Dramatic midlife changes bring director to day school

Joan Warner remembers the exact moment she decided to leave New York.

She was standing on the second floor of the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn Heights, where she served as director.

Looking out on the Manhattan skyline one sparkling September morning, she watched in disbelief as a commercial airliner plowed into the World Trade Center.

The impact shook the school like an earthquake.

As older students stared mutely at the unfolding disaster, Warner quickly sent the younger children off to a secure room without a view.

Then, she saw the second plane hit. She saw the fires rage, the jumpers plunge to their deaths.

Warner witnessed the towers' fall, as an eerie winter-like blanket of dust and debris soon darkened the skies of Brooklyn.

Once the dust settled, Warner made up her mind. Within 12 months, she had packed her bags and headed west.

She now will serve as director of the Yavneh Day School in San Jose if the school's board of directors, as expected, confirms her position this week.

After the trauma of 9/11, this was Warner's chance at a fresh start. For the local Jewish community, her arrival meant a brand new day at Yavneh, one of the South Bay's oldest Jewish day schools.

"When you wake up in the morning in Northern California, you understand the morning brachot," says Warner, referring to her new environs. "You don't get that in New York."

She owes a good measure of her contentment to the new job, a post she knew she wanted "within five minutes of walking in here" the first time.

Northern California's only Solomon Schechter Day School, Yavneh adheres to the guidelines of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative movement.

The school opened more than 20 years ago at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. With completion of a new facility at the Addison Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos two years away, Yavneh now shares space with Kehillah Jewish High School at the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

For Warner, relocating to California was not the impulsive move of a young woman seeking a career path.

She is a longtime Jewish education professional, a mother of two grown children and the wife of a New York attorney who has not yet made the trek west.

This was a dramatic midlife change she chose for herself by herself.

Why did she do it?

"We Jews are supposed to be continual learners," Warner says. "Being part of a community of learners means being open to new experiences."

That's a lesson she took to heart a long time ago. Born and raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, she was raised in a fervently religious home.

"Girls were not allowed to study Torah," she remembers. "I learned how to daven by watching the men while I sat behind the mechitzah."

She was the first woman in her family to graduate from college, going on to a successful career as a chef. Among her resume highlights, Warner taught at the New York Restaurant School and worked at high-class eateries in New York and London.

For someone who keeps strictly kosher, the profession offered its share of challenges. "I had other people taste for me," she says with a laugh.

After a few years, Warner shifted gears, becoming a teacher in the New York public schools.

During her tenure in the crime-ridden Red Hook section of Brooklyn, her principal was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout.

That tragedy led to a slight change in Warner's plans: She started teaching at Manhattan's prestigious Abraham Joshua Heschel School. "My years there taught me about Jewish education," remembers Warner. "It opened a whole neural net for me."

While completing a Samuel Melton Fellowship for Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Warner had the opportunity to start a day school in Brooklyn Heights.

In time, that institution became the Hannah Senesh school, named for the pioneering Hungarian Zionist and martyred World War II freedom fighter.

After four gratifying years, Warner had begun looking for new challenges. The tragedy of Sept. 11 only fueled that desire.

As for leaving her husband behind in New York, Warner says it's temporary until he finds new work opportunities here. "We're having a courtship relationship again," she says with a laugh.

At Yavneh, Warner hopes to replicate her success at Hannah Senesh. So far, she feels she's on the right track.

Warner is proud of her school's dedication to educating the whole student — beyond high SAT scores, Hebrew fluency and Torah scholarship.

"We're trying to be a model Jewish community," she says. "Judaism is powerful because of the way we live our lives through it."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.