Jay Leberman, longtime head of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, is leaving his post at the end of the next school year to become an associate director of KIVUNIM, a Jerusalem-based experiential learning program for teens and teachers.
After years of infusing children with Zionism, Leberman said, it was time to heed his own message — especially now that he's got the pull of family in Israel. His three grown sons, Hemi, Hanan and Boaz, already made aliyah. (His youngest child, 19-year-old daughter Yael, will remain in the United States attending school in New York.)
"I don't want to be a bystander anymore, I want to be a participant and part of a new generation of Israelis" while "I'm still young enough and vibrant and enthusiastic and capable of making a difference," said the 55-year-old Lower Merion resident.
Although Israel has always been close at heart, Leberman has dedicated his career thus far to the challenge of making day school education accessible and sustainable.
Leberman grew up attending Conservative movement schools in Albany, N.Y., going on to obtain a bachelor's degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem followed by a masters of philosophy in Jewish studies from the University of Oxford. He spent five years teaching in England before returning to the United States to become the principal of the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Chicago in Northbrook, Ill.
"It was one of my greatest thrills when I became a principal," Leberman said.
He spent 12 years there before moving to Philadelphia in 1997 to become head of the Conservative-affiliated Perelman, a job that includes overseeing the school's branches as well as fundraising.
When he began here, Perelman consisted of two elementary schools: the Stern Center in Wynnewood and the Forman Center at the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park.
Under Leberman's tenure, Perelman opened a Bucks County elementary school in 2000 and Saligman Middle School the following year in a building next to Forman. At one point, Perelman counted 700 students among all four schools. But enrollment never took off at the Bucks location. It closed after six years, though a bus to Forman allowed many of the roughly 60 students there to transfer to that campus.
It seemed Saligman would face a similar fate when board members in early 2009 considered a proposed merger with the middle school housed at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy on the Main Line. Hours before both schools were expected to approve the deal, Perelman backed out, to the relief of some parents who had lobbied against the change.
Since then, Leberman said, the board has rallied to operate on a tighter budget and raise the money needed to keep the school open. Enrollment has declined from a peak of 120 students to 95 this past year. Overall, 495 total students attended Perelman's three schools this year.
Although some say the community cannot continue to support two middle schools, Leberman said he is optimistic that Saligman has a bright future.
"Not only will it continue, but it will flourish and it will grow and people will vote with their feet," he said.
Leberman ranks the creation of Saligman among his greatest achievements here, along with efforts to make the entire system more inclusive and financially stable. During his first year here, he worked with board members to establish Orot, a program that allows children with special needs to attend day school.
"Jewish day school should be as public as possible. We shouldn't be seen as elite private institutions," he said.
Whether it was a special academic program or tuition assistance, Leberman fought to get whatever would allow any child to stay and succeed at Perelman, said Elliot Norry, president of the school's board of directors.
"He will personally go to bat for every one of the kids," said Norry, a doctor whose three children all went through Perelman. "He always, always puts the kids first. That is sort of the backbone of his success. The school is incredibly privileged to have had him serve us for the time that he's been here."
Leberman also made a point of providing Israel education for the staff, which is how he first became connected to KIVUNIM. Impressed by the agency's teacher training, he helped raise money to send more than 100 Perelman employees to KIVUNIM seminars over the past decade, including secretaries and maintenance staff.
"Jay understood that if we were really serious about making Israel an active part of the community, then the people who interact with the invisible part of the curriculum at the school have to also understand what it's about and be excited about it," said KIVUNIM founder Peter Geffen.
Leberman said he hopes to stay connected to Perelman staff who attend future teacher seminars, though his primary duties at KIVUNIM will center around the agency's non-denominational gap year program.
Last year, 58 high school graduates from North America took part in the yearlong experience, which includes two and a half months of traveling to Jewish communities in Morocco, India and other countries to observe how the Diaspora influences Israel.
"Jay's a unique talent," Geffen said, calling him personable and "intellectually open." "Anybody who's spent 30 years directing Jewish day schools has got to have a love of what he's doing. The fact that he was ready to make a move to Israel was a perfect coincidence."
Even as Leberman and his wife, Aviva, prepare for their big move, the educator said he intends to devote his full energies to Perelman as it goes through reaccreditation with the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools and transitions to new leadership in the coming year. The school board will assemble a search committee over the summer to begin looking for his replacement.
"While we're sad to see him go, we'll use this as a time to build," Norry said. "This is the natural progression for the school. We'll move forward and we wish him the best."
Though Leberman said Perelman's endowment has grown during his tenure from less than $3 million to now close to $20 million, he predicted that finances would remain a perennial challenge for his successor, and all day schools around the country.
Administrators can trim budgets all they want, he said, but there's still a significant cost to offer a competitive, dual curriculum.
"The landscape is not pretty right now," he said. "Our future's in our hands as a people. It's a question of what we want to do with it."