The School Lives On
Where Questions Are the Answers
Judaism is a religion made up of questions and answers, she’eilot with multiple teshuvot. So often in Jewish education, rabbinic and talmudic studies focus on the answer. We look at the layers of answers that may hide beneath the simple answer, all the way to “secret” answers, or the true meaning behind different Jewish laws. The process of asking the question itself, though, is intrinsic to being Jewish; the very act of asking it is how one actively engages and wrestles with their Judaism. This question-asking exercise is a continuous and at times tenuous engagement, especially in academic settings where teachers also have lesson plans to get through, points to make, tests to prepare for and of course parental expectations to meet.
At South Area Solomon Schechter Day School, the emphasis on that dynamic question-asking was never allowed to fall by the wayside to simply get to the point. The point was the process. The Schechter mindset allowed students to fully engage rather than just memorize and recite. The school focused intently on meeting individual students where they were at in their educational journeys, both Judaic and secular, and supporting growth on their terms.
I remember feeling that mission put into practice when there was space made for any question in regards to a Jewish text in a Rabbinics or Bible class as well as humanities classes—even the ones that other educators in other institutions might dismiss as irreverent or beside the point. What if getting off topic or pushing into “dangerous territory” actually got us to a better point?
At Schechter, Judaism was at once an ancient tradition, a source of ageless pride and an evolving, relevant part of our current lives. We were empowered to contribute to that evolution, even if just for ourselves, through pushing back against what didn’t make sense to us or discovering new ways of understanding a tractate or verse, even if it might not have been what sages and commentators agreed (or more often disagreed) upon.
With this foundation of dynamic questioning instilled in me by the time I graduated—a foundation that welcomed an ever-shifting point of view—I had a toolkit at my disposal to dissect and think critically about my growth as a young Jewish person, forming an identity. This foundation became essential as I’ve moved through different stages of life. At each stage, I’ve held my Judaism, the one I continue to consistently interrogate and rethink, close to my heart. Schechter inculcated me to take many perspectives at once and to accept all perspectives as valid and as part of the conversation.
There is endless value in living life with that principle, not the least of which is making all who are a part of our faith feel welcome and seen. That is a legacy Schechter has left with me, and I’m sure many others who made their way through its bustling hallways from the time it opened its doors to the time they had to shut.
The Welcome Desk
Rita M. O’Brien
As the receptionist, I felt I had an important role in welcoming folks to our school once they were inside the vestibule. My perch was surrounded by an oversized half-moon style desk. I knew many of our visitors were parents interested in enrolling their children, and I wanted their first impression to reflect the family environment our school fostered.
I felt greeting our families and ensuring every interaction was positive and personal strengthened our connections. I enjoyed learning about our families’ histories and encouraged the parents and children to share stories of how they lived and who they were.
I wanted our enrolled and prospective students to feel comfortable. There was an ever-growing collection of small wind-up toys stretching the entire length of the reception desk. The toys calmed the anxious and entertained our delighted preschoolers and middle schoolers as well. I was the recipient of numerous wind-up toys over the years, and when our school closed I gave away pieces from the collection to appreciative students.
The front desk was also home to the school pet, Dagh, a Betta fish. Dagh lived longer than his species’ life expectancy, and I was convinced he thrived on the attention from the kids.
It was important to me for the student body and the many teachers and support staff to feel special within the walls of the school. If you were a staff member celebrating your birthday, you were greeted by a 9 x 11 sign on the front desk, wishing you yom huledet sameach, with a personalized word or two. During the day, many birthday wishes were directed your way. I posted a word of the day (WOD) and its definition, resourced from a list of SAT common words. Students passing by the front desk between classes were encouraged to employ the WOD in conversation with the intent of strengthening their vocabulary skills.
Many memories were made and friendships forged during my dozen years at the school. I understood my role as the first contact when entering our school was potentially influential. Head of School Jane Taubenfeld Cohen was a leader and role model in encouraging me to expand my traditional administrative responsibilities.
I thrived in my humble role as the ambassador of our exemplary place of learning. Our school’s loving, nurturing environment created a space where all were welcome to succeed according to their own capabilities. The evidence we achieved this goal is measured by the testimonies of the children, most now young adults, who often post on social media their reflections on their special time at our extraordinary day school.
One would be hard pressed to duplicate our formula for an all-inclusive educational model. Hard work, dedication, luck and our belief we all were performing God’s work united my coworkers and me in our daily mission.
Educating with Compassion
When I’m asked what led me to teaching, I immediately think of the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School. My nine years at SASSDS deeply shaped the teacher I’ve become. This will be my fifth year teaching in the New York City public schools, and the invaluable lessons my Jewish day school has taught me live on in my classroom.
At Schechter, school leaders led with genuine compassion. That compassion set the tone for the teachers, parents and students. At Schechter, it didn’t have to be explicitly named because it was so embedded in our school culture from the top down. When my students face real emotional challenges, I often think about what the school leaders at Schechter would’ve done. I try to choose to lead my classroom from a place of empathy, putting myself in the shoes of my administration, my students and their parents when making decisions in any predicament. Because that’s how I felt that my Jewish day school approached helping students in difficult situations.
Another lesson I took with me from SASSDS is the importance of teaching each child as an individual—or, as Jane Taubenfeld Cohen once told me, teaching the child, not the subject. I remember hearing a lot about special education programming at Schechter, but I didn’t think much about it in the moment. Now as a teacher, it’s devastating to watch children with learning needs fall through the cracks because of pressures to meet academic standards. It made me think about that approach, teaching the child at their own pace rather than obsessing over an arbitrary standard of content knowledge, and how it would encourage a growth mindset in students who often feel defeated. I know that the appreciation I have for special educators and the importance I give to meeting each student where they are at as individuals is something that was instilled in me at Schechter.
As a student at SASSDS, one of the things I appreciated most in the moment was that school was so much more than just school. At Schechter, the community was bonded by Jewish values and Jewish history. Even though New York City public schools are much larger and a lot more diverse, I found that I can still strive to inspire many of the same values in my students: curiosity, compassion, a sense of belonging and a commitment to learning our community’s histories. As a history teacher, I want my students to come away with a breadth of content knowledge, but I also strive to make them feel the way I felt as a student at Schechter—part of a community that cares deeply about them. They should feel that they have the power to be drivers of positive change in their communities.
“There are places I remember... in my life, and some remain”
When I entered that special and holy place for the very first time, I was greeted by Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, head of school. Within minutes, I was surrounded by a few of the middle school students, including the daughter of a founding family. Miriam Kriegel, a camper at the Jewish summer camp I had attended and worked at for many years, excitedly told Jane that I could help with the music and plays and would be a welcome addition to the school and its arts programs. Jane and I exchanged ideas and concluded that I could be involved in that year’s Zimriyah and the play. Little did I know the impact that Jane’s kind offer and my decision would have on me and the next 13 years of my life.
The arts were already an established part of the innovative and unique program that Jane had envisioned and brought to life. The Israeli teachers were beloved and well respected for their integration of traditional and modern Hebrew songs into the fiber of the school. The students sang Hebrew songs with authentic Israeli accents and enviable fluency. Ken Faria, the general studies music teacher, was already a legend at Schechter with his approach to teaching young children and his appreciation of both vocal and instrumental music. He created an orchestra and jazz band that produced several CDs, masterfully accompanied the full-length productions, performed at a variety of community venues, and sparked the interest and enthusiasm of parents, community musicians and other day schools.
I was in awe of the talent and passion at our school and the heights to which we would strive in our pursuit of excellence in creative arts programming. Jane lovingly created a program called L’Chaim: Celebration of Life, with students interviewing and honoring Holocaust survivors, including her own father, Nat Taubenfeld, z”l. Our Makhela (choir) had become known in its own right, performing poignant songs and musical pieces as part of Boston’s yearly Holocaust commemoration at Faneuil Hall and an original cantata as part of the 2001 L’Chaim. This experience led us to establish a deep connection with a school in Whitwell, Tennessee, which undertook a project about the Holocaust made famous in the movie Paper Clips. I will never forget that experience and what the students and entire community gleaned from our collaboration.
Our school still retains a Facebook page that keeps memories fresh and people connected. One evening, Jane and I shared a question about songs from our many Zimriyot; suddenly, the page was flooded with memories of songs from former students, staff and family members. Such joy, so many ideas, songs from each grade and year, and countless memories gushed forth. The school’s community spirit was brought to life once again. The songs and plays would continue to spark individual and collective memories and would help to guide us through our transition from pain to perseverance, from sadness to sunshine. A favorite Zimriyah song, “Shemesh,” continues to ring out with its boisterous refrain and shout out of hands reaching toward the sky.
We are happy to individually and collectively share our memories and blessings as an organization with those whose schools suffered a similar fate. We remain dedicated to the preservation of the memories that took us through the many years when our beloved school was still blossoming into the time when our tagline “Our Children, Our Legacy” lives on in song and spirit.