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Chabad plans day school ‘with a difference’
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Chabad plans day school ‘with a difference’

Malkie Herson, center, educational director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge, and teacher Melissa Yarger play word games with kindergarten students. Photo by Elaine Durbach
Malkie Herson, center, educational director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge, and teacher Melissa Yarger play word games with kindergarten students. Photo by Elaine Durbach

With Passover approaching, the seven kindergarten students at the Zimmer Pre-School prepared their own way of telling the Exodus story.

With help from their teacher, Melissa Yarger, and using their nascent writing skills, the five- and six-year-olds put together a script and made their own puppets. To be gentler to the environment, they made the puppet heads from gooey glue and newspaper.

The backdrop of pyramids was painted for them by even younger artists in the four-year-olds’ class.

Administrators at the Chabad Jewish Center in Basking Ridge say that is how learning happens at their school and will characterize the program at Olam Academy, the elementary school the center is planning to open in September.

Showing a visitor around the existing school recently, the center’s director of education, Malkie Herson, discussed her vision for the new academy and her ideals, religious and academic.

Her goal, she said, is to use all available resources — from talmudic wisdom to the newest technologies — to enable her charges to “learn, reflect, and act” as fulfilled human beings. She said she is determined to see that same quality in the first grade class that will open in the fall and to carry it through as, year by year, new grades are added, through fifth.

“We want the children to feel they are part of something larger than just ‘me,’” Herson said. She pointed out that while the kindergartners were having fun with their Passover play, they were also exploring the meaning of freedom — in society and what it means to transcend struggles inside oneself. “We look after the children’s hearts, minds, bodies, and souls,” she said.

Herson is the wife of the center’s executive director, Rabbi Mendy Herson. The mother of eight children between four and 18 said she invests as much as a year researching and developing the curriculum for each class. She and her staff hold biweekly three-hour meetings.

In carefully age-adapted ways, she said, and without being “sermony,” her teachers use stories and games to gently “infuse” the values and principles of Jewish teachings — and do it in such a way that it also works for the students who aren’t Jewish. The existing classes have children from various backgrounds — and the first grade is expected to be that way too. The fee for that year will be $10,000 per child.

Stanley Stone, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, who strove to save the Solomon Schechter presence in Cranford, welcomed the coming of the new school. “We’re very excited about it,” he said. “I’ve met with the Hersons, together with Marcy Lazar, our chair of allocations and communal planning, to discuss ways of working with them to help get it off the ground. It’s perhaps a testament to Rabbi Herson and his good relationship with other rabbis in the area, that — as far as I know — they have welcomed it too, as a mark of the maturing of the community and as part of building a stronger, more solid Jewish community.”

The Hersons came to Basking Ridge 18 years ago. They had an assignment from the Rabbinical College of America — the Lubavitch movement’s New Jersey headquarters, which is headed by her husband’s father, Rabbi Moshe Herson — to introduce whatever elements of Jewish life the local community needed. Their goal, Malkie Herson said, was to provide a Jewish environment that is “relevant, joyful, and intellectually stimulating.”

As their own family grew, the center expanded too, with after-school programs for children and teens, adult education courses, and a spectrum of other activities. They started the early childhood center and preschool 10 years ago, just after she had her fourth child. It now has 63 children, from 18 months to six years old. They have wanted to start the elementary school ever since, Herson said.

For years, she said, they have been hearing of people who were attracted to the area, but decided not to move there because of the lack of a Jewish day school. With the closing of the Solomon Schechter elementary school in Cranford last year, the need became more acute. The Hersons’ older children attend Cheder Lubavitch, the Chabad school on the RCA campus in Morris Township. Just 18 months ago, Malkie decided that the time was right. “I told my husband that we should do it now. He just said, ‘All right; let’s work out how we’re going to do this.’”

Their youngest two are in the center’s preschool, and the elder of those, Levik, has been repeating the kindergarten class. “I felt that what he was getting in that class was better than he could get anywhere else,” his mother said. Now she has his placement for first grade resolved. He will be a pioneer in the new academy, together with the six other children moving up with him from his kindergarten class, and the additional five to seven Herson hopes to enroll.

She wants to find a head of school — to leave her free to lead the center’s overall education program — as well as a teacher, and an administrative assistant. She is polishing the curriculum, searching out materials, and planning the classroom. It will be housed in what has been a recreation room, a large airy space overlooking the center’s extensive grounds.

For more information on the school, go to www.chabadcentral.org, or call Malkie Herson at 908-604-8844, ext. 125.

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