You Should Know… Leilah Mooney Joseph

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Leilah Mooney Joseph. Photo Courtesy.

Leilah Mooney Joseph grew up with a reverence for teachers and the teaching profession, which ultimately led to her working alongside educational institutions in communications roles. But now Joseph is taking it one step further, working in Jewish education as the director of schools K-12 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Can you explain your responsibility as the director of schools at Adas Israel?

I oversee our supplemental religious schools … including pre-K through sixth grade as our core religious school program and then our seventh through 12th grade program, which is called Ma’alot, which is the Hebrew word for steps. And so overall, across all those grades, we have just under 500 students and classes are in session Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

What are the specific things that you oversee within the school?

I work in partnership with Rabbi Kerrith Solomon, who’s our congregational director of education. Her portfolio includes not only the supplemental school that I work in, but also the Gan, which is Adas’ preschool. She provides the leadership for our school and rabbinic guidance, and she works in a pastoral role with us and with our students and families. And I handle the administrative side of things. So, I hire, manage and train the teachers, put the classes together, work with parents and kids to make sure that we understand everybody’s learning needs. I work with my staff to evaluate the curriculum and create lesson plans, making sure that we have everything we need supply-wise. I run the carpool line in the parking lot. My job is fun because my job is different day-to-day, I sort of wear a lot of hats here. My kids call me the principal, you’re the principal mom of the religious school, which I think is pretty accurate.

What is the personal importance of doing this educational work with Jewish students?

I would say, without exaggerating, that it means everything to me. I feel like it is holy work. I feel like it is a huge privilege to be able to be with kids and families as they go on their Jewish journey together. Whenever I talk to other parents or people of an older generation, we all remember our religious school experiences. And they shaped us in many ways, whether that was going to a day school or going to a synagogue school, whether that’s because you loved it or you begrudgingly went. And for so many people there’s a defining moment in your Jewish education that shapes your relationship with Judaism as an adult. I think to be able to be present and have a hand in that with the kids in the Adas community is really meaningful. It’s special and rewarding. And I take it very seriously.

How did you get involved with this job at Adas Israel?

We’ve [My husband and I] always loved Adas and considered it to be our home. And as we got married and had kids, they started in the religious school here … And on the career side of things, I was working with the American Federation of Teachers in communications roles, largely focused on things like education policy, like teacher training and curriculum development. I’m also the child of a teacher and have always felt like educators were my heroes, and I really always wanted to work on their behalf. After being at the American Federation of Teachers, I went to an organization called the Institute for Educational Leadership. Again, working in that sort of education, policy supportive role in that organization. And then making the transition to doing similar work at Hillel, trying to support Jewish educators and really see what they did, and I was very happy to say it felt like starting to bring my personal and career worlds together in that moment at Hillel. And I was really moved, seeing just how Jewish professionals and Jewish educators were supporting college students during a tough time. That was during the pandemic. And we were already starting to see some of the seeds of what was going on with antisemitism and social media around the conflict in Israel. And so, when the opportunity came up at Adas for somebody to do the management, administrative side of the religious school, it just really felt like one of those meant-to-be-moments. I jumped at it and went headfirst into this exciting new role, and it’s been wonderful. It’s been really rewarding.

What have you been proud of being able to help bring to the school since you’ve been in this role?

On the more tactile side of things, we were able to complete some really important technological upgrades for the religious school and I think modernizing both our spaces and our way of doing business a little bit in a way that’s been really helpful. I think that really makes for a better educational experience for everybody. We’ve improved our registration and student database systems, our parent communication systems, and we’ve also been able to install smart devices in our classrooms and empower teachers to use Chromebooks and other smart technology to have access to more interesting curricular materials and multimedia … I think it’s more on par with what they’re used to seeing in their secular schools. I think that’s been really wonderful.

How does your Jewish identity impact you on a day-to-day level?

I’m so immersed in it [Jewish life] right now. My two-year-old goes to Jewish preschool and I work here in the synagogue and my six-year-old and my eight-year-old will come to religious school here. We have a Jewish home and celebrate Shabbat here every Friday and go to services. But I think that the truth about my Jewish identity is that it drives everything that I do. So, when my kids get into an argument over their Legos, the way that we resolve it is using a teshuva framework that we teach here at Adas. When somebody has a baby or a death in the family or another life cycle event, the way that we show up for them and support them is rooted in everything we know about how Jewish people take care of each other and have done for the last 3,000 years.

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