Shalhevet ’04 valedictorian is back to teach Tanach


SQUASH: Ninth-grade Tanach teacher Ms. Smith fell in love with squash, a raquetball-like sport, while at Brandeis.

By Nicole Soussana, Torah Editor

When new Judaic Studies teacher Ms. Sara Smith was in high school, her teachers included Mrs. Roen Salem, Mrs. Joelle Keene, Mrs. Suzanne Halloran and Ms. Emily Chase.

That’s because Ms. Smith went to high school at Shalhevet, graduating as valedictorian in 2004.  

“Sara was memorable because she was so bubbly and sweet,” said Ms. Salem. “Her personality was outstanding, and her scholarship and integrity.”

Will these memories make it strange to be her former teachers’ colleague as she teaches ninth-grade Tanach?

No, she said.

“I don’t think it will be weird to work alongside them because of the nature of the student-teacher relationship at Shalhevet,” and the way they are encouraged to learn and work together in a friendly and accepting environment, she said.

Ms. Smith grew up in Los Angeles and, like many current students, attended Maimonides Academy for lower school. In high school she was active in choir, drama and Boiling Point. 

After high school she attended Brandeis University, majoring in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and History.  She is now working on a Ph.D. in Jewish Education at New York University.  For her dissertation she is researching the development of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Her interest is in how different ethnic immigrant groups educated their children, but her dissertation is mainly about non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Los Angeles.

“I am studying specifically non-Orthodox schools because their growth was due to the growth in Orthodox schools.” Ms. Smith said. She explained that at the start of the 20th century, most Jews went to public schools as a way of integrating into American society, but that after World War II, Jews became more interested in private day schools. Once they caught on in the Orthodox community, Conservative and Reform communities saw the value of private education as opposed to public schools, they began schools of their own.

Meanwhile, she is also very excited to be working at her old high school. While it is still the same place, Ms. Smith said there has been much administrative change since she was here, and the building being brand new and different also adds to the effect.

Ms. Smith looks forward to teaching the book of Shemot (Exodus) this year since she has never taught that part of Tanach before. She has a master’s in teaching Tanach and has taught the subject at both Pressman and YULA Girls High School. 

She said she emphasizes chavruta and group work and rarely if at all lectures, she said. Additionally, she does not categorize herself as either easy or hard.

“I think I am a fair teacher with high expectations.” Ms. Smith said.

Ms. Smith’s hobbies include exercising, baking, and playing squash. Squash is similar to racquetball and involves a four-walled court where players take turns striking a hollow rubber ball with their rackets.

It’s not very popular on the West Coast, she said, but she became involved with it at Brandeis, which has a lot of squash courts, falling in love with it during a summer internship.

Ms. Smith also explained that while some aspects of Shalhevet are still the same from when she attended it such as the ideas of democracy, Town Hall, and student voices and opinions, she is excited to work here for the innovative environment.  

“Shalhevet is doing really creative and ground-breaking work in the school in general but specifically in the Judaic Studies curriculum,” she said. “It’s really exciting for me to be able to work with a faculty like that. People who are just really thinking critically about teaching Judaic studies in the best possible ways.”