You Should Know… Abby Kerbel

Abby Kerbel. Photo by Mat Barkan

If you don’t know Abby Kerbel, you likely know someone in her family or someone who knows her, or her family. Her father, Steve, is a life-long Jewish educator; mom Judy is an avid Israeli folk dancer and community volunteer.

“My father’s whole side of the family are Jewish communal professionals; my mom’s whole side of the family are Jewish lay leaders,” Kerbel said. It was no surprise when Kerbel, 35 and a Silver Spring resident who attends Segulah Minyan, followed in her family’s footsteps. She is entering her fifth year at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, where she is director of Jewish life and the middle school Judaics teacher. She also directs Judaics at Ramah DC Day Camp.

As a professional Jewish educator, you seem to find opportunities to wear pink tutus, sparkles, glitter, sequins and the like.

Yes. I’m a creative, fun-loving person. I love imagining and program planning and whimsy and tutus — things that a 5-year-old finds amusing, I also find amusing. So I try to bring childlike amusement to most of the things I do.

Tell us what you do at Gesher Jewish Day School.

I am responsible for school-wide Jewish programming — Shabbat, holidays, Yom Ha’atzma’ut. I also teach middle school Judaics, Tanach [Bible], rabbinics, Jewish history, tefilah [prayer] and as part of my role as director of Jewish life, I also teach Israeli dance in the elementary school and this will be the third year our middle school has an Israeli dance performing group.

Why is Israeli dance an important part of Jewish education?

It’s whole-person learning. It is kinesthetic; it is audio; it is visual; it is movement; it is meaning. All of that can be done through Israeli dancing. It’s also inherently communal. The original Israeli dances were done in circles holding hands, so there’s an inherent community built into the activity. Today, a lot of kids and younger people prefer line dances, but even so, you’re doing it together in a group. Israeli dancing is also a gateway. So even if you’re not particularly observant or knowledgeable Jewishly, it’s still accessible.

It’s not just about academic learning. From an educator’s standpoint, cultural and whole-person learning allows students to access different modalities of learning. Not all our kids are going to enjoy learning by sitting at a desk or through writing, or even through art. But lots of kids like to move. And when you’ve got a school of a hundred-something kids and fun music playing, they’re going to get up and dance and express themselves physically. Israeli dance gives us a way to do that culturally that ties into other things we study.

When did you begin Israeli dancing?

My first Israeli dance festival was the New York festival in 1988 when my mom was pregnant with me. I can’t remember when I started dancing.

How often do you dance each week?

I usually attend two Israeli dance sessions a week. Then I rehearse two days a week. I’m in two performing groups, Mavrik, which is an all-female, mostly young professionals Israeli dance troupe. Kef is a newer group, which started right before the pandemic, and we missed our first performance because of the pandemic.

Gesher is a multi-denominational community school. How do you teach tefilah, or prayer?

One of our goals is … standardization of tefilah curriculum. We’ve done a lot of mechanics of teaching the actual prayers. Now we’re shifting our focus from the prayers being the end to the prayers being a means to an end. That means developing more meaning, understanding, connection, wonder and gratitude as students get older. They should also be able to articulate conceptions of the divine and get exposed to multiple modalities and philosophies of prayer.

And because we’re a community school, we expose students to different denominational ideas through prayer by inviting local clergy into, especially, the middle school. We want our students to come out of Gesher with a sense of tefilah as a Jewish value, as a means of connecting with the divine and also with other Jews. And that there are multiple ways to do that. So Reform prayer looks different than Conservative or Orthodox.

What are your hopes for this generation of Jewish students?

The Jewish community tends to catastrophize a lot about Jewish education …. I think, though, by having my dad as a role model for this, that the kids are alright. There’s a lot to being a kid today. My philosophy of Jewish education is that Judaism provides a framework … where [kids] learn to be good people. In terms of morality and ethics and values, that’s where we do a good job. So as long as we keep that goal in mind that we want to create more Jews and we want to create more participatory Jews, but we want the Jews we create to also be good citizens of the world, that’s all we can ask for. ■

Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.

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