By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Rabbi Jonathan (“Yoni”) Berger has been named new Head of School at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford. He succeeds Andrea Kaspar, who is relocating to Europe with her family. Rabbi Berger will start at Schechter on July 1.
Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Berger, 45, grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, where his father, Kenneth Berger, was rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom and his mother, Cheryl Berger, was a Jewish day school teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.
“She was actually my teacher in fifth and sixth grade. So, I grew up in a home where there’s a lot of love of Judaism and love of learning, and good Jewish joy,” says Berger, who went on to attend the Frisch Yeshiva High School and then the University of Michigan, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He then received an MA in Bible and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
After spending 11 years as school rabbi at Hillel Day School of Metro Detroit, he went on to serve for four years as associate head of school for Judaic studies and programming at Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland, Ohio.
His wife Laura, who received an MSW from Columbia University and an MA in Jewish studies from JTS, is currently enjoying a second career as an ICU nurse. They are the parents of four children, tenth grader Talya; eighth grader Adina; and two twin boys, Rami and Benny, both first graders who will attend Solomon Schechter.
Rabbi Berger recently spoke with the Jewish Ledger about his love for Jewish education and his excitement about taking over the reins at Schechter.
JEWISH LEDGER: You were a counselor at Camp Ramah. How did that influence your interest in Jewish education?
RABBI BERGER: I loved it. I was happy enough as a camper, I went back for a number of summers, but I didn’t love camp the way some people do as a camper. It wasn’t until I was on staff and helping to create amazing experiences for kids and help them grow up that I really fell in love with camp.
But I also say that I spent some years a little unsure about what career path I should pursue. It was my sister Rachel actually who sat me down and said, ‘If you look at what you love to do, that’s what you love about camping – sharing Jewish life and education.’ She helped me realize that it actually meant something and that was a good sign.
How being a congregation rabbi lead you to the field of Jewish day school education?
My first job was at a high school in New York while my wife finished grad school. I then actually spent three years in a congregation in the Baltimore area, Beth Israel in Owings Mills. … [There I learned] to think about my work in terms of building community and helping people find their home. Since then, I’ve mainly been in the education world, although I did have a part-time pulpit in the Detroit area. But that piece of the work in the congregation of building community, helping people feel connected and making the congregation a home, those are the lessons that I’ve taken with me ever since. That definitely did shape me.
When the time came to look around, the best fit for me was at Hillel Day School in Detroit. I was there for 11 years. I was school rabbi, which included some teaching but also community building, programming and a lot of thinking about the school’s mission and values.
I had the fortune to work for a visionary school leader named Steve Freedman, who was head of school in Detroit. He took the school on a journey both towards religious
pluralism, and progressive education that had a major impact on how I view the importance and the path for Jewish day schools, and the importance of trying to make sure that we educate all kids in inspiring ways, full of creativity that will help them forge their own path in the future.
When – and why –did you switch your focus to becoming a head of school?
It was in Detroit that I began to think about being a head of school. I loved my job as a school rabbi — I did it for 11 years — but I wanted to be able to have the bigger impact that you can have as a head of school. So, it was there that I enrolled in the JTS Day School Leadership Training Institute. [Former SSDS Head of School] Andrea Kaspar also was a part of that but in a different cohort. It’s an amazing place for people to grow into the role of school leader.
How would you define your accomplishments at Gross Schechter?
At the heart of good schools are good teachers and I did a lot of work these last four years helping teachers to grow as professionals and to see themselves as being on a journey of constant improvement. It can be easy as a teacher to find your comfort zone and stay there, and I was able to really build a relationship with teachers and to help them grow. I’m very proud of that.
I also helped to strengthen, and in some ways, transform, our Jewish Studies curricula to become more student-centered, also making sure that, first of all, messages were connected to their lives; that their voices were crucial to the learning process; and that real joyous learning involved creativity, both on the part of the teacher, but even more on the part of the students. I also helped the school move on its path towards full accreditation. And I chaired our Covid reopening work which involved a lot of big picture thinking, but also details. We were able to reopen, as planned, in late August and, with only minor disruptions we’ve been open all year.
What brought you to Hartford?
I was ready for a new challenge and the more I learned about the Schechter of Greater Hartford and about the Hartford community in general the more excited my wife and I became. On the community level, the Greater Hartford community seems to combine many of the institutions and agencies, etc. of a large Jewish community, with a strong Federation and a JCC, and several congregations and a kosher supermarket which I’ve heard much about, but with a sense that everyone matters and that everyone’s contribution matters. That’s a really powerful thing to have in a community. When a community gets very big, people start to feel like their own piece isn’t as important. But I’ve gotten a sense from people in the Hartford community that they know that the community is as strong as it is because of what they’ve given to it. And that’s really exciting.
What is your first impression of Schechter?
First of all, though my network of leaders, I had heard Andrea’s name and read a few pieces by her and was already impressed with what I had heard and what I had read. When I began talking to the search committee, I was really impressed by their commitment to high-quality Jewish education, their desire to build on her work, their dedication to their school, and their sense of how important it was.
In addition, the professional team that’s on staff at Schechter was really impressive to me from our first conversations. The chance to work with a strong team is really appealing.
Main Photo: Rabbi Jonathan Berger