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Israeli school receives record gift from Heller family
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Israeli school receives record gift from Heller family

Helaine Heller, seated, at the URJ Heller High naming celebration with Union for Reform Judaism leaders, from left, Paul J. Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs; Miriam Chilton, vice president of youth; and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president.&nb
Helaine Heller, seated, at the URJ Heller High naming celebration with Union for Reform Judaism leaders, from left, Paul J. Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs; Miriam Chilton, vice president of youth; and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president.&nb

On Oct. 19, the Reform movement’s high school in Israel program got a new name in recognition of a $5 million endowment from the Heller family of Scotch Plains. Until now known as the NFTY Eisendrath International Experience High School in Israel, the school is now URJ Heller High: the Isaac and Helaine Heller EIE High School in Israel.

The gift is the largest donation in the history of the program and the largest non-capital gift to the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s umbrella organization. 

Begun in 1961, URJ Heller High is a fully accredited academic program for North American students in grades 10-12, who spend a semester living and learning in Israel. The school, originally named to honor Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who served as URJ president from 1950 until his death in 1973, is on Kibbutz Tzuba, approximately 15 minutes outside of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. More than 3,000 students have participated, including the Hellers’ daughter, Audrey Heller Romberg, who now lives in Tallahassee, Fla.

Building on the existing Heller Family Scholarship Fund, which has provided more than 1,000 scholarships in its 40-plus years, the $5 million gift will provide significant annual scholarship funding with a focus on underserved Jewish communities and those without other sources of scholarship support. To extend the impact of the gift, the URJ is launching a comprehensive scholarship campaign to raise additional funds necessary to meet significant student needs. 

Isaac Heller, an industrial park developer and philanthropist, was a cofounder of the toy manufacturer Remco. He died in 2015. He and his wife, Helaine, were longstanding members of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield and major supporters of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

Making the gift, said Helaine in a statement, “is my way of honoring my husband, Ike, preserving his memory, and carrying on the love that we’ve both had for this program for 41 years. Since we saw its wonderful impact firsthand when our daughter Audrey came home, we have wanted to help even more students to have this important experience. The program and the URJ have been so meaningful to both of us, and I know Ike would be very pleased.” 

Said Romberg, “EIE changed my life. It gave me a Jewish identity, widened my perspective, and instilled a strong connection with Israel. It’s thrilling to see my mother get more involved with this program that has so much personal meaning to me and to continue to deepen the involvement my father started.” 

Romberg pointed out that for teens like those in her own community, where funding sources can be limited, “Jewish life simply requires more creativity.” 

Calling the Heller gift “extraordinary,” URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, “The Reform Movement is guaranteed to have future leaders passionately committed to Israel because of the continuity and growth of URJ Heller High.” 

Kim Hirsh, a niece of the Hellers and director of philanthropic initiatives for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, said, “What a fitting way to honor both this transformative program and the Heller family’s deep involvement, enhancing and elevating it. It truly feels like their support is coming full circle, with Helaine fulfilling Ike’s original vision. 

“This gift represents their big hearts, their dedication to the Jewish community, and their love of Israel and desire to open that opportunity to those who are less privileged,” said Hirsh.

Fifty people gathered in the Heller home in Scotch Plains for the naming event. n

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