Registration at Hebrew Academy in Margate, Florida is at a peak with 360 students enrolled in pre-k through 8th grade. “There’s no place to put an extra shelf,” says school director, Rivkah Denburg. “We’re literally using every inch of space here.”
It’s a concern that repeats itself in the vast majority of Chabad’s 204 Jewish day and preschools nationwide. Often the school of choice for Jewish parents in communities from coast to coast, Chabad day schools struggle to accommodate increasing enrollment while maintaining an optimal teacher-student ratio.
Indeed, construction projects and building extensions on Chabad schools currently in progress reflects this phenomenon. “The number of requests from Chabad shluchim seeking subsidies for construction projects on school buildings is overwhelming,” observes Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the educational arm of the world Lubavitch organization.
Compare that to the early 1940’s, when, reflects Rabbi Krinsky, “a handful of Chabad-Lubavitch emissarries, then under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, went knocking door-to-door pleading with Jewish parents loath to give their children a parochial Jewish education. Back then, the desire for Jewish immigrants to see their children ‘make it’ as Americans, seemed incompatible with a Jewish education.” Today, he says, “it is sought out as the ideal, and indeed, the fashionable thing to do.”
Combining a comprehensive Jewish studies curriculum with a superior secular education, teachers here place an emphasis on “honing students ability to think critically in all their classes,” says Denburg. Ultimately, the school’s mission is to provide students with a set of values and a Jewish perspective that will “continue to guide them throughout their lives.”
Marianna Soslovsky, a self-described non-observant Argentinean Jew, sent her four children to Chabad for that reason. “I wanted my children to care about maintaining their Jewish heritage, and find the joy in being Jews. For parents like herself, she says “Chabad plays a significant role in teaching the children what their parents really cannot.”
Soslovsky’s second son started out at Chabad’s school but after he was diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade, he was switched to a special needs school. Four years down the road, he insists on wearing his kippah in a school where no one else does. “That is something he definitely got from Chabad, a real sense of Jewish identity, and the desire to assert his identity very strongly.”
On the other side of the country, Michelle Shachar feels her daughters are getting “the best mix of a secular and Judaic program, in an environment that is warm and nurturing.” Enrolled at Chabad’s Desert Torah Academy, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Yasmine and Kalanet Shachar, says Michelle, “are learning what being a Jew means, and the honor and responsibility that comes with.”
According to Dina Harlig, school director since its founding in 1999, with 35 children, Desert Torah Academy aims at providing its 160 students with a well-rounded education that appeals to all members of the greater Jewish community. Its excellent student-faculty ratio of 10 to one, and the warm, family atmosphere are a big draw for unaffiliated parents.
But Chabad’s day schools aren’t limited to large Jewish communities in highly populated cities like Coral Springs and Las Vegas. In Louisville, Kentucky, Gitty Litvin is as passionate about her own vision for Torah Academy and its thirty students, as is Denburg.
“In a small community like ours, it’s not about quantity, but quality,” says Litvin. “Our chief aim is to prepare children who move on to mainstream Jewish high schools in other states, so that they will be able to acclimate well to the learning and the environment of a typical Jewish school.”
Many of the school’s students come from traditional homes, but there are others with little Jewish background who come for its excellent accreditation and its highly experienced teachers. Torah Academy aims to develop strong skills that will allow them to participate on a serious level of Judaic learning.
At Torah Academy, Judaic and secular studies teachers coordinate their lesson plans, so that students can make associations, and understand the expansiveness of Judaism. “It’s important that children don’t think they only have to ‘be Jewish’ during Judaica,” says Litvin.
Meir and Sheindal Muller direct the Columbia Jewish Day School in Columbia, South Carolina, one of only nine local schools with NAEYC accreditation. With 92 children spanning kindergarten, elementary and middle school, mostly from homes with limited Jewish background, the Mullers have created a curriculum designed to “open children to the wealth of Jewish possibility out there, and make them feel that they are part of the larger Jewish community.”
“We want to groom leaders,” says Sheindal, whose staff invests a tremendous amount of one-on-one input, Shabbatons and the weekly meetings to “take their temperature emotionally,” and track their academic and developmental progress.
In addition to being Columbia Jewish Day School attracts parents because they know that here their children will be cared for. “Parents don’t want their kids in a factory, and they recognize that we’ve created an environment that’s very safe and nurturing, and that our teachers really will go the extra mile for their children.”
The positive Jewish experience children have at school spills over at home, notes Dina Harlig. Parents often become more active in their general Jewish involvement as a result of their children’s exposure to Judaism. In Margate, Denburg notes a rate of observance once unheard of here. And as intermarriage continues to grow at an alarming rate nationally, the trend has reversed in Columbia, SC, with Jewish men and women here increasingly marrying Jewish.