Rabbi Ari Leubitz never could have guessed two decades ago that he would be moving to Atlanta this summer to become the head of school of Atlanta Jewish Academy.
Back then, the Cleveland native was making his way in the Wall Street world with a Yeshiva University business degree. While trying such jobs as stock trader and currency trader, he had no plans to be an educator or a rabbi or even to leave New York, where he met his future wife, Florence, a native of the city who had no desire to move.
The bursting of the Internet bubble in the late 1990s led him to call center management, where he worked hard but felt that he was missing some essential meaning or purpose in life. “I didn’t have that language at the time, but I was going through the motions,” Rabbi Leubitz, 42, said in a phone interview from California, where he heads the Oakland Hebrew Day School. “I guess I was content.”
The first turning point came when his synagogue offered free one-on-one study with rabbinical students. He said the program wasn’t wildly popular, but it clicked with him. He switched to a graveyard shift at the call center so he could spend more time studying, and he began teaching religious school in the afternoon.
He felt tremendous tension about where he was headed, but he didn’t see himself as a rabbi. He was just passionate about learning and teaching as he found his way religiously after growing up with a Conservative father, an Orthodox mother and an Orthodox day school.
A mentor helped him accept that if he found purpose in teaching children and being a pastoral leader, he had to go to rabbinical school, even though that meant giving up his job. When he realized he could be 30 years from achieving career fulfillment in the call center world but was only four or five years from being a rabbi, “it just hit me like a ton of bricks.”
He spent a year at a small rabbinical school as a test, then enrolled in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where he received his ordination four years later in 2006.
The next trick was finding a job. Rabbi Leubitz still had the intention of being a pulpit rabbi, but after he struggled to find a job in the New York area, or even within a one-hour flight, he took a part-time teaching position in Los Angeles that soon became full time. He worked his way up to principal of a Modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet School, then four years ago took the Oakland job, where he leads a school that runs through the eighth grade.
Rabbi Leubitz, whose only ties to Atlanta are a few friends who moved here, took notice when Greenfield Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Atlanta announced their merger in 2014. He said the model of preschool through high school on one campus provides a wonderful professional opportunity. “Part of me wanted to get back to high school,” he said. “Part of me loved the lower school.”
At AJA, he gets both, along with the opportunity to guide a school that has deep community roots but also is new and embarking on a major construction project. “Now I get to have a say in every small part.”
He said AJA is and will remain Modern Orthodox. “I think that means it can still be a place that is open-minded and welcoming to people of different geographic backgrounds and practice backgrounds.”
The school he leads will focus on how it can meet the needs of each learner, which is why he is excited that AJA offer the M’silot Program for children with learning differences, Rabbi Leubitz said.
His educational philosophy starts with the notion that “an excellent Jewish and general studies education has to be something that feels holistic, centered around students and the needs of students.”
He said the school must nurture the unique abilities of each child so that he or she can blossom and find a voice while developing the skill set in general studies to be “amazing citizens of the world.”
His children — Eliana, 12, Aviva, almost 11, and Ezra, 5 — will be part of the school, while his wife, a pediatric audiologist, is looking for work.
“This feels like the place where we can settle down and create roots,” the rabbi said.