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Torah Academy: Creating Community Every Day

June 25, 2009 By:
Amy Purdy, Jewish Federation Feature
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Rachel Katz (third from left) teaches a class on landscape art to third-graders (from left) Eli James, Tzemach Eisenberg and Shira Jablon.

Torah Academy defines itself as "not just a school, but a kehillah" -- an educational community within the larger Jewish community.

The Orthodox day school in Wynnewood was founded in 1963; it serves boys and girls from nursery through eighth grade in the lower school, and young women in grades nine through 12 in the girls high school. The schools share an historic stone building -- site of the former Wynnewood Road School -- and hold their classes on separate floors. The lower school is co-educational through third grade. Beginning in fourth grade, male and female students attend separate, yet equally challenging classes.

"Our goal is to provide an integrated, dual curriculum rooted in Torah and marked by academic excellence to students from nursery school through high school," says Amir Goldman, who is serving his first term as board president.

Goldman and wife Stacey have four children at Torah Academy. The institution has one board of directors, and separate vice presidents and education committees for the lower school and the high school.

"Jewish law explicitly teaches love for all Jews," explains lower school menahal, or principal, Rabbi Shmuel Jablon.

"Torah Academy serves the entire Orthodox community, and it's wonderful for students to see the variety of customs within Orthodoxy. We create a high-quality rigorous Jewish and academic environment, where each student can feel comfortable practicing his or her family's Orthodox customs," notes Jablon, who has completed his first year as menahal. Some 277 students attend the lower school, and their religious and synagogue affiliations include centrist Orthodox, Chabad, Aish HaTorah and Haredi.

"Parents and staff participated in Super Sunday, and ran a booth at the Federation-sponsored community Israel Day Celebration. We look forward to continuing this important community involvement," says Jablon.

For Flora Levin and her husband, Rabbi Ephraim Levin, who are Chabad emissaries at the University of Pennsylvania, interaction among families and mutual respect makes Torah Academy an "amazing" school. The Levin's currently have two daughters enrolled there.

"Our practice is always respected -- during a Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration, the school went out of their way to provide the type of kashrut that we follow. The school's respect for different practices makes everyone comfortable and brings peace to our community," she says.

Israel-focused Curriculum
The Torah Academy Judaic-studies curriculum includes study of traditional texts, Hebrew language and Israel. The school conducts much of its Judaic-studies classes in Hebrew, while being sensitive to the various abilities and backgrounds of students in each class. Four teachers, who are shliachim ("emissaries") from Israel help foster the school's bonds with Israel.

For example, video-conferencing sessions with the Israeli Rappoport School gave eighth-grader Akiva Chase a close view of Israeli life.

"Teenagers tend to think that everyone lives the way we do. Video-conferencing showed me how some Israeli students live, and helped broaden my perspective," he says.

The school's general studies and Judaic curriculum prepare students for a variety of Orthodox high schools. Chase, who will attend Ner Israel Yeshiva High School in Baltimore this fall, says that he feels well-prepared for his high school: "Teachers, especially Rabbi Eisemann, teach different styles of studying text, to prepare us for the diverse approaches we'll find in high school."

The school day is divided equally between Judaic and general studies. Dave Tatum, who has taught social studies at Torah Academy for two years, previously taught for 34 years in the Upper Darby School system. He observes that the general and Judaic courses support each other.

"Memory skills, for example, carry across the dual curriculum," he says.

Torah Academy's art and physical-education programs round out the lower-school curriculum. "When I paint, I realize that everything in nature is beautiful," says eighth-grader Leeba Selengut. During an eighth-grade outdoor landscape painting class, Alyssa Gabay, says that "painting shows me the miracle of God's creations through nature."

"It's also fun!" adds Devorah Sherman.

Coach Kenny Myers' theme-based physical-education classes, which meet twice a week, emphasize character-building and sportsmanship, as well as fitness skills.

The lower school plans new academic and facility initiatives for this September. The Kohelet Foundation, a local organization dedicated to supporting day-school education throughout Greater Philadelphia, awarded grants for a special-needs coordinator and a gifted-education teacher. Along with the OROT program already in place, these new staff positions will allow Torah Academy to better serve the needs of every student. The school also received challenge grants to renovate the gym and outdoor playground. Three families met the grant's challenge, and renovations are set for this summer.

Torah Academy is also partnering with the Kohelet Foundation to offer new incoming kindergarten students a $3,000 credit toward tuition.

"Torah Academy students develop a strong sense of identity and community," attests Jill Gabay. She and her husband, Raphael, have two children at the school -- Alyssa, an eighth-grader, and Ariel, a fifth-grader. An older son also graduated eighth grade.

"Our children were very well-prepared in both Judaic and general studies. They develop life-long friendships with teachers and students," she says.

Young Women Realizing Their Potential
Torah Academy Girls High School creates an academic and Judaic environment where each student can "tap into her potential in her sincere search for self," according to Principal Rabbi Baruch Lichtenstein.

The dual curriculum in intensive traditional Orthodox Judaic studies and rigorous college prep includes advanced-placement courses in U.S. history, English, psychology, calculus and chemistry.

All students must fulfill a chesed requirement, and most participate in extra-curricular activities including a debate team, dance group and a yearly student-directed school musical.

"There is a strong sense of community, in which students form lifelong friendships with peers and teachers," says Cheryl Epstein, senior advisor and history teacher. Currently, 73 young women attend the school.

Nechama Krieger, a 2005 graduate of the high school, recently completed her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania.

Krieger, who is majoring in computer-based cognitive science, says that the high school provided "excellent preparation for Ivy League college work and for my year of seminary studies in Israel."

Krieger studied at Michlalah College for Women. She says that the high school's "chemistry labs inspired my interest in science."

Her sister, Penina, is a 10th-grader at the high school. Parents Abba and Ruth Krieger, who live in Lower Merion, have two older children who graduated from the school.

A whopping 100 percent of seniors attends a postsecondary seminary in the United States or Israel, in conjunction with college, say school officials.

Rabbi Lichtenstein and Epstein, the senior advisor, work closely with each senior to shape the best match for both seminary and college. This year's seniors will attend 11 different seminaries, spanning the Haredi and Religious Zionist spectrum.

"Mrs. Epstein is a fabulous support for the students and their families," says Bracha Hollander-Goldfein. She and her husband, Rabbi Ephraim Goldfein, and daughter Toba, worked with Epstein this year. Goldfein, who graduated this month, will study for one year at Machon Shoshanat Yerushalyim in Israel and then return to attend Drexel University, where she plans to study genetic counseling.

Each June, seniors have the opportunity to gain firsthand experience in a career during the Life Experience Education Program. Students spend three days accompanying a mentor throughout their workday. Toba Goldfein, for instance, followed Dr. Elaine Zackai, director of Clinical Genetics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on her rounds.

"Senior Malka Lindell apprenticed with a speech therapist at Bryn Mawr Hospital," notes Nomi Levene, activities director.

"Students have apprenticed with nurses, midwives, lawyers, business entrepreneurs -- and two years ago, a student worked at the zoo. It's a wonderful real-life experience just before graduation," says Levene.

An Emphasis on Social Action

Levene meets with each student in September to guide them in choosing projects to fulfill the chesed, or social-action, requirement.

Projects include visiting the sick, caring for young children in neighborhood families, organizing youth groups on Shabbat afternoon and participating in the Friendship Circle, an organization that allows students to work and play with special-needs children.

According to 11th-grader Z.C. Schwartz, students "give countless hours to help others in the community. It makes us feel good as people to help families care for young children and to visit the sick. By helping others, we see aspects of the Torah in our lives."

For Rabbi Lichtenstein, the students' approach to the chesed obligation, "the ethic of doing good deeds quietly, makes me proud."

Eleventh-grader Rivka Horwitz has been on the extracurricular debate team for two years. Torah Academy placed first in the regional competition for Orthodox day schools last year; this year, the team placed second.

"It's lots of work, and lots of fun," she says. "Proving our ideas, crafting clear, strong arguments, and public speaking are skills I use in A.P. English and biblical studies."

"As a psychologist and mother, I believe that Torah Academy was the perfect growth environment for my daughter, Toba. It enabled her to pursue her academic interests without limits," says Hollander-Goldfein.

Echoing other parents, she says: "The girl's high school is the cocoon that produces the butterfly."

To learn more about Torah Academy Lower School, call 610-642-7870 (www.torahacademyonline.org).

To learn more about Torah Academy Girls High School, call 610-642-9360 (www.torah-academyghs.org).

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