TORONTO — Eric Petersiel says his philosophy as a school administrator has to change with his new role at Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto.
The new head of school, who served as principal of Leo Baeck’s south campus at Holy Blossom Temple for eight years until this summer, said in an interview that in his previous role, he tried to be everywhere at once, to the best of his ability, for parents, children and teachers who needed him.
Now, he said, his job heading the largest Reform Jewish elementary school in North America – with a total of almost 900 students divided between two campuses – is “to ensure that the day-to-day operation is safely in someone else’s hands and that the future of the school is in my hands.”
At the same time, he said, he doesn’t want to lose contact with students.
“I’ve always loved playing my guitar and singing for them,” he said. Petersiel believes that music “adds to the potential for deep spirituality.”
He has also enjoyed dressing up as “a pun” on Purim. Most recently, he wore a cardboard box (with a straw), covered with names of famous Jews. “Eventually a student figured out that I was a ‘Jews’ box,’” he said. “It may not have been my best.”
The 38-year-old educator succeeded the school’s interim director, Denny Grubbs, on July 1.
Grubbs led the school through a transition year following the resignation of David Prashker in March 2008, amid a controversy over sexually explicit and violent poetry he had posted online, and Grubbs worked closely with Petersiel for the past six months. Jonathan Harris, former principal of Fieldstone Day School, succeeds Petersiel as principal of the south branch.
Petersiel, an alumnus of University of Toronto Schools and Temple Har Zion’s supplementary school, once considered a career in the rabbinate, but realized his main area of interest was “to teach people how to make Judaism an important part of their lives.” He felt that becoming a Jewish educator would provide more direct contact to do that.
His background includes a BA from McGill University in Jewish studies and philosophy, and a B.Ed and a master’s degree in biblical Hebrew language and literature from the University of Toronto. As well, he is certified by the Reform movement as a Reform Jewish educator (RJE).
Petersiel started his career as a Jewish educator in supplementary schools at Holy Blossom and Oakville’s Shaarei Beth-El Congregation, and has also been on the faculty of Camp George for more than a decade as a volunteer professional educator.
He believes Jewish camping, in conjunction with day school education and synagogue participation, are “the three key factors that combine to create a positive and knowledgeable Jewish identity. I think they work hand in hand beautifully. It’s important to be involved in all three.”
He said that Jewish supplementary school also “has a very strong possibility of success” in achieving the same goal, when combined with the other two factors.
However, he noted, “for many families, it feels compartmentalized, because school occurs in the day, and Jewish school occurs outside of that.”
In contrast, he said, day school education is “seamless.”
Petersiel’s new role coincides with what he termed “a very exciting year” for Leo Baeck.
Not only is it the school’s 36th year of existence, but it’s the 18th year for its Thornhill campus, he noted.
As well, the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial convention will be held in Toronto in November. It will mark the first time in 30 years that it’s being held in Canada.
“We intend for the biennial to serve as our big celebration point,” said Petersiel, who plans to divide his time between the school’s two campuses.
As well, he said, the biennial provides “an opportunity to explore the significance of day school education to liberal Jews, which by and large has been considered an anomaly.”
He said Leo Baeck is planning its own professional development day immediately after the biennial.
This past June, the school launched its own siddur, aimed at students in grades 5 to 8. Petersiel, who was the driving force behind its creation, said that steps are being taken toward developing a version for younger students, with a target launch date of Pesach 2011.
Also, the school will apply this year for accreditation as an International Baccalaureate school. “That will require celebration as well,” Petersiel said. “Hopefully, it will occur in the spring. What a perfect way to cap off our 36th year.”