All year, Golda Och Academy is involving its 550-plus students in activities to celebrate its 50th anniversary, but on June 9, the party was for grown-ups: former students, staff, and parents — past and present — and benefactors.
The event was held at a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, Congregation Beth El, whose religious leader, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, is a former student and current GOA parent. As guests gathered in the synagogue, he and his wife, Andrea, signed a giant photograph of the staff and faculty with the message: “So blessed to have GOA as a part of our lives and our children’s lives!”
That feeling was echoed throughout the evening by his fellow alumni and educators, administrators, and parents. Their expressions were interwoven with memories of the founding of the school in Union in 1965 with just 15 students, and acknowledgement of what it has taken, in the words of current head of school Adam Shapiro, to make GOA, now in West Orange, “one of the premier Jewish day schools in North America.”
In the two videos shown and in the speeches delivered, speakers referred with admiration and gratitude to Golda Och, the educator who started what became known as the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union. It was renamed in her honor after her passing in 2010.
Addressing the 450 people gathered in the sanctuary, her son, school benefactor and past student Daniel Och, drew a wave of laughter when he described himself as “not voted one of those most likely to succeed.” He did succeed, however, becoming an investor and giving the school — together with his wife, Jane — a challenge gift of $15 million in his mother’s memory.
His father, Dr. Michael Och, was present, smiling as speakers and those in the video recalled the school’s early years on Vauxhall Road in Union. “You either got along and behaved like family or you didn’t,” founding parent Millie Feig was shown saying. “The kids and the parents all became best friends.”
Golda’s priorities, her son and others stressed, were “how you treat other people and how you value education.”
Those values were emphasized by past students and current parents, as well as by those who have headed the GOA board. Of the 25 past board chairs, 15 were present. Outgoing chair Jeffrey Landau said that the school will continue to give “those gifts to many children over the next 50 years.”
The teachers present reflected those ideals as well. Louis Lerner joined the staff in 1969. A Highland Park resident, he was teaching at the town’s Conservative temple’s religious school, but with his own children on the way, he needed more work. “I taught Bible and history to the first sixth-grade class” at SSDS, he told NJJN at the celebration. “I stayed on, teaching Talmud for 39 years, till I retired in 2008.”
Sari Keren, an Israeli who teaches Hebrew at GOA, found it similarly welcoming when she and her husband and three children moved to New Jersey just a few years before Lerner’s departure. It might surprise some, she said, but she has found teenagers in America remarkably well-behaved. They listen to their elders, she said, “and that makes it so much easier being a parent here compared to in Israel.”
Adding to the nostalgia for the attendees at the June 9 gathering was a mini-“museum” of objects from the school’s history. It included class photos, a safety helmet from the recent campus renovation, and the first mimeographed copy of the school newspaper. It was another “leap of faith” in the long series of steps leading to the current strength of the school. The latest of those is its Dr. Lynne B Harrison STEM Center, which opened last October.
The setting for the event was apt for another reason. The Och name is also honored at Beth El. In appreciation of a $2.5 million gift from the children, Daniel, Sue, and Jonathan, who grew up as members there, and their respective spouses, the synagogue was named the Golda and Michael Och Campus of Congregation Beth El in 2011.