The search continues at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle for a new head of school to replace the recently retired Maria Erlitz. But in the meanwhile, the Bellevue school has hired Mike Downs, a bilingual Hebrew and English-speaking, non-Jewish independent school leader who will take the reins for the upcoming academic year.
Downs, who lived in Israel for seven years with his Israeli wife, Ronit, and his then-young son Yoni, comes to the Pacific Northwest from Minneapolis, where he was head of school for 11 years at the Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul. He intends to move back to Israel next year for his new post as superintendent of the Walworth Barbour American International School, which has campuses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“We are still in our head search process, but we are thrilled to have Mike Downs at the helm for this school year to help us with the transition and to continue to move us forward in our mission,” Jill Friedman, JDS’s board president, told JTNews.
JDS solicited help from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a support organization to Jewish schools, which recommended Downs for the position.
“It’s fortunate to have such experienced fresh eyes,” said Friedman. “We’re keeping all of our programs going under his experience.”
The JDS search committee has been looking for a new head since last September, when Erlitz announced her retirement.
“It’s a great school and the people here obviously love their school,” Downs told JTNews. “There is so much here that is good and strong and exciting to be a part of. Maria Erlitz has obviously been a huge force for good at this school. More people need to know about it nationally and I think they’ll have a strong field to choose from.”
JDS students know they will have a new temporary leader this year, and many have already met him — electronically. Downs produced an introductory video of himself just for them.
“They already have a familiar face and he’ll be there in person when they come back in the fall,” Friedman said.
Downs is something of a renaissance man: He comes not only from a family of well-placed international educators, but he is also a former professional choral vocalist, stage director, and actor who holds a bachelor’s degree in theater and a master’s degree in fine arts, directing for the stage, both from the University of California at Los Angeles. He has directed more than 30 plays and appeared in several films.
One of Downs’s roles was as a CIA operative in the Academy Award-winning “The Killing Fields.” He also played a U.S. diplomat in Beirut in the 2003 made-for-TV movie “Held Hostage,” which starred Marlo Thomas.
But it was his attraction to music, which he pursued while at UCLA, that led him to his wife Ronit and the roles of a lifetime — of husband and father.
“She was in the music department and I was in the choir because I loved it,” Downs said. “She’s a magnificent musician, a beautiful soprano, and she teaches voice.”
Ronit Downs, whose parents are Romanian Holocaust survivors living in Israel, also taught at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul-Minneapolis. It was she who sparked his initial interest in Judaism.
“We got married and moved to Israel,” said Downs. “Our son was born there. I had become fascinated with Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism. That’s when I transitioned to being a school leader.”
Downs’s Hebrew fluency is an added bonus for JDS, according to Friedman, and it will unite many of the families at the school.
“It’s a beautiful thing that brings together our Hebrew constituency and our Israeli families,” said Friedman.
He will have plenty of work to keep him busy, however. On his agenda will be helping to finish the school’s strategic plan, which will be its blueprint for the foreseeable future. He will also help implement the “inquiry-based model” of learning throughout all grade levels, from a pilot project of three grades, and he will help to mentor the staff.
This, said Downs, is where his years of stage direction transfer quite nicely to faculty direction and accomplishing the group’s goals.
“As a stage director, you’re working with really creative people who really have to have a sense of autonomy to be effective,” he said, “but they are also part of a larger whole, and they also have to be consistent with each other.”
“In a school, the school leader is also working with very creative people, the teachers. They really value autonomy. They want to create their own classroom on their own way, and yet they must also be connected. There must be alignment from one grade to the next.”
Downs said his skills as a listener who knows how to work toward “agreement and consensus” are tempered by his ability to also make tough decisions when necessary.
Ultimately, his mandate is to serve JDS’s mission.
“Most importantly,” said Downs, “I will help the transition from the previous permanent leader…to the next permanent head of school and keep the school strong through the year.”