He was a high school senior with a part-time job at the local Barnes and Noble. Shelving books in the Judaica section one day, out popped a copy of The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides.
“Encountering that book, a classic of Jewish philosophy, helped make Judaism an essential part of my life,” said Rabbi Devin Maimon Villarreal. “I was in high school and trying to figure myself out, just like everyone else. So that was pretty much it for me.”
“It spoke to my love of learning. Maimonides’ model was an intense commitment to studying philosophy, science, and other subjects and weaving them into a conversation with Judaism. That was and is a compelling model to me.”
So central is Maimonides to Rabbi Villarreal’s worldview – and pride in their common Sephardic background – that he adopted the Jewish philosopher’s father’s name as his own middle name.
By his own account, Rabbi Villarreal is an “accidental educator.” Ordained in 2009, he was looking to practice in the pulpit. But with a young family to support, he started teaching Judaic Studies at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, California, at least until a synagogue posting came along.
He’s been in the classroom ever since.
“I realized that walking alongside young people as they begin their Jewish journeys into adulthood, just as I did, is a tremendous gift and privilege,” said Rabbi Villarreal, who received The Covenant Foundation’s 2015 Pomegranate Prize. This Prize recognized him as a young Jewish educator with promise and potential to make an impact on the field.
In 2011, he moved to de Toledo High School in West Hills, California – a pluralistic day school enrolling over 400 students in grades 9 to 12 – and was named Chair of the Jewish Studies Department three years later.
There, Rabbi Villareal found a fertile environment for his Maimonidean approach to Jewish education and identity – holistic and integrated.
“There has been a diversification of what Jewish Studies means,” he said. “When I arrived, it was pretty exclusively text based. I am a great lover of Jewish text, but it is only one aspect of a much more diverse reality that is Judaism, Jewish identity, and Jewish Studies.”
“It is understandable to drill down in disciplines, but the risk we run and often fall victim to is a sense that they are distinct and separate from each other. However, that view is artificial. In reality, a scientist has to be a good rhetorician. We have to remind ourselves and our students that everything is woven together and the Jewish Studies aspect is of course part and parcel of the project.”
How this has played out and continues to play out is multi-dimensional. For example, you can see it in the intention with which colleagues consult with him at de Toledo’s “Ideas Trading Floor,” a 2,000-square-foot collective office space in which educators collaborate and support each other. You can also see it in the wholesale redefining, under Rabbi Villareal’s leadership, of the Jewish Studies Department into one that is more cohesive, reflective, and purposeful.
Finally, you can see it in the development of more integrated curricula that cuts through de Toledo. Rabbi Villareal was the driver and creator of a well-regarded Media Arts program that merges Jewish identity with the digital culture that defines how students see and experience the world – an effort, he said, to “bring Jewish wisdom, values, and ideas to that space.”
Rabbi Villarreal was also part of a team that envisioned and established a Speech and Debate program, including Moot Beit Din practice and competition, to “develop skills to turn the platitudes of pluralism into reality and to explore the nature of truth, disagreement, and co-existence.”
“Devin is completely authentic,” Dr. Bruce Powell, de Toledo’s Founding Head of School, said of Rabbi Villarreal. “There is no separation between his head, heart, and soul and that oozes out to his students.”
“Kids do not care about his educational philosophy at their age … but they do care about the human being standing in front of them and whether they trust this person. With him, they always conclude that they do. His effect is a beautiful thing to watch.”
Powell even cited the school’s Purim festivities, during which multiple students dress up and masquerade as Rabbi Villarreal – complete with sweater, tie, and glasses, his usual garb – as one of the highest forms of respect and adoration.
According to Rabbi Villareal, the Pomegranate Prize itself, along with its three years of active engagement in networking, professional development, and study, offered “an expression of tremendous support and confidence in me as a Jewish educator,” as well as encouragement to “think boldly and bravely.”
“Being around so many amazing educators and seeing what they have done has taken away my fear of risk,” he said. “Maybe an idea will take hold, or maybe it will fail, but just sitting back as a result of fear is no longer an option.”
“Humility is important and is still a voice in my head, but the Pomegranate Prize empowered me to believe that I am doing things worth trying and that others should examine them too. That was a big shift for me.”
With the resources attached to the Prize, Rabbi Villarreal set out to develop his leadership skills as chair of his department, investing in coaching, and working closely with a management consultant to help him and his entire department identify, develop, and implement goals at a retreat.
And to finesse his own mastery of content, he built up his personal library of resource books, all within the context of study with mentors – to diversify current notions of Jewish literacy to include representation of, for instance, Sephardic Jews and women.
Rabbi Villarreal is identifying many more dots that he wants to connect to create an even more nourishing environment for de Toledo students, educators, and administrators, and that he can model elsewhere.
“There needs to be a more symbiotic relationship between Jewish studies and Jewish life,” he said. “We have an enormous Sukkah every year, for example, so how do we connect experiences there to a very rich and foundational discussion in a Jewish studies classroom?”
“How do we support connecting the head and the heart? How do we find those moments when we feel connectivity between the classroom and campus Jewish life? There is a void and this is a missed opportunity; that’s what I’m thinking about now, as I look forward.”