A Message from Dr. Starr

From fifty years of age they shall withdraw from working
and they shall no longer work. 
— Bamidbar 8:25

By Deborah R. Starr, Ed.D., Head of School
[email protected]

After more than 10 years, and almost 100 articles, I write my final Commentator column as Head of School of Temple Beth Am Day School. It is almost surreal that I write this last column during the COVID-19 pandemic, not knowing if we will ever return to physical school this year. Who would have thought that my closing educational years would be learning, at the 12th hour, how to oversee a Virtual School? What a strange way to close out an educational career of over 40 years.

As I sat down to write this column, I thought about the direction I wanted to take. Should it be about Virtual School? Should it be about living through this pandemic as a school, Floridian, American or Global Citizen? Should it be a recap of my years at Temple Beth Am Day School? After much thought, I decided to make this a personal reflection of my journey as an educator. After all, I am retiring. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. As early as five years old, I knew it was my dharma. I would “play school” with my friends in our respective backyards and basements. I was always the teacher. I am sure this is because so many of my teachers had profound impacts on my life.

Mrs. Aronson in first grade used to send me, monthly, with little gold envelopes, to each Jewish teacher in P.S. 115Q to contribute to the Jewish Teachers’ Community Chest. Mrs. Meyer, in second grade, did all kinds of creative, tactile learning (back in 1958!). In the fifth grade, Mrs. Kleinman (who always wore black), took us to Greenwich Village to the Annual Art Show. Mr. Slavin, in sixth grade, made us thirst for all kinds of knowledge and leadership opportunities. In Junior High School, Mr. Ginter made me love social studies, Mr. McDermott was a friend to all, and Miss McNamara made English incredible. Who loves diagraming sentences? She also was our homeroom teacher, and we called ourselves Mac’s Pac. More than 20 years later, I invited her, now Mrs. Gomez, to my daughters’ B’not Mitzvah. High School had Mrs. Reichman and Mr. Wilson, who both helped me navigate some difficult situations during the agitated times of Civil Rights activism. I loved them all.

At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, with a group of fellow students, that included my future husband, Howard Starr, we founded the Urban In Residence Teacher Training Program. It was a program modeled on VISTA (which at the time was modeled on the Peace Corps). We did our student teaching, while living in the South Bronx (where Boston Road and Southern Boulevard crossed), and volunteering in the community. I received Bachelors’ Degrees in Elementary Education and African American History. I went on to receive Masters’ Degrees in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education, while teaching in the New York City Public Schools (Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx — never made it to Staten Island). One of my unforgettable second grade classes had nine children who did not speak a word of English. No two spoke the same foreign language — and the languages included Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian, Ibo, Farsi, Rumanian and Urdu. It was a mini-United Nations.

When Howard and I adopted our twin daughters from South Korea, I became a stay-at-home mom. Boy, did our daughters get an Early Childhood education at home! I think that was before home-schooling became more of a norm. When it came time to enroll Elianna and Selena in Kindergarten, we chose the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, and thus my professional Jewish Day School Journey began. I started as a fifth-grade general studies teacher, eventually moved on to be the General Studies Curriculum Coordinator, and finishing there as the Vice Principal of General Studies. Simultaneously, at 50 years old, I returned to graduate school, at NOVA Southeastern University, to obtain my doctorate in Educational Leadership (one is never too old to return to the classroom and learn — although I was the oldest in the class — and the only independent school educator!).

My first Head of School placement was at Heritage Academy in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. It was a 50-year-old Torah U’Mesorah school (orthodox). I was its first female Head of School, and only its second non-rabbi head. I was charged to move the school into transitioning to a RAVSAK school (pluralistic Jewish day school). After a three-year process, and the guidance of Dr. Marc Kramer, we accomplished our goal (without losing a single family — and a Chabad Yeshivah was right down the block).

Which now brings me to my beloved Temple Beth Am Day School. How to capture all that this position has meant to me? I feel as if my entire educational journey was to bring me to this place at this point in time. Everything I learned, practiced, and experienced was to hone me for this headship. I truly believe we were bashert.

I was fortunate in being able to build my own administrative team. One of my first major decisions was to advocate for a full-time Admissions Director. Cari Altman was a true find. She knows that I lost a friend who thought I would “hand her the position,” but Cari was the right person for the job. She has proved over and over again that my choice was right.

After two-strikes, thank goodness it was not three-strikes and you’re out, Mara Berger became our Early Childhood Director. She has led our Early Childhood Center with grace, vision and professionalism. Dr. Lenore Kipper, and Rabbis Rachel Greengrass and Jaime Aklepi, have navigated the Hebrew and Judaic Studies leadership to search for that ideal Director. Parents, are you encouraging your children to become Jewish Educators? The Jewish day school field drastically needs excellent professionals.

Two years ago, once again, I found myself in the position of loudly advocating for a new full-time director position: Technology and Innovation Director. Can you imagine if we had not filled that position two years ago? Where would we be with Temple Beth Am Virtual Day School? Jen Carey has been the consummate professional: knowledgeable, visionary, on-target and “gets it done.”

Which brings me to Susy Novak, Elementary School Director. Susy is a workaholic, but even more importantly, knows the classroom and curriculum and supports and guides her teachers. Did I mention she is incredibly dedicated to this school? When I arrived, Mrs. Novak took me under her wing, and in doing so gave me the ability to fly. None of the good work that has transpired here, over the last 10 years could have happened without my Administrative Team.

All excellent schools need supportive school boards. How fortunate I have been to have school boards that recognize they design policy, and the Head of School is in charge of the daily running of the school. The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) used to say: the most important job in any Jewish Day School is that of the school board chair and the Head of School. I have enjoyed those partnerships.

Thank you to Lauren Amron, Mindy Leathe, Melissa Buckner, Allison Hift, Rachel Bailine and Elizabeth Biondo. We have had an incredible ride.

There is no lack of parent involvement at Temple Beth Am Day School. Our PATIO is vibrant and is constantly volunteering for the myriad committees they run: Challah Delivery, Room Parents, Teacher Appreciation Week, Honey Bears, Chanukah Candles, Book Fair and so much more. Our successful Annual Art Auction is dependent on two co-chairs volunteering to do a whole year’s work. They oversee everything from sponsorships, to décor, to food, to entertainment, to invitations, to coordinating volunteers. All of my 10 years have seen work-horse chairs, but I must give a special thank you to this year’s chairs that had to compete with a pandemic, a huge capital campaign (Beyond the Curve) and still raised over $200,000. Oh, did I mention the theme was: Rock Starr? Thank you to Natalie Firestone and Sara Berkowitz.

And finally, Bob Hersh, former Executive Director. What a team we were. We worked together to reinvigorate a school. I could not have asked for a more astute partner. We each knew our role and practiced it well. He brought us back from deficits, and I (with my team) filled the school with students.

Which brings me to the students; all of them. From my first year as kindergarten teacher at the NYC Board of Education-accredited Harriet Tubman Day Care Center in Brooklyn, to Temple Beth Am Day School. The students have been my joy. I have taught kindergarten, first grade, second grade, fifth and sixth grades. As Head of School, I have overseen kindergarten through eighth grade students in Jewish Day Schools. I can only imagine the thousands of children I may have touched in some way. I loved the giggly ones, the naughty ones, the intellects, the athletes, and the musical and artsy ones. I have heard students asking real spiritual questions, and witnessed students helping and guiding one another. I have seen leaders being born.

As an educator, one is never certain how one may have touched a life — but, I know I have touched some. Many have found me through Facebook, and many have visited my home. I get cards, letters, and emails. There is great satisfaction in that.

But in the end, I could only do my work and pursue my career if my family supported me. Going back to school and attending classes for over three years (when I still had young children), doing research and writing that dissertation, putting in tremendously long hours as Heads of Schools (many times into the evenings and Sundays), could only happen if Howard supported me, and Elianna and Selena did not mind sharing their mom with others. I thank God for all I have, all I accomplished, and in particular, regarding Temple Beth Am Day School — as I have often said, I wish I had found you sooner.

I wish God speed and success to Nora Anderson as Temple Beth Am Day School embarks on its next trajectory: Beyond the Curve.