Rabbi Aaron Frank leads his students in faith, academics

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In Kinneret Day School’s single long hallway, preparations are underway for the first day of school. Rabbi Aaron Frank, Kinneret’s head of school, is huddled in his office with his assistant principal, Allyson Israel, discussing plans for the upcoming academic year.

Frank is beginning his fourth year at Kinneret in a kind of extended preparation to take over one day from principal Asher Abramovitz. It’s the latest stop on what has been a long academic and spiritual road for Frank, whose journey began more or less in the late 1990s as an associate rabbi for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

There, Frank would discuss Judaism, faith and the Torah with the seventh- and eighth-graders.

At the time, much of the student body was non-observant, Frank said, and he wanted to provide a gentle introduction to Jewish traditions and ethics.

After spending 12 years in Baltimore at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Frank moved back to Riverdale and SAR High School before Kinneret created the head of school position specifically for the rabbi.

Now Frank works to uphold traditions laid by Abramovitz and fulfill the educational and spiritual needs of Kinneret’s roughly 230 students, who range in age from 3 to 13.

Kinneret students spend about 35 percent of their time on religious studies, learning about the Torah and Jewish values, as well as some Hebrew.
“There’s no ‘like,’ ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in our school,” Frank said.
“Everyone’s very low key, down to earth. There’s that humility, and also the values and ethics of treating everybody with respect, and no one has their nose in the air here.”

The school harbors a large international population. While nearly half the students are American, the other half is a mixture of kids hailing from Israel, Argentina, Turkey, France, Hungary and more.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a mainstream culture in our school,” Frank said.

“It’s what you would call achdut — connectedness and acceptance of differences, and embracing it,” said Israel, the assistant principal. Achdut is a Hebrew word describing the unity of Jewish people.

That unity, paired with the school’s small size, brings students and the educational staff closer together. In a smaller middle school, older kids might be rowdy and running around the halls, Frank said. Here they’re more aware as they’re sharing space with children almost as young as toddlers.

Instead, they form a sibling-like bond, looking out for each other throughout their years in the school. And Frank is able to form close-knit relationships with students, becoming a part of their everyday lives within Kinneret’s walls.

“I think small is very sweet and nice,” the rabbi said. “We work very hard administratively, but the scale is less. You’re more available for your kids in the school day, where I’m in the hall all day. You’re able to be with the kids more.”

And, Frank adds, their roles are not just administrative.
“The infrastructures are very different. Here, we’re like the chief cooks and bottle washers.”

Frank’s history with some of the Kinneret alum goes back a ways, thanks to his earlier stint working with the school. One of those former students was a man named Zach, who, after learning the rabbi had returned to the Bronx, reached out to Frank, asking him to join Abramovitz in officiating his wedding.

They did, and a side-by-side photo of Frank and Zach from the first time they met as student and teacher and when they reunited years later for Zach’s wedding sits on Frank’s desk.

Frank strives to balance students’ strictly academic education and their spiritual education.

“We have students who have academic needs, and we want to accommodate those needs,” the rabbi said. “We work to do that through our learning center, and at the same time, we want to work our kids hard.”

The school’s curriculum is rigorous and doesn’t agree with newer education models that won’t assign homework, but teachers try not to assign busywork, only sending students home with assignments that will further their understanding of what went on in the classroom. Israel estimates that 80 percent of Kinneret’s eighth-graders who apply for the city’s specialized high schools like Bronx Science are accepted.

“Education standards are always changing, but we’re not only aligned, we’ve always been ahead of the curve,” Frank said.

A full range of after-school activities — including Krav Maga and a new Shakespeare club lead by Israel — allow students a full range of opportunities for new experiences.

And even when students move on to the upper grades, Frank is still there. He leads “Rabbi Frank’s Round Table” for middle-schoolers where, once a week, he’ll gather teenagers to talk about faith and where it fits into their lives.

“We talk about everything from being religious in a modern world to what do you do when it seems like faith doesn’t make sense,” Frank said.

He wants to guide students in their faith, not force them to feel a certain way about Judaism and their beliefs.

“Many people think if you have ‘rabbi’ in front of your name that you’re going to impose, and there’s going to be coercion,” Frank said. “I want them to have the tools to take the journey on their own. Wherever that journey goes, I want them to be able to navigate that.

“My goal is to make this the best Kinneret it can be — not to change who we are. Because who we are is wonderful, but we can just be better.”

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