The oldest of 11 in a Chabad emissary family in San Diego, Bryna Leider got an early start working in Jewish education. Now 35 and the founding educational director of Luria Academy, an “open Orthodox” Jewish Montessori school launched seven years ago in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Leider is one of five New York-area educators honored with the Jewish Education Project’s annual Young Pioneers Award this spring.
She was cited for her commitment to technology in the classroom and for involving families in the school. The others are Andrew Fretwell of Young Judaea, Hannah Kass of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Rabbi Michael Bitton of Magen David Yeshivah High School and Shmueli Perkel of Musical IQ.
Leider, who is Orthodox in her practice but “not about labels,” recently chatted with The Jewish Week. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you end up at Luria?
A: I was leaving my job as education director of a Head Start program [at Beth Rivkah, a Chabad girls school in Crown Heights] and got a call from a group of parents who were thinking of starting a Montessori school; they asked if I was interested in being the director. I told them that I didn’t feel comfortable doing that without a solid background in Montessori education, so they ended up starting the school with seven children in someone’s apartment, and I started working as a consultant for various Jewish schools. Again, one of the founders called and said, “We know you said you didn’t want to do this, but we started the school and the board members are struggling because none of us has an education background.” I was originally hired for two months to help them set policies for parents and teachers.
What made you stay longer?
I had taught in early childhood a long time, and early childhood is where all the things you learn in a school of education can actually be done — but once kids get to kindergarten it completely changes and is often not possible to be child-centered or teach the way you want to because that’s not how most elementary schools are set up. I had always struggled with that, but when I got to this environment, I felt it was possible to do it here.
Luria is one of many Jewish schools in Brooklyn. Other than being Montessori, how is it unique?
The goal here is that our students, regardless of their background or belief system, should have this really, really strong intellectual base of Judaic knowledge and experiences. The curriculum is really dense, but at the same time this is a diverse, pluralistic environment. The language of a Montessori environment aligns nicely with the Jewish component: promoting independence, critical thinking, problem-solving and teaching kids to do for themselves.
You were the top staff person at Luria until last fall, when Amanda Pogany became head of school. Did you feel like you were passed over for her job?
The business side of running a school was not something that was a driving force in my life, although I did it and grew to like pieces of it and to get better at it. Still, our board always did a lot of things a head of school would do, like fundraising. As the school has grown [enrollment is 107 this year, and 150 are registered for next year], there was a recognition that I was overseeing early childhood and elementary, and we were getting into middle school — and that was a lot. They recognized I couldn’t run the entire school and every piece of it myself.
How did growing up with shluchim (Chabad emissaries) shape you?
We lived in an extremely diverse environment with very few Orthodox families, and in that way I feel very at home with diversity — which is unique for New York, because here there are so many Jews that it’s easy to stick with people exactly like you.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m really interested in leadership and how do you build good leaders. … I recently read “People Follow You” by Jeb Blount, which is amazing. I also like of what Daniel Pink talks about in “Drive” about what motivates people, and also Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” about introverts and how they’re undervalued in the business world.
Bryna Lieder and the other Young Pioneers will be honored at the Jewish Education Project’s benefit dinner on June 4.