During her eight years as Head of School at Luria Academy of Brooklyn, Amanda Pogany has worked with her community to build a school that’s rigorously text-based, focused on the “whole child” and inclusive of those with diverse Jewish experiences and practices. Under her leadership, Luria has grown from 97 to more than 300 students, representing a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. With its Montessori-based classrooms and special education inclusion model, Luria is increasingly considered a laboratory for progressive Jewish education.
What inspired you to become a Jewish educator?
My grandparents are all Holocaust survivors, and they encouraged my parents to send us to day school through elementary school. But I first encountered serious Jewish learning only after college, when I went to Pardes for a year of intensive Torah learning (that turned into three years, after I enrolled in the Pardes Educators Program). At Pardes, I was able to interact with the Talmud through my own eyes, and to find joy and comfort and meaning in the page. Suddenly, I felt like I had real access to our tradition. It’s one thing when you’re looking at religion and tradition through someone else’s eyes. When you’re given access to that independently, you get to be the director of your own Jewish journey. I was inspired and wanted to give that to other people.
“I believe that we’re a text people, and being able to find yourself in our culture and tradition involves having access to those texts.”
Why are day schools important to building the Jewish future?
The gift of Jewish day school is you get both the social-emotional experience of lived Jewish community, because you’re celebrating holidays and having positive Jewish experiences, plus the academic component. Also, I believe that we’re a text people, and being able to find yourself in our culture and tradition involves having access to those texts. Day school enables that in a sophisticated way.
Tell me about a challenge you’ve recently faced. How did you overcome it, or how are you currently dealing with it?
Dealing with Covid is the biggest challenge of my career. There are the unknowns, the science piece, keeping people safe. Then not only do you have to be flexible, take new approaches, and flip everything you’ve ever done on its head, but you have to guide a community—staff, children, parents—to come along with you. Building community when you have to be distanced is also a huge challenge. At Luria, the community piece is such an important part of who we are and how we see ourselves.
“You have to be willing to jump in and try things, and you have to be willing to play all the roles.”
You’ve played a key role in building some of the Brooklyn Jewish institutions that many others have built their lives around. Based on these experiences, what advice do you have for others?
When we moved to Brooklyn in 2005, we gathered a group of people in a local bar to see if there was interest in creating a traditional egalitarian minyan. There was, and that’s how Altshul was born! We drove around collecting folding chairs, we borrowed a Torah, and we put together a minyan that met in people’s apartments. Fifteen years later we’re still going, and the community has continued to grow up around us. You have to be willing to jump in and try things, and you have to be willing to play all the roles. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about Jewish education is because I want all Jewish humans to have the skill set to do this work. When you move to a place and need a minyan, you need to know how to create it.
What keeps you up at night?
Sustainability. The sustainability of Luria Academy, of Jewish day schools in general, of tuition, of independent minyanim when they’re dependent on lay leadership and human beings. When you and your partner are both people who invest in community, how do you sustain that while also sustaining your own family and your professional roles? You can’t just be a builder. You have to build and then be part of the sustaining, while also making space for other people to come in and make their own mark.