For Rabbi Marshall Lesack, who took over as head of school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr on July 1, it’s a dream job.
He graduated from the institution in 1997, when it was still the Akiba Hebrew Academy and located in Merion Station.
And, unlike many, the rabbi loved high school. At Akiba, he excelled in sports, got personal attention from teachers and learned to “live Jewishly,” as he put it.
So when he saw the alumni email announcing the job opening last summer, he applied almost right away. Several months and interviews later, he returned home after more than a decade working in Jewish educational positions down South.
Lesack’s most recent stop was a six-year tenure as high school principal at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Florida. Barrack is a grades six-through-12 school.
“I recognize the importance and power of Jewish education,” he said of his pitch to Barrack officials. “Given my background, I’m the person to move this school forward.”
Lesack explained how he plans to do that.
You told the Exponent after your hiring that you needed a year to evaluate the institution. What questions are you asking yourself as you go about that process?
Educationally, who are we? And who might we be moving forward? Are our programs not only excellent from a content perspective, but are we meeting the needs of students today?
We have a huge responsibility to envision what a Jewish world could look like and to build it within our halls.
I want to build a place of academic excellence, social and emotional development, and Jewish and spiritual development. But I also want to create an environment in which young people are happy.
How are you going to do all that?
It starts with a focus on our teachers and classrooms.
Engaging strategies to figure out how we connect. It’s about connection before content. I want to focus on how we create small spaces for students to connect with teachers and make learning come alive.
This is a relationship business. Kids need to feel that they have relationships with people who are teaching them. They allow for better teaching to occur.
What’s the ultimate goal of this student development process?
We are graduating young people who are confident in who they are.
They are connected and committed to the Jewish community and the larger community.
They are being accepted to an unbelievable array of institutions and the ones that make the most sense to them.
According to your estimates, Barrack had 60-65 kids per grade when you were in high school. Now it has about 50 students per grade. Do you want to increase that number?
Yes. It’s about building bridges and relationships with our community partners: K-five schools, K-eight and other community leaders to make Barrack known and accessible to families who are not yet in the school.
We have students from more than 65 towns. We really are a diverse, regional school. We have kids traveling anywhere from 10 minutes away to an hour-and-a-half away. We have kids from public schools, private schools, Jewish day schools.
What’s your pitch to a family that may be considering Jewish day school?
Your child is going to get an outstanding education.
They are going to be in an environment where every educator they work with knows their name. They’ll be in a warm and inclusive community that is rich in Jewish values, identity-building and connection to Israel.
We know who our students are and we’re here to support them as they grow and journey in life.
You’ve discussed personal attention for students as a key part of Barrack’s culture. And according to your numbers, the school has an 8-1 student-teacher ratio. How do you grow the student body without sacrificing personal attention?
It’s a culture.
Whatever the size might be, it’s important to have educators on the team who believe in that approach, and who believe in building systems that allow them to know every student.
What are you doing to deal with COVID-19 as the new year begins?
Mandatory mask-wearing in the building. Distance between students in classes.
All our employees are vaccinated. We have been encouraging vaccination from the get-go.
We’re in a pandemic. It’s constantly changing. We’ll do what we need to do to keep kids safe and school running.
How cool is it to be back?
I’m thrilled. But I’m trying to prepare myself for winter again.
I moved for the job. Not the winter.
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