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Profile: Avi Halzel, DCJE President & CEO

Avi HalzelAvi Halzel’s first year as president and CEO of Herzl-RMHA at the Denver Campus has been anything but dull.

He came aboard just in time to play a role in the school’s participation in the Allied Jewish Federation’s Jewish Colorado Tomorrow project, which hopes to dramatically alter the day school’s physical plant.

He also got to cheer as the RMHA Tigers, both the boy’s and girls’ basketball teams, made history by getting this close to state championships, all while not compromising on the school’s pledge never to compete on the Jewish Sabbath — a stance that earned the school not only international attention, but respect.

“I think it was a very good year,” says Halzel in a tone that manages to sound satisfied and modest at the same time.

He adds that while he was pleased that his inaugural year featured such dramatic developments as those noted above, he was even more pleased that the day-to-day brass tacks of his job were exactly what he was looking forward to.

“The thing I was most pleased about was that I found the job to be as advertised. As things can go sometimes, you’re told certain things and it turns out to be slightly different. In this case, it really wasn’t.

“The lay people did a really good job figuring out what it was that they needed and describing the position and its challenges and directions. That’s what made the first year successful. It was a good year — as advertised.”

That’s not say that his introduction to Denver hasn’t been challenging, Halzel is quick to add, but that hasn’t bothered him a bit.

“The challenges that we face are exciting and interesting — how to engage a population that doesn’t know about us, or doesn’t know what we have to offer, or doesn’t realize that if they came in our doors that ultimately they might find something they really like.”

Halzel came to Herzl-RMHA by way of Memphis, where he served as head of school at the Bornblum Solomon Schechter School, a K-8 day school with 200 students. Prior to that, he directed a religious school in Ohio and worked as a teacher in California.

A native of the Boston area, he is a member of a family with impeccable Jewish education credentials. His father was a day school principal; his mother a teacher at Hebrew and day schools.

His wife Rayne — with whom Halzel has four children — is also an educator, with experience as a day school teacher.

Herzl-RMHA interested Halzel because of its K-12 range of classes and its central role in the Denver Jewish community. He also found the job attractive because he knew it would involve a lot of fundraising, a skill he had learned to love at his Memphis job.

Denver’s streamlined and coordinated method of communal fundraising, however, struck him as considerably more sensible than the comparatively chaotic approach in Memphis, where fundraisers “were all going to the same people and kind of trampling on each other. It was quite difficult to raise money that way.

“One of the things that really interested me here in Denver, when I came out to interview and become familiar with the community, was that when agencies wanted to embark on capital campaigns, it was done in an organized fashion through the federation, the Jewish Colorado Tomorrow campaign.

“I think it’s a really wonderful way for a community to move forward together, instead of individual agencies competing with each other.”

In June, Herzl-RMHA signed an agreement with federation by which the two agencies would embark on planning and fundraising for the school’s first phase in the Jewish Colorado Tomorrow project.

With a projected $ 3.2 million budget, the campaign would establish two endowments for the school and focus mainly on capital improvements.

“We have plans to build a multi-purpose facility that will include a cafeteria and social hall facilities, as well as a stage. It’s a facility that we really need on this campus. There’s no good place for our students to perform at this time. They’re eating lunch in classrooms in the lower school. It would be much better to have an appropriate cafeteria with a real kitchen. We’re cooking our school lunches in what is essentially a small vending area in our gym, which was meant to provide snacks for games. So it’s something that we really need.”

Although classroom space is sufficient at the moment, he adds, “the upper school is bursting at the seams. They use every bit of classroom space that they have. They would love to have more, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Adding upper school classrooms may have to wait until the second phase of Jewish Colorado Tomorrow, as will replacements for kindergarten, first grade and second grade classrooms, currently located in the school’s 1950s-era original building.

Even more exciting than contemplating challenging capital campaigns was watching the upper school’s basketball teams light up the courts during state playoffs last winter.

Halzel cheered on his teams and stood up to the Colorado High School Activities Assn., which refused to budge on scheduling playoff games on Saturdays.

When the school announced that it would rather respect the Sabbath than earn a state crown, Jews and others from across the country, and even internationally, praised the stance.

“It was a very interesting few months,” Halzel says. “The support that we received was very comforting and very welcome. It certainly indicated to me that we were doing the right thing.

“And our teams were very good, the girls basketball team and the boy’s basketball team. The boys were a bucket away from making the next round.

“And this is going to happen again this year. We’re going to have teams again that are going to be very good. The issue hasn’t been completely resolved in terms of how it’s going to be handled. As far as we’re concerned, we’re not going to play on Shabbos. That much is clear.”

CHSA “was in a very difficult position,” Halzel concedes, adding that Herzl-RMHA is still engaged in dialogue with the association.

“We’re going to see whether they say, ‘We’re going to make this work for you,’ and I hope they will.”

Scheduling difficulties aside, Halzel was pleased to see how the teams’ success contributed to the sense of school spirit, something that isn’t all that common in Jewish day schools.

“It’s all positive, all good,” he says. “I love the fact that some people feel that in going to a Jewish day school perhaps they are sacrificing the athletic piece, the spirit, the ability to hold a pep rally. That’s just not true here.

“This is a place where athletics are important and there’s a lot of spirit involved. It’s just a lot of fun. The kids love it. We have more kids participating in our athletic program than we’ve ever had.”

More immediately pressing to Halzel than raising money and scheduling basketball games is the daily business of running — and hopefully growing — the school he supervises.

With nearly 400 students, Herzl-RMHA is the intermountain region’s largest Jewish day school, but Halzel believes it has the potential to be considerably larger.

He compares and contrasts the Jewish communities of Memphis and Denver to make his point.

“In Memphis there are about 8,500 Jewish people. It’s small but very strong, a very affiliated population, with 200 students in the day school. There’s not a lot of room for growth there because they are already very involved.

“Here, there are 85,000 Jews. We have about 400 in this day school. And there’s this tremendous potential for growth here.”

There are plenty of Jews in Colorado, Halzel elaborates, but it seems to him that many of them are not particularly interested in Jewish affiliation, perhaps because “when people move to the West sometimes it’s to disappear and perhaps not be as affiliated as some of the Eastern communities.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges in terms of the enrollment that we see. How to get people who may not be thinking about day school education interested in it.”

At least some of the disparity between the overall population and the number of kids going to day schools has to do with the high cost of such education, Halzel acknowledges.

“Day school tuition is high,” he accedes, “but even then it’s not as high as some of our non-Jewish competitor schools.

“And our tuition, as high as it is, does not cover the entire cost of educating our students, because we’re trying to remain competitive, trying to keep it as low as we possibly can to ensure that we’re not out pricing the middle class. We give away approximately $1.4 million in tuition assistance, and that number seems to keep growing and growing.

“The irony is that although nothing works better to insure Jewish continuity than day school education, Halzel says, “we can’t seem to get enough kids in the program.”

Four hundred students at Herzl-RMHA, he says, “is too little, and it’s all a matter of cost. Some communities are getting very aggressive in what they’re doing about cost. They have donors who are putting in place huge programs to offset the cost of tuition and those communities are now seeing significant gains.

“In those communities that are not doing those kinds of things — especially with the economy right now — the day schools have not been growing.”

While a decade ago it seemed that Jewish community planners were emphasizing day school education, the buzz seems to have quieted down more recently, in Halzel’s opinion.

“Day school education was the buzzword, but that doesn’t seem to be the big idea now. I’m not even hearing it in this community, based on the current population study that’s being analyzed right now. I’m not hearing that day schools are the answer, and that’s of concern to me.”

Halzel doesn’t claim to have the total answer to day school funding, but he is very strong on the commitment part of it.

“We want to have every Jewish child who qualifies for an education to be able to come, regardless of financial needs, and that’s a huge challenge.”

Halzel’s responsibilities are about evenly divided between “working with administrative staff and giving directions to faculty, working on fundraising and delving into the campus.”

That includes working on curriculum, a process which involves a close professional relationship with the various administrators and faculty heads who help him govern the school.

“I try to make sure that I’m around, visiting classrooms and school programs, get to know the kids, just be out there and be a part of what’s going on. The administrative staff handles the day-to-day stuff, the micro stuff, and I get involved with some of the bigger issues, directional issues as to where the school is going.”

The early fruit of those efforts will be manifest this fall when Herzl-RMHA debuts significant changes in the upper school Judaic studies program.

The changes were overdue, Halzel says, in a school whose student body is about evenly divided between students from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds.

“The idea is to make it more welcoming to all students, from a system where students had to enroll in certain classes or were placed in certain classes by grade, to an elective system. The kids really like that, it’s been quite successful.

“In looking at it, we wanted to make sure that we knew what our students were graduating with. We learned through the years that they really liked the electives they were taking but we also wanted there to be some structure to those electives, to make sure that they received an education in certain areas.”

Students will now be instructed through two systems of Judaic studies electives — one area of prescribed core study, such as text or history, with three choices within that area; and a second elective track, with a wide range of Judaic-related classes from which to choose.

“It was collaborative,” Halzel says of the process that led to the change, “but I think in part it was a situation where someone with fresh eyes was taking a look at where the program has gone over the last five or six years, and saying let’s put the final tweak on this to make it exactly what the school needs.”

The change will allow the flexibility necessary in a school with as Jewishly diverse a student body as Herzl-RMHA’s.

“Because we have students from all three major denominations, it’s difficult just to have 10th grade class for Judaic studies because you’re dealing with people who have different needs.

“We have students who are on track to go to a yeshiva for college and want very intensive studies on Jewish texts. We have students who would be more interested in some basic Judaism.”

Following both his family’s footsteps and his own convictions as a Jew, Halzel is an unapologetic advocate of day school education.

“It’s why I do what I do,” he says.

“In terms of Jewish continuity, day school education is the most important track. I believe very strongly in assuring the future of Judaism. Research has shown that when kids go to day school, the likelihood increases that they will identify Jewishly in a number of different ways.”

He has a still-evolving blueprint for how to reach that goal. For the past year, Halzel has been working with his colleagues at Herzl-RMHA to articulate precisely the school’s educational objectives.

“We want our students to graduate with what we call a well-rounded education. We want them to be able to go to universities that would be best for them. We want them to have all their options open to them, to achieve the levels that are appropriate for them.

“We want them also to be Judaically well-rounded. We want them to have a good understanding of Jewish texts and Jewish history and Jewish prayer, so they can walk into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and be able to participate, to feel comfortable. We want them to have an understanding of who they are in terms of their Jewish identities.”

Exactly who they are as Jews — and exactly how they decide to be active in their Jewish community — are functions of the students’ individuality, which Halzel stresses his school fully respects.

“We’re trying to prepare kids for the future,” he says, “as best we can.”

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IJN Assistant Editor |

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