By Sara Serfaty ‘18
In a Jewish day school on the Upper West Side, it is natural that the majority of the faculty would be Jewish. Indeed, while Jewish life permeates all aspects of Heschel – from a curriculum that includes Judaic Studies and Hebrew, to Color War’s exploration of a different Jewish holiday each year, to mandatory prayers each morning – not all of Heschel’s faculty are Jewish.
In the physical education department, Rick Munn taught “a class of Heschel kids,” as he put it, and later coached an after-school athletic program in the former Heschel building before officially being hired, and Jezel Encarnacion (formerly Rodriguez) previously worked at Stern College. Social studies teacher Joe Moreau and biology teacher Kathleen Civetta discovered Heschel though educator employment agencies that place teachers in independent schools across New York City.
Though all coming from different backgrounds, all four of these teachers – though by no means all of the non-Jewish people employed by Heschel – identify, to some extent, with a branch of Christianity. Moreover, none have described any discomfort with the religious atmosphere prevalent throughout the school. In fact, each of them has found different aspects of the school culture they appreciate.
“What I like best about Judaism is, to put it simply, the arguing,” Rick, who has been teaching in various Heschel divisions for 21 years, said. Rick calls himself a “lapsed Catholic” and fondly recalled various instances where students challenged his thinking and have provided valuable insights and thoughtful questions. Rick explained that his students pushed him to further nuance his explanations of the effectiveness of basketball plays, and they have honed his own critical thinking skills.
Joe expressed a similar sentiment when reflecting not only on his enjoyment of the Heschel community, but also on why he chose to raise his kids Jewish although he has not, and does not plan to, convert. “I wanted to raise my kids with a sense of community and comfort within religious tradition, and I felt most comfortable with the Jewish one,” he reflected. Joe particularly highlighted the emphasis on text study, debate, and critical thinking as opposed to providing easy answers and dogma, the latter of which he felt was a component of his Catholic upbringing. Because his wife is Jewish, he has traveled in Israel, and has recently celebrated his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, Joe expressed that he feels comfortable teaching at Heschel.
The other three teachers have attributed their comfort at Heschel to some level of religious camaraderie they see between their faith and Judaism. “It’s fascinating,” Rick began, “we all have a Judeo-Christian basic value system. I was surprised to learn how much of Catholicism is taken from Judaism and changed around a little bit.”
Other teachers, like Jezel, framed it slightly differently. “I consider myself to be a Judeo-Christian; as a Christian, I also believe in the Jewish roots of what I believe in,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a Jew and a gentile – I think we’re all one. I don’t see us as separate.” Jezel notes that working in a Jewish school has further informed her understanding of the Old Testament, particularly during celebrations of Jewish holidays like Purim and Passover. Somewhat similarly, Kathleen enjoys teaching here because it is a “faith-based school” that brings additional meaning to all that it does, such as “a recognition that individuals are sacred.”
It seems that what truly brings everyone together is the fact that Heschel is a community. “My kids went to school right next to Heschel and would come to Heschel every day after school – they’d have sleepovers with kids from Heschel and be friends with them, and they’re still Facebook friends,” Rick said. Jezel realized her appreciation for the true extent of the community when she saw teachers walking with their spouses and families on the Shabbaton. Kathleen has joined the Heschel Notes, the adult choir of parents, faculty, and alumni, where she’s learned how to pronounce Hebrew words and phrases.
And Joe has said, perhaps like many current students, that he lives in a “Jewish bubble,” a member of the Jewish community both in his school and home life. This, he noted, has been one of the biggest challenges he’s faced teaching at Heschel. “Sometimes I have to speak for someone who’s from outside of the community, which I feel awkward about. I would rather have, ‘Oh! We actually have a selection of people with different perspectives, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds,’” he said. “That doesn’t immediately happen inside a Jewish school, and you can work around it, but that’s one aspect of being in ‘the bubble’ as a teacher.”