As Chris Stodolski chatted with some high school and middle school students on the campus of Golda Och Academy’s Eric F. Ross Upper School, she asked them what they like most about the school. One after the other volunteered, “The community.” “This is my community.” “This has been my community since I was really little.”
Those statements put a big smile on Stodolski’s face. She will take the helm of the West Orange high school as its principal beginning July 1. And just a few minutes earlier, sitting in the office of current principal Adam Shapiro (who will become head of school upon the retirement of Rabbi Dr. Joyce Raynor in July), she explained that one of the things that attracted her to the position is the community it offers.
“I love the small, tight-knit feeling here,” said Stodolski, adding that she loves that the students do, too. Earlier in the day, she had a separate set of conversations with other students over lunch, during a full day of meeting staff, students, and administrators and beginning to get a feel for the school.
“They are looking to be known, to be seen, to connect with adults and I appreciate that,” she said.
Although not Jewish herself, Stodolski appears to embrace the idea and mission of a Jewish day school. She previously worked as assistant head of school at Gann Academy, a Jewish community day school in Waltham, Mass., for four years. In fact, it was through the head of that school, a mutual friend of Stodolski and Shapiro, that she learned about the GOA opening.
She said she was keen to work with Shapiro, and to return to the Jewish day school environment.
“I appreciate the opportunity to really explore identity development with students from all angles. In a Jewish school, we get to use Judaism to help children grow, to become the person they want to be,” she said. “I find the Jewish religion to be a contemplative one that allows for asking deep questions for trying to understand a personal connection to religion. When you work with adolescents, you help them think about, ‘Who do you want to be in the world?’ and what does their religion tell them, and what are they concerned about in the world that maybe they can change. Adolescents want to talk about that. At a school that isn’t Jewish, it’s an add-on — or sometimes adults do not have the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations. Here, it’s built into the curriculum.”
Asked why Golda Och Academy decided to hire a non-Jewish high school principal to take his place, Shapiro said, “It was not our singular goal to hire a non-Jewish principal. But in searching for the academic leader of the upper school, we were looking for someone who has many of the credentials Chris has. We wanted someone with a strong academic background, someone with experience in the independent and Jewish day school world, someone who had incredibly strong interpersonal skills, who understands what it means to relate to adolescents. We recognized, through many conversations, that she is the one to work with our talented team of department chairs and teachers.”
Stodolski was selected from a pool of over 30 candidates, according to Shapiro.
“The decision to hire someone not Jewish is not an indication of any shift in our school,” added Shapiro. “Our commitment to both general and Judaic studies is not going anywhere.”
In a 2008 study of Jewish day school personnel, authors Roberta Louis Goodman and Eli Schaap noted that “many non–Jews have taken positions as head of school or principal at Jewish schools, often because they are better qualified to administer a school in terms of credentials and experience than Jewish candidates.” The authors continued: “While having a non–Jewish head of school is in itself not necessarily a bad thing, it does present serious challenges for how Jewish schools create and sustain a compelling vision of Jewish life that is communicated through its educational system, since leadership is a key factor in this process.”
Shapiro indicated there was little debate about hiring Stodolski. “After meeting with Christine we knew that she was the educator who had the greatest combination of all of the skills we were looking for, and our search committee, our faculty, and members of our board of trustees were all in agreement after meeting with her that she was the best educator for the job,” he said.
Stodolski will have direct supervision over all department chairs, but she “very much understands what it means to ask questions and seek out advice,” said Shapiro. When it comes to religious issues, whether related to policy or halacha (Jewish law), she “is expected to seek out the advice and counsel of our Rabbinic Advisory committee,” he said.
Regarding curricular decisions, Shapiro said, “Those are never made — regardless of the discipline — without a tremendous amount of thought and discussion.”
He added that there would be a team approach with regard to Judaic and general studies.
“I am a person who believes strongly that the team approach to education and the team approach to running this school is key. Chris is going to be a valued member of that team as she leads her people forward as well,” he said.
Stodolski holds a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore University and a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. She comes to GOA from the Hudson School in Hoboken, where one of her two daughters is a senior and another is an incoming freshman. She recently spent a year at the Taktse International School in Sikkim, India, following a long career at schools in the Boston area, including Gann Academy and Meridian Academy in Brookline. She lives in Jersey City.
Stodolski, who was raised by two non-practicing Catholics, seems to enjoy delving into new cultures. Of her year in India she said, “It opened my eyes to the assumptions we make that are culturally biased. I came to understand the need to listen and hear and try to understand other people.”
She also got used to living a more spartan existence. Upon returning to the United States, she said, she recalled being met at the airport by her brother, who whisked Stodolski and her two daughters to an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn for dinner. “We were shocked by the number of items on the menu, and then by the portion sizes!”
Now in her role as administrator, she said, “I’m always having an inner monologue. Am I making any assumptions in the conversations that might influence the person across from me and their ability to feel comfortable?”
She went to graduate school with the idea that she might open her own school, but she said she came to realize it wasn’t what she really wanted. “I came out with a more realistic idea of what that involves. And I personally like the day-to-day connection in the classroom,” she said.
Although she knows there will be challenges ahead, she’s looking forward to integrating herself into the Golda Och community. “I want to be ‘of’ this place,” she said. “I want to have that sense of belonging.”