Back to school

Swafford brings passion for education to Levine

By Rachel Gross Weinstein

Kathleen Swafford was amazed by what she saw when she walked through the doors at the Ann and Nate Levine Academy for the first time. She had just stepped into a building full of children who were laughing, smiling and enjoying learning.
At that moment, she knew it was the right place for her.

Kathleen Swafford is the new K-8 principal at Ann and Nate Levine Academy. | Photo: Rachel Gross Weinstein

Swafford is the new K-8 principal at the Conservative day school in Far North Dallas, succeeding Susie Wolbe, who left in June. Swafford said she is blessed to have found a school such as Levine, whose stated mission is to inspire a passion for learning and graduate confident, ethical Jewish citizens and leaders.
“That mission is very meaningful to me and that’s why I was attracted to the school,” Swafford said. “My goal is for the children to continue finding a joy in learning. That message has been at Levine for a long time and I believe it’s important. I’m excited to learn more about Levine and develop relationships not only with the kids, but the staff, parents, lay leaders and teachers.”
Swafford said her immediate goals are to understand the culture of Levine and to be a resource for the teachers, parents and students. She said she doesn’t plan to bring in her own agenda as the new principal; she wants to be an asset to the school and build upon the academics and programs that have made Levine successful for so long.
She noted that she is also excited to be immersed in Jewish culture. Swafford isn’t Jewish, but worked as a teacher and administrator for many years at various Episcopal schools — including administrative positions at Canterbury School in DeSoto and Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg — before coming to Levine.
“I’ve always worked at Episcopal schools where Jewish families feel comfortable, so Judaism isn’t foreign to me,” Swafford said. “All of the kids at Levine are proud to be Jewish and that’s really meaningful. I am going to be learning something new about Judaism every day and it will be great for the kids to see me learn, just like they do. What I love about Levine is that the Jewish studies teachers are amazing in helping the kids understand who they are and help them be critical thinkers.”
A Dallas native, Swafford has spent her entire career in education. She holds a degree from UT-Dallas in special education, with a focus on early childhood and gifted education, a master’s in elementary education from Texas A&M and a certification in gifted and talented education from SMU. Swafford got a second master’s degree in private school leadership from Columbia University in 2007.
Mark Stolovitsky, Levine Academy’s head of school, said he believes Swafford’s strong educational background and breadth of experience will make her successful in her new role. He said she is an asset to the Levine family.
“Besides her expertise, I love her curiosity, knowledge of education and her wonderful philosophy in building a strong environment at schools,” he said. “She leads with her heart, has integrity, wonderful values and she is eager to listen and learn. She understands the idea that Levine Academy makes mensches and I’m excited to work with her.”
Swafford said what she loves most about being in the education field is that she gets to see children learn and grow every day. Forming bonds with the students is also something that’s significant to her.
“I want the students to be able to come to me with anything,” she said. “Sometimes people think the principal’s office is only where kids go when they are in trouble, but I don’t want that to be the case. I want the kids to know that I am going to be there for them in any situation and hope to have a close, respectful relationship between me and all of the students.”
Above all, Swafford said she hopes to have Levine continue to be a very strong academic institution, but also have it be a place kids and teachers enjoy coming to every day.
“Everyone at Levine has strong religious and academic values and that’s remarkable,” she said. “Education is my passion and I see each child as an individual. Kids are honest, joyful and get up everyday with a fresh start and that’s what I love about them. It’s fun to go to work every morning and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I get to come in every morning and be with a group of people who are happy and delightful; that’s an amazing feeling.”

Pair proves you can go home again

Back to school means just that — back to their school — for Eliza Lavi Hochman and Yael Zbolon, two of Yavneh Academy’s newest faculty members. Both new teachers are 2005 Yavneh graduates.
Yavneh begins its 19th academic year Wednesday, Aug. 15. Some 118 students are enrolled, including a record 32 freshmen.
“I’m so excited to be here.” said Hochman, who began as an assistant Lady Bulldogs volleyball and basketball coach last year and adds girls physical education, health and general studies substitute teaching to her duties. “The girls I’m working with are much more talented athletes than we were, with the basketball team winning two major championships last year, but the Bulldog spirit is just as I remember it, and that can’t be beat.”
A graduate of St. Edward’s University in Austin, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in education.
“Coach (Chris) Walker was a great coach when I was playing,” Hochman said, referring to the Lady Bulldogs head coach. “He always ‘got us,’ but I can see how he’s grown and I’m looking forward to learning from him, still his student.”
For Zbolon, who graduated from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and most recently St. Mary’s Law School, teaching AP government brings her back into the classroom to teach the subject she has studied with full heart.
“There is so much information that we as citizens need to know and, in this election year, I know it will be an exciting time to be teaching,” Zbolon said.
“Some of my students will be voting for the first time, this November, and before that we’ll have a good start on how our electoral system works and they will have a fundamental understanding of their responsibilities,” Zbolon said. “I remember the first time I voted, it was during my senior year, and I left campus at lunch to go vote. I want my students also to care about what they are doing, and to make educated decisions.”
Hochman and Zbolon are joined on Yavneh’s roster by the additions of new Judaic studies faculty members, Rabbi Michael Friedman and Rabbi Sandor Shulkes, and athletic director/boys basketball coach David Zimmerman.
“To have alumni on our staff is very exciting, and these two young women will be great role models for our students,” said head of school David Portnoy, who also begins his first year at the school. “It really is a testament to the culture of our school that they, who grew up here, and who were encouraged by our faculty, many of whom remain, would chose to return as leaders. For a head of school, this is a dream.”
Walker remembers Hochman’s efforts on the court as a student and appreciates the same as a coach.
“Eliza was a great player, an MVP and a leader on and off the court. She has already brought that to the court,” he said. “She relates well and has already built a great rapport with the girls, using her experiences to build them to be the best they can be.”
While at Yavneh, Hochman, the daughter of Yoosef and Faye, and sister to 2007 Yavneh graduate Elana and rising sophomore Alexandra, played volleyball and basketball, serving as captain in her senior year.
Zbolon is the sister of Rachel, who graduated from Yavneh in 2008, and the daughter of Tikva and the late Joseph Zbolon. She was a member of Yavneh’s mock trial, debate, international Bible Quiz and volleyball teams. She credits her experiences with mock trial and debate for influencing her future as a lawyer.
“Yael is one of my all-time favorite students. She was a great mock trial student and a wonderful person,” mock trial sponsor and Dallas attorney Warren Abrams, said of Zbolon, who took the bar exam in July and hopes to pursue a career in criminal law, in addition to her teaching.
Having worked with the district attorney’s office in San Antonio and for a criminal defense and immigration private practice, she said she has a fervor to share right versus wrong and the rights Americans are afforded.
“She’ll be a great attorney and Yavneh is very fortunate to have her as a teacher,” Abrams said.
Hochman and Zbolon attended Yavneh as the school was in transition, attending classes first at Congregation Tiferet Israel, then in portable buildings and finally in the then annex of Hillcrest Academy, located on Park Central Drive. The school’s current home, on the Schultz Rosenberg Campus, opened in the fall of 2005. Both women say while there is a new locale, size and exterior, Yavneh’s heart remains the same.
“I remember knowing that my teachers wanted me to develop my own independence and that is definitely still a big part of their commitment,” said Zbolon who has spent many summers working at Yavneh, helping to coordinate students’ schedules. “I see growth too — Spanish and French classes added, video courses and math and reading labs. The school has adapted to requests of its community and here, each student is the base of the schedule. That’s something I can’t imagine ever changing.”
Hochman added, “The new building is lovely, and yes there are more students, but at its core, Yavneh is the same beautiful warm place it’s been from the start. This is a family that really gets along, and I’m glad to have moved back home.”
With alumni in the fold as Yavneh begins its new school year, the school is certain to continue to be a strong, and meaningful, place of learning, officials said.
— Submitted by Deb Silverthorn

Area day schools gear up for new year

By Rachel Gross Weinstein

Students will soon pack their backpacks and say goodbye to summer vacation as the new school year approaches at local Jewish day schools. Although each is unique, they have a common goal to provide students with strong secular and Jewish educations.
Akiba Academy is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Head of school Rabbi Zev Silver said Akiba will continue to build on its reputation of “a superior academic program combined with building character and self-confidence in students” when the new school year begins Monday, Aug. 20.

Members of Robyn Herbert’s first-grade class sport their new uniforms on the first day of the 2011-12 Akiba Academy school year. The 2012-13 year begins Aug. 20, and the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary. | Photo: TJP Archives

Silver noted that some highlights for the new school year include the Judaic faculty helping students build connections with students in Israel through the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Partnership 2Gether twinning program; utilizing the campus to connect with Israel through the landscape that reflects Israel; and expanding the school’s resource department to ensure that the administration is addressing and learning the strengths and challenges of each student.
“As our school continues to grow, we will continue to ensure that we are carrying out the powerful statement of King Solomon: ‘educate each child in his/her own way,’” Silver said. “We will offer programs both in and outside the classrooms that will challenge children to move and grow outside of their comfort zones and maintain our focus on academic excellence as reflected by our standardized test scores.”
Silver added he is looking forward to the teachers continuing to convey to the students a joy and love of learning, inspiring them to become lifelong learners.
That is also the goal Mesorah High School for Girls, which cultivates a Torah-centered community of responsibility and friendship, according to the school’s website, The mission is to instill in each student a love of learning and deep understanding of each one’s unique role as a Jewish woman.
In addition to the Torah-centered approach, Mesorah also offers college preparatory classes and focuses on the important to secular subjects like math, science, history, language arts, drama psychology and more. School officials also believe it is important for students to participate in community service projects.
Mesorah’s first day of classes will be Wednesday, Aug. 22.
A representative from Mesorah didn’t respond to emails or phone calls for comments.
Torah Day School of Dallas also has a big year ahead when classes begin Friday, Aug. 24. It is celebrating its 10th anniversary; a celebration is planned for later in the year.
“This is going to be another exciting year,” said headmaster Rabbi Yerachmiel Udman. “We have a great staff, students and families. The challenge is always finding ways to keep things fresh, and I believe we are able to accomplish that each year. Our mission and vision is to give our children the best of both worlds, providing them with a Jewish connection and a wonderful secular education so they are prepared to take on the world after they leave Torah Day School.”
Udman is looking forward to several achievements this year. Enrollment is at 320 students, which he said is the biggest start the school has had. In addition, Torah Day School is implementing a talented and gifted program through the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education; providing an expanded computer lab for middle schoolers; getting three smartboards (interactive computer screens that are the size of white boards); and adding 4,000 square feet of classroom space.
Texas Torah Institute, a Yeshiva high school for boys, will begin its second year at the Haymann Family Campus on Wednesday, Aug. 29, with a record increase in enrollment, executive director Rabbi Yaacov Cohen said.
More than 40 high-school students are expected this year, Cohen said, up from 30 last school year. TTI provides a seven-year program that emphasizes self-awareness and self-growth, while always valuing in-depth study, according to its website,
Other than continuing to break in the new campus, not much is new at TTI, Cohen said.
“Every year is a new year,” he said. “We prepare our students for success in their career as well as in life by giving each student individual attention.”
The TTI curriculum is designed to give kids a breadth of knowledge and understanding of the Torah, according to its website. Additionally, all students are required to attend weekly classes focusing on character development, psychology, relationships and human nature, all based on Torah sources and texts.
Public-school students will begin classes the week of Monday, Aug. 27, with most bells ringing that day or the day after. Among non-Jewish private schools, Hockaday opens on Thursday, Aug. 23, while Greenhill, St. Mark’s, Episcopal School of Dallas and Parish Day School all start Aug. 28.

Takin’ it to the schools: Outreach efforts go public

By Josh Lipowsky

TEANECK, N.J. (JTA) — When Rabbi Adam Raskin arrived at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Md., last year, he was determined to reach out to teenagers uninvolved with the Conservative synagogue’s youth activities.
He approached the principal of Winston Churchill High School, also in Potomac, with a proposal to bring food to the school periodically, so he could schmooze with Jewish students during their lunch periods.

Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Md., — and formerly of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson — brings kosher subs to a local public high school to connect with Jewish students there. | Photo: Courtesy Rabbi Adam Raskin

“I decided that the best way to connect with them is to go to where they are,” he said.
Raskin — the former longtime rabbi at Richardson’s Congregation Beth Torah — is not alone in that thinking. Jewish groups have long been reaching out to teens to fight post-b’nai mitzvah burnout. For several years now, some organizations have been taking Judaism directly to teens in their schools.
In 2002, a group of Persian Jewish students in a Los Angeles public high school decided that they wanted to do something Jewish and sent an email to a yeshiva in Israel that eventually reached the Orthodox Union. That was the beginning of the Jewish Student Union, the OU’s public school outreach program.
Now some 10,000 high school students, of various observance levels, at more than 250 JSU clubs across the country, get together over kosher pizza during their lunch periods to talk about Israel, what happened in class that day or anything else on their minds.
“It’s the one place in schools Jewish kids can spend time with each other,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, the international director of NCSY, the OU’s group for teens. “The ultimate goal is to encourage the kids to do something Jewish. Wherever that journey takes them is up to them.”
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism doesn’t have a program similar to JSU, but the organization is looking toward “a whole new era of youth engagement,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue.
“We’re also looking, in a very broad sense, at how we can better connect with children and teens and how we can strengthen learning in Conservative synagogues — not just classroom learning but all sorts of learning, experiential and otherwise,” he said.
In Maryland, Winston Churchill High welcomed Raskin on the condition that he handle all of his own promotion. Shortly after the High Holy Days, the rabbi began showing up in school with sandwiches from a local kosher deli, and some 30 students have joined him throughout the year. Some are members of the synagogue, some had gone to preschool there but haven’t been back since and some are completely unaffiliated, but all are welcome, he said.
“He wants to get to know everybody and make us have a good time, both at the synagogue and away from the synagogue, with our Jewish identity,” said Emily Dahl, a rising junior.
Jenna Cantor, a recent Churchill graduate, also praised the rabbi’s efforts.
“Everybody enjoyed coming together with their fellow Jewish students during a different setting during a normal school day,” she said. “It’s nice to bond over religion at school.”
Discussions have ranged from what it’s like to be Jewish in the school, to what happened in history class that day. The conversations are organic and student-led, Raskin said, and that’s the way he wants it — light and informal, allowing students freedom of expression.
“Some of the most interesting outcomes have been when everybody else leaves, some kids stay and talk about personal issues, share life stories,” he said. “That’s been tremendous. I don’t know where we would have had that opportunity or they felt safe enough to have that sort of conversation.”
The program has become so popular that Har Shalom parents whose children attend other area high schools have begun asking the rabbi to replicate the program. Raskin also has had preliminary conversations with the students about formalizing the event into a Jewish student club.
However, the most important result, he said, is the positive connections that the lunches are creating for the students with each other, the rabbi and the synagogue.
“Not everybody will do that for high-schoolers,” Dahl said. “We felt we were appreciated and he cared what we had to say.”
Until ending its national operations last year when it handed responsibilities to regional offices in San Francisco and Baltimore, The Curriculum Initiative had spearheaded Jewish programming on the national level for non-Jewish private schools for 15 years. Neely Snyder, director of teen engagement at The Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore, runs the Teens Can Identify program there in 14 private schools, reaching 1,500 students, of whom 850 are Jewish.
“Many are looking to meet other Jewish students or reconnect with old friends,” she said. “And others are primarily interested in exploring their Jewish identity as they are beginning to define for themselves who they are and how they relate to the world.”
Some TCI programs in the past year have included challah and hamantaschen-baking, discussions on Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held in captivity by Hamas for more than five years until his release last fall, and a week of events marking Sukkot — all implemented in collaboration with Jewish student leaders, Snyder said. TCI programming not only has enhanced diversity in the schools, she added, but also has led to personal growth among students.
Snyder credits TCI’s inclusion of Jewish and non-Jewish students as a reason behind its success.
“The Jewish cultural conversations and holiday celebrations held at these schools are open to everyone, and the Jewish students have demonstrated more interest in being present when their peers are there as well,” she said. “This also expands the conversation to universal themes so that anyone, regardless of background, is comfortable and has something to contribute.”
With TCI operating solely in private schools, issues that breach church-state separation are not brought up, but they do remain a concern for public school programs.
In 1984, Congress adopted the Equal Access Act, which allowed public schools to make their facilities available to religious student-led and -run organizations. The Supreme Court upheld the act.
The Anti-Defamation League, however, finds the idea of any religious organization in public schools “disturbing,” according to Steven Freeman, the organization’s director of legal affairs. Despite the Supreme Court’s approval, the ADL remains wary of blurring the line separating church and state.
“That line is a very slippery line,” Freeman said. “Now it’s a question of making sure there isn’t proselytizing going on.”
The ADL’s sentiment appears to be shared by the Union for Reform Judaism.
“We’re very uncomfortable with the notion of religion in public spaces,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, URJ’s senior vice president.
Some URJ congregations offer after-school programming for students, he said, also noting that URJ has sent youth group advisers to some prep schools at the schools’ invitation. Freelander praised efforts to reach out to unaffiliated Jewish students, “but it’s unlikely you’re going to see Reform programs moving into public school buildings,” he said.
When initially creating the JSU model, the OU, too, was concerned about separation issues, but looked to the plethora of Christian clubs meeting in public schools as precedent, Burg said. All students, Jewish or not and of any observance level, are welcome in JSU clubs and no proselytizing takes place, he added.
“There’s so much to be gained by going to them, especially when it comes to kids,” Raskin said of outreach efforts. “It just demonstrates that they’re an important population and we care about them.”

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