When Barry Kislowicz was all of 2 years old, he told his parents that he wanted to be a rabbi. “Why?” they asked. “Because no one interrupts rabbis when they speak,” he replied.
A small and humorous moment, but it proved prescient. Rabbi Kislowicz has spent his life committed to Jewish learning and teaching, a path from which he has barely detoured since that childhood declaration.
“I’ve always had a love for Jewish learning and an overwhelming desire to contribute meaningfully to the community and to the world through my work,” he said. “Even in high school or camp, when I was able to teach, every moment confirmed and solidified what I was going to do with my life.”
Rabbi Kislowicz has spent the last five years as Head of School at the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, the apex of a 12-year run there including stints as Head of the Lower and Middle Schools and Assistant Head of the Upper School.
In 2012, he was one of five young Jewish educators from throughout the country awarded The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize for his promise for significant impact and leadership in the field.
As Head of School at Fuchs Mizrachi, which this year enrolls over 500 students and has 100 staff members, he has envisioned and led greater realization of institutional excellence and impact, lifted everyone attached along the way, and situated the school as a recognized laboratory of Jewish education.
“I want to see this school better next year than it is this year, and even better the year after that,” Rabbi Kislowicz said. “I am always looking for how we can do things differently, how we can improve, how we can grow our students even more. I am always looking for how we can see our educators and administrators as learners themselves, and how we can filter all of this down to parents and our community as partners.”
His vision and leadership has changed the DNA of Fuchs Mizrachi. For example, he’s elevated professional development to an unprecedented level of commitment, participation and frequency - to a point, he said, “where it is just taken for granted and eagerly anticipated.”
Furthermore, he’s led teachers, students and parents to fuel a wholesale makeover of high school classroom pedagogy. It’s what he calls “next generation learning,” marked by moves away from frontal teaching and toward an emphasis on project and enrichment groups, technology, and other best practices borrowed from innovative Jewish day schools across the country.
“The biggest challenge is changing teachers’ approaches,” he said. “What I am most proud of is that we have seen a transformation of our high school. If you walk into one of our classrooms, you wouldn’t know where the teacher is because no one is in the front lecturing. If you ask them to get up and lecture, they would say, ‘That’s crazy. Why would I do that?’”
Stakeholders noted his impact and the leadership skills needed to make it happen.
“Rabbi Kislowicz has a vision for excellence and sustainable innovation and through very effective and inspiring leadership teaches this community to take risks and accomplish more,” said Rebecca Bar-Shain, a Fuchs Mizrachi board member who has a son in the school and two others who graduated.
The Pomegranate Prize came to Rabbi Kislowicz about one year after he became Head of School. The Prize itself, representing the field’s confidence in his trajectory, empowered him professionally and personally.
He recalls being “transformed” at a Covenant Project Directors retreat – where Pomegranate Prize recipients participate each year – focused on the “inner innovator.” The takeaway, he said, drove a good part of his vision for Fuchs Mizrachi.
“Finding my ‘inner innovator’ was huge for me,” he said. “Coming out of that, for the next months I worked to reinvision our high school with a 21 st century model. I learned I was better than being incremental, and wasn’t afraid of making ambitious change.”
That takeaway, in fact, led to a lengthy and well-received article, “The Problem with Problem Solving,” published by The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education and eJewish Philanthropy last year.
Aside from formal Pomegranate Prize programming, exposures and connections that helped Rabbi Kislowicz to think and act boldly, he used some of his Prize-related development funds to become a student of yoga. This too, he said, stretched him professionally and personally and made him risk-adverse.
“I probably never would have done this on my own, but the flexibility of thought and growth that it afforded me was immensely beneficial and had a big impact on my growth.”
This is playing out in ways totally unexpected. Beginning in 2014, he committed himself to move beyond writing professional articles to writing his first book, “Perspective in Parenting: Timeless Wisdom, Modern Applications,” to be published this spring by Maggid Books.
In a pre-publication endorsement of the book, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the British philosopher and scholar of Judaism, describes it as a “sensitive, wise, loving and insightful guide to Jewish parenting that will be life changing to those who internalize its message.”
After the current school term ends, Rabbi Kislowicz will conclude his long tenure at Fuchs Mizrachi and in Cleveland and make aliyah with his wife and four children. It is, he said, the realization of a long time goal and he hopes to work with Jewish education leadership in Israel.
“Covenant pushed me to dream and push myself and take risks and go for things,” he said. “I’m usually a planner, but you can’t really plan in advance for Israel, and this is the first time in my life that I’m just grabbing my dream and going with it.”