Thirty years after she last taught in Philadelphia, Judy Groner is returning to lead the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.
Perelman’s board recently approved the contract of the 56-year-old who is currently the head of school at the B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, N.C.
Groner — who has worked at the southern school since 1992 and led it since 2004 — is slated to officially take over in August of next year. For this academic year, she will continue her position at B’nai Shalom and visit Perelman throughout the year to prepare for the transition.
The kindergarten through fifth grade school with branches in Wynnewood and Melrose won’t have an official head of school for the 2013-14 academic year, but according to Perelman president Tracey Specter, it will be run by the two elementary school principals and a lay transition team that includes three past presidents.
Jay Leberman, who led the school since 1997, stepped down in June to make aliyah.
“It was the right time in my life to make a move. I have been at the school for over two decades and given it my all. I really wanted to work in a different setting in a larger school, have the ability to try implement some new ideas,” said Groner.
In accepting the Perelman position, the lifelong Jewish educator is returning to familiar territory. She taught at what was then known as the Solomon Schechter School in Wynnewood from 1980 to 1983. She also served as the educational director of what was then Temple Beth Hillel (now Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El) from 1981 to 1984.
“Those were the years when people taught in day schools until the late afternoon and then moved over to religious schools until eight in the evening. It was a different time,” she said, adding that both day school and supplemental Jewish education have become more demanding professions.
“I had a wonderful experience as a teacher. Coming back into the building and visiting my old classroom and also seeing some familiar faces from such a long time ago was just a phenomenal feeling,” she added.
The Chicago-area native is joining Perelman after the Philadelphia day school community went through a tumultuous year that ultimately resulted in the merger of the middle schools run by Perelman and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew School, with the school now being run by Barrack.
After months of talks, the two schools last week signed a legally binding strategic collaboration agreement that covers how the school will be governed. The agreement was not made public and representatives from Perelman, Barrack and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia declined to disclose details.
Groner also comes at a time when non-Orthodox day schools everywhere, including Perelman, are struggling with finances and enrollment.
“The economic situation has changed. Whereas Jewish day school education was accessible to the middle class two decades ago — and possibly even one decade ago — now it is really challenging,” said Groner, who holds degrees from Brandeis University, Columbia University and Gratz College. “The challenge is to maintain day school affordability” on the one hand, while on the other investing resources and making day school appealing to the “people who would not necessarily put Jewish education at the top of their priority list.”
Groner, a married mother of four, is proud of her dual Israeli-American citizenship. In 1984, she left the Philadelphia area to make aliyah and spent seven years there. She was a founder of Kibbutz Hanaton, a Conservative movement collective in the Galilee. From 1989 to 1991, she served as program director for Project Oren, which ran Hebrew ulpans and other courses on kibbutzim throughout Israel.
Not surprisingly, she views Israel education as a vital component of any day school curriculum.
“The importance of the state of Israel and Hebrew language in Jewish identity cannot possibly be overstated,” said Groner, who started an eighth grade Israel trip in North Carolina.
“In a k-5 school, the challenge is to develop that attachment very early on,” she said. “So, by the time they move up to Barrack and they go on a trip to Israel, they are just primed for the most wonderful experience of their lives.”