TORONTO — Laila Lipetz, the new principal of the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School, owes her career, indirectly, to a stint as a teenage kibbutz volunteer about four decades ago.
Lipetz, then known as Laila Merkur, met her kibbutznik husband the year she turned 19, and her career as a Jewish educator began by chance during the 11 years they lived in Israel.
The veteran educator, 59, replaces Rhonda Rosenheck, who was principal for the past two years.
A curriculum coordinator and vice-principal at the school during its early years, Lipetz returned to Penna last year as director of curriculum. She has also taught at Leo Baeck Day School and the Downtown Jewish Community School, and she attended Associated Hebrew Schools through Grade 8.
Lipetz, now a mother of four grown children, was married in Toronto, where she was born and raised, and moved to Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar in northern Israel when her oldest child was one year old.
With an honours BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, she was asked to teach English at the local kibbutz high school.
“I just stepped into a classroom and started teaching,” she said. At the same time, she earned a diploma that would give her teaching credentials in Israel. In time, she took on an administrative role at the kibbutz school, becoming a grade co-ordinator.
Her diploma wasn’t recognized on her return to Toronto, and she began to work as a Hebrew teacher.
In her spare time, she earned Hebrew teaching credentials at the now-defunct Midrasha L’Morim. She also earned a teaching degree and a master’s degree in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
In a letter to parents of Penna students this summer, Lipetz wrote that it was a pleasure to return to the school last year after a hiatus of nine years.
“This school suits someone like me,” she told The CJN. “It’s pluralistic. It honours diversity of practice.”
Her goals as principal include ensuring that the children “are able to make meaningful connections with Judaism, themselves and the world, and the world of knowledge.”
As well, she added, “community is so central a part of how we see ourselves here… We teach the children how to relate as a community, how to care for one another,” and make the world a better place.
The Penna school often reminds her of the kibbutz school where she started her career because of its small size (about 150 students from senior kindergarten through Grade 8), integrated curriculum, and “very thoughtful, meaningful pedagogy.”
At the kibbutz school, “they go beyond the walls of the actual school and engage with the physical environment. You go out to the fields, visit neighbouring villages.” Likewise, Penna is “a downtown-minded school. We see ourselves embracing the diversity that is downtown Toronto. We do frequent field trips to downtown venues… often we can walk to many of the venues.”
Lipetz feels her approach as an administrator was also influenced by her time in Israel, where she developed “a tremendous commitment and respect for collaboration and working together.”