Navigating Changes at YULA Girls High School

August 21, 2019
Students working in the STEAM lab at YULA Photo courtesy of YULA

In November 2016, after nine years as head of school at YULA Girls High School, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman left and took a position at Shalhevet High School. Many other faculty members also left or were let go at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. 

The move was surprising and rumors swirled. Rabbi Joshua Spodek, the head of Judaic Studies and Hebrew Language at Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach since 2010 before becoming that school’s director of Fine and Performing Arts in 2012, was tapped as Lieberman’s replacement.  

As students head into the 2019-20 school year, the Journal met with Spodek and several other members of the administration (at Spodek’s request) to discuss that transitional period, the changes they have made over the past two years and the school’s future direction. 

Spodek admitted the period between November 2016 and July 2017, when he officially became head of school, was a difficult time for everyone involved. Between November and February, he flew between Florida and Los Angeles once a month and then every other week between February and July. He said it was a strategic decision made by the board to make the transition as smooth as possible, but added that this is not the norm.

“There was a team in place that had been here for close to 10 years, I think, with very little turnover,” Spodek said. “I came in with a mandate from the board to make sweeping changes, and that comes with fear and trepidation and concern in terms of students not knowing who their teachers are going to be the following year, to faculty not knowing if they’re going to have jobs the following year, administrators not knowing if they were going to [either], and for parents.”  

Nonetheless, Spodek said he believed he and his team did their best “to try to manage and mitigate the emotions, but it was certainly raw.” 

Director of General Studies Yehudis Benhamou recalled the time, saying, “Coming in after a very beloved administration, when we went home and sometimes felt a little bit beaten up that day, it was difficult. And from the students’ perspective, they had seen us as this sort of mammoth that was coming in and taking over.” 

That “mammoth” included 18 new faculty members at the start of the 2017-18 school year. Spodek also spent six months in the old library learning from and observing students and meeting with faculty members, parents and alumni. 

Today, the library is the Schlessinger STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy and Innovation lab, one of the numerous changes Spodek and his team have made. 

From the outset, Spodek said he wanted more full-time Jewish faculty members, to create the STEAM lab and have both a psychologist and a college guidance counselor on staff. To achieve this, he launched a $2 million fundraising campaign. 

Alya Shriki, who graduated from YULA this summer, said it was difficult to find a place to study after the library was converted to the STEAM lab and that the beit midrash usually was occupied by teachers giving classes. But she said if Spodek hadn’t come along, the school wouldn’t have a 3D printer housed in the STEAM lab, which she said students can use to add logos to shirts. 

“When you come into a new environment … there’s going to be a transition that’s going to be uncomfortable for a little while until you can start to see us as people who can also love you and care for you.”

Shriki said she was informed of Lieberman’s departure from an email blast but said Lieberman himself would never talk about it. “It was hard for us to adapt to a whole new administration,” she said. “We knew no one.” 

But, she added, even though 14 girls left following the change in administration, in her final year it was clear “the administration really cared about us.” 

“I think what I underestimated during that time is how close the kids were, the students were, with the [former] faculty and administration,” Spodek said. “And so, when you come into a new environment … there’s going to be a transition that’s going to be uncomfortable for a little while until you can start to see us as people who can also love you and care for you.” 

Spodek and his team have additional curricular enhancements in the works for the ninth- through 11th-graders, including Kedushat haChayim: a Jewish law, philosophy, and sexual health and wellness curriculum. Teachers introduced parts of the curriculum within the existing biology and Jewish law classes last year, and they will continue to do so this year. 

“We don’t shy away from giving information that’s accurate and real, but it has to be presented properly and obviously under the auspices of what’s appropriate,” Director of Judaic Studies Racheli Luftglass said. 

Spodek also discussed his hopes for future enrollment. There are 171 girls enrolled this year, the same number as last year. The four feeder schools whose students apply to YULA Girls are Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, Yavneh Academy, Gindi Maimonides Academy and Emek Hebrew Academy. Spodek said of the 87 students who could have come from those schools this year, 47 chose to attend YULA Girls. Next year, Spodek said there are potentially 104 students from those schools who could attend YULA. The school’s projected enrollment three years from now, he said, is 202 students. 

“This is YULA now,” Spodek said, “and people are celebrating who we are, our identity, our vision, the excitement that’s on campus.”

Michelle Naim is a senior studying English with a concentration in journalism at Stern College for Women in Manhattan and a Jewish Journal summer intern. She graduated from YULA in 2015.

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