Celebrating a career that totally added up

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In a world not so far away is a group of children who hear the word “treats” and think not of cookies or toys, but of mathematics.

That’s not a joke.

Math “treats” are quite popular at Palo Alto’s Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, and the head of school, Gerry Elgarten, first promoted the concept of fun-math years ago. And so today, as he roams the hallways of his school, children tug on his arm and ask him for a math problem.

Elgarten came to the school 13 years ago when it was still renting space from the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center. He ends his tenure this spring.

The Hausner community will gather Sunday, May 20 to celebrate the leader who helped triple the size of the student body and oversaw the construction of its own campus.

“He will make time for the kids. In fact, it’s one of the things he’d rather do,” said Janet Newman, director of Hausner’s K-5 program. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Gerry can’t have a meeting now because he’s meeting with the second-graders.'”

Elgarten will continue to work with Hausner students and staff as the emeritus head of school during the coming school year. Julie Smith, head of school at Portland Jewish Academy, will be his successor and begins the job in July. 

Elgarten is charming and unassuming, with a thick New Yawk accent. He’s 64, but “looks about 63-and-a-half,” he joked.

His disposition belies his credentials as a math education expert: Middle and high school math teacher, university professor, author of four math textbooks, director of math curriculum and staff development for the New York City school district of 1,000 schools and 11,000 teachers.

Elgarten switched gears in 1994, after he decided he might like to live with his California-native wife, whom he met seven years earlier at a math conference, and with whom he sustained a long-distance relationship during that time. His wife, a well-known mathematics consultant, lived in Foster City. The Hausner job, while different from his previous work, seemed a good fit.

Parents seem to think so, too.

“What Gerry recognized is that this community, like any group of baby boomer parents, will not tolerate compromises,” said Dan Leemon, a parent and board member. “He was the first person I ever heard talk about a Jewish day school being superb academically while also giving an extraordinarily deep and meaningful Jewish education.”

Elgarten has hired all but two of the 78 Hausner staff members. He oversaw the renovation and construction of the campus, and watched the school balloon from 100 to 400 students.

Nonetheless, his proudest achievements are difficult to measure, he said.

He attends his students’ bar and bat mitzvahs. Every student. Which means he sometimes spends Shabbat mornings in two or three sanctuaries.

His math background helped him create an academic culture where math is cool and fun, teachers say.

“When I first got to the school, teachers would say to me, ‘How come you’re always talking about math?'” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, if I wasn’t, who would be?'”

Finally, Elgarten said he’s most proud of a program he helped start, Avodah L’Olam. All seventh graders give about $500 to a communal pool, instead of giving each other bar and bat mitzvah gifts. They also raise money through outside donations. Then, they become like a philanthropic organization, studying Bay Area nonprofits and convincing their classmates to support certain causes.

They’ll give away $40,000 this year.

“Gerry comes to work every day for the kids. And they know him and love him,” Leemon said.

Elgarten grew up in the Bronx, attended an Orthodox synagogue as a child and used to put on tefillin every morning. When he was in his early 20s, he stopped being religious. “This school brought me back into fold,” he said. “I’m in synagogue just about every Saturday, and it’s been wonderful for me.”

“Hausner Celebrates Gerry” takes place 2 p.m. Sunday, May 20 on the school campus, 450 San Antonio Road, Palo Alto. 

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.