By Cindy Mindell
STAMFORD – After a year-long search, the Jewish High School of Connecticut (JHSC) has appointed Rabbi Elisha Paul as its new head.
Opened in 2010, JHSC was originally housed at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, before moving to the JCC of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge in 2012. Last summer, the pluralistic day school relocated to the Stamford Technology Center.
Paul is currently head of school at Sulam, a K-12 Jewish school for diverse learners located on the campus of the Berman Academy in Rockville, Md.
A Baltimore native, he holds a Master’s degree in Education Administration from Seattle Pacific University and a doctoral certificate in Jewish Educational Leadership from Boston Hebrew College. He was ordained by Rabbi Yechiel Perr of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, N.Y.
Paul has more than 20 years of experience as a Jewish educator and administrator, having served as assistant principal at the Northwest Yeshiva High School in Mercer Island, Wash., associate head of school at the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach, Fla., and head of school at the Yeshiva Atlanta High School (now Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School). Paul and his wife, Alissa, have four children.
Paul starts his new job on July 1. Recently, he spoke with the Ledger about his background and his plans for JHSC.
Q: Where did you grow up and in what kind of Jewish home / community?
A: I grew up the youngest of five children in Baltimore in a traditional and diverse Jewish home and community. My mother was a religious Zionist from a Chasidic home in Poland, who left for England and then America right before the Blitzkrieg. My father was a secular Jewish artist from Baltimore.
My mother felt her children should have a Jewish day school education, especially after the Holocaust, so we all attended local Jewish day schools and high schools even though tuition was an added cost to the family budget. My parents wanted us to be informed Jewishly so that we could make our decisions accordingly. As a teen, I was very involved in many Jewish youth groups such as Bnei Akiva and NCSY.
Q: How did you become interested in pursuing professional life in the rabbinate and in Jewish education?
A: When I was a teenager, I inherited some of my grandfather’s Judaic library after he died, and it motivated me to access this part of his legacy. I felt I should become more Jewishly literate in case I met him someday and he asked, “What did you do with my books?”
I continued my Jewish studies in high school and post-high school and in Israel, and I fell in love with Jewish books, and felt that if I could do it — and I had very minimal skills textually when I started off — I could help anyone do it.
When I became a rabbi, I considered the synagogue-vs.-school career options. I ultimately chose to teach rather than to preach because I believe that positively influencing Jewish teens in a day school setting is the key to the future success of the Jewish people. The cement’s not dry with kids. Young people have unlimited possibilities and that’s what I find so rewarding about this career.
I think that the saddest part of not exposing people to Jewish wisdom is that they don’t get exposed to the rich treasures and resources that Judaism has to inform our life decisions, to succeed in life, to think deeply and analytically, to have a moral compass and a lens through which to see the world.
Q: Why are you taking the position at JHSC?
A: JHSC is a very high-quality Jewish community high school that’s in growth mode and has proven it can get students where they want to go after high school, prepared to succeed when they get there. It has all the benchmarks of quality that anyone in my stage of career would want to see in a school. And yet, there’s a certain feeling of venture, new frontiers that we’re trying to push the envelope on in Jewish education. I believe in order to thrive, the field of Jewish education must better prepare our students for a world where innovation and STEM literacy are vital to being successful in a rapidly growing, technology-based global economy. JHSC is not only a solid Jewish and general education quality school, it’s also at the forefront of this shifting educational paradigm. I believe that Jewish high school is no longer optional and that STEM literacy is no longer optional. These are critical for kids growing up to succeed in the future. I’ve seen it with my own children: one son is in a cyber security unit in the Israeli army and my other son is a computer science major at Yeshiva University. It’s catching the front of the wave. In Jewish education, we desperately need more robust STEM literacy in addition to Jewish and general-education literacy. I was attracted to JHSC’s unique blend of a warm, nurturing Jewish atmosphere with a high level academic program housed in a cutting-edge scientific research lab environment.
Q: What do you hope to bring to the school during your tenure?
A: I would love to expand the foreign language requirements from Hebrew or Latin-based languages to programming as well.
Dr. Paul Castle, the academic guru at JHSC, brings a wealth of practical knowledge from the business sector; he was head of the IT department at British Airways for 20 years. So, everything we do has a practical application. In engineering, the kids have to do a project and demonstrate that something works. We have the resources of the physical plant, like a research lab, that gives us the ability to do those types of things. I’d love to see expanding the ability for students to innovate and show their ingenuity.
Jewish communal surveys like the Pew study indicate that Jewish high school can no longer be optional if we want Jewish teens to stay connected to their Judaism long term. The home is necessary but not sufficient to develop lifelong Jewish identity and commitment to the Jewish community and day school is just one component. Jewish day school, a significant Israel experience, Jewish camps, and Jewish youth groups are the four legs of the Jewish educational table. There’s research that bears it out but it’s also common sense: the education and literacy you have as a Jewish person during your formative years, when you’re forming your identity, will help determine who you’re going to be and what you’re going to do as an adult.
Working in concert with the Board of Trustees, the goal of JHSC is to become the school of choice for Jewish teens in the region. I hope that it also becomes a magnet school for STEM innovation and education in the community and the region.
Q: How will you incorporate your work at Sulam into your approach at JHSC?
A: My current job is running a school for kids who wouldn’t be able to be in a day school environment if we didn’t provide more support for them. I hope my experience of working with students with diverse learning skills will help JHSC expand the core of who we serve to focus on both gifted and talented as well as students with learning issues. Some of the most talented students have learning challenges.
Our goal is to create an atmosphere that respects and builds on student’s diverse approaches to learning. At JHSC we can accommodate all types of learning, especially now that we have a partnership with the Collaborative Center for Learning and Development across the street from our campus. It’s a resource support organization that can help our faculty and students.
Overall, I have an affinity for helping young people identify and develop their strengths and growth potential to the greatest extent possible. Every kid needs a different doorway to access his or her abilities and it’s our job to be a spiritual pharmacist. I also think that the growth of a Jewish community is impacted by the existence of a quality local Jewish high school.
I hope to bring to the school my enthusiasm for growth and learning. I don’t want to have just a left-brain or right-brain school, but a whole-brain school. I look forward to helping our students develop and strengthen their individual Jewish identities so that in the future, as adults, they will choose to remain active members and leaders in the Jewish community.
Q: You have written about and taught mussar, the millennium-old Jewish ethical and character-building discipline. How do you bring mussar into your work?
A: There are many ways to measure aptitude. There is IQ (Intelligence Quotient), there is EQ (Emotional Quotient), and there is even PQ (Positive Quotient), but I believe the biggest measure of a healthy Jewish community is MQ (Mensch Quotient). I am continually impressed by the high level of mensch quotient displayed by the JHSC stakeholders.
Studying mussar ethics is critical to developing as a mensch. Judaism has a tremendous amount of wisdom to impart about how to live a successful life and mussar is the common thread that unites all sectors and streams of Judaism, from Mordechai Kaplan to Aryeh Kaplan and everyone in between. I believe teaching and living guided by mussar, or Jewish ethics, is important because young people learn more from what we do than what we say. Practicing “refined character Judaism” allows us to be role models for our children to aspire to emulate. I hope the ideal graduates from JHSC are known not only for their high IQ but also are known for their high MQ.