At 30, SSDS honors its founding visionaries
Thirty years after a small group of people set about creating a new Jewish day school in central New Jersey, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley is a thriving institution with an expanding enrollment in it youngest grades.
The East Brunswick school, which draws most of its students from Middlesex and Mercer counties, honored those visionary leaders May 20 during a dinner celebration preceding its annual Main Event.
Current head of school Rabbi Stuart Saposh termed the founders “individuals who had the vision, the conviction, the dedication, the devotion, and the sheer willpower to put this school into operation.”
“Their zealotry has blessed the lives of hundreds, probably thousands, of children and their families,” he said. “It is a legacy glorious and glowing. I don’t even know how to thank them strongly enough for following through on this vision they had 30 years ago.”
Saposh said Schechter — designated a blue ribbon school by the federal Department of Education — has had 75 of its current 80 students in grades kindergarten-four re-enroll for next year.
Founders honored at the event — held in East Brunswick Jewish Center, which houses the school — were George and Evelyn Lander of East Brunswick, Marvin and Judith Platt of Fort Lee, Milton Miller of Edison, and Eileen Seaman of Greenwich, Conn. Sandra Berman, who was a resident of Plainfield, died March 29; her daughter, Ellen, accepted on her behalf. Founders Hank and Sandra Gurshman were also recognized, though they were not in attendance.
Schechter’s founding head of school, Barbara Steinberg, who came from her home in West Palm Beach, Fla., was included among the honorees.
Video clips of the founders being interviewed by the school’s seventh-graders were interspersed throughout the evening.
‘Infused with holiness’
Sue and Brian Kheel of Highland Park, whose daughter enrolled the first year of the school, now have grandchildren at Schechter.
“We know with the right leadership this school will continue to succeed,” said Sue. “They’ve been very fortunate in that regard so far, and, God willing, we will be alive to see another generation of our family graduate and benefit.”
That daughter, Marsha Goldwasser, also of Highland Park, said her son and daughter were among six second-generation Schechter students.
“I’ve always liked the sense of community and atmosphere that teaches a Judaism that is positive and happy,” said Goldwasser.
The school was founded in the wake of the closing of the Hebrew Academy of Central New Jersey in Perth Amboy, an Orthodox day school whose students were for the most part Conservative. To fill the void, the founders decided to establish a school affiliated with the Conservative movement’s then fledgling Schechter schools.
The founders hired Steinberg, whose immediate successor, Deborah Miller, called her “the potter that gave the school its shape and form.”
In her three years at the helm, Steinberg stocked the school library, made sure staff was in place, and wrote the school’s entire curriculum, said Miller. Her ideas were so progressive that the association for the Schechter schools asked to use them as a national model.
“She was an outstanding advocate for integrating Jewish and secular studies,” said Miller. “She built collegiality into the culture of the school.”
Miller, who would serve at Schechter for 14 years, said her job was made easier by the detailed long-range plans left by Steinberg.
Steinberg recalled working with some of the evening’s other honorees, including Seaman, who served as the school’s first president.
Seaman described getting desks from the East Brunswick school district. A cadre of parents washed them and cleaned and set up classrooms at EBJC, and performed other tasks.
“As they say, it takes a village, and it took a community working together to make it happen,” said Seaman.
Judith Platt said she thought of the school as her third child. She and her husband and family still come to visit regularly.
George Lander was humble in accepting the award, noting that the founders had the school’s creation thrust upon them as “something we had to do for our children and the Jewish community.”
“I know many people here would do the same thing in that situation,” he said.
Steinberg lauded her fellow honorees, declaring, “They volunteered for the good of the school and for the Jewish people and deserve to be highly praised.”
“Those who work striving to teach Judaism have taken on holy work that enhances and gives meaning to all our lives,” said Steinberg. “By honoring our founders you have taken the old and made it new and infused it with holiness.”
The Jewish a cappella group Six13 performed at the Main Event.