Head of school loves learning from kids

Rabbi Larry Scheindlin takes the mike.

He squats behind a thick plastic sheet that forms the screen of a cardboard television set, and lobs questions in Hebrew to the first-graders assembled on a rug in front of him.

The kids are delighted that Scheindlin, headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy (SAA), is at their eye level, and that he has stepped in as anchorman in their Hebrew class on a recent Thursday morning.

Scheindlin, in turn, is delighted to witness and then demonstrate the brand of active, creative learning that he believes is his greatest accomplishment in 35 years at the elementary and middle school in Westwood.

“It’s not so much that teachers teach, but that kids learn,” Scheindlin said. “The teacher’s job is to structure activities that are going to get kids interested, that are going to engage them and get them to struggle mentally with a subject, to play mentally to find solutions to problems. They get guidance from teachers as they go through that intellectual struggle. That means a lot of activities are going to be project-based, hands-on activities and collaborative activities among students.”

Scheindlin is retiring after this school year, and he will be feted at a dinner celebration this weekend called “This Is the School That Larry Built.”

“He brings to the table an uncommon combination of a really strong intellect, insatiable intellectual curiosity, educational vision, and rabbinic knowledge and rabbinic presence,” said SAA board chairman Lora Silverman, herself an alumna, and a parent of a graduate and two eighth-graders at the school. “It’s a testament not just to his character, but to his unusual and very capable mind that he was able to build this amazing school.”

Scheindlin, 67, told the board when his contract was renewed in 2007 that this would be his last round.

“Thirty-five years is a long time,” Scheindlin said. “I’ve always liked when I’ve seen people go out when they’re at the top, and I feel like I’m still at the top and ready to do some other things,” he said. He plans to consult and to focus on writing articles and maybe a book about education.

While the school supports Scheindlin’s decision, Silverman said, “There’s been a fair amount of angst in the school community over this, because he is not perceived as someone who is finished,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult for many of us who have worked with him for a long time to say goodbye.”

Rabbi Larry Scheindlin in the very early days, playing with Akiba students

The school last week named Sarah Shulkind, currently middle school principal at Milken Community High School, the new Head of School at SAA. Scheindlin will continue working at the school part time through the middle of next year to help Shulkind transition into the position.

When Scheindlin was hired as headmaster in 1977, Akiba Academy, founded in 1968 as Los Angeles’ first Conservative Jewish day school, had 170 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The oldest of his own three children was in sixth grade at that time.

Today, Scheindlin is a grandfather, and the school, which merged with Sinai Temple in 1986, has 540 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, plus another 170 in the preschool, with both schools on a twice-renovated campus that is more than double the size it was when he started. He seeded an endowment in 1978 that is now at $8 million — one of the largest at any Jewish day school in the country.

Scheindlin, who grew up in Philadelphia and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was a pulpit rabbi for eight years prior to coming to SAA. He earned a master’s in education at UCLA in 1981, but he says it was visiting classrooms every day that concretized his educational philosophy.

“A teacher always has to be aware of, am I instructing the kids in such a way that these kids are going to be able to gain knowledge and skills and solve problems? I need to understand my kids and how they think and what they love and what motivates them. I need to understand how I as a human being connect with them and inspire them, because they’re the ones that have to do the learning. If you start to think of it that way, it flips the whole concept of what teaching ought to be,” Scheindlin said.

He wants teachers to focus on children’s emotional development as much as on their acquisition of knowledge and skills, because emotions play a crucial role in decision making through adulthood, Scheindlin said.

During a recent morning tour of the school, active learning was visible everywhere: Middle-schoolers clustered in corridors and the library, reading aloud in small groups. Eighth-graders rolled portable desks into working groups to sift through plastic bins of different-colored beans in a math class exercise on proportions, averages and extrapolation.

In a sixth-grade Judaic studies class, students dispersed into the library, the computer lab and the art studio to develop campaign materials promoting Joshua as the leader to succeed Moses when the Jews enter the Promised Land.

SAA is part of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School network, and students study traditional texts in Hebrew. Scheindlin wants teachers to help kids find themselves in the text, and kids keep a God journal, where they jot down ideas during other classes.

Rabbi Larry Scheindlin dressed for Purim as a baker, one of his many costumes

“I want kids … to take seriously the question of, what is my role in the Jewish community, what is my role in the larger community, and what is my role in the world community. I want them to think of Torah and Jewish experience as one of the most important tools they have to figure that out,” Scheindlin said.

Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, noted that while the school adheres to high academic standards, Scheindlin also has created an atmosphere of respect and personal responsibility.

Scheindlin models this, Wolpe says, as he handles with grace what is a very demanding, high-pressure position.

“Through all these years, he’s stayed extraordinarily even-tempered, kind and thoughtful. He’s a steady, helpful, wise man,” Wolpe said. “I don’t know where he gets his temperament, but I envy it.”

The student population has evolved during Scheindlin’s tenure. When he started, day schools attracted only the most traditional of the Conservative movement, but now a wider spectrum of Jews are interested in a quality education in a Jewish environment.

The school has absorbed a large population of Iranian families, a process it undertook, along with Sinai Temple, with a deliberate focus on social integration among students and parents.

Scheindlin has also worked hard to make technology a meaningful part of the curriculum, and created a support system for students with learning and physical disabilities. He has eight resource people on staff, working both with the gifted and the challenged students, and a remodel four years ago built new pullout rooms near most classrooms. All teachers are trained in in-class methods of teaching to students at all levels. In this area and others, Scheindlin values continuing education for his faculty, and mentors teachers and elevates them when he sees potential, board chair Silverman said.

And, he lets faculty and students alike see his lighter side.

“I adore him,” Silverman said. “He’s a warm, funny, good person, and I just love hanging out with him.”

Scheindlin, who has three children and four grandchildren, is married to Alison Mayersohn, senior associate regional director at Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest office.

Rabbi Larry Scheindlin posing with portraits of himself created by fourth-graders.

He is known for his humor, which comes out especially during Purim, when he has dressed up as a geisha, the Wizard of Oz, Snow White, the Statue of Liberty and an old woman who brought out a Romanian accent he didn’t even know he had in him. His fallback costume is a baker’s apron and hat, not a far stretch, as Scheindlin loves to cook.

He used to run, before his knees and ankles protested, but he still exercises regularly and had to give up playing piano when he realized he had time only to practice piano or exercise, but not both. He hopes to get back to those avocations when his schedule relaxes after he retires, but mostly he is looking forward to uninterrupted blocks of time to research and write.

But there are some moments he will especially miss.

As a group of children walks down the hall, Scheindlin gives a wistful smile when a second-grader casually calls out, “Hey, Rabbi.”

And as he signs off from the first-graders’ cardboard television set and leaves the room, a student calls after him,  “Bye, Rabbi! I wish you don’t retire!”