A son’s gift in memory of his mother stands to transform the Jewish day school that she helped found and guide for more than four decades.
The Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union announced this week a $15 million challenge gift made in memory of longtime Maplewood resident Golda Och — the largest in the school’s 45-year history and one of the largest endowment gifts ever made to a Jewish day school in North America.
The gift is a grant from Jane and Daniel Och Family Foundation, founded by Och’s investor son and former Schechter student Daniel and his wife. The money — positioned to generate an additional $15 million in matching gifts — is intended to ease tuition costs for middle-income families, enhance academic excellence, and improve the “bricks and mortar” facilities, school officials said.
In a ceremony on Dec. 6, the Conservative day school will be renamed the Golda Och Academy. According to a statement the school issued this week, it will retain its mission and affiliation with the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, the Conservative movement’s umbrella organization.
“Jane and I are thrilled to recognize my mother’s decades-long commitment to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union,” said Daniel Och in a statement. “I am truly fortunate to have been among the first students enrolled at SSDSEU and to be able to return the gift of my education by honoring both my mother’s legacy and my alma mater.”
Golda Och, who died in January at the age of 74, and her husband, Dr. Michael Och, were among those who helped found the school in 1965, when it opened on Vauxhall Road in Union with a handful of students. This year, its elementary, middle, and high schools on two West Orange campuses — the lower school on Gregory Avenue, the upper schools on Pleasant Valley Way — have a total of around 600 students.
Golda Och went on to play a major role in the school’s development over the next four decades, serving three terms as board president, and for 12 years following that as its business manager. She also taught Jewish history there, and was a president of the Parents’ Association.
Daniel, who lives in Scarsdale, NY, is the chair and chief executive officer of Och-Ziff Capital Management Group, one of the largest alternative asset managers in the world. He also serves as chair of the Birthright Israel Foundation and of UJA-Federation of New York’s investment management group.
He was a member of the first kindergarten class at Schechter, and he and his siblings, Jonathan, who lives in London, and Susan, who lives in Morris County, attended the school. Susan has a daughter currently attending the school.
This is Daniel and Jane Och’s second major gift to the school in two years. In 2008, the couple made a $2 million endowment gift to the Schechter school as part of an overall effort that raised close to $5 million from many donors.
With the current $15 million challenge, the initial $5 million is a guaranteed endowment gift. After that, the money will come in installments over the next five years, as matching funds are raised. The goal is to raise a total of $30 million in capital and endowment gifts, leading to the renovation of the lower school and the building of the school’s endowment to more than $30 million.
The school’s endowment funds will eventually be able to provide up to $1.25 million annually for up to 230 middle-income tuition grants, in addition to the current tuition assistance program now offered at the school. The grants would be guaranteed over the course of a child’s entire education at the Golda Och Academy, from pre-K to 12th grade.
School board president Joseph Bier, who was one year behind Daniel Och at Schechter and graduated in 1979, described the gift as a “game changer.”
“Schechter is already an excellent school, but this gift will make it even better with vital investments in our space, teachers, and programs. At the same time, it ensures that a Schechter education is affordable,” he said.
The executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, described the Och challenge gift as one of the largest ever made to a Jewish day school in North America.
“If the challenge is fully met, it will make the school’s endowment — for now — the largest of any of those schools,” he said.
‘A teacher’s person’
Schechter head of school Dr. Joyce Raynor worked closely with Golda and also knew her as a neighbor and close friend in Maplewood. She said Och believed that serious Jewish education was the key to providing the Jewish community with committed, knowledgeable leaders.
“Golda Och and SSDSEU were inextricably intertwined; our school was enriched by her care and concern, by her leadership and wisdom,” said Raynor. “We feel her loss deeply.”
Ground work for the milestone gift was laid by the MetroWest Day School Campaign, a $50 million effort launched in 2007 to build endowments for affordability and excellence at the three MetroWest-area day schools, including Schechter, the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph.
The campaign has earned national recognition for its groundbreaking work in developing endowments for day school education.
“I have no doubt the Schechter-Golda Och Academy community will meet this latest challenge,” said Kim Hirsh, development officer of the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, which has worked closely with the school on its endowment fund-raising. “It’s an incredibly dedicated, passionate, and generous community, and others outside of the Schechter community may be inspired to give as well because of the groundbreaking nature of this gift and what it will do for day school education.”
In addition to making day school education more affordable, she said, funding is essential to maintain academic excellence.
“And you have to have that excellence if parents are to make this choice,” she said.
Kenneth Heyman, president of the foundation — the planned giving and endowment arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ — said that “by securing the future of one of our community’s flagship institutions, this groundbreaking gift also helps to secure a strong and vibrant future for our MetroWest community.”
Noting that the foundation has worked closely with Schechter on building endowments in recent years, Heyman added, “We are thrilled that our efforts and focus on building endowments for affordability and excellence in day school education have helped lay the groundwork for such a transformative gift.”
Dr. Michael Och, speaking in the study of his Maplewood home, with shelves filled with the books his late wife loved, spoke of her commitment to Jewish learning and the Jewish future.
“Golda felt it was very important that Jews be knowledgeable about Judaism, and she was knowledgeable herself,” he said.
Golda, who was fluent in Hebrew, grew up in Montreal and attended a Jewish day school there up to eighth grade. She graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Albert A. List College Joint Program with Columbia University, and many years later, in the 1990s, she earned her master’s degree in Jewish history at JTS.
“She was a teacher’s person,” said her husband.