At their first public meeting, the three people spearheading an effort to establish a new Jewish day school in Union County said they are determined to find a way to educate their children in an inclusive, pluralistic Jewish environment close to home.
Addressing the July 21 gathering at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains, the trio — Rabbi Ben Goldstein, Adrienne Fitzer, and Leslie Klieger, all parents of young children — acknowledged the tough obstacles ahead, but said they won’t be stopped by financial or demographic obstacles.
Goldstein, who has been religious leader of the Conservative Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford since 2010, said that some might think this is the “pie-in-the-sky thinking-of-green rabbi.” But while the plan is in its nascent stages, he continued, he and the other organizers will be working with RAVSAK, the national Network of Jewish Community Day Schools, to create a workable plan.
Fitzer is a psychologist working with the Millburn Township Public Schools, using behavioral analysis to help children on the autism spectrum. She said she was pleased with the turnout at the meeting; she was, she said, “afraid it might just be the three of us.” The 16 seats around the table filled rapidly, and four more were squeezed in — and the leaders got what they wanted, a fervent exchange of views.
Klieger has initiated and recruited participants for a number of Jewish undertakings in various parts of North America, most recently as the first director of the JCC of Central New Jersey’s J Connection outreach program. Though her husband, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee professional Dov Ben-Shimon, speaks Hebrew with their two children, she — like others present — expressed a desire to give them a learning environment where their Judaism is shared and celebrated.
Some participants were parents of potential students; at least half had a connection with the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union (now Golda Och Academy) lower school in Cranford, which closed three years ago.
That included Jan Naldi, the former principal; Sharon Rockman, a parent and one of the leaders of the effort to keep it open; and a former student, Justin Weissbrod, who has just graduated from GOA in West Orange. He greeted Naldi with a big hug and spoke eloquently about how much it meant to him to attend Jewish day school.
Naldi said, “I’m here because I care passionately about this community. I came out of curiosity and to see if I can help. Three years ago, it was not the right time; now I have hope again that something bigger and better can be created — and hope is the essence of Judaism.”
She mentioned that she also champions the school started a year ago by the Chabad of Basking Ridge but that people in the Scotch Plains area want something closer.
Rockman said that the Cranford Schechter school “was a most special place,” and its closing was “a huge loss, but it was the best thing for the health” of the school as a whole. The Cranford branch was closed, she said, because of lack of enrollment, and she asked the three planners what will be different this time.
Goldstein stressed that as much as he respects the Schechter schools, what he, Fitzer, and Klieger have in mind is not a Conservative school like those, but “a community school” at which children from all streams of Judaism would feel equally at home.
They also underlined their commitment to accommodate all academic levels. Fitzer said, “Too often programs for children with autism or special needs don’t have a Jewish component. It’s important for all students to have the opportunity to be part of the Jewish family and community.”
The participants debated whether that inclusiveness might scare away parents who regard their children as destined for places like Harvard. Naldi was emphatic that all parents want the same thing — “what’s best for their child.” So long as everything in the classroom is under control, and they feel that their child’s needs are being met, she said, then there’s no problem with inclusiveness.
Goldstein said, “This might seem like a utopian vision, but it’s one that we can strive toward.”
Amy and Daniel Petter-Lipstein of Highland Park are not interested in transferring their three children to a new school; they are, they said, pleased with Yeshivat Netivot, the Orthodox Jewish Montessori school in Edison that they attend. The couple were at the meeting to suggest it as a model, and both spoke about the teaching methods that make children want to attend school — and motivate parents to find a way to pay the fees.
Cost was a central issue. Getting practical, a mother originally from Israel — who spoke passionately about wanting her children to grow up in a close-knit Jewish community — offered to provide snacks at future meetings, to save the planners their first deficit item.
One of the fathers present said that demographics and the current economy might make it impossible to launch a day school, but suggested starting with a more limited plan — an afternoon religious school offering perhaps one-and-a-half-hour classes five days a week.
Goldstein responded that youngsters’ schedules of extracurricular activities make that a tough option, but they would be considering all ideas. The trio’s next step is a meeting with RAVSAK within the next few weeks, he said, to begin exploring the possibilities.
Those interested in connecting with the planners to learn more and share their ideas can contact them at UCCJDS@gmail.com.