Looking back on 11 years of Dano-mite
From pet snakes to King Lear, departing General Studies Principal Roy Danovitch gave Shalhevet a different way to think about books, school and life.
June 15, 2015
The school was ready for this moment. There were student-produced videos, Town Hall farewell speeches, and even a new hiree for the General Studies principal position.
But as General Studies Principal Mr. Roy Danovitch taught his last English classes last week and made his final impassioned speech to the community – a charge to the seniors at graduation June 7 – the community still struggled saying goodbye to one of the few remaining faculty members to bridge the “old” and “new” Shalhevet.
“Old Shalhevet was a mythological fairly-land; the kids ruled the roost, everything was up for debate, and the school lurched forward, backwards, upside down, and sideways, eager to find itself,” Mr. Danovitch told the Class of 2015 and their families who had gathered for commencement at Temple Beth Am.
“There were no executive committees, no public relations budgets, and no hashkama minyans,” he added, saying what everyone seemed to understand, whether or not they realized it was all factually true.
“Shalhevet embraced dissonance in every corner; it was a school suffused with manic energy, spirited students, and a grand wizard, Dr. Friedman, sitting in his office, sans file cabinets, sans computer, but a giant aquarium behind his desk, and an apiary of birds cawing outside in the courtyard.”
The new Shalhevet, he said, has procedures, protocols, mapping, and horizontal curricular integration, along with minimesters, Schoology, waiting lists, financial sustainability and a “glamorous new building.”
He went on to say that the idea of a new or an old Shalhevet was actually a myth, and that the school had simply grown up, while keeping its uniqueness and “magic.”
But true or false, whatever is to come, his departure marks the end of a time that was uniquely filled with his philosophical queries, humor, and enthusiasm.
Last summer, Mr. Danovitch sent an email stating that the 2014-15 school year would be his last as General Studies principal, later confirming it would be his last year at Shalhevet as well.
Then on Feb. 26 this year, he announced he would be moving to New York to attain a Masters of Education degree from the Klingenstein Institute, a school leadership program at Columbia University.
“Whenever you lose somebody like him its going to affect the school,” said Dr. Jerry Friedman, the founder of Shalhevet.
Reflecting on his 11-year tenure in a recent interview, Mr. Danovitch – who prefers to be known by the more informal moniker of “Dano” – remembered his first few days at Shalhevet, when the copy machines were broken and everyone was passionately debating something. He said there were very few boundaries between the different constituents of the school, which made it a genuine community.
“I remember my first 12th-grade World Literature class, where my students were surprised I knew Hebrew,” said Dano, who was born in Beersheva, Israel, but had not worked in a Jewish school before.
“They complained about my first Dostoevsky assignment and muttered a Hebrew curse word. But I understood them, and they turned completely white, and I understood then that I was a perfect fit at the school.”
Over the years there were other of adventures. A student’s mother once asked Dano to adopt her pet snake. Dano agreed on impulse and kept the boa constrictor, naming it Edgar after a character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, his favorite play.
He kept the huge snake in his office, caged most of the time, and fed it a mouse every week. Once, the snake made its way to the girls’ bathroom, causing a bit of havoc. He finally decided to give it to school custodian Jose Flores, whom he considers to be a much better owner.
For a while he brought his dog, a pitt-lab mix, to school some days. His dog was named Barry Hussein Hubris III, named after President Barack Hussein Obama, who was known as Barry in high school in Hawaii.
But a constant has been his off-beat but intense teaching style, which integrates philosophical and life discussions into his literature classes.
“They were not typical discussions,” said alumnus Alex Fleshner ‘09, now an associate account strategist at Google, who stays in touch with Dano because of their shared love for basketball and the Lakers.
“I think Dano helped broaden my perspective not only on my overall knowledge, but just the way I approach some things in my life. Particularly, not sweating the small things and thinking bigger picture.”
Mr. Danovitch’s classes taught Aviva Brandes ’09 to follow her passions.
“He taught me things no one else was teaching,” said Aviva, who is also an actress. “I ended up majoring in philosophy because I loved what he taught, He made me question myself and my life. He got me reading Kafka, who is now my favorite author. Because of all that we’ll always have a close bond.”
He taught Shakespeare with emphases on vocabulary and interweaving of themes, wanting students to struggle to find out the meaning of the words. He would tell his students that the only way to fail was by Spark-noting rather than reading the text.
For Penina Smith ’09, Dano’s class was a way through a very difficult junior year. During the second semester, Penina missed three months of school for medical reasons.
“My medical issue gave me a whole new spin on what we were reading — especially Kafka — and this newfound perspective is what really helped us connect,” said Penina, who graduated from George Washington University last year. “It was my first English class at Shalhevet that really challenged the way I thought and understood the world around me.”
Dr. Friedman, too, found Dano a cure for his ills. When he would have an aggravating day as Head of School, he would walk to to Dano’s room and just watch. It always put him in a better mood.
“He was the personification of a great teacher who knew how to move around,” said Dr. Friedman. “He used more of the Socratic and Kohlbergian approach as a teacher, where he had the students involved. He was the epitome of what I like as a teacher … and when I came out of his classroom, I knew it was all worth it and working.”
For his part, Mr. Danovitch called Dr. Friedman one of his greatest life role models.
“He is a visionary who lives and breathes the mission of the school, so when looking to make decisions I look to him as an example,” Mr. Danovitch said. “He remains a huge role model to me and is one of the reasons I’m going to grad school — because he always encouraged me to take the next step.”
Dano said another role model was the late Beatrice Levavi, another unique Shalhevet figure of the past, who served first as Dr. Friedman’s assistant and then as Admissions Director. Ms. Levavi died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
They had many deep conversations, he said, and he still remembers when she put visine in Dr. Friedman’s eyes in the middle of a meeting.
“She used to visit my class with parents when I was a young teacher, and she’d mesmerize me with her knowledge of film, literature, history, and culture,” Mr. Danovitch said.
Though he taught hundreds of students how to read, write and think about books, Dano also tried to teach and lead the whole community at once. Over the years he organized a number of speakers and assemblies, some for students and some for parents.
In 2011, at a movie theater in Beverly Hills he hosted a screening and discussion on The Race to Nowhere, a film about students stressed to the point of suicide by too much homework. The same year he invited his father, the noted kidney specialist Dr. Gabriel Danovitch, to led an assembly about the importance and halachic permissibility of organ donation.
Beginning in 2012, he fought to replace AP courses with less restrictive honors classes like Crossroads’, and held a community meeting about that too. The first of these SAS, or Shalhevet Advanced Studies, courses – Advanced Biology and the “Tipping Point” European history course – debuted last fall.
He took the entire community to the Fairness Committee twice, once attacking its use of Facebook – calling it a “menace” — and a second time to fight against cellphones. His last seminar, called “The Bubble,” was a look at Shalhevet insularity and co-sponsored by the Shalhevet Institute.
Dano himself attended Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, and often mentions that he played high school basketball there with future NBA star Baron Davis. He graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1999, still unsure of his profession.
For two years he worked for a Swiss watch company in San Diego, returning when the economy was frozen after the Sep. 11 attacks and jobs were hard to find. He decided to travel to Southeast Asia and taught English to children in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.
“It was that experience which inspired and motivated me to test out a career in education,” he said.
Back in LA, he heard about a job opening at Shalhevet from English teacher Ms. Melanie Berkey, a friend from Crossroads who thought he should try out. He was hired by Dr. Friedman after giving a guest lesson where he taught Catcher in the Rye using Post-it notes.
In the years since, has taught 9th- and 12th-grade World Literature, 10th-grade American Literature, and 11th-grade British Literature.
“What is interesting about his whole tenure at Shalhevet is that because of his ‘Dano-ness,’ that classic Dano personality, I think he took a lot of people by surprise here,” said Ms. Berkey, who is moving on as well.
“Nobody at the beginning would have anticipated he would have gone on to do what he has done here,” Ms. Berkey said. “Those same principles that he has brought here at the beginning — to focus on students and just being a super creative and outside-of-the-box teacher — those were definitely sustained.”
Dano was named Dean of Students in 2010, and one of his jobs was to lead Advisory. He called it “Maagal Hakshva” and modeled it on the Listening Circle model advocated by the Ojai Institute, whose leaders he brought to school to train the faculty.
A year later, after Mr. Phu Tranchi stepped down as General Studies principal to work on a doctoral degree, Rabbi Segal – a few months from taking over – chose Dano to fill the position.
It was an odd fit for a footloose iconoclast who was more at home in the critic’s role. Dano worried about being considered “the man.” But he got used to it.
One thing he did was become increasingly identified with the Just Community, though he was never officially given that role. This year he became more involved with advising the Agenda Committee. He was a major advocate for Town Hall, sending out texts reminding people to come and threatening to suspend seniors if they ditched.
This year, he unilaterally imposed a draconian new cell phone policy partly just to get students to revolt. For about a week, students caught using cellphones when not permitted had to leave their phones at school for two whole days. The strategy worked, and Mr. Danovitch was delighted when a student decided to take him to the Fairness Committee, which formulated a new policy as a compromise.
For his final event, he organized the first-ever Just Community Town Hall, where parents, alumni, and students gathered in the JCC Solarium the evening of April 27 for a meeting called “The Bubble,” about whether Shalhevet was too insulated from the world.
Agenda Vice Chair Micah Gill said Dano taught people a lot of important life knowledge along the way.
“I never had him as a teacher but I saw how good of a leader he was through the Just Community and personal questions,” Micah said. “He would constantly be teaching me what to do, how to have integrity, and how to be a leader. He always gave me his two cents, which I will keep long after he leaves the school.”
Another person influenced by Mr. Danovitch was Jewish History teacher Mr. Jason Feld, who called the departing principal the first close relationship he had at Shalhevet, based on their sharing a classroom and both wearing ripped jeans.
“He is always someone I could rely on for a different perspective on a book or political event,” Mr. Feld said. “I’m going to miss him and he will be hard to replace.”
In the final months of this year, there were many farewells between Dano and the school.
At the annual Gala dinner on May 14, Mr. Danovitch was one of the honorees; Rabbi Segal spoke about him and presented a compass as a gift. Faculty at a goodbye party hosted by Admissions Director Natalie Weiss gave him a first-edition printing of a 19th-century biography of Shakespeare.
Dano’s 10th-grade American Literature and 11th-grade British Literature classes both held goodbye parties. For his class, sophomore Yonatan Khalil produced a video of pictures of Dano posing with students.
For a junior class Dano gave one last life lecture, about the beauty of imperfection. He had the class listen to the Beatle’s song “In My Life” and explained that there was an error on one of the musical notes. That single off note, however, actually enhanced the song.
It was the same lecture he had heard from a favorite teacher in elementary school, who was secretly suffering from cancer at the time and died a few years later, and it stuck with him.
“I think we’ll be losing a great person who brought a lot of life to the school,” said junior Daniella Banafsheha. “He really established what the Just Community means and the value of it in the Shalhevet system. He is an amazing teacher, and I’ll really miss him.”
As the sounds of goodbyes begin to dim, the school now finds itself without one of its key members. Ms. Berkey said that different people must now try to fill in the void that will be left.
“The school is in a place where nobody leaving is going to break it,” Ms. Berkey said prior to the announcement of her own resignation. “There is no one person who represents all of Shalhevet, but it is trying to figure out ways of when people leave to not replace them but fill in the voids left. Obviously, there is a lot of Just Community stuff and his vibe and spirit and all that he brings that everyone else is going to have to figure out how to compensate for.”
For Dano, leaving Shalhevet and returning to school is just another testament to the what makes him, well, Dano.
“Essentially, my life makes no linear or thematic sense, and I take joy in that,” he told the Boiling Point in an interview back in 2009. “I’m constantly going on adventures, asking questions, and juggling beliefs.”
Wanting something fresh and new isn’t surprising. It’s just another symptom of being creative and unique – and of exactly what Shalhevet is going to miss.
This story won a 2015 National Award in Personality Profile Writing from the Quill & Scroll International Honorary Journalism Society.