By Linda Ostrow Schlesinger.
The Valley Torah High School Menlo Family Girls Division received a shot of adrenalin earlier this year when vivacious veteran educator Sheindy Gross came on board as its new principal. Mrs. Gross has been drawing on her extensive experience in Jewish education to implement new ideas and refine or “tweak” existing programs and classes in the 38–year-old college and seminary preparatory school, which is home to 53 girls for almost nine hours every weekday.
A graduate of Machon Bais Yaakov of Brooklyn, Mrs. Gross has spent the last 23 years of her professional life combining programming, recruitment and extracurricular leadership with intensive teaching. She taught a wide variety of ages and Judaic subjects in New York and New Jersey and served for the past 14 years in Los Angeles as a cherished teacher at Yeshivat Yavneh. She was also a founding mechanechet and teacher at Bnos Devorah High School. She strives and derives tremendous personal satisfaction from “making authentic Torah relevant to today’s budding young adult.”
Mrs. Gross’s auxiliary talents include Kallah teaching and mentorship and one of her greatest pleasures is being a mother to her own children, which enables her to bring warmth and parenting experience to the classroom. Mrs. Gross spoke to me about her first semester at Valley Torah.
What motivated you to accept the position of VTHS Girls Division principal?
It was a very exciting opportunity for me to bring my experience as a teacher to this position where I can have a greater impact on the educational process and consequently on the academic and moral education of the young women in our community. The objective is to help them develop a strong sense of Jewish pride and a commitment to Torah and mitzvos in a joyful manner. And of course, ideally this should be founded upon a deep intellectual understanding of our faith, an emotional connection to the beauty of our religion and a commitment to the community to which we belong.
What is your long term vision for the school?
One of the objectives is to get the word out to the community that Valley Torah offers frum girls a top notch religious, college preparatory high school education complete with an extensive array of Judaic and general studies classes, including many AP and honors courses, as well as a multifaceted extracurricular program. And of course we want to continually grow and build upon what we’ve accomplished thus far. We want our girls to be able to go out in the world prepared to compete in the marketplace while at the same time being rooted in Yiddishkeit in the fullest sense of its meaning. So that in the end their professional, intellectual, communal and personal goals are all infused with Torah values and meaning.
What are your short term goals and what have you done so far to achieve them?
In the short term, a thorough evaluation is underway to determine which elements of the educational process and systems are working and which could use improvement. Wherever something is not working, I’m tweaking it or going back to the drawing board to rethink and remedy it.
One major focus of the school is to offer Torah studies classes that address issues that the girls are facing and thinking about in their everyday lives. Towards that end, we are bringing more hashkafa and philosophical discussion into the classroom. We’ve modified the performing arts classes to one day per week to add more exciting Torah Studies classes for all grades. We added Jewish history in 9th grade, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) and Yesodos b’Emunah (Foundations of Faith) in 10th grade, Jewish philosophy in 11th and Megillos in 12th.
In contrast to Chumash and Navi classes, which focus more on skills, these classes give us a forum to bring up and discuss contemporary issues that are relevant to our young college-bound women who will eventually build their own Jewish homes and contribute to their Jewish communities. We would like to help them clarify their Jewish values by enabling and encouraging them to ask questions and to be comfortable with the answers and with confronting different issues they are likely to face throughout their lives. Our goal at Valley Torah is to give Torah girls a place to flourish, to grow, to learn and to be prepared for the next phase in life.
I’ve added more electives, such as debate club, costume design, stage makeup, hip-hop and jazz dance and musical theater which are proving to be a great success. One of our girls’ debate teams won first place in the recent Jewish Public Forum Debate Tournament. We will also continue our phenomenal ongoing programs, such as Mock Trial and student council. New young teachers have been brought in who can learn from our seasoned teachers and who bring their own flavor and exuberance to the classroom.
What sets the school apart or makes it different from other Jewish girls’ schools in the area?
I think that there’s a wholesomeness to Valley Torah that is extraordinary. The warmth and care the girls have for one another is palpable. You definitely see how the parents in our school are invested in their daughters and our alumnae are constantly returning, wanting to be part of our programs. Some of them accompanied us on our fall Shabbaton .
The alumnae feel a tremendous connection to school and the staff, which is an indication that we have done a good job connecting them to their Yiddishkeit. Baruch Hashem we will continue to create a positive connection to good role models and a positive feeling about Judaism and about being a Jewish woman.
What’s special about Valley Torah girls?
They’re very friendly and warm. They have good middot, derech eretz, respect. Not every girl entered Valley Torah at the same level spiritually, but they all share an interest and a desire to grow in their own way and at their own pace. The girls are also interested in going to college and getting ahead and being successful.
What sets our girls apart is that incoming freshmen are able to adapt to the new school environment very quickly as a result of the warm and welcoming atmosphere. There’s a great camaraderie of girls of all ages across all the grades. Our big and little sisters program, which pairs 9th and 11th graders and 10th and 12th graders, fosters this friendship.
What have been some of this year’s highlights and what’s coming up?
We’re very excited that athletics has been introduced into the school. We had a successful soccer season and the girls really flourished. Basketball season is just beginning. Our musical production of The Wizard of Oz, March 9-10, was thoroughly professional and incredibly entertaining. We had a hugely successful Shabbaton in November at the Brandeis Bardin Institute featuring Chevy Garfinkel, a beloved, renowned teacher and inspirational speaker from New York, who spoke about the Shabbaton theme, “Appreciation.” Our spring retreat at the end of the school year is another highlight and is an opportunity for the girls to have good fun, participate in unusual activities and get to know each other in a different dimension.
What aspect of the girls division makes you the proudest?
It is very gratifying to see girls in this day and age who are wholesome, grounded, well-mannered and kind. We have tried to create an environment that fosters these attributes, so it is very satisfying to see these results. I’ve been around the block a little bit in high schools and I’m very proud of the way things come together here in a balanced healthy way. There’s a very positive feel to our hallways and to our classrooms.
What do you wish for the future of your alumnae?
We hope to impart a solid background and foundation in Torah and Mitzvos that leaves them with a profound understanding and respect for our heritage and a comprehension of why we keep the Torah and the Mitzvos. We also strive to convey to our students the knowledge that HaKadosh Baruchu expects every one of us to search for and develop our own personal connection with Him.
I hope they will optimize these critical years and take advantage of all that we have to offer them; that they will go on to a seminary and college environment that speaks to their Jewish religious values; and that as they build the foundation for the next stage in their lives, they’ll be able to call upon the lessons and tools they have been given here.
I also wish for them to feel part of a community because there’s nothing more important than being part of something larger than oneself. I hope they will share their talents, resources and friendship with the Jewish community wherever they find themselves.