During Simchat Torah in 2016, hundreds in the deToledo High School community – students, faculty, alumni, parents, neighbors – gathered to receive the school’s first ever Torah. It was a momentous occasion writ even larger because the scroll was a gift from the family of a beloved former student who had died, and honored his commitment to Jewish knowledge, teachings and values.
“It was a heavy load for students to lead and create a meaningful experience for the family, the school and the community,” said Yonatan Rosner, Co-Director of Jewish Life at deToledo, in West Hills, CA. “Many needs and sensitivities needed to be respected and addressed. But it was beautiful, moving, enriching and emotional.”
The student-led program underscored the power and reach of deToledo’s Tefillah Kehillah Institute (TKI), a yearlong leadership development initiative for students who lead prayer and services at the school and beyond it.
TKI was designed by Rosner and has become a much-studied national model among Jewish educators to build community and engagement by empowering students as spiritual leaders. And it illustrates well Rosner’s creative vision and leadership not only at deToledo, but in the broader realm of his field.
In 2013, Rosner received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in recognition of his promise and impact as a young Jewish educator.
He is a Jewish professional with a deep desire and talent for conceptualizing and executing ideas like TKI and for creating new avenues of Jewish life at deToledo, and by extension, the greater communal world.
Rosner took on directing Jewish Life at deToledo about three years ago, shortly after receiving the Pomegranate Prize. He has owned this niche and stamped it as a vigorous and dynamic idea factory for Jewish learning and engagement.
“I envision a robust Jewish Life program, making this school a central hub of Jewish learning–with spokes reaching a variety of populations – students, families, faculty and even so wide as the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the San Fernando Valley,” he said. “It is a credit to this school and its culture allowing me to dream big.”
As a tactician, he has created or enhanced moments and methods of engagement. For example, rich holiday programming designed and led by students are a staple both on and off campus throughout the year; an all-school Shabbaton takes place around Pesach; a regularly published digital journal circulates within and beyond the deToledo community to spur learning and Torah study experiences; prayer services are offered multiple times a week; and, Kiddush occurs on Fridays either in the classroom or in an all-school setting.
“I am encouraged here to take risks, be innovative and make Judaism real for all of us,” he said. “It allows me to experiment and create and I’m having a great time in that sense.”
Rosner is also the Director of the Drishat Shalom Project at deToledo, a program in which students reflect on their four-year high school odyssey – and the wisdom and perspective they have gained – through the framework of a biblical text assigned to them during freshman year. He also teaches Talmud, Jewish Studies, and the school’s Israel Exchange program.
The Pomegranate Prize, he said, infused him with confidence in his professional growth as a Jewish educator. More tangibly, it gave him an immediate and large network of Jewish educators and thought leaders regularly convened by the Foundation who have expanded his universe of ideas and possibilities.
“Any time I can get out of my bubble, it is a positive influence on my work and my teaching,” he said. “Being connected to such diversely talented people is bound to end with a different way of looking at the world.”
He used the resources attached to the Prize to complete his MBA degree at California State University, Northridge, to go along with his Master’s degree in Jewish Education from Hebrew University. Pursuing a graduate business degree, he said, thrust him into unknown territory, where he is most comfortable.
“I chose to study something that I don’t know,” he said. “It comes from a place of curiosity and personal challenge and the complete joy that I get from that. I like to keep reinventing myself and learning new things about my journey.”
His new degree also put him in a stronger position to make impact at deToledo and in the Jewish community.
“Leadership, economics, human resources, business models and theories – all are applicable to Jewish education and allow me to promote institutional change and communal growth, now and in the future,” he said.
For sure, being constructively unconventional is a running theme in this native Israeli’s life. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he spent a few years traveling around East Asia, getting immersed in new cultures and discovering aspects of the way he navigates his own life path.
“I found myself telling my story to locals, but listening to myself, I heard words and phrases that were normative and not really conveying who I was or what I wanted to say,” he observed. “So in a large sense, it was a journey in consciousness to better know myself and my own narrative.”
He cited his grandfather, who was an Israeli diplomat and politician, as his mentor.
“I am teaching heritage and making it relevant to others,” he said. “I am teaching the next generation of Jews who they are, and empowering them to take responsibility to shape Judaism into something meaningful and useful to them and to the greater society. In a sense, I feel that I am pursuing what my grandfather did as a diplomat.
“Here in Southern California, I find myself a diplomat teaching Judaism in a society that is not my own. In some way I feel like I am still on a long trip – an ambassador learning about myself while still teaching and making an impact on others.”