Eight-year-old Kyle Fink gasped in amazement when he walked into his school for the first day on Sept. 9. “It’s great,” he declared. “I almost got lost.”
His initial confusion is understandable. Over the past 18 months, the Golda Och Academy’s Wilf Lower School Campus in West Orange has undergone a $7 million renovation and a 20,000-square-foot expansion, completed over the summer. The returning students found themselves encountering a brand new, double-height lobby, leading to — in addition to other changes — a whole new wing, with a conference room, library, science lab, and outdoor work and play areas.
Kyle, who lives with his parents, Robert Fink and Rachel Bier in North Caldwell, is the third generation of his family to attend what was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union. His great-grandfather, Horace Bier, sent two of his sons to the school when it was started in Union in 1965, and for his support of Jewish education and in gratitude for a gift from his descendants, the school’s new 200-seat beit knesset, or sanctuary, has been named for him.
Kyle’s aunt Liz Bier of West Caldwell, who has two children at the school, is cochair — with Michele Landau of Livingston — of the Building on Tradition committee, whose members helped raise the $7 million for the upgrade, which included a $2 million lead gift from the Wilf family.
GOA is a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The Wilf gift and the $7 million campaign are part of a broader fund-raising initiative that seeks to maximize the 2010 $15 million challenge gift from the Jane and Daniel Och Family Foundation, with the goal to raise a total of $30 million for capital and endowment efforts.
On day one of this new school year, it was time to bask in what the project had accomplished. Watched by all the students, from pre-kindergartners to fifth graders, staff members, and the contractors who carried out the work, Suzie Wilf, her son Mark, and his wife, Jane, all of Livingston, cut the big blue ribbon across the entrance doors.
Mark, whose four children were students at the school, paid tribute to all those who helped finance the effort, including the Och and Ross families. “This was a labor of love,” he said, “a love of education and Jewish learning and Eretz Yisrael.”
Perhaps the proudest person present was lower school principal Gloria Kron. She joined the staff 34 years ago and has been principal for a decade. Showing a visitor around the building, she said, “It brings tears to my eyes. Everything has been done with such great care.” Architect Anthony Guzzo, of Guzzo and Guzzo Architects in Linden, she said, had taken the planners’ wish list of changes and combined it with the familiar elements they wanted retained to create a state-of-the-art environment. “Yes, it’s beautiful,” Kron said, “but it has also been designed so that the children can feel how certain areas are for play and others are for learning.” Bright, airy rooms have been furnished with colorful carpets, modular furniture, and smart boards, creating a welcoming, flexible environment.
GOA board of trustees chair Sheryl Pearlstein of Livingston, whose three children went through the school, said, “This is so fantastic. It almost makes me want to have another child — just so he or she could experience the school like this.”
Jessica Wise of West Orange has three children at GOA. “When we started here, it didn’t look all that wonderful, but we wanted our children to have the Jewish education it offers,” she said. “Now, I can’t imagine a better setting for them.”
With the new wing has come lots of additional space. And, as transpired over the summer, that has already proved welcome. With the closing of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick, the Wilf Campus has received 18 additional students, bringing the total to 256. Kron said she looks forward to ongoing growth in what should still be a state-of-the-art facility “10 years from now.”