September 16, 2019

Milken head puts focus on tech

Gary Weisserman’s views on education are decidedly millennial, notwithstanding his more than 20 years of experience in the field. 

“By academic background, I’m a technologist, and I got into technology because of my love for games and puzzles,” the 44-year-old educator said during a recent interview.

Last month, Weisserman completed his first semester serving as Milken Community Schools’ new head of school. His hiring became effective in July.

Gary Weisserman, photo by Josh Tousey

Interested in a school curriculum and culture that blends the religious and the contemporary, Weisserman said one of the problems facing Jewish day schools is instructors’ preoccupation with teaching halachah, Jewish law.

“Traditional textual study is important, and so is learning about haggim (Jewish festivals) and so on, but, for kids, Jewish learning needs to begin with seeing the modern world in Jewish life,” he said.

Speaking in a manner that was both brisk and articulate, Weisserman emphasized that teaching Jewish law and offering instruction relevant to contemporary life do not have to be mutually exclusive.  

“There [are] opportunities to be able to use Jewish thought to guide what we do on a day-to-day basis,” he said. 

Weisserman, who grew up in Detroit, previously served as chief academics officer at Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Fla., one of the largest Jewish day schools in the nation. 

But his background in innovative education goes back much earlier. His years as a graduate student — Weisserman has a master’s degree in educational technology from the University of Michigan (UM) — sparked an appreciation for digital education technology that would become the foundation of his philosophy that technology and learning go hand-in-hand. 

After finishing school, he became a high-school teacher, leading classes in social studies and technology. Later, Weisserman worked as a lecturer at the UM School of Education; served as a faculty member at UM-Flint’s educational technology program; and worked as the director of early college and K-16 initiatives at UM-Flint, during which time he co-founded Genesee Early College. (Early colleges, often located on college campuses, serve grades 9-13. Graduating high-school students earn transferable college credits and even associate degrees.)

Weisserman went on to establish Oakland Early College in Michigan. His work included finding teachers and recruiting students. He proudly notes that students who graduated from Oakland — many of whom were the first in their families to receive an education at that level — frequently went on to be among the highest achievers at four-year universities.

Weisserman’s hiring by the Milken board follows the 2012 departure of Jason Ablin, who spent 13 years at the school (Rennie Wrubel served as interim head of school during the 2012-2013 school year). And it comes on the heels of the severing of ties between Milken and Stephen S. Wise Temple, the large Reform synagogue that established Milken more than 20 years ago. That split in 2012 made Milken, a 750-student middle and high school — and one of the country’s biggest Jewish day schools — a fully independent private school. 

Weisserman, who lives in Beverly Hills, said he sees his role at Milken as part of a larger evolution in Jewish education. 

Recently, Weisserman participated in a tour of a Florida-based Jewish day school that, for him, reinforced part of what is amiss in Jewish education today. Walking into a first-grade classroom, he observed a teacher giving a lesson about the appropriate length of a sukkah’s third wall. Weisserman was stunned. 

“I thought, ‘Is this really what they should be focusing on?’ ” he said.

As he continued touring the school’s higher grades, he found teachers giving that same, highly specific lesson.

“And the older the kids got, the more apathetic students were about it,” he said.

Weisserman said he sees indifference to education everywhere. 

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of exposure to schools to know that, for most students in most schools, school is a form of punishment. If I’m a 14-year-old student at your average school, outside of wanting to be with my friends, I don’t want to be there, and I certainly don’t see a whole lot of innate purpose to what the teachers are asking me to do.

“And that’s a shame, because while school might be seen as a punishment, learning is usually joyous and empowering. This, really, is what we’re after: to suffuse learning with joy, with curiosity, with purpose. Really, at some level, it’s an innately Jewish thing to want to do: to make holy the mundane.”

Milken board chairman Leon Janks (who is also on the board of TRIBE Media Corp., parent to the Jewish Journal) said that Weisserman’s relative youth and his fields of expertise make him compatible with the school’s goals. 

“He’s an ideas guy, a person who is very up-to-speed on science and technology. He is somebody who we believe has the demeanor, personality and charisma to be highly connected to our five constituents — including teachers, administrators, students, parents and the community at large,” he said. “From our point of view, we have been able to … find somebody who will move the school into the future and make changes required in order to adapt the school for the 21st century.”

Weisserman, who attends Sinai Temple, describes himself as a “serious but progressive Jew” — or, more specifically, a “Reform Jew, with some Conservative leanings.” For that he credits his upbringing in Detroit, as part of what he described as an  “economically disadvantaged and assimilated family.”

He knows, too well, the feeling of being in the minority, he said. When much of Metro Detroit’s Jewish population moved to the suburbs and elsewhere, Weisserman’s family stayed.

“By the time the 1980s rolled around, the running joke in our house was that we were the last Jewish family in the city proper,” he said. Particularly formative for Weisserman was moving from public school to a Jewish day school. 

When he isn’t working, Weisserman spends time with his wife, Dolly, a pediatrician, and two boys, ages 8 and 11, who are enrolled at Sinai Akiba Academy and Milken. 

Meanwhile, his observant — albeit open — background informs his viewpoint that a Jewish school can transcend the Jewish part of its description. 

“My interest isn’t so much in leading the best Jewish school as it is to make sure the best school in the country is a Jewish one.”