Associate Head of School for Jewish Life and Learning,
Solomon Schechter School of Westchester
Rabbi Harry Pell’s resume is as diverse and wide-ranging as they come. With a degree from MIT in architectural design and more than a decade of experience serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and with his local fire and police departments, Rabbi Pell is always on the lookout for ways to broaden his own personal perspective about Judaism. But it is his role as Associate Head of School for Jewish Life and Learning at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester that he finds most fulfilling.
We asked Rabbi Pell to share how his career trajectory influenced his role as a Jewish educator, how his school works on infusing a dedication to Judaism in its students, and the role he plays in his students’ lives long after they graduate.
You originally studied architectural design at MIT. How did you end up with a career in Jewish education?
I grew up going to day schools–first a yeshiva for kindergarten and then Solomon Schechter schools all the way through. One day, a scouting crew for Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? showed up at my school and chose me for the show. As a contestant, they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I answered, “I want to be an architect.”
I followed through on that career plan and then three-quarters of the way through college, I started to have this fear that I wouldn’t be fulfilled as an architect. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to live as Jewishly as I wanted. I worked at an architectural firm for six months and my sense was that yes, this is fun and exciting, but I wasn’t sure I would be in a position to raise my family the way I would like.
My girlfriend (now wife) asked me what I wanted to do, and I just kept going back to my Talmud classes as a student. I recalled learning under S. Hirsch Jacobson [the former HOS of Solomon Schechter in West Orange, New Jersey, now Golda Och Academy] and how the environment of Talmud study made me feel fulfilled. I realized then that if I could study and teach Talmud, I could be very happy, and I realized my desire to be in a day school setting.
After college, I studied at The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and then I attended JTS for rabbinical school and a degree in education. While there, I searched for opportunities in the day school world and jumped on the chance to be a cross-country running coach at the Solomon Schechter High School of New York. Coaching cross-country led to teaching parshanut, which in turn led to planning their senior Israel experience. In many ways, that’s when things came full circle for me; I was now teaching the kinds of classes and planning the kinds of experiences that had been so influential for me as a student.
What kinds of families come to your school?
Of the 550 families in our school, 20-25% affiliate Orthodox, 75% are Conservative, and 5% identify as Reform, Reconstructionist, Israeli or “just Jewish.” Most of them are shul-going families, and they view their shul and our school as their two spiritual homes.
Our school has an urban shtetl feeling to it. Our parents are very involved and help us with marketing and recruitment, and at the Lower School level, almost all of them live in Westchester. Some of my colleagues at DSLTI (the JTS Day School Leadership Training Institute) talk about whether they’d prefer to live in the community where they work, or live a few towns over. I believe that I benefit from and do a better job as a result of living in the heart of the community I serve. We don’t view the other schools in the area as “competition.” In fact, the leadership and families of Carmel Academy (a community day school in Greenwich, Connecticut) and Schechter Westchester just spent Shabbat together because we view ourselves as being part of one larger community.
There are excellent public schools in our area, so we know that our families send their children to our school because they want something only we can offer. For some, it’s the connection to Israel. For others, it’s because [the parents] went to a day school and want the same balance of Judaic and general learning for their children, or for many families, it’s the whole gestalt of the Jewish day school experience.
Your experiences range from participating in DSLTI to being a chaplain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. How have these experiences influenced what you bring to your role at Westchester Schechter every day?
There is cool balance in my work as a result of serving in the Navy and volunteering with the fire department and with the police. When I am in the day school bubble, I hear kids say things like “I don’t speak Hebrew so well” or “I’m not that knowledgeable [about Judaic studies],” but they are comparing themselves to other day school students. When I am on an aircraft carrier leading a Pesach seder in the middle of nowhere, it makes me think, “My eighth graders could do this.” Which isn’t a knock on the sailors, it’s just that these experiences expose me to young Jews who haven’t had an immersive educational experience, whereas my eighth graders really could lead a seder–so it gives me a greater perspective. I think many of my students only have this realization when they get to college and find themselves so Jewishly knowledgeable that friends at Hillel or Chabad will jokingly call them “rabbi”!
While I was serving, I met many chaplains who felt that being in the military was their calling–and that’s amazing. But for me, the most important work I can do is in the day school world. I served in the military because I feel so grateful to the men and women who risk their lives for our country, so if I had something to share with them, why wouldn’t I give it in return? I was honored to be a military chaplain for 13 years, but it’s very clear to me that my calling is in my current role as the Associate HOS for Jewish Life and Learning.
Schechter Westchester’s mission is to provide an authentically Jewish experience while still being connected to modernity. It is no secret that our country is very divided at this time. Do you have any advice for other school leaders about how to strike that balance between maintaining an awareness of current events in the outside world while reinforcing the Jewish core values that you seek to infuse?
The toughest challenge recently has been addressing the political aspects of what is going on in the outside world. We had an assembly last week for our middle school and high school students just to address the anti-Semitism that is perceived to be out there. On the one hand, I feel an obligation to make sure our kids know what’s going on in the world. However, I’m always hesitant about doing things that can be perceived as telling the kids what to think. But our students are sharp. We did an evacuation drill recently because we knew we needed to be prepared, and the students were terrific. The upper school students also wanted to discuss why, and they deserve honest, developmentally appropriate answers.
Back in August, long before the results of the election, immigration reforms, or the travel ban, we planned a Yom B’tzelem Elohim–a day to discuss and explore the idea that all human beings are created equally in the image of God. Our students had the chance to engage deeply in thought and debate, and listen to many local rabbis and keynote speakers. It wasn’t seen as political, and it was designed to facilitate a discussion, not for every student to walk away with a uniform political view. When we can achieve moments like that, I think we are doing well at bringing the real world into our school.
There is a great quote attributed to Solomon Schechter. He wrote long treatises on things like rabbinic theology and Halacha, but he is also quoted as having said to a graduating class of rabbis, all men at the time: “Gentlemen, if you want to succeed in the American rabbinate, you need to understand baseball.” I love that, and it reinforces my sense that I can do the most good when I am a teacher and rabbi among my students and families, and not separated from them by my title or role.
What is your relationship with the school’s alumni?
I run our “Lev v’Nefesh” (Heart and Soul) Senior Experience in Poland and Israel, which is eight weeks in February and March of senior year. This program gives me the opportunity to travel with the seniors and form really strong relationships with them before they graduate. I also teach Israel advocacy, and oftentimes, alumni will get back in touch when they are in college to say: “I need advice…my college professor said I can either say ‘Al Quds’ or ‘Occupied Jerusalem,’ but it can’t be just plain ‘Jerusalem’ or I’ll fail. What do I do?” I feel fortunate to be able to give them support and guidance in navigating these tricky situations, or others. Last year an alum asked if I could remind her how to put up her mezuzah on her first apartment, and I love that we are still the address for their Jewish questions and ideas.
In general, as a school, we are very proactive with our alumni. We have about 10 alumni in the IDF right now, and whenever we are in Israel, we take them out to dinner. More broadly, our alumni will come back to school on college breaks like Thanksgiving and in January. And we’ve had alumni working at Google and startups come to speak to current students and parents about their careers. Our graduates are also great at giving us feedback on what they’ve learned after being in the “real world.” They come back and tell us “Remember when you taught this class–it had an unintended consequence” or “There is a gap in this curriculum…” I truly benefit from that feedback.
What is the one main thing you hope your students take away from their time at Schechter Westchester when they graduate?
I hope they walk away with the feeling that they have an obligation to take their Judaism seriously, while being citizens of the modern world. I want them to know that being committed to Judaism doesn’t mean you have to be a hermit. That is a point of view that kids often come in with. If we do anything well, we have to be able to teach them and demonstrate for them that there are ways to be authentically and halachically Jewish while still living in the real world. One doesn’t have to be compromised for the other, although it does take effort to find that perfect balance. But it’s worth it. If students take away one thing from their time here, that’s exactly what it is. It’s not only possible to be fully Jewish and fully connected to modernity, it’s actually the most meaningful way to live their lives as Jews.
Originally published in the April 28 Prizmah Newsletter.