Q & A with new head of school: Seeking impassioned hearts, nourished souls at Wornick

Barbara Gereboff is the acting head of school at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City. She moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in 2009 to serve as Wornick’s head of general studies for its elementary and middle school.

Barbara Gereboff

This summer, she was appointed to be acting head of school — which might sound like an interim position but actually isn’t — by the board of directors at Wornick, a school with 215 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

She recently spoke to j. reporter Stacey Palevsky by phone.

Q: I noticed you started your career in secular education as a social studies teacher. What brought you into Jewish education?

A: I started teaching at a day school and then at a camp, which started me on my journey of studying Judaic studies. The biggest influence was the year I spent in Israel as a Melton Fellow. Up to that point, much of my Jewish education was through my own reading and my own study. I’m also married to a religious studies professor, so I had a lot of private coaching as well.

Q: Tell me about the year you spent in Israel. What did you do?

A: My own children were in school that year [1992] in Israel, so I got to see the Israeli schools as an educator and as a parent. It surprised me that I kept getting letters about how they were cutting Judaic studies to have more time to prepare for exit exams. It surprised me that those forces were operating just as they do in Jewish day schools in the United States. As a Melton Fellow, I conducted research in Israeli schools to find out why this was happening and the philosophy behind it.

Q: How has the research informed your work over the past 18 years?

A: It opened the doors for me to understand Jewish text and to understand Jewish people around the world. The 18 other Melton fellows came from all over the world — Hebrew was our only common language and we represented a whole range of Jewish practice. This was pivotal to my understanding of the value of peoplehood and pluralism.

Q: Since your time in Israel, what have you been up to? How have you spent your time and energy?

A: I worked at a Jewish day school in Phoenix, a Solomon Schechter school, first as the Judaic studies principal and then as the head of school. I finally went back to school to finish a doctorate in education, which I had started many years earlier. My research was in the secular world, looking at how and why teacher certification is different in every state, and how the culture and politics of a state affects how teachers are certified.

Q: What brought you to the Bay Area and to Wornick?

A: I had been the head of school for 10 years at a Los Angeles day school. I was really looking for a new challenge, either in general studies or development work. Out of the blue, just after I started to work on a charter school initiative in Los Angeles, someone from Wornick called me and asked if I’d consider moving up here to be the school’s head of general studies.

Q: And how did you transition to being head of school?

A: When the position opened up, I was very happy to take it. It’s quite a luxury for someone to become head of school having had a year to look at the school from the inside.

Q: What has impressed you about Wornick?

A: We have an incredible teaching staff here. They are not insulated in their own rooms. Built into the schedule is the idea that teachers support each other. So twice a week, each teacher is scheduled to go into another classroom [to engage and/or observe]. It builds collegiality. It opens up this whole sense that we’re all working together and gives them an opportunity for reflection.

Q: What are your goals for the school?

A: My biggest goal is to make sure that throughout the school there is an ethic of kindness, and that parents, teachers and children understand how to treat each other with kindness and listen with great empathy. I have created my own buzzwords: I want to teach an impassioned heart, a cultivated mind, a nourished soul and an empowered body. There are pieces of each in the school already, but I want to sharpen and strengthen them.