Dan Finkel, 38, recently began his tenure as head of Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax following a long search for a replacement after the school’s former head, Zvi Schoenberg, departed July of 2014. He takes the reigns at a time of tremendous growth in enrollment; Gesher will start the 2015-2016 school year this September with nearly 20 percent more students than last year.
Two of the new students will be Finkel’s son Oren, 8, entering third grade, and daughter Yaara, 5, beginning kindergarten.
Finkel was born in Riverdale, N.Y. and grew up in Atlanta. His background in Jewish education includes stints at Camp Ramah Dora in Clayton, Ga.; The Weber School, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Atlanta; and most recently Judaic studies principal at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, Calif.
Currently a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Connecticut, Finkel holds a BA in biological basis of behavior from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in Judaic studies and Jewish education from the Laura and Alvin Siegal College of Judaic Studies in Cleveland, now known as the Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Case Western Reserve University following a partnership formed in early 2012.
Finkel recently talked with us about his new gig, background in Jewish education and moonlighting as a bass player.
Where do you envision taking Gesher?
I have a specific vision in terms of what Jewish education means, but as I’m landing on the ground right now I think the specific direction that’s right for this school and this community isn’t something that I could really know yet. I’m really hitting the ground both running and learning and trying to understand the particular niche that Gesher occupies in the community and what the opportunities are for growth specifically. Gesher already has done a really beautiful job of holding onto the really important traditional aspect of Jewish education while at the same time tapping into the cutting edge and innovative pieces that educators are talking about when they say things like 21st century education.
What are some of the biggest challenges in growing Gesher?
I guess like any independent school there’s the price tag. So we certainly deal with that. It costs money to go here and the public schools are great so I think what we have to do is communicate the added value that you get when you go to a Jewish school. In some ways we’re doing that well and other ways we can probably do that even better.
Tell us about your background in Jewish education and how you plan to bring that experience to your new role?
I’m wrapping up a Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of Connecticut, studying religion and ritual from the human evolution perspective. I bring a perspective on the role of religion for humans broadly that maybe many Jewish educators, if you’ve gone through the traditional path, wouldn’t bring. The specific topic that I studied as part of that degree was the impact of ritual, especially musical rituals, on trust and cooperation. So as I come into the school one of the things that I’m thinking about very carefully is what the culture is here. What are the norms? What are the values? What are the traditions? What are the rituals that already exist and what potential is there for creating new norms, values, traditions and rituals that will really increase the commitment of the numbers to the culture.
What is your favorite pastime?
I play the bass. I’ve been in bands my whole life. And I like camping and backpacking.