CRITICAL THINKING AND EMPHASIS ON MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES AT JEWISH DAY SCHOOL
By Lydie Raschka
Outstanding Religious High School
Abraham Joshua Heschel High School strives to cut through divisions like a ship at sea, the building’s salmon-colored façade and stainless steel trim winking in the sun.
“The thing we’re most proud of,” said Carol Weintraub, director of institutional advancement, “is that we foster the idea of pluralism. We take students from all over—Orthodox, Conservative and non-affiliated.”
The school’s Sha’ar (gateway) program provides intensive enrichment in Hebrew language and Judaic studies for students with no previous Jewish day school background, with the goal of integration in the upper grades.
“It’s for a very special type of student who really wants this,” Weintraub said.
Eno Freedman, a slender junior with wavy dark hair and a direct gaze, is one such student. He attended both public school and the Rudolf Steiner School before coming to Heschel in 9th grade.
“After my Bar Mitzvah I had a touch of spirituality,” he said. “I really like that aspect of Judaism.” He compared the morning prayer services at Heschel with the morning candle lighting and recitation rituals he experienced at Steiner.
“Heschel is one of the more creative Jewish schools in the city,” he said. “Everyone thinks so differently.” “You know Big Nick’s?” he went on, referring to Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint on Broadway, a restaurant with more than 50 pizza choices, from tofu to fricassee, in addition to countless burger, soup and sandwich options. “This school’s like Big Nick’s. It’s a small place, but it’s got so much going on.”
In the school’s atrium, it’s no mistake that Judaic studies and academics are given prominence: the elegant Beit Midrash (a sacred “living” space where the school’s Torah is housed and where classes are held) is to the right, and physics and biology classrooms are to the left. All students start their day in a tefillah (prayer) service. Heschel also offers a variety of Minyanim (a quorum of 10 adult Jews required for a communal religious service), including the Orthodox Minyan, the Egalitarian Minyan, and the Meditation and Sacred Music Minyan, in which guitars, drums and other musical instruments are used.
“The majority choose the Egalitarian Minyan,” Freedman said, “and that’s the major demographic of the school.”
Senior Amy Lewis said, “At Heschel, it’s OK to say what you want. It’s OK to disagree. You’re not forced to pray in the morning. We don’t just study the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and that’s it. We’ll sit and discuss for hours and hours one pasuk (verse) at a time.”
Wireless technology was built into the infrastructure of the ceiling, and “smart boards,” a sort of modern-day blackboard with a touch-controlled screen that works with a projector and computer, are available for use in most classrooms.
“You can’t not keep up,” said Weintraub, of the technology, while hurrying through the halls.
In one Hebrew class, laptops were open and a young teacher radiated a quietly focused authority as she led students through exercises using the smart board.
Junior Rachel Fell expressed appreciation for the freedom she has had at Heschel to develop her own sense of spirituality.
“I like the community and the freedom,” she said. “It’s a good middle ground. In my Tanakh class our desks are in a rectangle for discussion. We don’t have our computers open. We discuss. I’m also very interested in fashion, so I started my own fashion club.”
During the biweekly Friday arts block, she can pursue her interest in fashion with mixed-age levels.
“Everything at Heschel has a very nice transition to it. You’re really brought in gradually from middle school. The first week of 9th grade is just for getting to know each other. There are no classes. You take an orientation trip.”
In the fall the entire school bonds during a three-day Shabbaton, a retreat that recognizes the importance of Shabbat.
“School should reflect the world as it ought to be,” said high school head Ahuva Halberstam. “This school has everything I want from education for adolescents. I look forward to being here.”
Heschel’s high school opened in September 2002 with 42 students. Now it’s near capacity with about 285 students and must turn applicants away. How many are turned away?
“A lot,” said Roanna Shorofsky, head of school, declining to give numbers. “After 9/11, I rededicated myself to the idea that education is a powerful tool for helping make this world safer in every way,” she said. “It’s not an easy place,” she added. “We want our students to know how to think critically, to value multiple perspectives.”
Students and staff were welcoming and curious during a recent tour.
“Come in! Don’t stand at the edge!” said art teacher Dena Schutzer.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” echoed a student, waving her charcoal pencil. “Where are you from?”
A boy posed on a stool in front of the class with his chin in his hands like a blue-jean clad version of Rodin’s The Thinker. Out by the elevators, four students worked in a blue-green alcove near a Bloomberg-style “bullpen” for teachers, Ahuva Halberstam’s brainchild. “It allows the faculty to be working together and to easily coordinate,” Weintraub explained.
Inside the shared faculty space—where there are no dividers of any kind—two teachers conferred quietly as seven others worked at their desks around the room and one snacked on an apple.
Hot lunch is served daily in the sun-bright cafeteria and the menu is Parve—no meat is served other than fish. Vegetarian sushi and a salad bar are available daily. A rooftop basketball court overlooks the Hudson. Unfortunately, Extell, which owns the land across the street, will eventually interfere with this gorgeous view but “We’re enjoying it while we can,” Weintraub said. “Play space is such a priority for our kids.”
Bruce and Liz Gitlin are the parents of two Heschel graduates and a 10th grader.
“Bruce and I sat with Ahuva in the library and we started thinking about what this age meant, how we wanted our kids to be respected and listened to,” Liz Gitlin said, reflecting on what initially drew her family to Heschel High School. “Ahuva said the high school years are almost more important than those earlier years. And, you know, she was right.”
The oldest two boys have taken “gap” years between high school and college; the first went to Argentina and Israel and is now a freshman in college. The second is in Chicago pursuing an internship.
“Heschel is an incredible, values-based school, community and environment,” Gitlin said. “It gave them the confidence and analytical ability to go off…to go out into the real world.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel High School
20 West End Ave.
New York, N.Y. 10023
Roanna Shorofsky, Head of School
Ahuva Halberstam, Head of