This week, the Warrior Word sat down and interviewed Rav Johan Vila, who is a new Judaic staff member at Hebrew Academy. Get to know him as he shares where he came from, how he played D1 tennis in college, and his favorite classes to teach.
Eliora Gdanski: Where are you originally from?
Rav Johan: I am originally from Venezuela, from a city called Valencia.
Adela Kopfstein: When did you move to Miami?
RJ: I moved to Miami when I was 12 years old.
EG: What school did you go to when you moved to Miami?
RJ: I first went to Doral Middle School for six months. I was in the middle of the seventh grade and I had not learned any English, so my parents switched me to a charter school which was also in Doral called Doral Academy and it did not solve the problem. My classes were not Spanish, and my friends all spoke Spanish, so I wasn't learning any English. In the middle of the last semester of eighth grade, they switched me to Greenfield, which is a Jewish school in Kendall in the JCC there which was filled with Americans. After that, my parents decided they wanted to send me to a private high school because I finally started learning how to speak English, and the only schools that accepted me were the Jewish ones because I did not speak the language yet.
AK: Where did you attend college?
RJ: I went to Hofstra University which is a private school located in Long Island, New York.
EG: What did you major in?
RJ: I majored in business administration, but my main interest was tennis. I played division one tennis and I was a scholarship recipient. Tennis was my main focus. I chose to major in business administration so I can attend this school and play tennis there.
EG: When did you start to play tennis?
RJ: I started playing tennis when I was five on and off and by nine years old I started to play competitively.
AK: Do you still play tennis?
RJ: I do; I play about once a week.
EG: Are you married and do you have any kids?
RJ: Yes, I’ve been married for about a year and a half, and I do not have any kids yet.
AK: What did you do after college?
RJ: After college I worked in New York for about two years helping a friend build his company in doing merch and processing and loans to companies. Then I moved back to Miami where I was doing real estate and property management. I was here for about two years, and during that time I started learning about Judaism sort of for my first time. Because in high school I was learning to speak English, Judaism wasn't on my radar and I did not grow up in an observant home at all. Then, after a year and a half of learning about Judaism once a week, which later on turned into twice a week then three times a week, I realized I didn't know how to pray and I didn’t know any of the Halachas. If I wanted to give my kids a solid foundation on how to be Jewish, then I felt the need to go to Yeshiva in Israel. So then I went to Yeshiva in Israel and what initially was supposed to be six months turned into three years. After Yeshiva I got a masters in social work which was pretty much focusing on mental health, addictions and trauma, and simultaneously I was teaching in a Yeshiva. I got married in my second year teaching in the Yeshiva, as well as graduating, getting my masters, and I worked at a rehab center for addicts for a year and now I am a performance coach as well as a teacher in Hebrew Academy.
EG: What's a performance coach?
RJ: Pretty much a help optimized individuals with whatever challenges they are going through—whether it's physical wellness or mental health—any sort of limiting beliefs, etc. It's like a therapist but in a coaching program. I realized after a year of working in this rehabilitation center that the therapeutic relationships were very passive and they really took a long time in order to really get to the core issues and problems whatever the patients were dealing with, so I developed a coaching program that pretty much brings in everything that will go into a therapeutic room, and kind of like zoom in and turn it into a three-month program to help the client achieve their goal or whatever desires they have.
AK: When did you come back to Miami from Israel?
RJ: My wife and I still live in Jerusalem. Our plan was to be there for our first year of marriage and we decided to extend it for another year. We’re in the middle of that [second] year, and once the war broke out my wife was having a lot of difficulty with the war and feeling very insecure and unsafe, so we spoke to a Rabbi and he suggested for us to leave Israel pretty much, so we came to Miami the Wednesday after the war broke out—it was like about October thirteenth.
EG: What's your favorite thing about Hebrew Academy?
RJ: My favorite thing about Hebrew Academy so far, even though I've only been here for a week and a day, is really seeing the care that the Rabbis have and how much thought and care they put into the learning. Basically, they develop the program. They’re always trying to keep in touch and understand how they can make it better, and I think it really goes a long way for the school and for the students, as well.
EG: What classes do you teach here?
RJ: Initially I was filling in for Rabbi Kleinman, teaching Tenth Grade Honors Halacha, as well as eleventh and twelfth grade girls Talmud, I was doing Tanach for ninth grade and tenth grade boys, and Emuna which is for eleventh and twelfth grade students. Now that Rabbi Kleinman is back, I am only teaching eleventh and twelfth grade girls Talmud, also teaching tenth grade boys Tanach, and the last period of Emuna for eleventh and twelfth grade students.
AK: What's your favorite class to teach?
RJ: Great question. My favorite class to teach really depends on the day and where I have the space for the students and I to express ourselves. I think it differs every day based on where the students are holding up.
AK: Do you like working with the teachers here?
RJ: I love it. The reason I got the job was through Rabbi Jack Cohen. He and I went to the same yeshiva. He used to do outreach for the yeshiva to bring new students to the yeshiva. From there we met and became friends, [he became] my mentor and one of my Rabbis. The second Shabbat I was here in Miami, me and my wife spent it with his family. That Shabbat we spoke about how Hebrew Academy was looking for another faculty member and that's how I got here. Working with him has been a dream come true. I get to learn from one of the best about education. I also love working with the rest of the Rabbis. They have all been very welcoming towards me.
EG: What is your favorite movie?
RJ: I haven't thought about movies in a long time, but I used to love the movie The Departed.
AK: What is your favorite sport besides tennis?
RJ: I would say my favorite sport besides tennis is either basketball or soccer.
AK: What is your favorite grade here?
RJ: I've only been here a week, but I don't judge or see people based on their age or grade. It's based on a connection and who I relate to, and I've connected with students from every grade.
EG: Do you intend to work at Hebrew Academy the rest of the year?
RJ: It's unclear. My wife and I are trying to understand what's going to happen in Israel and what's the best decision for us.
Composed by: Eliora Gdanski (11th) & Adela Kopfstein (9th)