Until just last week, going off to school has had a dual meaning for Rabbi Meir Muller. He’s been the principal of the Columbia Jewish Day School for the past 18 years. But in the midst of his day-to-day responsibilities, he also pursued an education of his own, turning to the nearby University of South Carolina to take advanced courses in early childhood education. He received his doctorate in the subject on Dec. 13.

According to the rabbi, who also serves as a co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of South Carolina, his studies have provided him with the necessary tools to understand how children think and teachers teach, and, more importantly, how to enhance the educational environment in the region’s only Jewish school.

“I felt that [to] instruct teachers, a greater knowledge base” would enhance a career spent in education, says Muller, whose school enrolls about 110 children from preschool through the fifth grade. “I’ve found that I’m able to run the school more effectively, especially in terms of educational theory and practice.”

Muller believes that he is the nation’s only rabbi to hold a doctoral degree in early childhood education. From his leadership and participation in such organizations as the Alliance of Jewish Early Educators, the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the National Association of Education of Young Children, in addition to communicating with leaders from across the Jewish spectrum, Muller believes that his recent accomplishment is unique.

Others in the field concur with that assessment.

“As a parent, I think that he’s exceptional. I have never met an educator like him,” says day school parent Jennifer Kahn, who also holds a doctorate in education. “He’s the perfect combination of heart and head, logic and compassion, and he truly has the best interest of your child at heart. This degree has really brought out what was already within him and adds credibility to those who don’t yet know him.”

Rabbi Meir Muller is principal of Columbia, S.C.’s only Jewish day school.
Rabbi Meir Muller is principal of Columbia, S.C.’s only Jewish day school.

For residents of this small southern community of about 1,000 Jewish families, Muller’s degree and his school’s recent accreditation by the National Association of Education for Young Children have dramatically increased interest in the Columbia institution. The accolades come on top of the school’s ongoing partnership with the university that allows doctoral students to come to its classrooms to learn how to teach.

“You can really see how committed the school is to speak to children where they are,” says one CJDS parent of a fourth grade girl and a boy who graduated two years ago. “I see in my children and their classmates a joy and curiosity in learning. You walk into the school and always only see happy faces. They truly learn by inquiry, not by rote.”

Lindsey Bennett, president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, praises Muller for his dedication to the school, noting how educators from across the nation come to learn from him.

“People always say that there is something magical about our school and that magic is Rabbi Meir. Our school would be nothing without him,” says Bennett. “By getting this higher degree, he brings so much back to our community and has opened so many doors for our school. The pages and pages of waiting lists to get into our school will [only get longer].”