Daisy Pellant (right) with husband RM, younger children Wren and Annie, and dogs Gilmore and Ghibli.
In Minnesota last winter (from left) Wren, husband RM, Annie and Daisy Pellant, with their two dogs Gilmore and Ghibli. Wren will be a sophomore and Annie a senior at Kehillah.

New head of Kehillah steps up to dual challenges: social justice learning in a pandemic environment

Everywhere in the world that American educator Daisy Pellant has gone — and she has traveled to a lot of places — she has found Jewish community.

In New Zealand, she joined a synagogue whose rabbi later went on to lead Tikkun HaYam, a Jewish environmental group focused on marine conservation (Their college division is known as the Scubi Jews).

In Kuwait, she taught at the American School and met others for Jewish services on a U.S. military base.

In Beijing, where both she and her husband had teaching jobs, she was part of a thriving group of Jewish expats who formed a lay-led congregation.

Even in Tbilisi, Georgia, where she taught at an international school but did not speak the language of Georgian Jews, she managed to share activities with them and other English-speaking expats to keep the faith.

“My takeaway is that you can find home anywhere,” Pellant told J., “and everywhere is our home.”

Portait of Daisy Pellant, the new head of Kehillah Jewish High School. She is 52, has red hair and glasses.
Daisy Pellant, new Head of Kehillah Jewish High School. (Photo/Courtesy Daisy Pellant)

This is one of the qualities that led the search committee at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto to select her as the new head of school. She replaces Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, who departed at the end of the last school year to become CEO of the adult learning center HaMaqom, formerly Lehrhaus Judaica. Pellant will be the fourth person to helm the school since it opened in 2003 with 33 students. It has about 200 students enrolled for the fall of 2020.

“Kehillah is a school that is not only trying to educate but also to build community,” said Tzachi Rechter, incoming chair of the school’s board of directors. He described Pellant as “a phenomenal communicator”  who is “transparent and collaborative” in her dealings with faculty, staff and families alike.

“She can model reasoning and civil discourse at a very high level,” Tzachi said. “We’re talking about a really experienced educator who has traveled in many different countries, engaged with different communities, and knows how to build an environment that supports every single human being on their developmental journey.”

Though she hadn’t found permanent housing as of last week, Pellant, 52, hopes that with this move from Minnetonka, Minnesota, to the Bay Area, with her husband and two of their four children, the family will put down roots. Her husband, RM Pellant, will be teaching middle school and working with technology integration at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, and their teenagers, Annie and Wren, will attend Kehillah. Their oldest daughter, Ruby, is an illustrator in New Jersey and their son Max is studying to be an international teacher at the University of Kansas.

Arriving during the coronavirus pandemic, Pellant said, “I recognize that the time to have lovely dinners at Bay Area restaurants and to enjoy local theater is going to be in the future. But I am here for the long haul.”

Though her job officially started July 1, Pellant said she has been consulting with the school administration for months as they work through the considerable agenda. She’s also already interviewed every incoming ninth-grader.

“Our team has collectively put in at least 6,000 hours studying the pandemic and what it might look like to open at the end of August,” she said. As of July  17, the school was planning a hybrid learning model, which would allow them to quickly pivot to remote learning if needed. “Of course, any plan we have is still iterative,” Pellant said.

Should distance learning be necessary again, as it was during the shutdown that began in March, Pellant has ample personal experience. After earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Minneapolis — where she grew up in a Jewish, education-centric family — her career required continuous adaptation to new communication and learning methods.

In 2000, while teaching in Beijing — where they flew in a mohel from Los Angeles after their son Max was born — she decided to enter a doctoral program in developmental educational psychology at Capella University, an online college based in Minnesota. It was the early years of distance learning, but the program allowed her to do her coursework online from China and her residencies in Minnesota over the summers.

When she returned to school in 2013 for postdoctoral training in the Mind, Brain and Education Program at Harvard University, the traditional, in-class learning method was in some ways easier by comparison.

“I reflected a lot on this as I taught remotely in Minneapolis [last spring],” she said. “It is hard work to do a good job, and I am thrilled to learn, from our community surveys, of the incredible success of Kehillah,” whose educators and students made this difficult transition from March till June. “Students and parents raved about the seamlessness of the shift and how well the school kept high standards while continuing to provide personalized support,” she said.

Pellant’s other top priority, she said, is to thoughtfully engage the Kehillah community in the social justice movement.  What this will mean in terms of curriculum or extracurricular activities will be on the table at the start of the school year, awaiting a process, Pellant said, that’s a hallmark of the Kehillah environment: “co-construction of learning experiences.”

“The work for schools is to be intentional in teaching and learning with a diversity, equity, inclusion and social-justice lens,” she said. “We want to be actively anti-racist and support the development of our young people into adults who will make the world a better place.”

What these two top priorities have in common is that both require innovation and a sense of common cause.

“We have to practice compromise and compassion and to learn that  ‘I want’ is not necessarily what ‘we need’,” she said. “In order to get there, we need to work together as a community.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.