By Joel Magalnick, Editor, The Jewish Sound
Hamutal Gavish has what will be a busy but important short-term goal: To meet and get to know every family of the 180 or so kids who attend the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle.
In the long term, her goals may be a little less all-consuming, but they will be no less important for the head of school who arrived in Bellevue not even a month ago. The usual tasks of increasing fundraising, connecting to the outer community, and growing enrollment, as well as continuing to implement the education philosophy that both she and the school share, “teaching kids to critically learn, to be owning their own learning, not just to feed them information and to spew back information,” she said,
Gavish comes to JDS from Marin County, Calif., where she ran the Brandeis Hillel Day School for the past eight years.
Prior to that, the native-born Israeli spent 10 years in the Boston area, where as the first head of school for the Jewish Community Day School of Boston, she grew the school from 20 students to 170 by the time she left.
“It was my first child,” Gavish said. “I was very proud of that school and where it is now and how it came to be.”
Her real first child, incidentally, who was a student at Brandeis Hillel, will enter the 6th grade at JDS in the fall.
Given Gavish’s passion for holistic learning — integrating Judaics and general studies as much as possible, as well as sharing a philosophy of inquiry-based learning, which JDS itself began to implement in the past three years — both she and the board believe her entrance into the JDS community will be a great fit with a smooth integration.
“She had so many of the things that JDS was looking for in a leader at this point in the school’s lifetime,” Jill Friedman, the school’s board president, told JTNews. “We wanted somebody who was visionary…. We needed somebody who has the experience to execute on it.”
That plan has multiple areas, Gavish said, from growing enrollment — “there’s tremendous opportunity with early childhood, tremendous opportunity with building the middle school further” — to imbuing strong Jewish values into the students to the growth of the learning philosophy.
“The school nationally, hopefully, will be known and other institutions will come to us and see how we really do the process of inquiry in the school, which integrates the Judaics and the general studies,” she said.
Inquiry-based learning is “a process for kids to ask questions. For kids to identify what they’re learning, not to come with an end product,” Gavish said. “When the kids have that, when they do leave school like this, they engage in anything that they do with this go-get-it attitude rather than ‘I don’t know the answer, I’m not going to try.’”
Gavish moved to the U.S. from Israel at the age of 16, and while she knew she wanted to spend her life as a Jewish educator, she focused in her undergraduate years more on math and science. She spent many years working with the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah, had a few teaching jobs at Jewish schools, then went to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College to give her the credentials to begin working in administration. Her first administrative position focused more on the Hebrew language and Judaics, however, and she felt that she missed the general studies side of the teaching equation.
“Judaics should be integrated into everything that we do,” she said.
That’s how she ended up in Boston, and then in the Bay Area, and now in Bellevue. Friedman, the board’s president, said Gavish is “one of those people who is warm and loyal and has great relationships with people. We knew that not only from our interactions with her, but her reputation in the community.”
“People say that I lead from behind,” Gavish said. “I use a lot of empathy and active listening.”
She firmly believes in building one-on-relationships, hence the goal of sitting down with every family in her school over the next few months.
That said, “decisions have to be made, it can’t just be that it’s all, ‘Let’s just sit together and figure this out and make a decision.’ But there are many times that people feel their voices are heard, and they might not agree, and we might agree to disagree with you, but I’ve heard you.”
Gavish clearly relishes taking on her new role. As the incoming leader of a school that teaches a wide range of families at different levels of observance and income, given her experience, “what I have here is kind of a blend of Israeli-American, Conservative-Reform, secular-traditional,” Gavish said. “I’m not pegged into any one place, and that’s something I see in this environment as well.”