Steve Freedman, white man with glasses and a beard in a dress shirt and tie, sits at a table with a full bookshelf behind him as he smiles to something off in the distance. He is wearing a kippah.
Credit: John Hardwick

Hillel’s head of school plans to return to East Coast.

Keri Guten Cohen Story Development Editor

After 16 years as head of school at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Steve Freedman will be leaving at the end of the academic school year. The school will also lose Joan Freedman, Hillel’s director of curriculum.

Joan Freedman, a woman with short, shoulder length hair and glasses smiles at the camera.
Joan Freedman Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

The Freedmans, partners in education throughout their marriage, are moving back to the East Coast to be near to several of their four children.

“We were not looking to leave Hillel, but the experience of planning our son’s wedding — and then I turned 60 over the summer — got us thinking we have to go back to be closer to our children; they were calling us home,” Steve Freedman said. “Then I got a call about the head of school position at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. It was almost beshert.”

Freedman said the school in Teaneck, N.J., is similar to Hillel. “It’s a wonderful community with wonderful teachers. If I can help them along their journey … it just felt like the time is right.”

Freedman’s tenure at Hillel has been marked by significant milestones, many accomplished through transformative donor gifts.

An initial William Davidson Foundation grant helped move Hillel into the 21st-century by kick-starting one-to-one technology for every student in grades 5-8. A game-changing $15 million from the foundation created a tuition grant that allows students to attend Hillel regardless of financial need and provided tuition relief for full-pay families.

The Davidson grant was “an investment in years of sustaining the school and continuing this journey without concern of finances,” Freedman said. The Foundation has also supported Hillel’s vision of using space as an educational tool with the renovation of the Davidson wing to align with the renovations of the rest of the campus and is now partnering to expand the Early Childhood Center this winter.

“I’ve thought for some time now that Steve Freedman’s ‘head of school’ title is insufficient,” said Darin McKeever, president/CEO of the William Davidson Foundation. “Steve is a builder of community. When times required a reimagined school facility and curricular program, Steve laid out a transformative vision. When tragedy has fallen on this region, Steve has found the words to console and inspire.

“Every visitor to Hillel Day School comments on the joy and contentment in the children’s voices. This spirit is a direct reflection of Steve’s leadership. On behalf of all of us at the William Davidson Foundation, I thank him and wish him and Joan well.”

Freedman said, “Hillel was also blessed with a $9 million gift from the local Farber Family Foundation. This gift allowed the school to turn its dreams into reality by renovating the school into a modern learning center.” The facility, which includes a makerspace, greenhouse, learning communities, 3D printers and more, is very comfortable for learning, and is designed to promote interaction and exploration.

Freedman also lauds a generous anonymous philanthropist, other donors and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit with supporting the school.

“The fact the school is in Detroit, with its culture of philanthropy that supports Jewish education, made our dreams possible,” he said.

He also is proud to have started an Israel trip for graduating eighth-grade students.

He says he values the “relationships made over the years and working with the professionals, teachers and leadership team, all willing to push themselves and change their education assumptions for the sake of the children. They are willing to take risks. They are great people, and I am honored and blessed to have worked with them.

“And,” he continued, “I can’t do anything without the relentless support of the board of trustees — partners all the way, including every president. And I’m serious about that.”

Hillel President Ellen Folbe issued this statement to the Hillel community, “For the past 16 years, we at Hillel Day School have been blessed to be led by Steve Freedman as our head of school. He has shared and implemented a transformative vision that has brought Hillel to a place of amazing strength and clear direction.” Folbe stated the school is enlisting professional advisers in a search for a new head of school, and Freedman said he would help ensure a seamless transition.

And he can’t leave out wife Joan’s role at Hillel.

“Her creativity and singular ability to make connections and bring learning alive and create connections and meaningful experiences for the students is huge — and very helpful to teachers,” he said.

Though the school community was surprised by the Freedmans’ decision, Freedman said it was hard to argue with their rationale. “The outpouring of love and support has really been overwhelming,” he said.