In Bronx School, Culture Shock, Then Revival

Junior High School 22, in the South Bronx, had run through six principals in just over two years when Shimon Waronker was named the seventh.

On his first visit, in October 2004, he found a police officer arresting a student and calling for backup to handle the swelling crowd. Students roamed the hallways with abandon; in one class of 30, only 5 students had bothered to show up. “It was chaos,” Mr. Waronker recalled. “I was like, this can’t be real.”

Teachers, parents and students at the school, which is mostly Hispanic and black, were equally taken aback by the sight of their new leader: A member of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism with a beard, a black hat and a velvet yarmulke.

“The talk was, ‘You’re not going to believe who’s running the show,’ ” said Lisa DeBonis, now an assistant principal.

At a time when the Bloomberg administration has put principals at the center of its efforts to overhaul schools, making the search for great school leaders more pressing than ever, the tale of Mr. Waronker shows that sometimes, the most unlikely of candidates can produce surprising results.

Despite warnings from some in the school system that Mr. Waronker was a cultural mismatch for a predominantly minority school, he has outlasted his predecessors, and test scores have risen enough to earn J.H.S. 22 an A on its new school report card. The school, once on the city’s list of the 12 most dangerous, has since been removed.

Attendance among the 670 students is above 93 percent, and some of the offerings seem positively elite, like a new French dual-language program, one of only three in the city.

“It’s an entirely different place,” Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said in a recent interview. “If I could clone Shimon Waronker, I would do that immediately.”

Not everyone would.

Mr. Waronker has replaced half the school’s teachers, and some of his fiercest critics are teachers who say he interprets healthy dissent as disloyalty and is more concerned with creating flashy new programs than with ensuring they survive. Critics note that the school is far from perfect; it is one of 32 in the city that the state lists as failing and at risk of closing. Even his critics, though, acknowledge the scope of his challenge.

“I don’t agree with a lot of what he’s done, but I actually recognize that he has a beast in front of him,” said Lauren Bassi, a teacher who has since left. “I’m not sure there’s enough money in the world you could pay me to tackle this job.”

Mr. Waronker, 39, a former public school teacher, was in the first graduating class of the New York City Leadership Academy, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg created in 2003 to groom promising principal candidates. Considered one of the stars, he was among the last to get a job, as school officials deemed him “not a fit” in a city where the tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991 are not forgotten.

“They just said he may be terrific, but not the right person for that school,” Chancellor Klein said.

Some parents at J.H.S. 22, also called Jordan L. Mott, were suspicious, viewing Mr. Waronker as too much an outsider. In fact, one parent, Angie Vazquez, 37, acknowledged that her upbringing had led her to wonder: “Wow, we’re going to have a Jewish person, what’s going to happen? Are the kids going to have to pay for lunch?”

Ms. Vazquez was won over by Mr. Waronker’s swift response after her daughter was bullied, saying, “I never had no principal tell me, ‘Let’s file a report, let’s call the other student’s parent and have a meeting.’ ”

For many students and parents, the real surprise was that like them, Mr. Waronker speaks Spanish; he grew up in South America, the son of a Chilean mother and an American father, and when he moved to Maryland at age 11, he spoke no English.

“I was like, ‘You speak Spanish?’ ” recalled Nathalie Reyes, 12, dropping her jaw at the memory.

He also has a background in the military. Mr. Waronker joined R.O.T.C. during college and served on active duty for two years, including six months studying tactical intelligence. After becoming an increasingly observant Jew, he began studying at a yeshiva, thinking he was leaving his military training behind.

“You become a Hasid, you don’t think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to suppress revolutions,’ ” Mr. Waronker said. But, he said, he drew on his military training as he tackled a school where a cluster of girls identifying themselves as Bloods stormed the main office one day looking for a classmate, calling, “We’re going to get you, you Crip.”

He focused relentlessly on hallway patrols, labeling one rowdy passageway the “fall of Saigon.” In an effort to eliminate gang colors, he instituted a student uniform policy.

He even tried to send home the students who flouted it, a violation of city policy that drew television news cameras. In his first year, he suspended so many students that a deputy chancellor whispered in his ear, “You’d better cool it.”

In trying times — when a seventh grader was beaten so badly that he nearly lost his eyesight, when another student’s arm was broken in an attack in the school gym, when the state listed J.H.S. 22 as a failing school — Mr. Waronker gathered his teachers and had them hold hands and pray. Some teachers winced with discomfort.

At first Mr. Waronker worked such long hours that his wife, a lawyer, gently suggested he get a cot at school to save himself the commute from their home in Crown Heights.

He also asked a lot from his teachers, and often they delivered. One longtime teacher, Roy Naraine, said, “I like people who are visionaries.”

Sometimes teachers balked, as when Mr. Waronker asked them to take to rooftops with walkie-talkies before Halloween in 2006. He wanted to avoid a repetition of the previous year’s troubles, when students had been pelted with potatoes and frozen eggs.

“You control the heights, you control the terrain,” he explained.

“I said, if you go on a roof, you’re not covered,” said Jacqueline Williams, the leader of the teachers’ union chapter, referring to teachers’ insurance coverage.

Mr. Waronker has also courted his teachers; one of his first acts as principal was to meet with each individually, inviting them to discuss their perspective and goals. He says he was inspired by a story of how the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitch spiritual leader, met with an Army general, then inquired after his driver.

“That’s leadership,” he said, “when you’re sensitive about the driver.”

Lynne Bourke-Johnson, now an assistant principal, said: “His first question was, ‘Well, how can I help you, Lynne?’ I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ No principal had ever asked me that.”

The principal enlisted teachers in an effort to “take back the hallways” from students who seemed to have no fear of authority. He enlisted the students, too, by creating a democratically elected student congress.

“It’s just textbook counterinsurgency,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is you have to invite the insurgents into the government.” He added, “I wanted to have influence over the popular kids.”

These days, the congress gathers in Mr. Waronker’s office for leadership lessons. One recent afternoon, two dozen students listened intently as Mr. Waronker played President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then opened a discussion on leadership and responsibility.

When an etiquette expert, Lyudmila Bloch, first approached principals about training sessions she runs at a Manhattan restaurant, most declined to send students. Mr. Waronker, who happened to be reading her book, “The Golden Rules of Etiquette at the Plaza,” to his own children (he has six), has since dispatched most of the school for training at a cost of $40 a head.

Flipper Bautista, 10, loved the trip, saying, “It’s this place where you go and eat, and they teach you how to be first-class.”

In a school where many children lack basic reading and math skills, though, such programs are not universally applauded. When Mr. Waronker spent $8,000 in school money to give students a copy of “The Code: The 5 Secrets of Teen Success” and to invite the writer to give a motivational speech, it outraged Marietta Synodis, a teacher who has since left.

“My kids could much better benefit from math workbooks,” Ms. Synodis said.

Mr. Waronker counters that key elements of his leadership are dreaming big and offering children a taste of worlds beyond their own. “Those experiences can be life-transforming,” he said.

So when Emmanuel Bruntson, 14, a cut-up in whom Mr. Waronker saw potential, started getting into fights, he met with him daily and gave him a copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

“I wanted to get him out of his environment so he could see a different world,” Mr. Waronker said.

Mr. Waronker has divided the school into eight academies, a process that has led to some venomous staff meetings, as teachers sparred over who got what resources and which students. The new system has allowed for more personalized environments and pockets of excellence, like an honors program that one parent, Nadine Rosado, whose daughter graduated last year, called “wonderful.”

“It was always said that the children are the ones that run that school,” she said, “so it was very shocking all the changes he put in place, that they actually went along with it.” Students agree, if sometimes grudgingly, that the school is now a different place.

“It’s like they figured out our game,” groused Brian Roman, 15, an eighth grader with a ponytail.

Back in Crown Heights, Mr. Waronker says he occasionally finds himself on the other side of a quizzical look, with his Hasidic neighbors wondering why he is devoting himself to a Bronx public school instead of a Brooklyn yeshiva.

“We’re all connected,” he responds.

Gesturing in his school at a class full of students, he said, “I feel the hand of the Lord here all the time.”

Click here for video


Recent Alumni Yehoshua Bedrick making a splash!  Yeshoshua has recently told staff at Morristown,  "Before I came here, (although I had been to other yeshivas before) I thought I would never know how to learn Gemarah without an"Artscroll" but after just a few weeks in Rabbi Dick's classes I can see how to really work it out"

When Jason Bedrick was considering a run for state representative, an incumbent legislator encouraged him to shave his beard. Bedrick refused.

"I said the beard is off-limits, and that's not the half of it," Bedrick said.

Bedrick, an Orthodox Jew, said he wouldn't enter churches. He wouldn't campaign at the transfer station on Saturdays. And he wouldn't shake hands with women. His friend said he didn't know how Bedrick could win.

"To not shake hands with half your constituents, that qualifies me as a disabled politician," Bedrick said.

In 2006, Bedrick, a Windham Republican, eked out a six-vote victory to become the first Orthodox Jew elected to the New Hampshire State House.

Since then, Bedrick, 24, with his beard and a black velvet yarmulke, or skull cap, has established himself as a studious and often quiet conservative legislator with an interest in education. He still won't shake hands with women or work on Saturdays. And he has welcomed his role as unofficial Jewish ambassador.

"The Jewish faith has outward signs of being Jewish to improve your behavior," Bedrick said. "If I walk in with a beard and yarmulke, I represent something. . . . I need to constantly study to know what I'm talking about, to avoid foul language, gossip, negative talk about people. You have to always be on your best behavior

to make sure you're a good and proper representative of your faith."

Bedrick grew up secular, a fourth-generation New Hampshire resident. His great-grandfather came from Russia and settled in Nashua, where Bedrick's father, Mark, had his bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. Bedrick's mother was Catholic and converted to Judaism.

The family celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. Jason Bedrick said that one year he decided to fast on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and his mother brought home food from McDonald's. Bedrick's parents taught their three sons about Jewish history and culture, but they kept no religious rituals.

"We taught our children basically a belief in the Ten Commandments, to respect all people and all religions and all religious beliefs, and even if the person didn't have religious beliefs, you respect everyone as an individual," Mark Bedrick said.

Bedrick attended public school for eight years, then switched to Bishop Guertin, a Catholic high school in Nashua, believing that the education was better. Attending Catholic school forced Bedrick to confront his own faith. He taught himself Hebrew. He surfed the internet, trying to learn about all religions. He started an interfaith club. And he won a religious studies award for "the student who best understands the Christian message presented in the classroom."

"In conversation with anybody, even some of the Catholic priests, he would know more on a subject than they would," Mark Bedrick said. "Because he was an avid reader, if there was something he didn't know, he would research it and read about it, from a lot of different perspectives."

But it was at Babson College, a Massachusetts business school, that Bedrick's path toward both Orthodox Judaism and political activism was set.

Rabbi reaches out

Bedrick had long been interested in school choice, supporting education vouchers and charter schools. For a college political science class, he wrote a paper about education in New Hampshire. While in college, he ran for state representative as an independent, with little hope of winning, to raise the issue of school choice.

Bedrick was also a senior editor for the college newspaper, the Babson Free Press. It was that position that led him to Rabbi Moshe Bleich, director of the Wellesley Weston Chabad House. Bleich is part of Chabad-Lubavitch, an international Orthodox Jewish outreach organization the promotes Judaism to Jews of all levels of religious observance. Bleich and his wife invite local college students to Jewish programs, classes and Sabbath meals in their home.

Bleich sought out Bedrick after seeing a pro-Israel article Bedrick had written for the newspaper. "I invited him for Shabbat dinner because of the article," Bleich said. "I wanted to meet him, and one thing led to another."

Bedrick grew close to Bleich's family and started visiting for the Sabbath and holidays. He started reading about Judaism and asking Bleich questions. "He really put the pedal to the metal when it came to studying. He was obviously searching for something," Bleich said.

The turning point in Bedrick's observance was when he took a trip to Israel with other college students. Bedrick decided that while in Israel, he would wear a yarmulke. He saw his tour guide wearing tzitzit, a ritual garment with fringes that Orthodox men wear under their shirt. "I thought it was an amazing concept, this garment my people have been wearing for years, to remind you to keep the commandments," Bedrick said. So he bought a pair.

On the plane ride home, Bedrick began to reconsider his intentions to remove the yarmulke and tzitzit. "I thought, 'I'm Jewish in Israel, but not America?' This is my identity." He kept the clothing and became one of two Babson College students to wear a yarmulke, Bleich said. Bedrick had already given up eating pork and shellfish, and now he started adhering more fully to the kosher dietary laws. He did not eat milk and meat at the same meal. He started walking to the rabbi's house on Friday night, since observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. After college, he returned to Israel for the summer.

His observance even surprised his rabbi. At the time, Bleich said, Bedrick's ambitions of public office and his religious observance were both "pipe dreams."

"How many people get elected? How many people become religious?" Bleich said. "It's a very small percentage."

No glad-handing

After graduation, Bedrick worked in his parents' furniture business for six months, then decided to go to a yeshiva, a religious school, in New York to learn more about Judaism.

While Bedrick was studying, a friend in the Legislature called and asked him to run again, this time as a Republican. As a student, with no family to support, Bedrick said, "I know if I was going to do it, this was the time. I figured if I win, great. If I lose, I go back to yeshiva."

Bedrick returned to New Hampshire in August, facing a September primary. As a newly observant Jew, he found himself back in a state that has two Chabad centers and no other year-round Orthodox synagogue. There are about 10,000 Jews in the state, according to national Jewish organizations. But just "a handful of families" are Orthodox, said Rabbi Levi Krinsky, director of a Manchester Chabad center.

The most challenging law during the campaign was that prohibiting contact between unmarried men and women. "You already look weird because it's not common to have beards, then you say I'd like you to vote for me but I can't shake your hand," Bedrick said. He learned to knock on doors with his hands full, and when a woman extended her hand, he handed her a pamphlet.

When members of the Salem Women's Club were offended by the practice, he sent the club an e-mail explaining his religious principles. He stressed that Judaism sees men and women as equals, and the laws were out of respect. "I can compromise of policy but not on principles," Bedrick told them. The president of the club started campaigning for him. Bedrick won the primary by 19 votes. In the general election, he finished 13th out of 17 candidates, making the cut between the winners and the losers by six votes.

Since coming to Concord, Bedrick has had to explain the restrictions again to fellow legislators. "If I haven't seen him in awhile, I can't give him a hug because he's not allowed to," said Rep. Marilinda Garcia, a Salem Republican. "I'm Italian, so that's a big thing for me." Bedrick sits in front of her, and she has to remember not to poke him to get his attention. But Garcia said she understands. "It's somewhat obvious that he's strictly religious, so he'd explain that it's a religious practice and it's fine. . . . I admire the discipline."

Political identity

Bedrick also faces other challenges. A lot of State House business is done in the dining room, the Barley House, or Capitol Grille - none of which serve kosher food. Bedrick has started walking into restaurants with a bright red lunch bag. "It's intentional, so it's obvious that I'm not eating their food," he said. Waiters and colleagues have been understanding, he said.

With no synagogue in Windham, Bedrick generally leaves for the Sabbath, and stays overnight at the Chabad house in Wellesley, Mass. He sometimes attends prayers and classes at the Chabad in Manchester. When the Legislature is not in session, he studies at a religious school in New Jersey.

His colleagues often ask him questions: Does kosher mean blessed by a rabbi? (No.) Do Jews believe Jesus was a prophet? (No.) Do Jews think everyone who is not Jewish is going to hell? (No again.)

State Rep. Bob Elliott, a Salem Republican and retired Methodist minister, said Bedrick invited him to a family Sabbath dinner. The two often discuss theology. "The biggest difference is in how we look at the historical figure of Jesus, but some of his practices are the origin of some of the beliefs in the Christian faith," Elliott said.

Elliott, 76, said Bedrick is the first Orthodox Jew he has ever had both a friendship and working relationship with. "All it's done is to increase my admiration," Elliott said. "To live out his faith requires a great deal of motivation, faith and discipline. . . . He's a role model for people to admire, even if they're not of the Jewish faith."

Bedrick does not deny that his religious views affect his politics. "A person's politics expresses their deeply held beliefs, and a person's religion is a deeply held belief," he said. "I won't ban pork, but has it affected my views on justice and fairness? I believe it has." One bill Bedrick sponsored relates to a law that only an "ordained minister of the gospel" or "non-ordained clergy" can perform marriages. A statute had singled out rabbis and Quakers as an exception, allowing them to perform marriages, and Bedrick's bill would expand that exception to all faiths.

But his opinions are not limited to religious issues. He advocates limited government. He endorsed Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Christian, in the presidential primary, citing Huckabee's emphasis on a "culture of life," his free-market ideas, his willingness to take on health care and education, and his executive experience. Bedrick's main issue remains school choice, and he sponsored a bill that would allow high school seniors to spend a year at a community college.

Bedrick does not plan to run for another term. Instead, he will spend another year at a religious school while applying to law school. While he enjoys politics, he ultimately needs to earn a living, he said.

What does Bedrick think about his legacy as the only Orthodox Jew to serve in the Legislature? "It's an interesting historic footnote," he said. But he pointed out that other non-Orthodox Jews have served. "A Jew is a Jew," he said. "If you're Jewish, you're as Jewish as Moses."

Click here for pictures