Lessons in leadership at Hillel
By Marc Katz, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Within the structure of a writing class, Elizabeth Weizman teaches more than just writing to a group of eager fifth and sixth graders at Hillel Academy, housed on the expansive third floor of Beth Abraham Synagogue at Sugar Camp in Oakwood.
Even the kids in the class know this.
“To say my goal is just to get my homework done is too easy,” Devorah Schwartz said. “I want to expand (my goals) to the rest of my life.”
The class is part of what Co-Principal Dr. Kathy Mecoli calls “project-based learning.”
Instead of having a teacher stand in front of a class explaining all the rules and regulations of writing, Weizman invites guests in and the class takes field trips to entice students to learn more and express their knowledge of what they’ve learned.
The Jewish day school makes sure to involve community leaders — not just Jewish leaders — on the speaker list, which Kathy hopes will encourage interest in leadership among the students.
Before Dayton’s mayoral election, candidate Nan Whaley visited the class.
Only a few days after Whaley’s opponent, A.J. Wagner, lost the election, Wagner met with the students. He spoke about what it was like not to reach immediate goals.
“The kids got to know him as an incredibly gracious and committed politician even in defeat,” said Co-Principal Dan Mecoli, Kathy’s husband.
Following the visits and extensive talks with Elizabeth and Kathy, the sixth graders write papers about the visits.
Along the way, the students may discover higher goals for themselves.
Following a recent trip to Aileron — businessman Clay Mathile’s Tipp City campus founded to help small businesses focus on success — Sammy Caruso started his paper on the project, “Aileron is a great community, but how does it relate to me?”
That’s just the kind of conversation Elizabeth wants to start, backed by the Mecolis’ enthusiasm.
The program is new to Hillel this year, and so far is only for fifth and sixth graders, the highest grades at the school. Before students speak with visitors or go on field trips, they carefully prepare questions.
“We’re trying to do real things,” Kathy said. “We want these students to ask questions about leadership so they will be leaders in their community some day. This is the first time we’ve done this, although we’ve had leaders, mainly in the arts, as part of our staff.
“We want these students to become part of the community and be Jewish leaders,” she added.
“Rabbi (Joshua) Ginsberg (of Beth Abraham) came in and talked about references in the Torah.”
Another guest speaker from the general community was Andrew Shepherd, director of the unmanned aerial systems program at Sinclair Community College.
“We still have lessons in grammar, but we write about life in Hillel, “ Kathy said. “We want to create life-long learners. We don’t want them to finish a class and say, ‘great, I don’t have to take that class anymore.’ It’s not just about academic achievement.”
During his talk to the class, Ginsberg asked the students, “When you’re gone what do you want to leave behind?”
That might be a lot to ask these students, but Kathy doesn’t think so.
“We want the sixth graders to be leaders,” she said. “We’re developing values and asking students to think at an early age.”