With speeches, songs, and blessings, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union on Dec. 6 took on its new name, Golda Och Academy.
The new name was emblazoned on signs and banners, with a second line reading “a Solomon Schechter school.” It was also proudly on display on T-shirts worn by the students.
The name change recognizes a $15 million challenge gift from alumnus Daniel Och and his wife, Jane, of Scarsdale. It honors his mother, Golda Och, the Maplewood woman who was one of the founders of the school 45 years ago and, until her death last January, one of its most stalwart and passionate supporters.
Golda served as president of the school’s board for three terms, headed its business office for 12 years, and taught Jewish history there. In addition, she served as “an inspiration” to its staff, said school principal Dr. Joyce Raynor, a longtime friend of the family.
About 650 people filled the auditorium at the school’s Eric Ross Campus on Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, where the middle and high schools are housed. The lower school is on Gregory Avenue.
From his seat on the stage, Golda’s husband, Dr. Michael Och, was delighted to see, seated in the front row of the audience with his daughter Susan, a number of his grandchildren, including one, Susan’s daughter, who is an upper-school student at the school and a member of a school choir that performed during the event.
Michael Och’s other son, Jonathan, who lives in London, was not present.
Daniel Och is the chair and chief executive officer of Och-Ziff Capital Management Group, one of the largest alternative asset managers in the world.
In his remarks, he paid tribute to Paula and Jerry Gottesman of Morristown, who — with their own gift to the MetroWest Day School Campaign — initiated the challenge process that inspired his gift. The campaign, a project of the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest NJ, the planned giving and endowment arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, aims to raise $50 million toward boosting affordability and academic excellence at the MetroWest area’s three Jewish day schools.
Describing his gift to the academy as “the only thing of economic value my parents ever asked of me,” Daniel Och said that it served his mother’s vision that Jewish education be affordable for everyone, and “that this place be permanent and that this Solomon Schechter school continue to flourish.”
The idea for the name change came from Joseph Bier, the chair of the board and a friend of Daniel’s since childhood. Like Daniel, Bier was a student at the school’s first site, in rented space on Vauxhall Road in Union.
The new name honors Golda “in a way that would be incredibly meaningful to the school and to her family” and “honors our past as we move forward on an exciting path to the future,” said Bier.
The guest speaker was Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Golda Och was a 1957 graduate of the JTS Teachers’ Institute; after retiring in the 1990s, she returned to earn a master’s degree in Jewish history. Eisen said she taught him, giving him crucial insights into the staffing and dynamics of the seminary and, when Eisen was being considered for the chancellorship in 2006, helped persuade him and his wife that it was a position he should take.
He urged the students to follow her example — as a person who “took learning and our Jewish traditions very seriously, and didn’t take herself too seriously.”
The name change is in line with about a dozen other schools affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association, according to the association’s executive, Dr. Elaine Cohen, who was present at the event. Cohen is a former head of the school, and knew Golda Och well. Like others, she welcomed the fact that the name change, while acknowledging a financial gift, honors someone who truly helped build the school.
Daniel and Jane Ochs’ $15-million challenge gift reflects what Jerry Gottesman, speaking after the event, described as a major change in Jewish philanthropy, with alumni of day schools starting to make major donations to their alma maters.