On a recent Friday morning, the smell of baking challah bread filled the hallways of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School on West 89th Street in Upper Manhattan.
Inside one classroom, students in paint-splattered smocks made art, while in another, miniature mathematicians sprawled out on a rug and sorted colored cubes. When an elevator door slid open, a chorus of 4- and 5-year-olds emerged, holding hands and singing "Shabbat Shalom."
"It's a happy place to be," said Jody Posner, a former lawyer who has taught in the private Jewish school for the past seven years. "It's incredible how much they're learning and growing."
Heschel first opened its doors in 1983 with 28 students. Today, 840 children in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade fill classrooms in three separate buildings: the lower school on West 89th Street, the middle school on West 91st and the high school on West 60th.
The school is named for Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential Polish-born rabbi who fled to the U.S. during the Holocaust and later marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Because the school isn't affiliated with any particular synagogue or denomination, kids from observant Orthodox families sit side by side with children whose parents consider themselves only culturally Jewish.
"They don't care if you go to synagogue on a Saturday or go to the movies," said Dawn Spiera, who has children in Heschel's middle and high schools. "They value authenticity."
Every day at Heschel begins with prayer. Younger students repeat after their teachers in Hebrew, then study the spelling and meaning of the words. High school students choose prayer groups that match their interests and beliefs—God Seekers and Fleers, Meditation and Sacred Music, and Zionism are all options—then meet with them every morning.
During the day, students rotate between secular classes and religious studies, in which they explore Jewish texts and traditions. Every student learns to read and write in Hebrew.
"We teach children how to think critically, to develop a moral compass and to lead a moral Jewish life," said Roanna Shorofsky, the head of the school.
The Jewish concept of hesed, or "good deeds," is central to the school's philosophy. Students at every level of the school take part in service projects.
In the lower school, 1st graders bake cookies for a local food pantry, while 3rd graders collect school supplies for students in Malawi, Africa. With the money they've collected during an annual "Penny Harvest," the lower school students have donated hundreds of dollars to Rwandan orphans, homeless New Yorkers and cancer researchers.
At the middle school, 6th-grade students spend several days each year cleaning up nearby parks and volunteering at daycare centers. The 7th graders go on service trips to soup kitchens and hospitals.
"We really want to communicate to the kids that a huge part of being a person and a Jew," said Lauren Roberts, the service coordinator for the lower school, "is helping people who are less fortunate."
The high school sends its students out several times a year to volunteer in the community. Students can voluntarily take on extra projects as well—from giving museum tours to tutoring needy children to caring for injured animals in rescue shelters.
"Respect towards others has been a huge moral that the school has taught me," said Spiera's daughter Emily, an 11th grader at Heschel. Emily helped start a club that gathers stories and artwork from people who are homeless and compiles them into a magazine.
Back in the classroom, the lessons are demanding. Whether they're focused on ancient Jewish texts or the laws of physics, students are challenged to think analytically.
"It could be Shakespeare or the Bible," said Shorofsky, the school head. "Students gain the ability to look critically."
On a recent school day, while 1st-grade teacher Carolyn Haas—students just call her Carolyn—was sitting on the carpet and holding up geometric blocks for some students to inspect, others were working together at small tables to arrange numbered tiles into equations.
After one boy put his last tile into place, he pumped his fist and shouted, "Yes! I finally found a way!" A young girl whose gaze never inched from her math worksheet asked the teacher, when it was time to switch lessons, "Can we keep playing?"
"I don't know how they do it," said Skye Mann, whose son Dylan is in Haas' class, "but he's learning very quickly." She mentioned how Dylan can identify trees by the leaves he finds on the ground and that he's able to read some Hebrew after only a few months.
Heschel's high school students seem just as engaged. At different times, kids in English class have Skyped with authors, pored over science fiction novels and read Walt Whitman on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Learning at Heschel doesn't end with literature and algebra. For phys ed, students can choose between gym activities, yoga or dance lessons with Alvin Ailey instructors. Art projects involve painting, photography and computer animation. And dozens of clubs—from a model U.N. to engineering to Israeli cinema—are meant to appeal to diverse student interests.
That might explain why many students—some with open laptops, one with a guitar—lounged on couches around the school and chatted long after the last class had ended on a recent Friday.
"When the end-of-the-day bell rings," said Ahuva Halberstam, head of the high school, "no one is running to the door."
— By Patrick Wall