August 23, 2019

Schuldenfrei Begins as Head of School at VBS

For the past five years, Rabbi Deborah Bock Schuldenfrei has been the director of education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) DeLeT program, teaching students to be teachers. On July 1, she began a new and ambitious adventure, as head of school at Valley Beth Shalom’s Harold M. Schulweis Day School in Encino. 

Schuldenfrei said she is deeply committed to what she calls “soul-centered education,” a social-emotional learning approach inspired by the teaching of the school’s namesake. 

“Rabbi Schulweis was a master teacher because he listened intently,” Schuldenfrei wrote in a statement of educational philosophy she shared with the Journal. “He heard each voice, created connections, and opened hearts to godliness. Rabbi Schulweis gifted our community with his deep understanding of how to recognize and engage individual souls through tender conversation, poetry, and inquiry. I am both excited and humbled to put Rabbi Schulweis’s teaching into action at the school dedicated to his memory.”

Schuldenfrei was ordained in 2006 and served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Shir Hamaalot in Irvine, the first assistant rabbi at the 600-family synagogue. She became DeLeT’s coordinator of Jewish life in 2014, associate education director in 2015, and in 2017 was promoted to education director. 

DeLeT, a program of the HUC-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education, is dedicated to fostering teaching excellence in Jewish day schools in North America.

“My job [at DeLeT] was to help [prospective teachers] reflect on what they’re learning about themselves as students to enhance their identities as teachers, and to nurture their souls as future Jewish educators,” she said.

Her goal is to give parents a reason to believe in Jewish day school. 

Eden Lavy, a recent DeLeT graduate who will teach kindergarten at Kadima Day School in the fall, describesd Schuldenfrei as “approachable and friendly, yet professional, which is really want you want in a leader.” 

Schuldenfrei is married to Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes. They have three sons, ages 9, 7 and 5, who will attend the VBS day school in the fall. Brian is staying with his congregation, so their family is adopting an unusual living situation: Schuldenfrei and sons will be living in Tarzana for the school year, while her husband visits from the South Bay as often as possible. She said a benefit of this new arrangement is that she will finally be on the same schedule as her children.

“The schedule-juggling was time-consuming even when we lived in the same house,” she said. “I’m hoping that with the new opportunity we’ll still be able to create family time together that’s extraordinarily special.”

Her goal is to give parents a reason to believe in Jewish day school. 

“I believe the Jewish day school is a way to give a child full immersion into Jewish life in an integrated fashion,” she said. “We are not living in two worlds. Regardless of [denominational] orientation, the goal is to have excellence in general studies and to prepare a young person to live a Jewish life.”

After the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, some of Schuldenfrei’s DeLeT students told her that their schools weren’t talking about the incident. The 2016 presidential election also proved to be a polarizing event at some schools. Schuldenfrei believes these events can be addressed “despite diverse political views, with integrity.” 

“I believe the administrator’s goal is to help teachers have a safe place where they can be part of the real world and engage in a way that’s age-appropriate for children without traumatizing them,” she said.