Chief Executive Optimist
Who finds a dream job in the middle of a pandemic? As Head of School at Hillel, Dr. Darin S. Katz is managing the challenges of Covid exceptionally well, even while living separately from his family.
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
February 4, 2021
As school districts across the country have been left to chart their own paths to reopening in the face of the rising tides of Covid, Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills followed its plan to open with safety and health protocols well in place in September, fully equipped and staffed to offer in-person classes – as well as a robust option for at-home learning – for its 505 students. Hillel’s continued success in providing for the academic, social and spiritual needs of its students and their families is due in no small part to the foresight of its Board and the support of the community and the leadership of its new Head of School, Dr. Darin S. Katz.
Taking leaps of faith
Born in New York and raised in Philadelphia, Darin was headed for a career in science, as a graduate in Chemistry from Penn State University and with his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. “Fortunately, I learned early in my career that the world of science research can be lonely. I’m a people person. I gain my energy from being with others and, deep down, I believe that I was always meant to be an educator.”
As Darin explains, he took his first professional leap 22 years ago to become a chemistry teacher at the Agnes Irwin School, a private school for girls. In 2012, he took a second leap of faith to join the staff as Academic Dean, then its Upper School Principal of the prestigious Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA. In December 2019, ready for a third leap onto a new stage in his rising career, Darin signed on for the top spot at Hillel.
As parents, Darin and Marsha have been staunch advocates of a Jewish day school education. Marsha grew up with a Jewish day school background. She and Darin have witnessed firsthand how their sons’ day school education has been transformative in their development as Jews. As Darin describes their first visit to the Perelman Jewish Day School when their oldest son was about to enter kindergarten, within the first 30 minutes of the parent tour, he had seen enough. “I was enthralled,” he said. “Hooked, line and sinker! Ready to champion both boys through their entire Jewish day school education. Today we are proud to see Eli completing a Masters program in Applied Math and Statistics at Johns Hopkins University and Jonah finishing his senior year at Barrack, on his way to college next year (destination still to be determined).”
A perfect match
Life-long Philadelphians married 26 years, with deep ties to the community and active in synagogue life at Beth Sholom Congregation, Marsha and Darin have chosen their next step together — moving to Jewish Detroit with full heart.
“I will forever be thankful to my bashert, Dr. Marsha Pincus Katz,” says Darin. “Marsha is a small animal veterinarian, who is giving up a practice she loves, moving to Michigan, and doing so with excitement and a spirit of adventure. We are thrilled to be on the journey that awaits us. And to have landed at Hillel in the Detroit Jewish community has been a revelation. Everyone here is so welcoming and inviting — in a year where people are not gathering! Even so, we feel the love and the promise of the community. And when this is all over, we’ll meet for Shabbat dinners or backyard barbecues. I know in my heart all those invitations are coming. I am humbled, honored and inspired to be here.”
Zooming with Hillel Head of School, Dr. Darin S. Katz
On faith and finding the perfect match in Hillel
myJewishDetroit: A warm-up question: Do you have a “Hebrew Word of the Day” for Hillel?
Darin: A good question! Actually, I have a Hebrew Word of the Year. Emunah – faith – is the word I have hung onto. This year, of all years, when I think of faith, not only do I think of faith in G-d, but faith in our teachers, faith in our students and faith in our families. In our approach to the pandemic, our need for faith in one another has never been truer. We need faith in science and confidence in our own personal choices (plus a good dose of optimism) to keep one another as safe as possible as we keep our doors open for in-person learning in our school.
myJewishDetroit: What drew you to Detroit and Hillel Day School?
I’ve known Hillel for some time as one of the premier Jewish day schools in the country, and when I began exploring Headships in the summer of 2019, I was happy to see that Hillel was put on my radar through DRG Associates, the search firm we were both using. I explored other community day schools – with similar philosophies – those that valued pluralism, an observance of halacha and a deep connection to Judaism. I made visits to several schools, Hillel being the first. From that one visit, my decision was clear.
Hillel’s mission and modern learning philosophy is aligned closely with my own. We share a commitment to innovation. Our goals are to imbue in our students a love of learning that includes Jewish practice, Hebrew literacy and an unwavering commitment to the State of Israel. Our focus is not only on the academic development of our students, but also on their moral and spiritual development – with an emphasis on their social and emotional learning and wellbeing. And our school embraces families from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, affiliations and practices.
I firmly believe that Hillel is unmatched. Our faculty, administrators, parents, students – all of us – recognize how blessed we are to be in our building and to have each other. I cannot express our gratitude enough. Every morning, during our announcements, I recite our school motto in both English and Hebrew as a call to action – almost like a blessing: “Be respectful. Be responsible. Be kind to each other. Be yourself! Honor and respect are the foundation of Torah study.
On navigating the unknown
myJewishDetroit: How has Hillel been successful in navigating the way forward with a balance of caution, action . . . and optimism?
I particularly like the way that question is posed because I have led the school with optimism that we can make our plan work, but it’s always with a sense of caution and an assessment for what is best for the safety and health of our students, faculty and families.
We have had in-person learning since our first day of the school year, on September 1st — with two week-long periods of remote instruction following Thanksgiving and the Winter Break. As a precautionary measure to accommodate families who would be traveling or gathering during the holidays, we proactively closed our building and held classes via Zoom. This way we had some time for quarantine with reasonable assurance that we return to in-person learning as a healthy community.
To date, about 90% of our students are learning in-person, and 10% continue to learn remotely. We have a staff dedicated to our remote learning program and, I can say with confidence, that whether students are learning in-person or remotely, there is deep, authentic learning and teaching going on every single day – full school days, five days a week, every student, every week. There has not been a day on which we have had to close the school.
One significant factor that has helped Hillel stay ahead of the curve in terms of in-person learning is the building renovation, itself – an innovative design which naturally lends itself to safe distancing – with its bright and spacious classrooms and wide hallways. Essentially, we have been able to create a bubble for each classroom – which our students know as the Hebrew word, “boo-ah” (and the plural boo-ot). Students in their individual boo-ot do not interact with other boo-ot. For example, our 2nd graders and 7th graders have separate entrances, occupy separate wings and leave the school at separate dismissal times. Students eat in their classrooms. And masks? From our three-year-old pre-kindergartners up to our 8th graders, every single one of our students wears a mask all day, without fail and without argument and without a problem.
Have we lost a sense of school community in our bubbles? Honestly, yes. Our whole school assemblies have been virtual by necessity. But I look at where we started in crisis mode last spring, and the difference is day and night. Our teachers and Leadership Team have been heroes. I know there’s chatter across the nation about what students have lost or how far behind they are, but we don’t have those conversations at Hillel because our students have been back in school with their friends and teachers all year.
Throughout the country, we all went into lockdown in mid-March. I had planned to finish out the school year at Barrack and move to Detroit in July, while Marsha’s plan was to stay in Philly with Jonah, so that he could finish his senior year. But even at a long distance during the shutdown, I had the advantage of time to evaluate and accelerate the process of planning the school year ahead. So, I took the opportunity to lead in the charge as the incoming Head. Knowing that I would inherit whatever plans we put in place, I started joining leadership meetings in May — meeting faculty and staff, Board members and lay leaders at Federation far earlier than I would have under normal circumstances in a typical school year. Without question, stepping in early, getting to know the team and partnering with colleagues to work through the challenges of reopening the school – all served to our advantage.
For my first years here at HilleI, I could not ask for a better partner than Board Chair Eric Bronstein. And the support Hillel receives from Federation’s leadership and the community is simply unmatched. Of course, I will forever be grateful and sing the praises for our teachers, our school leadership and the outstanding service of our school nurse, Gail Chynoweth. No one signs up to work in a pandemic and, Gail, working with our entire staff, has been steadfast in keeping our community as safe and healthy as possible.
myJewishDetroit: What are you hearing from parents?
Our parents are incredibly grateful for what we have been doing to navigate the school year in a pandemic. That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road, as questions come up every day. For the most part, I receive words of praise from our parents, mostly directed toward our teachers and Leadership. Parents are expressing their thanks for what Hillel is doing for their children.
On pivots, steep learning curves and unprecedented teaching moments
myJewishDetroit: Since your arrival, what have been the greatest surprises, challenges, best discoveries? Can you identify any silver linings in the new abnormal?
I keep a Google Doc that I call “Covid Silver Linings,” and every time someone comes up with an improvement, I note it for future planning.
So far, our silver linings have been more operational than anything else, but some of the challenges we’ve had to face have had a positive impact. For example, our arrival and dismissal procedures have changed this year, as we require our various communities to use separate doors to enter the building. We also have staggered dismissal this year, so different grades dismiss at different times. This has been such a dramatic improvement in the traffic pattern entering and leaving the school, we are unlikely to return to the old procedure. Additionally, this year, all of our parent-teacher conferences are held virtually. This way they are easy to schedule, easy to organize, save time and travel, and altogether have become more meaningful. Everyone loves the format, so why go back? Our Zoom meetings with parents are here to stay.
myJewishDetroit: Moments of community have been so needed this year. How has Hillel addressed some of the events of the day?
I’d start by saying that as long as I’m Head of School, our middle school students and, when age-appropriate, our elementary school students will watch, discuss and learn together as momentous occasions and events in the life of the United States and Israel take place.
After the riots on Capitol Hill on January 6th, we knew that our middle school students were going to want to process it the next day in an environment in which they felt safe with their teachers and their classmates. So, we provided time and space for discussion with their most trusted teachers in their homerooms. And there were some incredible moments that came out of that, moments that really tell us that this is what Hillel is all about. Almost every discussion in our middle school homeroom classes ended with the prayer for our country that we as Jews say every Shabbat morning in synagogue. And one of our sixth grade Hebrew classes had their entire discussion in Hebrew.
On MLK Day, Hillel is one of the few schools to stay open, and we do so to dedicate the entire day to learning about the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In years past, it’s been our custom to hold an all-school assembly. This year it was an equally extraordinary experience via our Zoom gathering with all grades participating in the same program.
And who among us will ever forget the experience we shared on Inauguration Day this year as we witnessed and celebrated its historic moments. I’ll emphasize that we celebrated our democracy — in an apolitical, non-partisan way — but in a way that was infused with Jewish values and the Hebrew language.
myJewishDetroit: It must seem like a lifetime ago since you posted your first blogpost as Hillel’s Head of School. Since those first heady days last April in planning for the safe return to school, what lessons have you learned and how have you grown as a community leader?
Big surprise: I can cook! (But still hate to shop for groceries.) My wife is such an outstanding cook that I never had to learn my way around the kitchen. But now? Looks like we’ll be sharing some of those skills.
And other lessons learned this year: I have more courage than I ever knew I had. I also have learned about the strength of community – and how the power of community support can turn a difficult situation into an opportunity for change. As a leader, I’ve always known— and I hope that my actions have shown – that my personal needs come last. And here, I refer to one of the most influential books I’ve ever read about leadership, entitled Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek. His book is based on an ethos of the Marines that officers see that every soldier is served before they sit down in the mess hall to eat. I’ve learned to embrace that notion — that taking care of the community – my teachers, my fellow leadership team, parents and their students – their needs come first.
myJewishDetroit: To wrap up the story of your first incredible year in the community, what would you like most to tell us about Hillel today?
What I would like everyone to know about Hillel . . . is that we are still Hillel. What I mean is that inside our school there’s a kind of magic that takes place and we can almost forget about Covid. Yes, we’re wearing masks. And yes, communities are separated from each other, but inside the classroom, we’re in a good place where our students and teachers are fully present and connected. . . learning new skills and focusing on the social and emotional needs of each and every student. All that is still happening in every classroom in every corner of the building.
myJewishDetroit: Covid-free (next school year, we pray), what are your dreams for next great things at Hillel?
There will be a time when we are post-Covid at Hillel; my dream would be to continue to explore our innovative approach to teaching and learning. We’ve just begun a deep dive into all aspects of our academic program – both in our General Studies and in our Judaic and Hebrew curricula, so that we can strive for even greater academic excellence across the board.
On my wish list for next year? Welcoming even more new students and their families into our fold.
On a personal note
myJewishDetroit: Time out: What do you do to help yourself de-stress and relax?
I call my parents back in Philadelphia every day. I feel blessed to be able to check in with them daily if for no other reason than to hear their voices and to let them know that my wife, my sons and I are doing well. My mother will often ask what I’m making for dinner and my answers are getting better all the time.
Exercise is one of the best ways I de-stress. It’s long walks in the park and home fitness for now, but before Covid — I was an Orange Theory Fitness devoté. I look forward to getting back to the gym sometime soon.
And, like everyone else, I’m watching my share of Netflix.
Anything by Simon Sinek
On the nightstand for a parent book club in February: The Kurdish Bike, by Alesa Lightbourne
Suggested reading for middle school: Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid I’m also committed to doing some serious work on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) – exploring a long list of books on race relations.