By: Jeremy Dobin (11th Grade) and Samantha Ebner (12th Grade)
Last week, students were taken by surprise when the school announced that Judaics Principal Rabbi Aharon Assaraf was no longer employed at the Hebrew Academy.
An email announcement was sent out last Wednesday, stunning families with the sudden news. Thursday, the school held an assembly to speak to students about the change. Although Head of School Rabbi Shaye Guttenberg did not disclose why Rabbi Assaraf was let go, he clarified that it was not due to any physical endangerment of students.
Student reaction was a mix of shock, anger, sadness, and confusion. Rabbi Guttenberg and General Studies Principal Dr. Dara Lieber met with smaller groups of students to discuss the change and how the school would move forward.
“When I got the email I was shocked because the day before we had a debate midrash and he was leading it,” said Jonathan Acevedo (10th grade). “When I got the email that he wasn’t going to come back in the middle of the week, I was really confused at first and didn’t know what to do.”
The school sent out another email Monday detailing the teachers and administrators that would fill in for Rabbi Assaraf’s various responsibilities. Many students said that besides the gap left in Rabbi Assaraf’s teaching and administrative roles, there will be a hole in the overall spirit of the school.
“Ever since I transferred from the middle school to the high school, Rabbi Assaraf was always kind and caring for me and my classmates throughout the years,” said senior Ariel Bramy. “He’s done so much for the kids’ benefits to make the environment enjoyable.”
Rabbi Assaraf came to Hebrew Academy five years ago as a Talmud teacher and head of discipline. He worked his way up to Judaics principal, revamping the Judaics curriculum along the way. One of the many initiatives he implemented was a Talmud class for girls. In addition, he reorganized the school-wide davening, allowing for student choice and input. Rabbi Assaraf attempted to infuse both spirituality and fun into the school, playing music in the hallways between class periods, hosting a “Cholent-fest” on Fridays and occasionally inviting his friend Noah Solomon, from the band Soulfarm, to sing a school wide kumzitz.
Rabbi Assaraf was also known for bringing several innovations to the high school. He created the Debate Midrash, a monthly forum in which the entire school gathered to debate and discuss important issues. He also brought a delegation of students to the Fast Company Innovation Festival, a business conference in New York. He was instrumental in the planning of the Jewish Heritage Trip, an alternative to March of Living, introduced last year, in which seniors travel through Europe and Israel. Raquel Zohar, graduate of the class of 2018, remembers the positive energy and meaning Rabbi Assaraf brought to the trip last year as a chaperone.
“Rabbi started singing songs at random points throughout the trip to get us in the mood for whatever we would be seeing next. I’ll never forget the 15 minutes we all spent outside the gate at Auschwitz, the one that reads ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ singing to commemorate the souls that never had the privilege of exiting that gate. I’ll also never forget the happier moments of ruach Rabbi Assaraf brought to our trip,” Zohar said.
Students said Rabbi Assaraf provided meaningful support for the Hebrew Academy community when sophomore Sammy Farkas passed away suddenly last year.
“His concern for our well-being, specifically after the tragedy that happened last year, helped many of us get through the pain we suffered,” said Mary Berkowitz (11th grade). “His innovation and ideas to honor Sammy’s legacy carry on until today and will continue to do so.”
Despite his popularity, some students said they were not big fans. When he stepped into the role as Judaics principal, he remained the school’s main disciplinarian. Sometimes students would get upset with his punishments and the way he doled them out.
It is clear, however, that he will be missed by the student body.
“The students were his main focus,” said Danelle Levi (11th grade). “He spoke to us and cared about our opinions…It was about what we wanted and what he could do to better our lives, and his door was always open for us no matter what. “