AJA High School’s Newest Administrational Addition
The AJA administration now contains a new role: a Head of High School. A few years ago, the administration included a similar position, Head of Upper School Instructional Team. However, for the past two years, Ms. Franeen Sarif oversaw the high school in addition to her position as Executive Director of AJA. Now, Dr. Simcha Pearl has joined the High School administrative team, focusing solely on leading AJA High School.
Before working in Jewish education, Dr. Pearl held many different roles. Though always interested in Jewish education, Dr. Pearl initially thought he would go into healthcare. His father was a doctor, so it seemed only logical to “default” into dentistry, a profession that ensured full payback for loans and would involve healthcare — yet without the sadness that often accompanies medicine.
For some time, Dr. Pearl thought that he could do his job of dentistry and pursue his passion for Jewish education avocationally. This worked for a while, but, as Dr. Pearl put it, “You can try and run from who you’re supposed to be, but you really can’t hide.” He realized he would feel more fulfilled and be able to help others more in the field of education. He explained, “I think there may be enough dentists in the world… but people choosing to go into Jewish education is becoming more of a rare thing.” Looking back at this switch, he joked, “It was nice to find out that the world didn’t fall to pieces when I did make that switch a couple of decades ago.”
Now that he has made his “hobby” a full-time job, and no longer needs to go back and forth between teaching and caring for teeth, Dr. Pearl is freer to pursue his other interests. For example, Dr. Pearl enjoys music, and he plays the piano as well as the accordion. (He explained, in school he sometimes pulls out his accordion because “it really can help create an ambiance.”) Dr. Pearl also spends time writing his self-described “psycho-thriller” novel, as well as playing tennis and pickleball in his neighborhood.
Reflecting on his time at AJA so far, Dr. Pearl admitted that he’s experienced a bit of a “learning curve.” However, he also described the past few months as “exhilarating, challenging, and fun” and “an overall positive experience.” He described the students, faculty, and parents as “great,” and he said he “loves the culture” of the school.
While Dr. Pearl appreciates the school’s culture and environment, he also believes that it can be improved by treating it as a start-up opportunity. On the first day of school, when Dr. Pearl addressed all the students, he compared the school to a start-up venture. Dr. Pearl chose this model because it provides the opportunity to “imagine the possibilities.” In a start-up, he said, “You don’t feel really that you’re hemmed in by too much… The sky is really the limit, and you have dreams.” In addition, the small nature of both start-ups and AJA’s High School makes them “nimble enough or mobile enough to do things, to make change, to progress.”
In order to implement his new ideas effectively, Dr. Pearl planned to get to know the school well first. He spent the first few weeks “just getting to know the culture, know the people.” He wanted to “understand what already exists” as well as the “vision” of the school. Dr. Pearl posited that knowing the identity of the school will aid him in making decisions regarding new additions to the school. Once he is really familiar with the fundamentals of the school’s culture, Dr. Pearl said that he will “have a compass” and “know how to move forward from that.”
Now, a few months into the school year, Dr. Pearl has begun implementing new features to the school. As a self-proclaimed dreamer, he wants to bring the school to new heights. As one of his first initiatives, he helped bring back electives to the High School. He believes “if we’re going to be a competitive High School, we have to… offer in a very competitive way what other schools offer.” In order to satisfy those needs, the school needs to have upgraded electives that include arts and STEM.
In addition to offering more courses, Dr. Pearl wants to remove boundaries between courses. He especially stressed that Judaism should always remain a key element of students’ identities, not only when they study Chumash or Gemara. He explained that a student is not “Jewish for 45 minutes” and then “a chemist for the next 48 minutes.” Rather, he thinks that we encompass all of these qualities all the time. By combining Torah u’madah (Torah and secular knowledge), he thinks AJA can better facilitate the growth of “holistic human beings.”
Dr. Pearl’s personal mantra is “Rosh-Lev-Yad; head, hand, and heart.” He said that someone cannot separately consider their thoughts, emotions, and behavior, rather they must consider themself “as a whole.” Dr. Pearl hopes that students’ learning will spark something in their heads and hearts, which will then inspire them to use their hands to take action.
Dr. Pearl emphasized taking action as an essential part of living religiously observant and fulfilling lives.
This process can become a virtuous cycle of learning, introspection, and action. Ultimately, Dr. Pearl emphasized action as an essential part of living religiously observant and fulfilling lives. Dr. Pearl firmly believes in the value of na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear. “It’s not only the thought that counts; it’s really the deed that counts,” he said.
In his time at school so far, Dr. Pearl has shown his value and passion for his Judaism and serving the next Jewish generation. He does not “have a particular anchor” that keeps him connected to his Judaism, as he was brought up in a way where it was communicated to him that Judaism contains many elements. He does not find particular meaning in just the land of Israel, traditional foods, or Torah learning, but rather the combination of them all. He added that an essential component of his Jewish observance is understanding that “Judaism is not [just] a religion, it is a way of life.”
Dr. Pearl’s religious perspectives and philosophies contribute to his administrative concentrations and priorities. He plans to enact changes within AJA that will foster holistic people, and he will stress the value of taking action based on learning. He looks forward to “imagine what we can create together from dreams” as a vibrant community of doers, thinkers, and visionaries.