It’s been 22 years, but Rabbi Dr. Hillel Broder is back where he started — at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, which he attended from kindergarten through sixth grade. Sitting in his office in the newly renovated administrative wing of the school, he’s reflective and thoughtful about his journey home and his new role as head of school.
The halls are familiar as are some of the teachers, he said, including his former English teachers Daniel Virgilio and Victoria Plaza, history teacher Norma Johnson, and science teacher Susan Oppenheim, among others, who had Broder in their classes.
Virgilio taught Broder as a seventh grader at Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring. “It was maybe my second year teaching middle school, but Hillel is one of those kids that you remember … and because I taught some of his family members — cousins — I heard about what he was doing as an adult.” As a middle schooler, Virgilio remembers his former student as “gentle, considerate, kind, very curious.”
While Broder, 39, holds multiple advanced degrees, including his smichah, or rabbinic ordination, from Rabbi Ari Enkin, on his graduation from Yeshiva of Greater Washington, he began his post-Yeshiva education as an English major, intending to attend law school. Now a published poet, he focused his graduate studies on British and German modernism, writing a master’s thesis on Czech Jewish author Franz Kafka and Taoism — the ancient Chinese philosophy of living in harmony. His doctoral dissertation — “Wandering in Contemporary Literature: A Narrative Theory of Cognition” — sets forth a philosophical and “ethical critique of representing cognition, memory, and narrative identity.”
“I’ve never stopped being in school,” he said, noting that he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees while teaching high school English full time. “I’ve been perpetually a student almost my entire adult life. I love it. Right now, I’m completing another master’s in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University” via distance and online learning.
He has no plans to stay in the administrative wing at Berman, which has 731 students on its roster this year. The first week of school, he was seen dropping into classes from the preschool through high school.
This fall, Broder is also back in the classroom, co-teaching 10th grade English with Plaza and Virgilio, his own former teachers. The syllabus will likely include “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Great Gatsby,” along with “post-war diasporic literatures ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ ‘The Chosen’ and others. We’re trying to hit on literature representing multiple Americans, covering African-American narratives, Latin-American narratives.”
For Virgilio, teaching alongside his former student is a pleasure, particularly as the two share a love of poetry. “As a teacher,” Virgilio said, “you can’t ask for more than to be able to reflect on your process and your legacy at the same time…. And to see how the younger generation of teachers, like Hillel, can so easily use technology in the classroom is both exhilarating and humbling.”
“I taught 10th grade English for 10 years,” Broder noted. “I’m excited about that opportunity to be in the classroom. For me, my classroom is my sanctuary. It’s where I where recover and remember why I do what I do.”
Before school began Aug. 29, during this past spring and summer, Broder spent time on a listening tour, meeting with school administrators, board members, parents, faculty, staff and students.
“This school has incredible strengths,” he said. “The students love coming to school. The faculty is incredibly passionate about their subjects. The parents are very invested. The professional and lay leaders take their jobs very seriously.”
With that track record, he has no plans to make any immediate changes. “I have a lot to learn. This is a very diverse school community. As a Modern Orthodox school, it draws from a number of communities, far more so than my experience in New York community schools.“Through listening and learning, I’ll be able to develop themes and ideas to create an action plan first for focus groups, and then to the community,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he has no hopes to enhance the curriculum and extra-curricular options. “I co-founded a poetry slam league for Jewish high schools in New York. We had 15 high schools competing for 10 years in performance poetry. I also created a scholars’ program in at least two schools. I have a vision for rolling that out here to enhance the academic program as an extracurricular option for students, a feather in their cap, if you will,” he said. “I see it as an interdisciplinary scholars’ program to delve into introductory texts of Jewish thought, Jewish philosophy that embrace human[istic] and literary study of the Bible.”
And he doesn’t want Berman Hebrew Academy educational assets to end upon high school graduation.
“I also would like to develop some adult education programs here. This school could grow by centering itself as a hub for adult learning in the community,” Broder said. “The school does a great job bringing in parents to learn about their children’s education, participating in their children’s education and extracurricular activities. But I’d love to bring [the community] in for Torah classes and book clubs … and learning for adults in different settings.”
Outside of school, when Broder isn’t studying for his second master’s degree, he participates in daf yomi — the daily practice of studying a page of Talmud. He prioritizes spending time with his family — spouse, Eva, and his six children. The family is still looking for a permanent home in the Kemp Mill area of Silver Spring, where they have a number of synagogues to choose from, and Broder plans to partake of numerous Shabbat services as a new community leader in the area.
He said he’ll miss easy access to the water, though. “We lived in Long Beach, N.Y., and we’d often go fishing, biking, spending time outside. My children are athletic: my five boys like basketball and my daughter plays basketball and baseball.”
A Renaissance man, Broder also appreciates art: “If I can get away to a museum and see the latest exhibit, I’m more than happy to spend a few hours just looking at art.” He also enjoys poetry readings and some theater.
Aside from maintaining what he called Berman’s high level of teaching and academic success as the school continues to grow, Broder is committed to the spiritual and prayer lives of its students. “I plan to rotate through all the minyanim [prayer services],” he said, across the lower, middle and upper schools. Teaching prayer for Broder means allowing each student to develop a personal relationship with God.
He wants to take prayer, in a sense, off the page, saying that students sometimes have trouble accessing their spirituality and “lose sight of the God-centered part, and also the divinity of oneself. Learning to trust the divinity of oneself is important. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, who was one of my spiritual teachers from a hundred years ago, wrote that before one prays, one needs to listen to one’s own soul, because one’s soul is always praying.”
Broder contextualizes this new year and his new role through his study of midrash, or rabbinic commentary. “The midrash says, ‘All beginnings are difficult,’ and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of my spiritual teachers says, ‘Why are all beginnings difficult? He says, all beginnings are difficult because there is no road; there is no pathway forward. You have to make it yourself.’”
“I won’t be making this road by myself,” he continued. “I know there are a lot of different well-trod roads I’m looking at …. We’re looking forward now in history, so, we’ll see how it unfolds.” ■
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.