Rabbi Gil Perl said the key for him as he starts the new position will be “articulating what Modern Orthodoxy is, what does it look like.”
Rabbi Gil Perl has taught at elementary school, summer camp and even college, but his mind kept coming back to a place that shaped much of his life: high school.
He was coeditor of the yearbook at his modern Orthodox high school in Paramus, N.J., and half of a debate duo ranked No. 1 in the state. Toward the end of high school, he started dating his fellow editor and debate partner, Melissa. A few years later, she became his wife.
But it took a trip through Graceland and a basketball camp, among other stops, before, at 36, he ended up as the new head of school at Kohelet Yeshiva High School.
“It does feel like coming home,” said the father of four. “My route to education leadership has been a rather circuitous one — certainly not your traditional trajectory.”
Now Perl takes over the Modern Orthodox school in Merion Station where former head of school Rabbi Elchanan Jay Weinbach abruptly announced his departure last November. There had been tensions over the leadership’s efforts to appeal to a broader audience and participation in a wider range of secular activities.
Former school president Jerome Marcus said after the hiring that he did not expect there to be a radical change between the leaders.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in intellectual history and Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Perl began doctorate work at Harvard University in near Eastern languages and civilizations.
In the midst of those studies, in 1995, he started spending his summers as a counselor at the Israel Basketball Academy in the Jewish state. When the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, started in 2000 — replete with violence and suicide attacks — the camp moved to upstate New York. The program combined two of what Perl described as his “avenues of inspiration”: sports and Torah.
“The setting was really perfect for me, and what became most clear to me is how much I really enjoyed working with kids and seeing what could happen when you light a fire within them,” said Perl, adding that he inherited his passion for basketball from his father, a star player at Yeshiva University.
Perl became director of the camp and a managing partner, but eventually realized that he couldn’t dribble both the basketball camp and his dissertation at Harvard. So he sold his share in the camp and finished his doctorate work.
He then started teaching classes at Yeshiva University in New York City. In 2006, he was named the school’s professor of the year and in 2007, he was ordained as a rabbi. Still, he said, he didn’t feel entirely satisfied teaching at the college level.
“I saw my students twice a week for a lecture, and you just don’t have the opportunity to create and nurture the same relationship as you do in the camp setting or even in a high school setting,” said Perl.
Then came a strong effort from leaders of Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis — who knew of Perl through a board member — to have him interview for an opening as head of school.
“They said, ‘If you come down and visit, we’ll stop calling.’ I said to my wife, ‘We’ll go and see the school; we’ll check out Graceland; and we’ll say, ‘Thank you very much, we’re not interested,’ ” recalled Perl.
But the visit to Memphis changed his mind and Perl ended up spending seven years there until taking the position with Kohelet.
Perl had been connected to the Kohelet Foundation, a Philadelphia-based organization that supports Jewish day schools, through its fellowships program, which provides adult learning to parents of day school students around the country.
When the position at Kohelet Yeshiva High became available, leaders of the school contacted him. His oldest son is entering ninth grade — and will attend Kohelet — and Perl and his wife had decided that if they were going to move, now would be the time.
“I have been known to say repeatedly how lucky we are to have been looking for a new head of school at the same time as this superstar was looking for a new position,” said Diane Fenner-Zwillenberg, president of the Kohelet Yeshiva High board.
Perl said he believes the key for him as he starts the new position will be “articulating what Modern Orthodoxy is, what does it look like.” When that’s unclear, he said, “that’s where the tension comes in.”
He used the example of not tampering with teaching evolution by “recognizing that through it,” you can see “how incredible creation was.”
As for the challenges of rising tuition and declining enrollment that day schools across the country are facing, Perl is well acquainted. Memphis was hit particularly hard by the recession, Perl said, creating a situation where “we were treading water because for every family that we brought in” to his former pre-K through 12th- grade school, “we lost a family where they had lost a job and had to move.”
But Philadelphia’s economy is stronger than Memphis’, and Perl says he’s ready for the challenge. He will also serve as chief academic officer for the Kohelet Foundation, working to help develop new educational initiatives that the organization had previously paid an outside contractor to do.
“I really now have run the gamut of every educational level that is out here,” Perl said.
“It’s remarkable how different a kid looks when they stand on that podium” for high school graduation, “compared to when they sat on the chair when you interviewed them in eighth grade.”