When Rabbi Meir Muller crosses the stage of the Koger Center for the Arts Dec. 13 to receive his Ph.D. during USC’s doctoral hooding ceremony, he will have achieved the scholarly stature to match the “real world” experience he acquires every day as principal of the Columbia Jewish Day School.
He may also make a little history in the process: he believes he is the nation’s only rabbi to hold a doctorate in early childhood education.
“I think that being Jewish is a joyous experience,” Muller, 44, said last week. It is a feeling Muller tries to convey to the students and staff of the CJDS, as well as to USC students who take classes from him and utilize the school as a hands-on laboratory. “They are feeling that learning is joyous. This is a joyful place.”
The path from his Long Island home to the South and USC was circuitous but, looking back, perhaps divinely ordained.
He grew up in a household of educators — his father, Bill Muller, is a retired middle school principal and his mother, Leah, a retired kindergarten teacher. Two sisters grew up to enter the field of early childhood education. He attended public school until he was about 12, when his parents decided to move the family into a more traditional Orthodox way of life.
“My parents did it very cleverly and in small steps,” Muller said. He recalls that one of the first strictures was no Saturday morning cartoons for him or his sisters. They all began attending Jewish schools and he entered a rabbinical seminary in Brooklyn after high school.
Muller first came to Columbia in 1987, accompanying his childhood friend, Rabbi Hesh Epstein, from New York to South Carolina, to learn what he calls “the practical side of being a rabbi.” Epstein had been sent by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, leader of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement, on a Jewish outreach mission and Muller agreed to help when he could.
“We drove down in his dad’s old Chevy,” Muller recalled. “He said, ‘I think it can make it 12 hours.’”
Two guys in long beards and yarmulkes were pretty easy to spot in Columbia and their arrival aroused a lot of curiosity — and perhaps some little suspicion — among Jews and non-Jews.
“A lot of the non-Jewish people were curious and ask” questions about their backgrounds, Epstein said. “A lot of the Jewish people were curious and were afraid to ask.”
Muller credits Epstein’s “erudition and sincerity” in winning over the Jewish community and in laying the groundwork for a new school to replace the Jewish Community Center’s preschool, which had closed its doors in May 1992 due to declining attendance.
Muller and his new wife, Sheindal, moved to Columbia in 1991 to work in youth programming with Rabbi Epstein. They agreed to open a new school in a new location, at Beth Shalom Synagogue, and with a renewed focus on academic rigor and transmission of Jewish culture and heritage. The school opened in August 1992.
Over the next two decades, the school gained a reputation as an innovative, nurturing place, added classes year-by-year — it now serves children from ages 1 to grade five — and earned prestigious accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
In the early years, as teachers came to him for guidance and advice on the practical aspects of teaching, Muller decided his rabbinical degree and his skills as an effective listener were not enough.
“They would say to me, ‘Should I teach a letter a day, or a letter a week?’ and I really didn’t know what to tell them,” he said. “Within three or four years, I realized I did not have the expertise.”
Irma Van Scoy, his doctoral adviser and associate dean in USC’s College of Education, said Muller worked to master educational theory that he could apply to his professional work life.
“He is out there really living the real world in his school and he is truly a scholar,” Van Scoy said. “He has a deep understanding of educational theory and continually works to apply that to real situations.”
For his doctoral dissertation, Muller examined the theories of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and applied those theories to how children understand the ancient stories of Jewish culture — particularly the story of Passover and the Jews’ exodus out of Egypt and slavery.
Muller, a father of four children, was interested in how children construct knowledge regarding historical temporal time, how they perceive “long, long ago” when they hear a story.
He has completed his master’s and doctoral research and written a 200-page dissertation over the past decade through sheer perseverance and some dogged time-management — rising early, grading papers as he watched his sons play Little League baseball, and juggling family and school responsibilities with his wife, who directs Jewish studies at the day school.
“He is the hardest working person I think I know,” Van Scoy said. “He is always using his time so productively.” Muller serves as an adjunct faculty member at USC, teaching two classes a week at the Jewish Day School.
Already, his research is bearing fruit. Muller has been invited to present his work at an international conference on “Jewish Education in the Early Years” this summer at Haifa University in Jerusalem.
“His dissertation is phenomenal,” said Van Scoy. “We are very proud of the work that he did.”
Muller sees his work as reflective of his dual mission as rabbi and educator. “They are both nurturing, both listening” professions, he said. “I do think that caring for young children, that being a rabbi is about helping people and seeing the world through their eyes.”