Rabbi Tully Harcsztark of Teaneck, founding principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, is one of three educators from across the United States to receive The Covenant Award in recognition of excellence in furthering Jewish education. The award is given annually by the Covenant Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to “strengthen educational endeavors that perpetuate the identity, continuity and heritage of the Jewish people.” Each recipient receives $36,000, and $5,000 will be given to each recipient’s school.
“These Jewish educators exemplify inspired, courageous and visionary leadership,” said Cheryl Finkel, chair of the board of directors of The Covenant Foundation and a former Covenant Award recipient. “Their achievements challenge all of us in Jewish education to make our own work bolder, more ambitious and more impactful.”
Rabbi Harcsztark was honored for his achievement in creating SAR High School. From the open-space architecture of the school campus itself, which Rabbi Harcsztark helped design, to the integration of general and Judaic studies educators and curricula, SAR reflects Rabbi Harcsztark’s ideal of education as a “fusion of horizons.”
In a concept he calls the “Grand Conversation,” subjects are taught from both the Judaic and secular perspective so that, for example, biology students learn about organ donation and genetic engineering from scientific, ethical and halachic perspectives. “We bring Judaic and general studies together in a unified way,” he told The Jewish Link. “The entire staff might go to a shabbaton, where students will see general studies teachers who will also be religious role models.”
He’s especially proud of SAR’s beit midrash program in which five young men and five young women, recent college graduates, come to the school and work with students in small groups. “They’re not quite teachers but great role models for the students.” He said three fellows will be joining the staff next year.
Rabbi Harcsztark noted that the award also reinforces support for future work. One of his most innovative projects is the Machon Siach, a research institute for teachers connected to the high school in which teachers can research, write and make presentations similar to TED talks to each other on selected topics. “We wanted to create a safe space where teachers could talk about complicated things,” he explained. “We are treading the line in between theory and practice. We can see here what might or might not translate into future curricula. The teachers meet every other week in small groups. One group is now looking at new ways to teach about Israel including Israel advocacy. Another group starting up will look at sexuality and ethics. This is very important to high school students, but schools don’t pay enough attention to it. We will look at how to address and teach guided by Halacha.”
Throughout the school, SAR encourages teacher and student engagement. “Our model of collaboration reflects open thinking to our students,” Rabbi Harcsztark said. “It informs the way that teachers interact with students and encourages students to develop a voice of their own. Our kids know they have a voice and role to play in the school.”
Prior to becoming SAR High School’s founding principal, Rabbi Harcsztark served as associate principal of Judaic studies at SAR Academy, rabbi at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Judaic studies teacher at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey.
What will he do with the prize money? “I’ll have to talk that over with my wife,” he laughed.
By Bracha Schwartz