Jeremy Leeds

A pioneer in ethics, activism, and service

Jeremy+Leeds

Yin Fei, Staff Writer

When Dr. Jeremy Leeds ’72 reflects on his time as a freshman, his most vivid memory is his journey to the school: “When you get off the subway, from anywhere in the city, and you just walk up the hill, it feels like a whole different world,” he said. 

After spending a total of 24 years working at the school as an ethics teacher, founder and former Director of the Center for Community Values and Actions (CCVA), and former Director of Counseling and Guidance, Leeds will retire at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. 

In addition to the numerous faculty and administrative titles he has held, Leeds also attended the school as a high-school student. In his senior year, Leeds became the first Student Body President after the school introduced a new governing system. At that point, the school had a smaller student body, allowing the governing council to have more significant responsibility in influencing the community. 

Amidst a time when the Vietnam War was raging and the antiwar movement was growing, Leeds and his council’s first resolution was to host a “Teach-In on the Vietnam War,” Leeds said. “We had workshops, we had speakers, and it was a time when there was a lot of tension and conflict, so it was definitely a controversial idea.” The day’s activities also included a debate between pro-and anti war representatives, and a speech by John Kerry, who was then the head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

The new student government also let students vote on more extensive decisions such as curricular requirements and whether or not to close the school on a given day, Leeds said. “Being Student Body President was the first time that I remember having a sleepless night. It felt like we got a lot done, but there was always a sense of, ‘What have you done lately?” he said. “It was hard to tell what you were accomplishing, but it was also a time when students felt like it was possible to make changes around Horace Mann, around the city, around the country, and around the world.”

As the first Student Body President, Leeds defined the role, he said. “I was already known as an activist, and I think, to some extent, people wanted to see what I would do,” Leeds said. “I was trying to put forward my own beliefs but also represent those who had very different points of view.”

Leeds was deeply involved in political action and public service both in and out of school from an early age, he said. Since he was 15, Leeds spent his summers working as a counselor at an Upstate New York sleepaway camp affiliated with University Settlement house on the Lower East Side, where he worked with kids from ages eight to 14,. There, Leeds first practiced cultivating the balance between academics and community involvement that he has carried with him past his high-school career.

After graduation, Leeds attended Yale, but left after three years to pursue political organizing in Ohio. Despite being initially uncertain that he would receive a diploma, Leeds managed to accrue all the necessary credits for graduation by attending courses at Yale’s summer school and at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. 

Since then, Leeds has also acquired a Masters degree in History, a degree in Counseling, and a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology.  He had also worked as a drug prevention counselor and a dropout counselor in public NYC high schools. Prior to returning to the school, Leeds worked as Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University (NYU). The position included providing training for the inaugural AmeriCorps program, and developing NYU’s first service-learning courses. 

In 1997, Leeds saw the opportunity to work at his high school Alma Mater. “There was actually an ad in the paper with Horace Mann that was looking for a new Director of Counseling, and I was ready to do something more hands-on,” Leeds said.

For nine years, Leeds served as Director of Counseling and Guidance to counsel students, invite speakers, create a library, and transform the department into a space for students to feel welcome to visit. “One of the things we really had to address with people is how do you make such an important department feel like it’s central to the institution,” Leeds said. “I wanted to give people the sense that the Counseling and Guidance office was there, not just when you’re in crisis, because it needs to also be so woven into the school that it’s something people just come to because they feel, in a positive way, that they want to add to their flourishing.”

Although he returned to the school to assume the Director role, Leeds was also eager to dive back into the ethics and service learning he had previously engaged with in high school and beyond. In 2006, Leeds pitched the idea of an Ethics class to the Head of the School, Dr. Eileen Mulady, who quickly approved of its mission to bridge the gap between themes of morality, education, psychology, and social change. 

“Everybody talks about the Horace Mann bubble. But I think we always have to ask ourselves, ‘how much do you want to be in a bubble, and how much do you want to participate in the rest of the world?,” Leeds said. “One of the issues that I’ve seen ever since I came here was ‘how do we fit within the wider world?,’ so I am proud to be able to participate in answering that question that never goes away.”

Ethan Irushalmi (12) values Leeds for the open-minded approaches and standards he employs for their Ethics class, as they challenge him to explore perspectives beyond his own, be said. “Dr. Leeds is always questioning people,” he said. “Sometimes I might not like certain ethicists or might not agree with their views or ideas, but instead of him saying ‘okay that’s fine,’ he really pushes us to say why we do not agree.”

Leeds’s ability to mediate nuanced ethical debates compliments his constant demand for students to engage with multi-faceted topics, Kelly Troop (12) said. “In talking about ethics, people disagree a lot, and there’s a chance for a lot of tension and bad negative energy in the classroom, but he always makes sure the conversation is controlled.”

Ethics student Spencer Rosenberg (11) admires how the course teaches the benefits of giving back to the world, he said. “If there is one word I could use to describe Dr. Leeds, it’s that he is a leader. He definitely knows how to gain the respect of a crowd and he does a great job of listening to others and taking peoples’ ideas and implementing them,” Rosenberg said. 

Before Leeds came to the school, the CCVA and Service Learning Team also did not exist. “I thought to myself, ‘How does ethics get translated into something, not just that you read about in the book but something that you do every day and also something that will affect your life past Horace Mann?’” Leeds said. “Service Learning was something that I had already been involved in, and it was a perfect way to do that.”

In 2006, Leeds then proposed the interconnected programs of the CCVA and the Service Learning team to Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly, with the goal of promoting real-world application and action that would pair with the newly instituted Ethics class, he said. At that time, the community service requirement at the school was centered on completing a required number of hours of volunteer work.

“In the past, you were left on your own to really define things,” he said. “You could do an hour here and 45 minutes there and bring in a piece of paper that said you had done this and that, but it got to be pretty cumbersome. Some students did amazing activities, but there was wide variability in the program’s effectiveness.”

Leeds, in partnership with former language teacher José Leonor, devised a model in which students could conduct weekly visits at local centers, along with hosting meetings on campus during the athletics period afterschool. To this day, the volunteers still follow the same Service Learning Team schedule. 

The structure of the programs remains unchanged, but Leeds has been pleased to witness the growth of the Service Learning team’s size and impact on the community. “It started from Kingsbridge and grew, grew and grew and grew. We expanded to agencies like Riverdale Senior Services, the Henry Ittleson Center, and Mosholu-Montefiore Community Center.  The program reached about 400 people weekly, both from the agencies we worked with and from Horace Mann,” he said. 

Leeds was also integral to the first Service Learning Day, hosted in 2008. After seeing how each of the school’s divisions and students’ parents increasingly demonstrated interest in community service, Leeds and the parents decided to hold a big day in the spring for everybody to participate. 

The central goal of the first Service Learning Day was to create a public area for the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center. With the help of hundreds of volunteers and the Maintenance Department, the school worked with the organization to build an amphitheater and vegetable garden in an unused piece of land behind the center. “It struck a chord here and in the wider community, as it was a great start,” Leeds said. “The amphitheater is still there, and the garden has become a central part of Kingsbridge.”

Service Learning Team member Emily Marks (12) said that Leeds has definitely set the bar for the way in which the school values giving back. “He has created this service learning community that will always stay at Horace Mann and that a lot of the kids, both alumni and current students, have really valued,” she said.

Leeds’s legacy will be preserved in the ethics program, Troop said. “It’s very important, especially in the time we are living in, to continue to hear and understand all points of view through having these meaningful conversations,” she said. “Having an ethics class where you are discussing very intricate and complicated topics is something that just defines Horace Mann.”

Kelly wrote that although there is no doubt Leeds’s legacy is inextricably attached to the CCVA and all that it represents — the Ethics class, the Service Learning Team, and the school’s annual Service Learning Day — his true gift is the work he has done with individual students in follow up conversations and meetings outside of in-school programs. “He knows when to step up and in, and there are hundreds of students who are better off because of this reality.”

When Andie Goldmacher (12) began seeking service learning opportunities targeted towards literacy education during the summers, Leeds wrote her a letter of recommendation to a program she was applying to, she said. “[Leeds] would even come to an out-of-school service learning event that I was hosting with a few other people on the team,” she said. “It was literally a Saturday afternoon, and he was there supporting us, which no teacher ever has to do.”

Lutie Brown ’18, a former member of the Service Learning committee, received guidance from Leeds when she founded Sunshine Mail, a project which sent letters and books to students with cancer. “As a sophomore, I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence navigating the space. But he told me that my idea mattered, and that it’s very possible for us to turn this into a really successful project and club,” she said. “From there I worked with Mr. Do, made the club happen, made it a project, and met some of my closest HM friends through that entire endeavor, all because Dr. Leeds believed in me.”

Having had the privilege to teach both Ethics and AP Psychology with Dr. Leeds for the past 16 years, Kelly will miss seeing Leeds on campus, he said.

“Whether discussing Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, or Piaget’s developmental stages, or a particular student’s interest in Peter Singer’s work, I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dr. Leeds’ perspective and admire his skills as a teacher and advisor,” Kelly said. “He’s one of the most approachable and affable people I know. He’s also brilliant without an ounce of arrogance, privilege, or entitlement. He has the unique ability to see the good in everyone.”

Kelly often refers to Leeds as the ‘good doctor,’ a nickname which he finds rings true in all the qualities Leeds embodies, Irushalmi said. “He has a good heart, and he obviously wants the best for everyone and for everyone to feel equally represented,” he said.

Goldmacher believes that she would not have gotten as much out of her involvement with the CCVA if Leeds had not been there to guide her along her Service Learning journey, she said. “Dr. Leeds has been, honestly, one of the greatest mentors that I’ve had at Horace Mann,” Goldmacher said. “He really just wants each individual to use the CCVA as a resource and to find their passion in Service Learning, no matter what their niche may be.”

In light of these strong relationships, even before officially saying goodbye, he finds himself already missing the students and faculty members he has had the honor to interact with over the course of his many years at the school, he said.

“This past year, while putting together all the materials and going back over photos and the written material that we had, and looking at back-up programs, I realized how many people have been involved, and how people I have come in contact with, both at Horace Mann and in the Bronx community,” he said. “It’s been a great feeling to know that there are so many people who I’ve been able to affect and who’ve affected me.” 

Although he has not yet established a retirement plan, Leeds wants to take time to reflect on the lessons he has learned at the school and to consider the ways in which he can carry them into his future endeavors. “I have a lot of writing to do, a lot of thinking to do, but I also want to stay involved in ways to build on what I’ve done here,” Leeds said. “I hope I’ll come back at some point, like I always ask students to do, and show where I have taken it and what I’m doing with them next.”

When Leeds spoke at the closing ceremony of the first Service Learning Day, he asked the audience members to think about what they were going to take with them from that day on, in addition to what they wanted to leave behind. “That’s how I’m thinking about the end of this chapter in my life,” Leeds said. “I hope I’ve left behind a lot for people to build on, and I know I’m taking with me a lot of support and just a general feeling of gratitude for the people who I worked with who let me learn about myself and the rest of the world.”