Warmth and ruach that got students on their feet

Yael Rabin

Leila Miller, Outside News Editor

“You have to rely on the administration,” school founder Dr. Jerry Friedman told The Boiling Point a few hours after students stopped classes May 19. “But the administration has to appreciate students’ feelings and take them into account.”

The occasion was a sit-in for Rabbi Naftali Richler, whose contract was not renewed after 11 years of teaching Tanach and other subjects at Shalhevet.

Practically the entire student body participated in a demonstration supporting Rabbi Richler during third period that day. Protest or not though, the folksy Lubavitcher rabbi — known for his Montreal accent, steady smile and cheerful cajoling of students to follow miztvot – will not be back next year.

There were meetings between protest leaders and administrators that afternoon, but nothing changed.

“I hired Rabbi Richler and I think that he’s fantastic,” Dr. Friedman said. “He created a lot of ruach (spirit) and is very caring. I envisioned those things for this school. That’s why I wanted him as part of the school.”

Incoming head of school Rabbi Ari Segal said that it would be hard to replace Rabbi Richler’s “incredible warmth,” and that he would work hard to do so.

“The calculus for these decisions is quite complex,” Rabbi Segal wrote later in a letter to the school community, “and the Administration is charged with doing what is best for the entire school – on many levels. This is not always easy for any one person or group to comprehend and that is why I understand those who are hurt and frustrated by this and want to advocate for change.”

Rabbi Segal also said that Rabbi Richler’s religious orientation was not behind his non-renewal.

“I think Rabbi Richler would take exception to the notion that he’s not ‘modern,’” Rabbi Segal told The Boiling Point that same day, asked whether Rabbi Richler’s departure was designed to strengthen the school’s Modern Orthodox identity.

Dr. Friedman, who was head of school for 16 years from its start in 1992, came to Town Hall later that day to honor interim head of school Mr. Nathan Reynolds, who had been expected to address the students to say goodbye but didn’t make it. Mr. Reynolds, who was in a serious car accident Jan. 31, as planned will also not be returning next year.

Informed of the sit-in when he arrived, Dr. Friedman advised that students should respond to the dismissing of teachers with what he called “moral suasion,” in this case, discussing with the administration in a mature way why they feel Rabbi Richler was important to the school.

“When we founded the school there was to be mutual respect in one community – not with the staff on one side and the students on the other,” “That’s why I created this school — I wanted students to feel it was theirs. Talk to the leadership of the administration and hope you can resolve the situation.”

But he cautioned students to be sympathetic to the administration as well.

“It’s not easy up on top either,” Dr, Friedman said.       During the period after the rally ended Rabbi Richler – fondly called “Rabs” by some students – stuck his head out of his classroom into the main hallway. A student walking by saw him near the door,

“You know what I’m doing? I’m standing up for you Rabbi,” junior Rachel Lester said. The rabbi beamed back in return.

Opinion Editor Ari Feuer contributed to this story.