WEST ORANGE, NJ — Rabbi Danny Nevins’ first day as head of school at Golda Och Academy was officially on July 1, but Nevins has been working unofficially for the last few months, getting to know the staff and community at the school, which has two campuses in West Orange, since it was announced in March that he would be taking over from former Head of School Adam Shapiro. Now he’s set up in his office, gearing up for the school year that will start in the fall.
“The people here are so smart,” Nevins said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on July 12. “It’s such uncertain times, and we’re figuring out the best way to keep our students and staff safe. Everyone is so dedicated. I’m really excited.”
Nevins spent the last 14 years as the dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, primarily working with graduate students on a track to become rabbis. Now, he’s in charge of a school that houses students in preschool through 12th grade. It’s not new to Nevins; while living in Michigan, he worked with preschool children, taught at middle schools, and helped to found a high school when he was an assistant and senior rabbi.
“I’ve been working in graduate education, but I’ve wanted to get back,” he said. “I’ve gone from the branch of the tree back to the roots. My own children are in their 20s now, so I feel like I have the time and the mental space to do it.”
The biggest difference is that, when he was teaching graduate students, Nevins would only occasionally meet their parents, instead of being in constant contact with them.
“I’m dealing with parents as much as students, and that wasn’t the case with graduate students,” he said. “I would sometimes meet them, but that was it. I was also focusing on training them to be rabbis, which is a specific form of studying. Here we have humanities and science and sports.”
Unlike many schools in the area and across the rest of the country, GOA was able to stay open for in-person learning this past year. While dealing with masks and some form of social distancing will still be around when the doors reopen in September, the staff is prepared to be flexible and slowly get back to normal as the pandemic begins to recede. All staff members are required to be vaccinated, but, as students who are younger than 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, masks will still be worn.
“I can’t wait to meet in person,” Nevins said. “So far I’ve only met people over Zoom. Golda Och has been a bright spot, to keep some sense of normalcy that everyone lost.”
In only two weeks on the job, Nevins doesn’t have many grand plans to shake things up at GOA. Plus, he said, there’s already so much that works well.
“I think my first goal is to observe and celebrate what’s good,” he said. “With the little kids, I’m excited to be able to read to them and tell stories. And with the older students, I’m looking forward to guest teaching in my areas of expertise, since I won’t have my own courses this year.”
He is especially looking forward to school events and daily prayer with students, as well as sporting events.
“We didn’t have sports in graduate school. So I’m excited to put my sweatshirt on and go to games to be an obnoxious fan,” Nevins joked.
He does have some ideas for the future, though. Expanding the music department is one; GOA currently has only a choral music program, with limited instrumental classes. Nevins wants to see band and orchestra activities at the school. And, being located in West Orange, he wanted to take advantage of the open space around them.
“We’re near some beautiful parkland, and we can take advantage of that,” Nevins said. “One thing that happened during the pandemic is that students spent a lot of time outside. We can continue to do that. The thing we’re most excited about is bringing our families back in a safe way. Then we can embrace whatever they want to learn and make sure they can learn it at the highest level.”