Jill Kessler’s path to Jewish educational leadership began with her mother, Janet Feinberg. No, Janet was not head of a school, like her daughter is at Pardes Jewish Day School, or a teacher. She never had the opportunity to pursue a college degree. But she instilled in her daughters a commitment to the value of education.
Janet’s family did not have the means to send her to college. After high school, she went to work as a secretary for a firm in the Diamond District in New York until she got married and then stayed home to raise her daughters, like most of the women she knew. However, Janet had one friend who was as an elementary school teacher.
“In a way, my mother idolized her,” says Jill. “She thought it was so wonderful that this woman had gotten to go to college and pursue her passion, and that she was a teacher and loved working in the school, and she was also raising her two children. We were very influenced by my mother’s awe of this woman, who was clearly doing something that my mother didn’t have the opportunity to do.”
Her parents both placed tremendous emphasis on the importance of their daughters getting an excellent education and stressed that they would do everything possible to make that happen. “It was never a question of ‘if you go to college.’ It was ‘you will be going to college.’ There was a theme that ran through my home at an early age,” Jill says.
And the theme was taken to heart. Jill’s older sister has a doctorate in higher education, her younger sister is an attorney, and Jill earned two master’s degrees (in child development from Sarah Lawrence College and later in education with an emphasis on diverse learning from the University of Phoenix). “I think the message got through loud and clear,” she says. “It wasn’t forced on us. It was a genuine hope and wish she had for us, because she didn’t have that opportunity to get a formal education and be exposed to other areas where she might have had an interest to work outside of the home.”
As a young woman, Jill saw the impact that the budding feminist movement had on her mother, empowering her to pursue a two-year degree in interior design from a local community college. This enabled her to work freelance part time and still be there for her children.
“The expectation for her was that you get married, you were the housewife and that dinner was on the table when my dad got home,” Jill says. “But through the shifting in the ’60s and the ’70s, women began to work outside of the home, and there was Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and all of these women who were challenging the role of women. She was involved in that and it had a profound influence on my sisters and me.”