Years on mommy track pay off for new Kehillah student recruiter

Until Amy Sporer Schiff started work as director of admissions at Kehillah Jewish High School in January, she had not held a paid job in 16 years.

Nonetheless, she was the San Jose private school's first choice for the newly created position. What made her the obvious candidate were her years of volunteer work for Jewish organizations, most recently as Kehillah's recruitment chair.

Schiff was born and raised in San Jose, and after graduating from U.C. Berkeley, she went on to teach English in San Jose public schools for four years. But even though she loved teaching, she decided to quit to have children of her own.

"I didn't feel I could be a mom, a wife and a teacher," she explains. If you're serious about teaching, "you have to devote your life to it."

She continued to make time for volunteerism, however, serving on the board of the Women's Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose and of her synagogue, Congregation Sinai. "I'm not somebody who can not be doing all the time."

Within months of her first child's birth, she also threw herself into the breastfeeding support community, joining the Nursing Mothers Counsel and even becoming a board-certified lactation consultant. Though she volunteered for the Nursing Mothers Counsel for years, her stint as a private lactation consultant was brief "because my volunteer commitments were stronger than my need to be in business," says Schiff. "I just felt more needed when I was a volunteer. Fortunately, I didn't have to earn money."

After her daughter began attending Yavneh Day School, now in San Jose, supporting school seemed more important than supporting breastfeeding, and she soon accepted the volunteer job of vice president of development for the school. "I wanted to make sure tuition was kept somewhat manageable," she said.

Her volunteer leadership in the Jewish community eventually attracted the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which honored her with three years of education about many aspects of the Jewish heritage. That left her with an even greater sense of responsibility to the Jewish people.

"They spend all this money to educate you and inform you, and you can't keep that to yourself."

So when her brother-in-law, Dr. Stuart Krigel, asked her to join the board of a Jewish high school being established in Silicon Valley, she felt she had no choice. "I didn't really want to do it because sometimes you get burned out, but you can't rest when you're Jewish. Even though I personally felt tired, I just said, 'I can do it.' The Jewish world needs me."

Her assignment was to recruit students for Kehillah High's first entering class. She and her team did so well — exceeding their goal by opening the school with 33 ninth-graders last fall — that the board asked Schiff to sign on for another year as recruitment chair. By December, the principal, Marion Peterson, knew she could not run the newly opened school and manage the files of prospective students all on her own. She offered Schiff the full-time, paid job of director of admissions.

Schiff didn't exactly jump at the opportunity. "I was really nervous. My daughter goes to the school, and I knew she wouldn't want me at the school. I don't think my husband knows how to turn on the dryer…Working — that's different."

Doing the job as a volunteer, however, was not an option. Schiff said the school needed someone who could commit to the job, and as a volunteer she could not have access to the students' confidential files, including applications — a task that is needed for the position.

The current budget crisis in California's public schools has stirred interest in Kehillah and other private schools, says Schiff, and Kehillah wants to offer an education to students from klal Yisrael (all the Jewish people).

"If your family identifies as Jewish, you are welcome at our school," she says, adding that seven of the 33 students currently enrolled come from unaffiliated families, while most of the others are evenly divided between Conservative and Reform.

Schiff sees herself as a cheerleader for all the students applying for admission. "I do not say I recommend this child come or not; I say, 'These are the strengths I see.'"

Besides the ability to succeed academically at the school, the application process is set up to find a student's character. "An unspoken, sort of ineffable quality that we hope to find is menschlichkeit," Schiff says.

Schiff admits that the demands of her job often leave inadequate emotional energy for her home life. "The honest answer is it's really hard. I always think about Kehillah: How can I make it better? How can I be the most helpful staff person that exists? That is hard. I can't imagine doing it if I didn't love my job."