By Michael Jacobs / email@example.com
Have no fear, Epstein School parents: David Abusch-Magder isn’t some mad scientist coming to experiment on your children.
Sure, he has been programming computers since he was in middle school. Yes, he has a doctorate from MIT, spent eight years researching nanotechnology and wireless networks at Bell Labs, and has his name on a couple of patents. But Epstein’s incoming head of school doesn’t see students as lab rats.
“I’m not coming in there and saying, ‘Oh, I come from an experimental background. Let’s try some experiments on kids.’ That’s not how we work,” Abusch-Magder, known as Dr. D, said in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he is the head of the middle school and assistant head of campus at the Brandeis Hillel Day School.
Still, his scientific approach will come into play when he starts July 1 at the Conservative day school in Sandy Springs.
Sometimes he will be hands-on as a scientist in the classroom, where he said he loves to spend time. In his six years at Brandeis Hillel, he has filled in as a substitute, and he teaches an elective called “What’s Inside Your Device,” in which he and 10 students rip apart iPads and computers to explore their makeup.
But the analytical approach isn’t limited to science class.
“The habits of mind that come with being a scientist, particularly with doing it at the level of a Ph.D., I think comes in all the time. There’s an analytical thinking. There’s a passion to learn and to be comfortable going into a new field where you don’t actually know what the questions even are,” Abusch-Magder said.
He said it’s vital to help students build habits of inquiry and communication that enable them to think through problems in any field and to risk failure. “Sometimes you need to fail to succeed. You have to fail forward and try something that doesn’t work and keep going, and I think that’s characteristic of the type of work our students are likely to do, whatever field they’re in. … When 10 percent of my experiments worked, that was a pretty high success rate.”
As an administrator and a leader, Abusch-Magder uses those same habits.
“My natural leadership stance is to come in listening, learning, building relationships and learning the strengths,” he said. “This isn’t about coming in and creating some turnaround. This is about going from strength to strength.”
The approach he plans to use at Epstein is the same he used as principal at Solomon Schechter of Chicago when he arrived in August 2007 and at Brandeis Hillel two years later. He’ll spend months holding open-agenda meetings with faculty and other members of the Epstein community to listen and learn.
“You tell me about what you’re so excited about. Why did you get into the teaching profession? What does a special day look like for you at Epstein?” he said. He expects the answers to provide guidance and pay dividends for years.
Abusch-Magder said he appreciates that Epstein knows what it is and wasn’t looking for a new vision while searching for a head of school to succeed Stan Beiner. That wasn’t the case at many schools he talked to. “Expecting that someone who doesn’t know the school is going to have a richer vision doesn’t make a lot of sense and doesn’t reflect confidence about what you’re doing.”
He said Epstein is justified in having confidence.
“The opportunity at Epstein is a standout opportunity nationally. It’s one of a very few schools of its caliber in the country,” Abusch-Magder said. “It’s an exceptional Jewish day school. It’s also a really damn fine independent school.”
He said Epstein is a leader in many areas he’s passionate about. He cited the fundamental connection with the students; the partnership among parents, kids, teachers and staff; the commitment to 21st-century and blended learning; and the nationally renowned immersive Hebrew program.
Abusch-Magder said he has been passionate about Hebrew since he lived in Israel for a time in his youth. He and his wife, Reform Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, chose to speak Hebrew at home when they had children because “that was one of the greatest gifts we could imagine giving them.”
Epstein’s connection to Conservative Judaism also was an advantage compared with Brandeis Hillel, which is independent. Abusch-Magder was attracted by Epstein’s deep religious roots and the familiarity of the Conservative Solomon Schechter movement.
He attended a Schechter school in Boston and sent his children to a Schechter school in New Jersey before becoming principal of a Schechter school in Chicago.
“It’s not the name or the movement per se; it’s what’s underneath that hood,” he said. “It’s the commitment to having the tradition be something that infuses your daily life, that is woven into the fabric of the school in a meaningful way and that gives you access to that wisdom.”
If all that hadn’t been enough for the Abusch-Magders to move across the country to a city where they have never lived and know few people, the warm community they found in Atlanta sealed the deal.
He has found the legendary Southern hospitality and civility to be real. “Maybe I’m overgeneralizing from afar, but that was something that I experienced. It was something that people talked about, and it’s something that’s very important to me as a leadership stance and as to how you build a community.”
He said he has tried to live his life with similar politeness and civility and has raised his children, Oren and Aliza, to be people who say please and thank you. “That seems to be woven into the fabric of Atlanta in a way that is more so than I’ve seen in other cities that I’ve lived in.”
Oren, 17, is graduating from high school this spring and either will head off to college or take a gap year next year. Aliza, 14, will be a freshman at the Weber School.
Abusch-Magder’s wife is the rabbi in residence for a San Francisco outreach group called Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue). He said she’s doing great work and is exploring opportunities in Atlanta, where she intends to be entwined within the community.
Throughout the interview, Abusch-Magder bubbled with enthusiasm even though it was 5:30 a.m. his time. His excitement for Epstein and Atlanta was palpable from thousands of miles away.
He sees Atlanta as a rich, diverse city with a real identity that is evolving, and having lived in New York, Boston and Chicago, he’s not concerned about moving to a smaller city with a smaller Jewish community.
“It’s not about the size, but the quality and the people and the type of engagements that are happening, and in that regard I’d have to say Atlanta is second to none,” Abusch-Magder said. “I know I don’t know, but what I’m seeing, the good work that’s being done is being done at a level that’s competitive nationally.”
He said the Atlanta Jewish community’s reputation for its treatment of professionals is as good as any city. For the opportunity to make a difference and do good work, “I would say it’s among the leading cities in the Jewish communities of the United States, and to me that makes it a destination.”
One where no mad science is required.