By Stacey Dresner
LONGMEADOW – When Michelle Konigsburg was charting her career path, she had one very clear goal in mind.
“I was very idealistic and I wanted to change the world and I thought the best way to change the world was through education,” she said. “I’m still idealistic, I still want to change the world and I still believe that education is the way to do it.”
In August, Konigsburg became the Head of School at Heritage Academy in Longmeadow and she can’t say enough about the Jewish day school.
“The program is outstanding, the faculty are off the charts amazing, talented, committed, creative, and skilled,” she said. “The school is a place that is nurturing and it is meeting the childrens’ individual needs. It is challenging and stimulating. I can’t think of enough adjectives that describe it.”
Konisgsburg and her husband, Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg, moved this summer from Florida to New England when he took a job as the rabbi at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Manchester, Conn. They moved to Manchester on July 1 and she began her new job at Heritage on Aug. 8.
“I’m getting to know two communities,” she laughed.
It is not an all-together new experience – the couple lived in Newtown, Conn., for two years when he was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
As the Konigsburgs began settling into their new community in Manchester, Conn., she began talking to various organizations in the Hartford area about her background in Jewish education.
“I wanted to find out what opportunities there were in my community and I wanted the community to know that I had some talents that I could offer,” she said.
On their second Shabbat at Beth Sholom B’nai Torah, one of the congregants was there for his wife’s first yahrzeit. Friends from Western Massachusetts attended the service.
“We were chatting and they mentioned to me that there was a school here in Longmeadow that was looking for a Head of School. It was just a conversation, but shortly thereafter my husband received an email from the search committee here at Heritage asking if I would be interested in having a conversation. And I was.”
Bob Kahan, head of the search committee for the new Head of School, says he was most impressed by Konigsburg’s “preparation.”
“In all the time I’ve been in business, I’ve never seen anyone as prepared,” Kahan said. “By the time she walked into the interview, she knew more about the school than anyone else in the room. And we are all Heritage people.”
Kahan was president of Heritage from 1986-88 and both of his children attended Heritage. He said Konigsburg is eminently qualified to help accomplish the day school’s goals – to “raise the profile of Heritage in the community and help all Jewish children to have a day school education.”
“She is a former Solomon Schechter principal and a Jewish educator,” he explained. “She understands the need for Heritage to appeal to the wider Jewish community, to the entire Jewish community, from the Orthodox to the unaffiliated.”
Konigsburg grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, but her family moved to South Florida when she graduated from high school. She graduated from Florida Atlantic University, with a major in education.
The only non-Jewish schools she taught in were through internships at schools in rural areas and the inner city, “But I was always only interested in Jewish education,” she said. “I became interested in Jewish education or being involved in Jewish schools partly because it fulfills my own personal passions and observance, and so it follows my calendar, it follows my life and my life’s schedule.”
She met her husband when they were students at Florida Atlantic University. They were married during her last year of college and they moved to California when he went to rabbinical school in Los Angeles at the University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University. “I always say, ‘We went to rabbinical school.’”
While Randall studied to become a rabbi, she began her work in Jewish studies. “There was a policy in those days that wives of rabbinical students could take classes at the University of Judaism for just the cost of registration. And I could get credit for that, so while he was a student I took classes in Jewish studies,” she recalled.
When they went to Israel for Randall’s year of study, Michelle studied in a Torah Lishma program, or learning for the sake of learning.
“When we came back to the states and he was learning at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my academic adviser said, ‘You know you can get credit for all of these courses you have been taking all of these years.’ I was working then towards a masters degree in Jewish studies and rabbinic literature, and all I needed to do at the end of that time was finish some Jewish history courses and take a Hebrew proficiency exam and write a masters thesis.”
Providing full disclosure, she says, “I did not finish my thesis. I finished all my course work, but started having a family and decided not to continue to do that. The catalogue does not have a statute of limitations, so I could do it if I wanted to. The masters work I completed was in Educational Leadership with emphasis on charter schools.”
She was motivated to concentrate on charter schools due to growth of Hebrew language charter schools in Florida. “They are very popular and I had a sense that since I wasn’t actually sure where we would be heading ultimately, I wanted to have expertise in that area. I really do think that in some communities it has become one of the ways of educating Jewish children.”
These charter schools are public schools, she explained, but Jewish children can elect to attend them to learn Hebrew as a second language and Israel culture. The Ben Gamla system in South Florida has several campuses, and there are also similar charter schools in New York and Washington, D.C. Because they are public schools, these schools are not allowed to teach Jewish studies or any other religion.
While living in South Florida, Michelle was hired by Temple Torah in Boynton Beach, where the Ben-Gamla school rented space in the upstairs of the building, to develop a Jewish afterschool program.
“Because there were so many Jewish children attending, I was tasked with coming up with five-day a week academic aftercare program for those Jewish children where we concentrated on Torah, holidays, mitzvot, ethics and tefillah, which they weren’t learning in public school,” she said.
She was the founding director of the Jewish Academic Center at Temple Torah or JACATT, and helped to create the program. “It was an exciting opportunity,” she says.
The Konigsburgs spent 17 years in Hollywood, Fla., where he was rabbi at Temple Sinai and where she served as education director. During that time she also served as principal of the Hochberg Family Solomon Schechter Day School in North Miami Beach.
“South Florida is extremely Jewish,” she said. “There is easy access to kosher restaurants and food. There are a lot of synagogues, and a lot of Jewish colleagues…We used to say it was a suburb of New York.”
When the youngest of their three children had graduated from high school, the Konigsburgs ended up living in St. Paul, Minnesota, then in Birmingham, Alabama for short stints. When Rabbi Konigsburg heard about the position in Manchester, Conn., he applied and they are now happy to be a part of that “warm, welcoming, embracing community,” she said. “The congregation is very involved in social action. They have a history of having rabbis for long periods of time and we were looking for a home.”
The Konigsburgs’ three children are grown and married. Their youngest, Hillel, is assistant rabbi at B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, Atlanta, Ga.; their middle child is Eitan and he is a senior software architect for the New York Times and married to Alexandria; and their oldest, Ashira, is a rabbi, and director of operations for the Rabbinical Assembly.
When Konigsburg is not in her office working on her administrative duties, she likes to walk down the Heritage halls to check out what’s going on in the classrooms. She marvels at the level of learning going on.
“Children who graduate from here should be well prepared to succeed in public high school and should be well prepared with the foundations to succeed at HHNE,” she said. “They need to be strong in both areas so that they will be successful in their academic pursuits, whether they be secular or Judaic.”
Besides work inside the school, another goal is board development, meeting members of the larger Jewish community, and seeking ways to grow the school’s enrollment.
“The demographics of the Jewish community seem to be shrinking. So one challenge is to identify who our constituents are. I feel like the whole Springfield Jewish community should be working collaboratively, strategically to somehow publicize that this is a good place for Jewish families to move to,” she said. “And getting the word out that this is a place where outstanding education is happening, both general and Judaic, is a priority.”
“Despite my 45-minute ride to school, I love it here,” she laughed. “I love being in this school every day.” And the Heritage Academy leadership loves having her there.
“We’re very happy to have her,” Kahan said. “Her demonstrated skills in all her previous positions showed she will be an excellent fit for Heritage, and the greater Jewish community of Western Massachusetts.”