Rabbis of LA | Deborah Schuldenfrei: The ‘Wartime’ Head of School

While most everyone contended with one pandemic challenge or another, Schuldenfrei had to find a way to satisfy the sometimes opposing interests of kids, parents and teachers
October 20, 2021
Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei

Deborah Schuldenfrei can’t stop laughing. 

She’s recounting the chaos and difficulty of running the conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom’s Day School during the pandemic, a story best described as a cross between a slapstick comedy and a horror movie, and Schuldenfrei, Head of School, is positively giddy. Well, perhaps delirious is the more appropriate term.

She says things like, “It was ugly,” “It was crazy,” and “Avoid! At all costs” as she recalls the K-6 school’s seemingly apocalyptic closure in the spring of 2020, the cautious but partial re-opening that followed, the challenges of distance learning, the tightly guarded in-person pods, the midnight zoom meetings, the traumatized kids, the frightened teachers, the desperate parents, even the logistical acrobatics of orchestrating bathroom breaks for 5-year-olds, lest they have a toilet-side encounter with a student outside their “pod” and possibly kill some unsuspecting grandparent. 

“So I’m tired,” Schuldenfrei says with a sigh. 

I ask how did she not go insane. How did she know what to do?

She laughs again, and picks up a Magic-8 ball from her desk. “This,” she said, “saved my life.”

She laughs again, and picks up a Magic-8 ball from her desk.

“This,” she said, “saved my life.”

The pandemic was a lesson in humility and uncertainty for pretty much the entire human population, but for Schuldenfrei, 43, a well trained educator and rabbi, it was an opportunity, as the kids say, to level up. “One of my board members put it in a complimentary fashion,” Schuldenfrei said with a sly smile. “‘You are a wartime head of school.’” 

While most everyone contended with one pandemic challenge or another, Schuldenfrei had to find a way to satisfy the sometimes opposing interests of kids, parents and teachers while also navigating the intricate, often schizophrenic city and state guidelines that turned childhood education into a tightrope walk. And just like in a military battle, all of this took place in a perennially high-risk environment where the slightest error could mean the difference between life and death.

“I guess most people have never considered in their life that everything is uncertain,” Schuldenfrei said. “You don’t know when your last breath is going to be, or if you can drop your kid off at school the next day. But here it was in practice; suddenly everyone was in this philosophical place.” 

Schuldenfrei may feign the art of being overwhelmed, but in truth she sounds quite pleased with how quickly the school got its house in order, opening VBS’s day camp only three months after the start of lockdown. 

“I actually think we saved lives doing that,” Schuldenfrei said. “We made families whole again. Because spending that much time with family in such uncertainty was very stressful on the parent-child dynamic, the sibling dynamic, the whole family structure. The children were deeply suffering.” 

While students from America’s poorest families suffered most, with many missing school altogether, the social, emotional and academic toll of the lockdown on children of all ages and backgrounds was incalculable. For months on end, children were unable to socialize with peers or learn in an educationally-conducive environment. They spent most of their day on a screen, sometimes attending school in pajamas. There was no physical education or recess time on the playground. And it took awhile before the usual structured breaks for physical activity and lunchtime were integrated into remote learning schedules. Not to mention, the terrible burden placed on parents who found themselves not only working their own jobs from home, but having to monitor their childrens’ home schooling as well.

“We made the decision early on that prioritizing in person instruction was essential for the mental health and well being of both parent and child,” Schuldenfrei said. 

After they succeeded with camp, VBS opened their Early Childhood Center and Kindergarten, gradually incorporating first and second grade in rolling percentages in order to maintain social distancing. As the months wore on, they folded in the other grades, until, eventually, everyone was back. Throughout the process, Schuldenfrei had the added challenge of convincing frightened teachers who were not yet vaccinated that in person learning was a tolerable level of risk. There was never a dull moment. 

“I have recreated the school 12 times,” Schuldenfrei said. 

Her home life was no picnic either. Schuldenfrei and her husband Brian, a pulpit rabbi at Adat Ari El, are both full time professionals raising three school-age sons, ages 13, 11 and 9, two of whom attend VBS and were experiencing the same pandemic hardships as Schuldenfrei’s other students. 

“It was very, very hard and my kids told me just how hard it was,” she said.  

In addition to coping with their mother’s round-the-clock schedule, her sons returned to school only to encounter a strange, unfamiliar routine. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I have rigged a situation where you get to be at school instead of logging in, and you’re angry,’” Schuldenfrei said. “It’s almost like I got them to school and they were like, ‘This is not what we meant.’”

But Schuldenfrei soldiered on.

“What equipped me to handle all of it is, frankly, I’m a little stubborn,” she said. “I was committed to finding a way to make it work.” She said she found inspiration in the reality series “Project Runway” and on-air mentor Tim Gunn’s fluid, adaptable style. “Things might be sloppy, messy, unpleasant, but I had to make it work.”

Schuldenfrei also preserved her own health and sanity by exercising regularly and maintaining her spiritual practice. “Having Jewish community at that time was very helpful even though we were all so disconnected,” she said. “At a certain point I stopped using the term ‘social distancing’ because I felt the essential nature of having a social network.”

It wasn’t all bad. Schuldenfrei said some important innovations were spurred by the adjustment to distance learning, including VBS’s development of an online Jewish curriculum that can now be used to educate Jewish students in other cities. 

Being a rabbi helped her, too.

“The pastoral side helped me tremendously with empathy,” Schuldenfrei said. “Part of the clarity and the drive I have is because a psychologist briefed us early on and said, ‘Please keep in mind that for some of these families, seeing the teacher on zoom is the only regular reliable force in their lives right now.’ Financially, politically, everything was bananas; everything was unstable. 

“We were the stable force.” 

In the end, the wartime leader restored the peace.

Fast Takes with Deborah Schuldenfrei

Danielle Berrin : What’s currently on your night table?

Deborah Schuldenfrei: I just finished The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and a very light book called Miss Communication by Elyssa Friedland which was kind of ridiculous and wonderful. Also The Tunnel by AB Yehoshua. And I’m re-reading Ruth Gruber’s Raquela, A Woman of Israel. Clearly I have ADD.

DB: Last show you binge-watched?

DS: The Other Two on HBO and Nine Perfect Strangers on Hulu.

DB: Your day off looks like…

DS: I sleep and exercise. And go to the beach.

DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?

DS. Eat. It might be shop. But eat sounds better.

DB: Something about you most people don’t know?

DS: I live with someone who brings a puppet to work. You know, for Tot Shabbat.

DB: Most essential Torah verse?

DS: Exodus 25: You shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart is moved.

DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?

DS: There’s this joke from ‘The Other Two’ about when there’s a gap in conversation and you don’t know what to say, you can say, ‘In this climate…’ I’ve been using that a lot. Well, what can you say in this climate? 

DB: Guilty pleasure?

DS: (Pause) Maybe I don’t feel guilty about things anymore. That’s good. Otherwise, candy. 

DB: Favorite Jewish food?

DS: Challah. 

DB: If you weren’t a rabbi you’d be…

DS: A stylist. 

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