At a delicate moment for Jewish day schools and private schools across the country, Rabbi Marshall Lesack was hired as the new head of school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Beginning this summer, he will replace Sharon Levin, who has been in the position since 2011 and at the school since 1986. The announcement was made on Dec. 23, and Lesack introduced himself to the community with a letter on Jan. 14.
Lesack, who graduated from the high school in 1997, accepted the position at a time when Jewish day schools are trying to answer some thorny questions. Some of them, like enrollment, tuition costs and a slowly building opposition to private schooling, predate the pandemic and will outlast it; others, like navigating COVID-19 and reckoning with race at predominantly white institutions, are newer, and hardly restricted to day schools. But they are being asked no less urgently.
All of that is on top of the typical trials that come with trying to manage the diverse religious constituencies of a pluralistic Jewish day school. But the search committee feels like it found the man for the job.
“We were looking for somebody like Marshall Lesack,” said Howard Treatman, president of the Barrack board and a member of the search committee, adding that Lesack’s “warm personal qualities, as well as his intelligence and his sophisticated way of thinking about pedagogy” were immediately apparent.
Michele Levin, a member of the board and the search committee, praised Lesack’s “very calming and supportive demeanor”; Lisa Sandler, vice president of the board and a member of the search committee, praised Lesack’s understanding of what it is to run a pluralistic institution.
“Barrack is an unbelievable school, and it is an unbelievable community, and it’s got such a long, impactful history,” Lesack said. “The opportunity to not only lead a community and an institution of its name and its possibility is rare, but the opportunity to lead a place that you graduated from, and that had a big impact on who you’ve become in your life, is even rarer.”
Lesack, 42, had been the high school principal at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, since 2015. Prior to that, he was a jack-of-all-Jewish-educational-trades in Atlanta, holding various concurrent positions in the field at a synagogue, Emory University’s Hillel, the Brill Institute for Jewish Learning and Camp Ramah Darom, the branch that serves Jewish campers from that region (he was a Ramah in the Poconos camper himself). He’s a graduate of Rutgers University, where he studied history, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Cherry Hill, New Jersey, native played on some of the school’s more successful sports teams during his time at Barrack — then still Akiba Hebrew Academy — and remembers his time in high school fondly. He won’t have to look far to find familiar faces; several teachers who remain with the school were there during his time as a student, and one teacher, Aron Freidenreich, was a classmate.
Even with those continuities, there will be plenty of new terrain for Lesack to explore.
For starters, there’s the literal ground, as Barrack has moved from its old Merion Station campus since Lesack was a student, settling in its Bryn Mawr location. But beyond that, there’s a new community and a new context that Lesack says he will spend his first year getting to really know. COVID-19 will make that difficult, but Lesack is taking that into account.
“When we’re going through this time together, especially with the opportunity of a new head of school coming in, I’m really going to be focused on, how do we build community for our students, for our faculty, for our parents,” he said. “How do we connect our alumni and our community members to the school? Because this has been a year that has upended a lot of those things.”
Levin, who will hand the reins over to Lesack on July 1, is pleased that an alumnus — “someone who has the mission and the vision in their neshama” — will be the head of a school she spent so many years leading.