A boy tugged at Susan Dworken’s arm. She turned and brightened as she realized he wanted her to join the children dancing before the Torah. She grabbed his hand and joined the circle, adult thoughts visibly disappearing from her face.
Dworken and the children danced to celebrate the donation of a new Torah scroll to the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston in honor of her impending retirement after a 27-year career at the school.
Dworken, head of the lower school at Kushner, began her tenure (as assistant principal) when the school was still known as the Hebrew Youth Academy and was located in West Caldwell.
“I still love, love, love the children,” she told a visitor in her office June 1 shortly before a ceremony marking the completion of the scroll.
“I feel blessed. God has been very good to me. He let me be part of a profession where I felt useful and could make a difference in the lives of Jewish children.”
Dworken recalled the school’s earlier days before its move to Livingston in 1996.
“At the time I thought it was a really nice building,” she said. “But it was an old paint factory with a tin ceiling. It wasn’t really conducive to discipline and decorum.” Enrollment then was about 160 students; today it is more than 700. (The school started in Newark as the Hebrew Academy of Essex County in 1943. After several moves, the school called West Caldwell home beginning in 1977.) Dworken raised the academic standards, and implemented innovative programs in areas throughout the school from Hebrew language (it was an early adopter of the Tal Am curriculum) to math.
She still vividly recalls the note the board president sent her accompanying a bouquet of flowers after she was offered the job of principal in 1987. “It said, ‘Congratulations to the best man for the job.’ I kept the card — it was very special to me,” she said.
“Women in Orthodox leadership positions are not that plentiful,” she continued. “I’m hoping the girls see me in this position as a model and they learn that they can lead the community — within the structure of Halacha.”
She also knows she has been meant to set an example for both girls and boys.
“I hope I am a model for Jewish living, and that children have learned to love Torah observance from me and not be afraid; and that we can live in this modern world and the Jewish world and be happy in both,” she said.
Fellow administrators say she has had a profound impact on the school and its student and parent body.
“Coming from New York and seeing a state-of-the-art Modern Orthodox school led by a woman just blew us away. We thought we had found Gan Eden,” said associate principal Natalie Lichtman, who before joining the staff was a prospective parent when she was a new (and reluctant) transplant from Manhattan.
With a background in special education, it wasn’t long before Lichtman was hired as a consultant; she went on to become a resource room teacher and then an administrator.
What makes Dworken stand out, said Lichtman, “is that she has never been someone content with the status quo. She’s given me a lot of latitude to implement new programs. As long as I’ve done my due diligence and [programs] are not fads but are backed up by research, she would always say, ‘Go for it.’
“So over the years we’ve brought initiatives into the school and curricular innovations, where we’ve been the first. She’s always looking at the highest standards, in the local school district and nationally.”
The school has also had its own impact on Dworken, particularly when her husband, Rabbi Steven Dworken, died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 58.
“During that very sad time, the school was my lifeline,” she said. “The school was my family and enabled me to be occupied and do that which I love.”
After 18 years at JKHA, Dworken became head of school with overall responsibilities for the Joseph Kushner elementary school.
The school will not be hiring a new lower school head, according to Rabbi Eli Rubin, head of school, which also encompasses a middle school as well as Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. Instead, he said, “Current administrators will be integrated into more leadership roles within each division of the school and will assume more responsibility.”
He added, “We’re looking at different models for future educational leadership. We believe we have excellent talent in the building and using it collectively we can move into the next phase of our history.”
Speaking about Dworken, he said, “We will miss her passion for Jewish continuity and her unique way of modeling Jewish education. I look forward to continuing Mrs. Dworken’s legacy of a strong academic and religious leadership.”
Dworken, who lives in Teaneck with her husband Fred Koss, plans to continue working in the field of education.
She said she has always felt connected personally to most of the school’s lay leaders, and enjoys attending school functions, from student performances to fund-raisers. Many of the school’s leaders have become her personal friends — like Robin and Brad Klatt of Livingston, who put four children through the school and underwrote the campaign to dedicate the new Torah scroll in her honor.
On June 1, a scribe came to the school to complete the scroll. Participants danced it up from the school’s ball field to the gymnasium. During a ceremony in the school auditorium, the scribe completed a letter for each grade of the school.
On Sunday, June 10, the Torah scroll will be dedicated at the school in a celebration honoring Dworken.
“We wanted to do something to show our deep appreciation for all that Mrs. Dworken has done not only for our children but for all the children. We thought this would be a very meaningful way to show that,” said Robin Klatt.