremony.

Edith Samers knew in 1973 that the Stamford Jewish community needed an education director. That was the year United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien (UJF) was launched, and Samers was part of the founding board. She was also a member of a committee tasked with evaluating the educational needs of Jewish Stamford.
That was also the year when a greater need presented itself some 6,000 miles away. The Yom Kippur War consumed the Jewish world’s attention and became a funding and action priority for Jewish federations throughout North America. Plans for UJF’s education division were shelved, though a community committee continued to meet regularly to plan educational programming.
For the next 25 years, UJF made do with a part-time staff-member who wore many hats and managed a few communal educational programs for teens and adults. In 1999, Samers was serving as UJF executive vice president. She and UJF president Ron Gross agreed to revisit the organization’s educational mission, and formed the Community Commission for Jewish Education (CCJE). Representatives from throughout Jewish Stamford once again united behind the idea of hiring a fulltime education coordinator.
“We felt that there was a real need for strengthening Jewish education in general if we were going to have a future,” says Samers. “Everyone was talking about Jewish continuity, and that had to start and end with Jewish education.”
The following year, a surge of Palestinian violence against Israel began with the Second Intifada, leading to a worldwide Jewish response. This time, UJF was able both to help Israel and advance its educational vision, and the CCJE launched a search process.
Committee member Mort Lowenthal had brought Me’ah to Stamford, a two-year adult Jewish learning program of Hebrew College in Boston. When he asked the college to recommend candidates for the job, Ilana De Laney’s name came up. Lowenthal flew to West Palm Beach to meet with De Laney, who was then assistant executive director and director of adult education at the Commission for Jewish Education. By the time Edith Samers and the CCJE interviewed the candidate, “it wasn’t even a question that Ilana was the person for us,” she says.
De Laney is an accidental Jewish educator. A native of Afula, Israel, she stayed behind with an aunt in Tel Aviv when her parents decided to leave Israel for France. After completing her Israeli military service, she earned a B.A. from Tel Aviv University and taught high school-level world history. She married and had a son.
In 1987, De Laney’s parents decided to relocate to the U.S. She joined them, settling in Los Angeles. De Laney studied early childhood education at UCLA and graduated from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles with a double M.A. in Jewish education and Jewish studies.
“After I came to the States, I always wondered, ‘Why am I here?’” De Laney says. “I studied at the University of Judaism, and I would never have thought about Jewish studies in Israel. But to be a Jew is not taken for granted in America as it is in Israel, and I realized that I really wanted to understand Judaism from a deep place. I really wanted to understand it from the Talmud: why kashrut? why Shabbat? After that, I knew I wanted to be a Jewish educator.”
De Laney worked in West Palm Beach for five years before arriving in Stamford in 2002. The first task she was charged with was Jewish education for teens. “The CCJE also wanted to do something very courageous for such a small community: to bring Jewish education to everyone – teens, adults, children with special needs – but under an umbrella. Everyone offers Jewish education – the JCC, Hebrew schools, Sunday schools – but an umbrella unites everyone and saves resources and is a team effort,” she says.
Within six months, De Laney and lay leader Rhonna Rogol had pulled together the two existing teen-education programs, Merkaz and Etgar, into the aptly-named Kulanu, Hebrew for “all of us.” De Laney would go on to strengthen that collective endeavor by bringing to UJF the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, and creating the Institute for Advanced Jewish Learning, and creating Tapestry: A Community Celebration of Jewish Learning, scholar-in-residence programs, and the Teachers Learning Center.
De Laney, says current Kulanu director Patty Goldstick, “is an amazing teacher and an educational visionary. She put countless hours into building Kulanu  and she did it with love and joy. We know that her lessons will stay with us forever.”
De Laney earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida in 2006, the same year CCJE became the Bureau of Jewish Education, and De Laney was named its first executive director.
And she taught – teens, adults, and fellow teachers. “I learned so much about leadership from the lay and professional leaders who were my friends and my mentors and guides,” she says. “But I got the most from my students. When I teach, I get close to people. When I taught, I got closer to all my lay leaders, and from all my students I learned a lot: how every person is unique and special, and how, when you teach with love, they bring back love. So my students are the love of my life.”
Just as she did nearly 25 years ago, De Laney is relocating, back to California, in order to be closer to family, quoting Hillel as her inspiration: “If not now, when?” To replace her, UJF has hired Elise Cohen Passy, a longtime Jewish professional in Houston, Tex., currently working as a consultant for Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
“Ilana is dedicated, passionate, open to ideas, and willing to listen,” Samers says. “But she also implemented her own wonderful creative ideas. She made Jewish education in Stamford what Ron Gross and I dreamed about. We could not have had anybody better.”
Ilana De Laney will be honored by the community on Sunday, June 5 at the Stamford JCC. The event features guest speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. For more information: sandy@ujf.org / (203) 321-1373, ext. 107.

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