When Adam Holden, 38, took over as the headmaster at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy — the only Jewish day school in the Kansas City metropolitan area — he never was sure when he met Orthodox women and girls whether he should shake their hands.
This uncertainty makes sense, given that the British-born Holden is a devout Catholic. Until he was hired by Hyman Brand in 2002, he was the principal at St. Thomas Aquinas — a nearby Catholic high school — and, as he put it, he had a “superficial understanding at best” of Judaism.
Learning about everything from dietary restrictions to Hebrew terminology since then has been an immense challenge for Holden. To make things even more confusing for him, Hyman Brand is a multi-denominational school. He had to learn the distinctions between Reform and Conservative practice, and the first few times he walked into an Orthodox service he naively found himself in a room full of only girls and women looking at him curiously.
“‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism’ was my close companion for a long time,” Holden said, “and remains so.”
Holden’s personal struggles apparently have not gotten in the way of his administration of the school. There has been occasional griping about his lack of a Jewish background (“normally when we are in a disagreement” about an unrelated matter, said Holden). For the most part, though, community and school leaders alike bubble over with talk of the incredible strides the academy has made since Holden took over.
“Everyone is already thinking how we can hold onto him for as long as we can,” said Dana Gibson, the president of Hyman Brand’s board of trustees, who has a son in fifth grade at the school.
The leaders of Kansas City’s Jewish community admit that, all else being equal, they would rather have a Jewish leader for their Jewish school. But, as Gibson put it, “finding a great Jewish educator, particularly one willing to come to Kansas City, is very difficult.”
As has been widely reported in recent years, the number of Jewish educators has not kept pace with the booming popularity of Jewish day schools, pushing some schools to look outside the Jewish community for teachers and leaders.
Non-Jewish headmasters at the more than 700 Jewish day schools in America are not common, but Holden is definitely not alone as a gentile leading a Jewish school, according to Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
“Schools would prefer to have someone who is Jewish,” Elkin said, “but I think that search committees are beginning to prize talented and proven leadership in education above anything else.”
At Hyman Brand, those educational qualities were the express priorities for the search committee.
“Dr. Holden clearly had a commitment to academic excellence, and that was the most important thing for us,” said Jerry Bernard, who headed the search committee. “He also had a track record of success in a faith-based institution, which we believed was transferable between specific religious contexts.”
Since Holden’s hiring, Kansas City’s Jewish leaders have been surprised to find the ways in which his lack of a Jewish background has actually helped him serve the educational mission of the multi-denominational school.
For instance, because Holden is not affiliated with any denomination, he has managed to comfortably approach every corner of the Kansas City Jewish community for assistance.
“He has no ax to grind, or political history with any side of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Fine, leader of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner, an Orthodox synagogue in Kansas City. “He’s just able to come in and call them as he sees them.”
At Holden’s request, rabbis from all of Kansas City’s synagogues volunteer their time at least once a week to lead services at Hyman Brand, and some of the greatest improvements since Holden’s arrival have been in the daily prayer services.
“He’s able to import his knowledge,” said Fine, “and use it in order to benefit the Judaic curriculum in ways that I have not seen before. In my experience, in terms of Jewish education, he probably knows more already than most Jewish educators.”
But Holden and the school leaders also attribute the cooperation at the school to the inter-denominational good will that has reigned among Kansas City’s 19,000 Jews in recent years.
“From afar I had heard that there was often contention between synagogues and differing minyans,” Holden said. “I have not witnessed that at all among Kansas City’s Jews. It has been really enlightening as to how each of our community rabbis respects each other and is willing to work together.”
The prayer services offered on-site are not the only aspect of the school that has been ramped up since Holden’s arrival. Earlier this year he also instituted the rigorous International Baccalaureate program for students in the high school. In part, Holden hopes it can open up the students to an international perspective that might be glossed over in the closed environment of a Jewish school.
To address any gaps that might result from the shortcomings in Holden’s own Jewish education, the school recently hired an Israeli, Rabbi Yosef Zilbershatz, to be the assistant head of school and oversee the Judaic studies curriculum.
The trip Holden made to Israel to interview Zilbershatz gave him incredible insight into the work he was doing at the school. Gibson, who accompanied Holden on the trip, said that after a few days in Israel Holden turned to him and said, “It all makes sense now.”
The trip to Israel was only one of the enlightening experiences Holden has had since joining the staff at Hyman Brand.
Each month Holden goes to a meeting with other leaders from Kansas City’s Jewish institutions. Recently a number of these meetings have turned into heated discussions about “The Passion of the Christ,” the forthcoming movie by Mel Gibson that is believed by many in the Jewish community to portray Jews in a negative light.
“Prior to this experience,” Holden said, “I would not have thought twice about the long-term impact of a movie like that — why would I have questioned a move that depicts the life of Christ?”
After hearing the concerns of the Jewish community, though, he has brought questions back to Catholic friends and community leaders in Kansas City.
Not everything has been so new for Holden since taking over the Jewish school.
Holden was raised on the Isle of Wight, a small British island halfway to France. After years spent as a practicing Catholic in a Protestant land, he came to Hyman Brand with an innate understanding of what it means to be part of a minority culture.
In addition, the moral expectations for all students at Hyman Brand have not been vastly different from the expectations at the independent Catholic schools he led since coming to the United States from England in 1993.
But up until now it has been the differences that have kept him on his feet. As he said, he quickly realized, “I really am dealing with a different culture.”