Yavneh head takes route from engineering to education

The journey that brought Lori Abramson to Yavneh Day School in San Jose this summer as its new head of school began in the hills above Healdsburg in the 1980s. She was working as a chemical engineer at the area’s geysers, while honing her skills as a cantorial soloist for Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, when she decided to become an adult bat mitzvah.

“I felt that I needed to be on the bimah wearing a tallit,” said Abramson, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at 26. “I remember holding the Torah and wrapping my arms around it and thinking, ‘I have to do this for the rest of my life.’ It was like a personal revelation.”

Within several months, she left her engineering job for PG&E and embarked on a trip to Israel with her future husband, Joel.

The two had met a year and a half earlier when the synagogues they respectively belonged to held a joint musical event. Both performers, although in different spheres, they soon began performing together: He on the bimah with her, and she in nightclubs and restaurants with him. They planned on traveling through Israel for six months — then stayed for two years. “It stole our hearts,” she said.

They studied on a kibbutz ulpan in Caesarea for three months, learning Hebrew and working in the fields, and then volunteered in a small village outside Haifa. There they taught in the schools and community center, and served as the town musicians. “For Yom Ha’Atzmaut, we helped organize and participate in a full-scale concert,” she recalled.

They jointly decided to apply to study at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, with the first year of study in Jerusalem and the next two in Los Angeles, to earn a to earn master’s degrees in Jewish education.

Abramson has put her degree to use for the past 13 years as the director of education at two Reform synagogues, including 10 years with Temple Sinai in Oakland. Now she is ready for the challenges of running a day school.

“A Jewish day school combines the ability to raise children who are firmly grounded in American and democratic values,” she said, “with the opportunity to teach children to become active in the Jewish community — wherever that may be.”

“I love being part of the Bay area Jewish community,” said Abramson, who lived on the East Coast as a child but moved to Palo Alto with her family as a teen.

She will help Yavneh, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, usher in its first middle school class this fall. “I’m excited about getting to know the San Jose Jewish community and being a part of it,” she added.

Abramson is also excited about Yavneh’s physical expansion. The day school’s permanent home will be at the Gloria and Ken Levy family campus now under construction in Los Gatos. She said her role as director and the move to the new campus will involve “building on the excellent education we already have at Yavneh.”

As for Abramson’s educational philosophy, it is thoroughly cutting edge. “I am a firm believer in learning experiences that challenge children’s hearts and minds. We must teach students to ask questions.”

Yavneh President Susan Ellenberg said Abramson “brings an extraordinary competency for time management, staff development, collaborative decision-making and team building. She’ll be a strong ambassador for Yavneh, and we look forward to welcoming her on campus.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.