Tell us a bit about yourself. What did you do before you came to be the CEO of the American Hebrew Academy?
I am a corporate lawyer by professional training, born and raised in Miami, Florida. I was raised in a relatively contemporary American Jewish family, by American standards, but one that was deeply committed to Jewish community, to Jewish tradition, to Jewish identity, philanthropy and education. As a result of good fortune, our family reinsurance business was quite profitable, and enabled our family to continue its tradition of Jewish philanthropy.
Why did you decide to focus on Jewish education?
Our family has a long tradition of Jewish community and philanthropy, dedicated principally to three areas. The first being education, the second being health care, and the third being providing for facilities and needs of disadvantaged individuals with physical or mental handicaps. So we have many projects in the United States and in Israel that we have helped to develop, but our biggest project became what is now known as the American Hebrew Academy, which was opened in 2001 in the United States. Do the children who came to study in 2001 and later in the 2000s differ from the pupils you have today?
Our school is now 15 years old, and the Academy is the only international Jewish university preparatory boarding school in the world. In the first 5-6 years of the school, the vast majority of students were American, but now, in 2016, 50% of our students come from the United States, and 50% of our students come from abroad. Since the school was founded we have welcomed students from 35 different countries around the world, and that has made for an extremely unique institution, unlike any other found elsewhere in the world. We provide an incredible learning experience, not only academically, but culturally, because of the diversity of the students that we have.
Do you thing Jewish identity in families is being lost, or is it in fact being revived?
I believe that our greatest challenge in the Jewish world, outside of the orthodox community, is that there is clearly, particularly within the United States, a decline in the commitment to one’s Jewish identity.
Many people in America believe that this dilemma has reached critical proportions. Others simply believe that the Jewish community in America is redefining itself, in ways that are different than from perhaps previous generations. Personally, I think it’s a combination of both.
My family recognized that there was a decline in enrollment in Jewish schools, and this inspired the idea to create a new and different kind of Jewish school that would inspire a new generation of families and students who were seeking a new way to educate their children, to prepare them for university, to prepare them for a global society, to prepare them at the highest academic levels, all at the same time, while also instilling knowledge of Jewish history, Jewish custom, and pride in one’s Jewish identity.
How much in demand is Jewish education today?
The demand for Jewish education clearly varies in two major categories. That is: the demand within the United States, and the demand outside the United States. But generally speaking, the demand for Jewish education outside of the United States is greater than within the United States. I think that’s a reflection of greater generations of assimilation, by Jews in the United States, and also by growing fear of terrorism and anti-Semitism that is occurring outside of the United States as well.
What Jewish documents allow pupils to enroll at AHA, and must a child be Jewish according to Jewish law?
The American Hebrew Academy qualifies students for admission based on an evaluation of their academic record, personal character, and individual interests. The Academy admits students of Jewish heritage, both through the mother and father’s ancestry. After all, in this part of the world - the CIS countries, or the former Soviet Union - the formal documentation of one’s ancestry does not exist, and so it could be otherwise difficult to “prove” Jewish heritage. The Academy does not require such formality with respect to a student applying to our school. We feel quite comfortable through the application process, and through discussions with the family, that we are able to accurately determine Jewish ancestry in order to qualify for admission to our school.
It should also be known that within our school there are requirements for Jewish Studies, and for participation in Jewish holidays and the weekly Shabbat, although there are many choices to do so. One who is not of Jewish heritage would not have much interest in attending our school.
You take children from families where different kinds of Judaism are practiced, from modern Orthodox to reform, or who are not part of communities at all. They have different backgrounds and outlooks. Is it difficult to bring pupils together with perhaps similar but still quite different life values?
The academy is unique for many reasons. It is the only Jewish school in the world that accepts students from any and all backgrounds of Jewish life. So this means that within our community, we have students of many nationalities, speaking many different languages, and from all different cultural, socio-economic and Jewish backgrounds.
The school has a philosophy of welcoming these students of all backgrounds, with the absolute intent of sharing with one another the diversity of people that exist within the Jewish populations of the world. So some students will come to the school with a very religious background, while others are totally secular. For that reason, the academy creates numerous options for students to participate in the Jewish life of the school by offering programs that can best be described along the spectrum of Jewish life, from the most traditional Orthodox customs and practices to those that are viewed as quite liberal.
The Academy also believes that while there is tremendous diversity amongst all Jews, we have managed to survive for over 3000 years, because no matter what one’s customs or practices, or where they may be from or the language they may speak, all Jews share the Torah in common. So no matter where one may find themselves in the world, whether it’s in a liberal synagogue in the United States, or a traditional synagogue in Russia, the Torah that will be read will be the same. And that is what unites all Jews with a common ground.
The task that your patron (Maurice Sabbah) set himself was to create a school for Jewish children from Greensboro and other American cities where Jewish schools are lacking, or where there are not enough of them. But in the end, AHA has grown into an international and very prestigious educational establishment, where teenagers from all over the world study. At what stage did you realize that you were prepared to accept children from abroad? How has the school changed since “foreigners” appeared?
We always wanted to be an international school. It was clear even in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the world, possibly because of the advances of technology, was becoming quite small, and that students of the 21st century not only needed to be trained at the highest level in academia and technology, but they also needed to be trained in understanding the global connections in which they would soon find themselves as adults.
Of course, this school is rooted with my family in our home community of Greensboro, North Carolina, but in 15 years, the school has in fact grown internationally, and to a great extent because of the technology that has allowed us to make communities around the world aware of our school.
When the first international inquiries to the school came from Mexico in 2002, only one year after the school was opened, we knew that the opportunity to grow the school internationally would soon be upon us. So we began traveling to Jewish communities around the world, networking with Jewish community leaders to raise awareness about our school and to promote the opportunities that existed at our school for children from their communities.
Both internationally and in the United States, today we essentially have two categories of students who attend our school. First, there are those who have no opportunities for a Jewish education in their local communities. The second type of students we have are students from large communities in the United States, who perhaps have options locally to attend a Jewish day school, but who are seeking a more rigorous experience, and a greater experience to prepare for university by attending a boarding school such as ours.
Finally, there are growing numbers of international students who seek to come to the Academy because it is the only option in the world today which allows students to prepare for university, either in the US or in their native country, to immerse themselves in the English language and American culture, to gain high levels of proficiency in the English language, and also offers to the opportunity to have a Jewish experience. No other boarding school in the world is able to provide a Jewish experience, a Jewish environment for students, in addition to the academic attributes that all of the elite boarding schools have in common.
How many students have you had from countries of the former Soviet Union? What are they like?
We have had Russian-speaking students from Belarus, from Moldova, from Ukraine, and from Russia. Overwhelmingly, I will tell you that our experience has been that students coming from Russia and the CIS countries show exceptional academic talent, particularly when compared to American students of the same age. Russian-speaking students from this part of the world excel in mathematics and science, as well as literature.
Whether students come with a high level of English, like many of our Russian students, or a lower level, like some who have come from Moldova, we have a specialized program for international students to help boost their English reading, writing, and speaking skills. The English program for non-native speakers is designed to meet the needs of each student who comes to us.
How do you help children who have come from a long distance to settle down and feel comfortable? Do you maintain contact with their parents? Can the parents come and stay at the school, for example?
The highest priority of any parent considering sending children to our school, whether they are American, whether they’re Russian or South American, is always going to be the safety and security of their child.
The Academy campus boasts state-of-the-art facilities; it is a first class institution built at a cost of $150 million. Nothing has been spared in terms of quality of facilities at this school, including the security apparatus, which includes 24 hour-a-day, 7 day a week security systems, which were in fact designed by Israeli security experts, who are among the best in the world.
Secondly, we provide full support from our academy faculty, as well as staff who are constantly working with the students, supervising the students, mentoring the students, nurturing the students. When a student comes to our school, they calling the American Hebrew Academy a second home away from home. And for that reason, we become the surrogate parents for students. We’re there when they’re not feeling well. We’re there to celebrate their success, be it in sports, or in the theater, or in academics. We’re there when they may have emotional difficulties. So we provide students who are attend our school with everything that a mother or father would be providing to a child living in their home.
Of course, connection with the family is important, most of our students speak to their parents almost daily on Skype or Viber or on Facetime. So that in fact makes it easier for parents to distance themselves geographically from their children. And so many students will say that they actually are communicating more with their parents now, because they’re living away from home, as opposed to when they were living under the same roof with their parents day-to-day.
I know that there are many students of universities and colleges among your graduates. Which ones do they most often go to? Tell us about your most outstanding pupils.
The American Hebrew Academy is defined to a great extent by the universities which its students ultimately attend. I think it’s a common understanding around the world that high school preparatory programs are defined by the quality and the prestige of the universities in which their students ultimately attend.
Among the most widely known in the world are Harvard, Princeton, John Hopkins, UCLA, NYU, Columbia, the Yeshiva University in New York City, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Stanford - all of these schools are known worldwide for their reputation of excellence. And I’m happy to say that our students attend these schools on quite a regular basis. Students are also attending the major government or state universities across the United States, as well as some very prestigious small private universities as well. Perhaps these are not as well known outside of the United States, but within the US they carry considerable prestige as well.
Among our students from Russia and the CIS countries, these students have performed exceptionally well, not only by gaining admission to well-known US universities, but also earning significant scholarships, because of their talents, to attend university in the US, in some instances reducing the cost of their university education by 75% or even more. Most of our students coming from outside the US are planning to attend university in the United States, which is one of the major attractions for them coming to us in order to prepare. Not only do we prepare students academically, we prepare students for the admissions process in the US, which many international families will tell you they find difficult to understand and even intimidating. Those fears are eliminated, because of the services we can provide, including not only applying for admission to an academic program at a major institution, but also seeking scholarships as well.
Now, as the Academy comes upon its 15th anniversary, our school is quite young, quite frankly, by academic standards, but we have students who have not only completed their first degree in undergraduate studies, but students who have now completed their advanced degrees, be it PhD, doctorate, law school degrees or medical degrees as doctors. And so we keep statistics and records on the performance of our students beyond university, and types of career fields they are choosing, so it’s not unusual to find academy graduates now in most major fields, be it law, medicine, or finance, business, many of the sciences and technology fields as well. Some of our students have gone on to pursue careers in Jewish community, in non-profit or working for NGOs. Of course, these students are not quite old enough to have claimed their first fortune as entrepreneurs or business people, so we’re still waiting for that day, but hopefully it won’t be too far along. We also have students who have decided to pursue Jewish studies, to pursue education, and even to become rabbis. Students who have graduated from the Academy truly represent a pretty expansive spectrum of career choices.