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On Being Honored by the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School

at the Annual Dinner, March 18, 2012
by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Dear family members, colleagues, friends and neighbors:

I humbly accept this honor bestowed upon me by the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, the highest possible honor. The ikkar or essence of this honor is the opportunity to acknowledge all that Akiba‑Schechter Jewish Day School means to Hyde Park, both the Jewish and general community, and to Chicago and beyond.

Akiba-Schechter is a model of excellence in Jewish education, and in community building to unite synagogues, JCC, Hillel and Chabad. Under recent presidents and officers of Akiba-Schechter, many of whom, I am proud to say, are Rodfei Zedek members, a model board was created that inspired the synagogue boards and the Hillel and JCC boards to function better and to dream great dreams. I take pride, as well, in the wonderful families of many faiths who have supported Akiba-Schechter through the pre-school, and who testify from a very special and welcome perspective to the good that Jewish day schools can do in the community at large, and to the beauty and importance of Jewish teachings.

For me, this honor is most touching because of the marvelous act of friendship and of kiyum batei midrash, upholding of places of leaning, by Harriet Koehler and by Jerry and Sherry Glick, in underwriting this dinner, and by Dawn and Harvey Loeb for all the hard work of chairing it, by Mark and Anna Siegler for their eloquence this evening, by Rhea and Andrew Basa and all the musicians, and by the staff, officers and faculty, parents and students of Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School.

I cherish this honor all the more because of precious associations with longtime leaders and builders of the school. I recall this evening the blessed memories of Rabbi Ralph Simon and Louis Winer, founders of the Schechter School at Rodfei Zedek, and of Harold and Edith Meitus, who deeded their South Shore home to the Akiba School in the 1960s. I recall Rose Miller, of blessed memory, a community builder from the office, and Herb Klaff, also of blessed memory, whose concerts sustained the school and the cultural life of the community.

And, yibadlu l’chayim, I would also mention Dr. Irving Skolnick, who was the first, tireless principal of Schechter while directing the Hoffman School at Rodfei Zedek; Millie Miller, who remains the guiding presence in the Akiba-Schechter office as she had been for Akiba in South Shore; Barbara Simon, who built a model pre-school and keeps us all youthful; Rabbi Harvey Well and Bryna Kurtz and other past principals, and previous generations of teachers and of supporters of Akiba-Schechter, many of whom have remained at Rodfei Zedek and blessed me with their enthusiasm and inspiring reminiscences.

The honor of being honored by Akiba-Schechter reflects, above all, the honor brought to this school and to the community by the Akiba-Schechter principal and faculty. Miriam Schiller arrived the same year that I arrived at Rodfei Zedek, 1988. Looking at Miriam Schiller and the faculty, I think of Rabbi Chiya’s stirring statement in the Talmud: “I work that the Torah shall not be forgotten from Israel. What do I do? I go and spin flax, weave nets and catch stags. I feed the children with the flesh, dress the skins into parchment, and write a Sefer Torah. I instruct five children in the Five Books of Moses and six children in the Six Orders of the Mishnah, telling them: By the time I return, teach each other Torah and Mishnah.” Miriam and all of Akiba-Schechter’s staff work at least as hard.

Miriam is always teaching, formally and informally, meeting with parents and students, troubleshooting and guiding creatively. She is often the first to arrive at our campus in the morning and the last to leave it at night. Harvey and their children–and Miriam’s parents, of blessed memory–have guided the school as well. Often there are faculty and staff members with her at all hours. Miriam draws the finest teachers. Just about every year, one or more of the teachers wins a major award. The teachers are among the most generous supporters of the school, with both time and donations, led in this by the example of Bill Coleman and Carole Groover. And the students continue to achieve great things all their lives, and to give back to the school as alumni. They excel as much in science and poetry competitions as in Bible contests.

Akiba-Schechter enables me and you to declare that day schools can be veritable magnets. Thoreau said that if somebody writes a good book, people will ultimately find their way to his doorstep. The same is true of a good curriculum and of talented, creative teachers who implement it with dedication and who nurture the children.

The Talmud tells of a woman who had a house of study in her own neighborhood, yet would daily visit the bet-hamidrash of Rabbi Yochanan, who once asked her, “My daughter, is there not a house of study in your own neighborhood?” She answered, “Yes, Rabbi. But in coming here I have a reward for the steps.” It is an abiding honor and joy that scores of parents and their children happily opt for the long trek to Hyde Park, to Akiba-Schechter, from the North Side and North suburbs.

Rodfei Zedek and Akiba-Schechter prodded me onto the front lines at the cutting edge of Jewish education. A Federation report in the early 90s by Rodfei Zedek member Ray Epstein, of blessed memory, led to the formation of a Community Foundation of Jewish Education. My survey of Rodfei Zedek alumni led to an association with the Moadon Kol Chadash, founded by Etty Dolgin and Yocheved Mintz, a dynamic, pioneering center of experiential Jewish education and of Hebrew immersion. Our Rodfei Zedek officers, together with Dan Libenson of Hillel, brought in an educational consultant, Diana Ganger, who created an experiential Friday afternoon education program. That program, which offers Hebrew learning on a second day, is ably run by Hadar Sadeh and Cantor Rachel Rachel Rosenberg with Akiba-Schechter alumni as capable and learned teachers’ aides, and with some Akiba students.

Akiba-Schechter faculty and board members have given their time and talent to Rodfei Zedek educational programs as well. Rivka Kahana has inspired many individuals of all ages to become more proficient in Hebrew, and has fostered many lasting ties to Rodfei Zedek as teacher, board member and officer. Miriam Kass chairs our youth education. Rhea Basa’s creative and engaging Shabbat and High Holy Day services are attended by people from our different Rodfei Zedek education programs, of which Akiba-Schechter has long been a cornerstone.

Over the past year Rodfei Zedek, KAM Isaiah Israel, the Hyde Park JCC and Akiba-Schechter have supported the Jewish Enrichment Center, founded by Rabbi Rebecca Milder. Sarah Abella spearheaded and nurtured at Rodfei Zedek dynamic programming and community-building for young families, with the help of Rebecca Klaff and Yael Hoffman and others. I was privileged to work for many years with thoughtful educator Thea Crook, who brought heart and soul and creative programming to the entire community, reaching out to the Akiba‑Schechter community.

Because of our blessed partnership with Akiba-Schechter, Rodfei Zedek became a synagogue with many schools, offering many avenues to Jewish learning. We have always known that the growing of Akiba-Schechter has been the key to intensive Jewish education and to community building. We know that many more families can and will be attracted to Akiba-Schechter, but we are also aware that day school kids need peers with the best possible Jewish education from among those who choose other kinds of Jewish education. We need to partner more boldly, not only within the Jewish community, but with public and private schools. I personally benefitted from Hebrew language instruction at Classical High School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Our day school graduates and supporters are our best hope for forging and for staffing creative partnerships to foster Hebrew literacy and culture in America as in Israel–and Akiba-Schechter students visit Israel and have strong ties to the Jewish State.

By supporting Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, we enhance Jewish education everywhere. Thank you all for your generous support. And thank you, Akiba-Schechter, for being incomparable, for having such wonderful faculty and students, and for honoring me with the honor of magid, of recounting the honor and joy and possibilities that Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School brings to us all. God bless you and keep you strong and going from strength to strength.

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