By Cindy Mindell
BLOOMFIELD – There are five words Rabbi Eliot B. Feldman does not use: “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” “good,” and “bad.”
“These are labels that create silos and I’m not into silos; I’m into community,” says the new head of school and director of Judaic studies at the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy.
A veteran of Jewish education, Feldman earned a Master’s in educational administration from Teachers College at Columbia University, a Master of Science in education from the Azrieli School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University (YU), a principal certification from York University in Toronto, rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, and a BA in psychology from YU. He has also participated in principals’ seminars at Princeton University and Bar Ilan University in Israel and served on the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto Administrators and Principals Conference, and is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. Feldman is author of several publications in the field of Jewish education.
This new position is a homecoming of sorts for Feldman, a Hartford native who graduated from the Yeshiva of Hartford on Cornwall Street, the predecessor of today’s Hebrew Academy.
“Since I was a teen, I fell in love with Jewish education and outreach, and that’s what I’ve done throughout my professional career,” he says.
In addition to founding synagogues “for not-yet-committed Jews” in Syracuse, N.Y. and Toronto, Feldman developed a consultancy to teach technology to day school educators and was vice principal of general studies at the Toronto Heschel School. Most recently, he served as principal of Hamilton Hebrew Academy in Ontario, Canada.
The vision for Hebrew Academy, he says, is to create a center for Jewish education in the community.
Without the traditional Jewish labels so automatically relied on, how does Feldman describe Hebrew Academy’s Jewish character?
“We teach Torah and teach it classically, and we model classic Jewish behavior – boys wear kippot and tzitzit; girls and boys each have different role models because there is gender division,” he says. “If people want to look at the seating chart for tefilah, boys and girls are segregated; if they want to look at the curriculum, it’s the same for boys and girls; if they want to look at the dress code, girls wear skirts below the knee. We have a kosher food policy and provide Cholov Yisrael to those who request it. Instead of labels, we use taglines: ‘Where all our students are stars,’ and ‘We do excellence excellently’ or ‘We do excellence Jewishly.’”
Since the 2008-09 economic decline, Jewish day schools across the U.S. have struggled to keep enrollment steady. Feldman sees other reasons for the challenge. “Some schools are top-heavy and not efficient, and were so before the economic downturn,” he says.
But the trend also reflects a historical moment in the American Jewish community. “There are more day schools today than there used to be because there was a dramatic shift in the second half of the twentieth century,” Feldman says. “In the mid-20th century, Jewish day schools were looked on by many in the Jewish community as anti-American, and many rabbis preached from their pulpits that these schools were parochial and un-American because you were separating your kids from the rest of the world. A small, very committed group of people said that day school education was important, and built schools and sacrificed dollars to enroll their kids. Two generations later, those who railed against day school education said, ‘Oh no, our community is assimilated,’ and they’re the ones now sending their children and grandchildren to day schools, and building more facilities to provide this kind of education.”
Feldman recalls a eulogy delivered at his mother’s funeral that illustrated this modern American-Jewish story.
“My mother came from a very traditional Jewish home and my father came from a very secular home, and my mother’s one condition for marrying my father was that all their kids had to go to day school,” he says. “My aunts would give my mother grief: ‘Why are you spending money on day school? You could buy a condo in Florida with all that money,’ but she stuck to her guns and all five of her children went to day school. My father got up at my mother’s funeral and said that he’s proud to say that all five children married Jews and are sending all the grandchildren to day school.”
This year, Hebrew Academy will introduce a project-based learning program for its middle school students, focusing on the environment, involved civics, social justice, and science. Together with Rabbi Elliot Goldberg, head of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford – “El(l)iot Squared” – the two schools will create collaborative programming, beginning with a science fair.
“We are not competitors; we are companions,” Feldman says. “We are both involved in making sure that there are places for Jewish education in the community.”
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