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New Torah Academy Principal Makes a 'Pitch' for Inclusion

March 19, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Shmuel Jablon

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon's office is lined with baseball tomes and Torah commentaries, Phillies flags and illustrations of the Temple Mount in ancient times.

The new principal of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia's lower school is not shy about his love of America's pastime, nor does he hesitate to use baseball lore to inculcate Jewish values in his listeners. In fact, his office, fittingly, resembles a classroom; he teaches Mishnah there several times a week.

"We are trying to build on an already good school, and make it one of the finest Jewish day schools in the country by being a professional, child-centered, organized school that meets the needs of all the kids in the community," said Jablon, a St. Louis native. He took over this summer after spending seven years running the well-regarded Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland.

In many ways, the 40-year-old Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in the Reform movement and earned a master's degree from a Conservative institution, represents a stylistic change for a school that, perhaps unfairly, has been perceived to be more aligned with the right-leaning strands within Orthodoxy.

For starters, unlike his predecessor, Rabbi Joshua Levy, Jablon favors business-casual attire over the black suit and white shirt normally worn by various groups of haredi, or so-called ultra-Orthodox.

He is also a staunch religious Zionist who says that he mostly speaks Hebrew to his four young children.

He downplayed the notion that he represents a major break for the 46-year-old Wynnewood school, which has about 270 students from nursery-school age up to eighth-graders. Boys and girls learn together through the third grade. (The Torah Academy Girls High School is, largely, a separate institution, though it shares the same building. It has about 70 students.)

"In the past, I'm told that people may have had the perception that the school only represented one part of the Orthodox community," said the new principal. "Certainly, I think the faculty and I are clear proof that we are for everybody. We now have faculty that represents various kinds of Orthodoxy, and currently have students and parents that represent various kinds of Orthodoxy.

"We teach Orthodox Judaism, but we represent a very inclusive model," stressed Jablon. "Whether the child is descended from a line of great rabbis or never before opened up a Jewish book, we want to meet all of their needs. We want them to feel that this is a second home."

Amir Goldman, president of the school's board of directors, said that parents sought educational bona fides when searching for the new head of school, not someone who espoused a particular religious perspective.

"We saw his success in Cleveland, and we wanted to replicate that success in drawing families into the community," he said.

Jablon holds a master's in education from what's now known as the American University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

He has insisted that all curriculum be explicitly spelled out and posted on the school's Web site to facilitate transparency and accountability.

Yet right now, he thinks "the biggest challenge is the economy. There are other things that we would like to do if we had more staff and more money for programming. There is some comfort in that we are not alone." 

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