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Friends envision new Union County day school
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Friends envision new Union County day school

Aiming to fill a void left with closing of Cranford Schechter

Rabbi Ben Goldstein is working with others in the community to explore ways to start a new Jewish day school. Photo by Elaine Durbach
Rabbi Ben Goldstein is working with others in the community to explore ways to start a new Jewish day school. Photo by Elaine Durbach

Adrienne Fitzer is emphatic that this isn’t just her idea, and she doesn’t know all the answers. What she does know is that a number of other Union County parents feel as she does: They would like to have a local Jewish day school for their children.

Since the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union closed its Cranford lower school three years ago, they have had the option of the Orthodox schools of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth or the elementary school started last year by the Chabad Jewish Center of Basking Ridge.

Fitzer and two friends — Lesley Klieger and Rabbi Ben Goldstein, leader of the Conservative synagogue Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford — have been debating what it would take to create another school in the Cranford vicinity. They envisage a school welcoming to families of all denominations and levels of affiliation and able to accommodate children of all academic levels, including those with special needs.

They are inviting members of the community to a meeting to discuss the idea next Thursday evening, July 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains; contact them at uccjds@gmail.com for more information.

“There are a lot of questions, and we don’t have the answers,” Fitzer said, “but we’d like to bring people together and get as much input as we can about the benefits and the challenges and how we can make this happen. A lot of us moved to Union County because it’s beautiful, and there is a strong core Jewish group here, and we’d really like to have a school that can support our children’s Jewish identity.”

Fitzer herself attended the Schechter school in Cranford for a few years during the 1980s. She and her husband Adam moved to the town six years ago; they now have two young children, one about to start school. She is very much aware of the gap that was left when the school closed in 2008.

Some of the children from the school are bussed to the school’s Essex County campus, now known as the Golda Och Academy. But, Fitzer said, “shlepping to West Orange” isn’t the answer for some.

“This isn’t about bringing Schechter back,” she said. “We can’t retrofit something to make that work. We’re talking about doing something different.”

She and Adam got talking to Goldstein and his wife, Karen, who live around the corner from them with their young daughter, and with Klieger, who lives with her husband Dov Ben-Shimon and their two children in Fanwood. They found they shared a vision.

Goldstein said the idea started with his “deep passion for Jewish education, and it snowballed.” While he has a great admiration for the Conservative movement’s Schechter program, he, Fitzer, and Klieger would like to create “a true community school” — that is, nondenominational.

Goldstein attended such a school growing up in Rochester, NY. His classmates, he said, ranged from the highly observant to one “who had to be told not to bring ham and cheese sandwiches to school.” He said he would like the local school similarly “to reflect the pluralistic culture of the Jewish community in Union County.”

Predictably, they have been warned that a school can’t be started without “a very significant financial backer.”

“I know that it’s not going to work if we have to charge tens of thousands of dollars, but communities created heder before they had big backers,” Goldstein said, referring to traditional religious elementary schools. “We’re not setting out to build the Taj Mahal here; we just want classes that are welcoming and that make our children excited about their Judaism.”

Klieger said the friends’ effort is motivated “by belief that attending a Jewish day school allows children to establish a strong Jewish identity, allowing them to live the beliefs and values that define our faith.” Starting such a school, she said, “could help strengthen the Jewish community in Union County and expand spiritual and educational opportunities for children and their families.”

The meeting on July 21, Klieger said, “will bring together families who are interested in providing their children with a Jewish day school education and who wish to assist in the effort to establish such an institution, as well as those whose interest might be piqued at such a possibility but are not ready to commit fully to the idea.”

“The goal of this meeting is to allow participants to ask questions or voice concerns, look at successful examples of such schools from around the country and determine future steps.”

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