Rabbi Elliot Goldberg, the brand-new principal of the Upper School of Golda Och Academy (GOA), relishes the opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective, especially when led by students.
Chatting with NJJN in a conference room in July, shortly after he arrived at the West Orange school from Boston, he shared an experience of teaching about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, or The Rav, in a high school rabbinics class at the same time as a colleague was teaching Dostoyevsky in a language-arts class down the hall.
“The kids put it together that these two thinkers are exploring some of the same questions,” he said. So, Goldberg started reading Dostoyevsky and his colleague picked up Soloveitchik. That led to the teachers discussing not only the overlapping essential questions, but how to weave them into their respective curricula. “What I love is not only the integration, but that the connection was made by the students,” said Goldberg.
Integrations of curricula and collaborating with students are two of the three principles that guide Goldberg’s educational philosophy. The third is excellence.
“Jewish communities value education,” he said. “Our population, myself included, is serious about educating our children and giving them broad-based, critical-thinking skills and a deep understanding of core-content areas.” Goldberg, who exudes a confident exuberance about his work, added that day schools offer “the Jewish lens” with which to frame it.
He comes to GOA having spent most of his life in Jewish day schools. Educated at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., he nearly became a biologist after graduating from the University of Chicago — until he realized there was an underlying reason that he kept leaving jobs to spend summers at his beloved Camp Ramah in New England. And he watched “the important people” in his life become Jewish educators. So instead of pursuing a doctorate, he enrolled in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he earned a master’s degree in Jewish education in addition to receiving ordination in 1996.
He was drawn to GOA’s “warm and welcoming community,” he said, along with its reputation for excellence, the rich Jewish life offered by the larger community, and an unusual personal connection to the school.
When he was in high school in the 1980s, his alma mater and GOA (then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union) shared their Israel trip. “My first GOA graduation was in 1987,” he explained. “We came back from Israel and a handful of us drove up to see friends graduate.” What’s more, three parents from that same GOA class of 1987 now have children who are students at the school. “It will be a lot of fun to get to know their kids,” he said.
Goldberg comes to GOA after a sabbatical following more than 20 years of experience in education, including stints as head of school at Solomon Schechter Day Schools of Greater Boston and Greater Hartford, and as founding director of religious life at the Chicagoland Jewish High School, now Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. Most recently, he served as a visiting scholar at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, where he was researching the teaching and learning of rabbinics in day schools and other settings.
But now, he’s anxious to return to teaching, he said. And his preferred students? “Teenagers — emerging adults — is my favorite population to engage in serious conversations about Jewish life,” he said.
Looking ahead, Goldberg said, he plans to spend his first 18 months listening to students, to faculty, to parents, and other stakeholders before putting any plans into action — except maybe one: prayer. He brings his enthusiasm for collaboration even to prayer, often one of the more enduring issues in day school education. “I really think students are in touch with their spiritual needs, and if we give them space to talk about it, we can … craft a spiritual space that works,” he said.
But he’s also realistic, and so he brings honesty about his own struggle with prayer, or tefillah, to the conversation. “I’m a rabbi, a Jewish educator,” he said, but “there are plenty of mornings where tefillah is a challenge for me … I think tefillah is a challenge for everybody in every community. It’s built into the experience — because there are questions about theology, questions about belief, questions about practice.”
Goldberg believes the job of the school is “to help the students address the questions they have about tefillah and God, and to provide them with models for spiritual practice.” His strategy is to name the difficulty. “I think it’s important to tell students that what they are about to embark on is hard; to share, in appropriate ways, the ways it’s hard for me; and to instill the notion that tefillah is a spiritual practice,” he said. “You can’t just think you’ll come in the first day with 50 of your classmates and open a siddur or sing a niggun and all of a sudden it will be magic. You have to build that over time.”
Back in July, what he was looking forward to most (besides having his family’s boxes arrive so they could settle into their new home in South Orange) was for the students to fill the halls. The wait is finally over. Now, he just wants to immerse himself into the life of the school and stop being “the new guy.”
He added that he and his wife, Rabbi Sheryl Katzman, who works at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, along with their three children — twins in ninth grade and the youngest child in fourth at GOA — are all looking forward to being a part of the local community.
“We plan to be here a good long time,” he said.