A school grows in Englewood
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A school grows in Englewood

Moriah, first local Jewish day school, celebrates turning fifty

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In a first-grade science class last year, a student writes on a smartboard as her teacher and another student look on. PHOTOS COURTESY THE MORIAH SCHOOL

It was 1971, and Dr. Norman Sohn was finishing his training in Boston. He and his wife, Judith, were faced with a decision. Where would they go next? Where would they settle down?

As a newly fledged surgeon, the world was open to him. He could get a job almost anywhere. He was originally from Manhattan, and his wife was from New Rochelle, so the New York metropolitan area made sense to them.

They knew they wanted a yeshiva education for their children – Dr. Sohn had gone to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a school that combined religious and secular studies in a way that was progressive for its time – and they also wanted the luxury of choice. They didn’t want a one-school city, as Hartford and even Boston were at the time. “What really attracted me was the multiplicity of neighborhoods that were hospitable to Orthodox people,” Dr. Sohn said. “But here there were so many that if one didn’t work out, there was another.”

Okay, so that narrowed their choice to about six or seven counties in two states. Now what?

“We selected Englewood,” Dr. Sohn said. They made that decision in order to send their children to the Moriah School there.

Moriah celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was created in the wake of the great move to the suburbs that followed the end of World War II. By the time its founders first broke ground, members of the Orthodox community decided that they, too, wanted to leave the dark, crowded city for suburban blue skies, endless green lawns, and enough space to make someone moving from Washington Heights, say, feel as if they were on the prairies, only prettier and closer to kosher food.

Moriah is the spiritual grandparent of the other day schools that sprung up later to serve the Orthodox community it attracted, magnet-like, to Bergen County.

“Englewood was a new, young, vibrant community, with a school that was less than 10 years old at the time,” Dr. Sohn said. “We liked Rabbi Swift” – that was Rabbi Isaac Swift of Congregation Ahavath Torah, who had decided, years earlier, that if his community was to flourish, it needed a school, and whose shul housed Moriah in its first years. “And Rabbi Izzy Grama” – Rabbi Israel Grama, that is, who had gone from NCSY, where he was instrumental in building the Orthodox Union’s youth group, in Virginia, to become Moriah’s founding headmaster – “was a very nice man.

“My wife was trained as an elementary school teacher, and she was very oriented to quality education,” Dr. Sohn said. “We both felt that Moriah was a dynamic and invigorating environment. We loved it.”

(Readers, please note the word “love.” It comes up often in this story, not about the romance between two people but between people and an institution.)

The shidduch between the Sohns and the school, which goes from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, worked so well that all three of the family’s children graduated from it, and all seven of their grandchildren have studied there. (So far,two have graduated, and five are still there.)

Perhaps equally striking, the Sohn’s younger son, Evan, who was in the class of 1981, now is the school’s president.

Dr. Sohn tells a story about Evan to illustrate Moriah’s strengths. “When Evan was 5 years old, in kindergarten, they had a talent show. So this little kid – Evan – went into the principal’s office after the show, and he said, ‘Rabbi, you did a terrible thing. Everybody worked really hard on their presentations, and you only rewarded the winners.

“‘But everybody worked hard, and they all deserved commendations.’ And the principal called up my wife and he said, ‘I have just been put down by a kindergarten child – and he was 100 percent correct.’

“And then they mimeographed – because that was what they used in those days – they mimeographed letters of commendation to all of the kids who were in the talent show.”

Evan Sohn said that it is not unusual for people who have graduated from Moriah to return to Bergen County as adults and send their own children to their alma mater. “We have more than 60 alumni parents,” he said. “I am not alone in that.

“We started a program at graduation last year, where alumni parents gave their kids their diplomas. I think that we had 12 last year, including one Moriah couple.” Out of the 150 or so staff members, 13 are alumni, he added.

“For me, it’s incredibly exciting to walk the halls of the school I grew up in,” he said. “I am now watching my children in the school. We had a Shabbaton two weeks ago at Ahavath Torah. It was amazing. Two hundred children davening, leyning, leading the services. It’s absolutely beautiful, this connecting of the generations.

“At the end of the day, nothing is more important for us than the strength of our Jewish community, and nothing is better for its strength than creating great, strong ties for our children. There’s nothing more important for the survival and strength of the Jewish people than having great schools.”

Shira Ashendorf of Teaneck, who now has three children in Moriah and is on the board of the parent association, graduated from the school in 1979. The school was vitally important in her development both as a person and as a connected Jew, she said. Because her father, Rabbi Neil Winkler, was the leader of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, a town with a vibrant but small Orthodox shul and little other Jewish presence, much of her Shabbat social life revolved around her school friends. Her group is close now, as it was then, she said. “It just so happens that all of my Facebook friends are Moriah friends.”

The school recently dedicated the library. “It was so exciting!” Ms. Ashendorf said. “I called it Facebook live. I got to see all the people I connect with on Facebook in person! We were running around like little bat mitzvah kids, squealing and hugging each other.

“We know all about each other, we know about each other’s kids and what they’re doing because of Facebook, but we got to hug in person.

“We will always be this close community. Not just people who happened to go to the same school, but a community of people who love each other, love Torah, love the rebeyim who taught us.

“I remember most of all when we would daven Hallel together. There were always some of our classmates who would lead it, and the tunes we used then are still the tunes we use today. They’re the tunes we use at our seder table. Every time those tunes come up in life, I picture myself standing in the auditorium, and I can see all my friends with me, the way they looked then.

“It was a very happy, comforting feeling to go back there, because it was a good, happy, wonderful time in my life.”

In the late 1970s, despite its good start and devoted parents and staff, Moriah was foundering. It cycled through a few short-term administrators. They weren’t working. It wasn’t working. The school needed help.

Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood remembers those times. “Moriah was on the rocks then,” he said. “It was falling apart, and parents were getting ready to pull their kids out. Its future was on the line. We had to find the right principal.

“I was a young guy, I was only in the community maybe 3 or 4 years, and I had two little kids in the school,” he continued. “But I was very focused on Jewish education, so when Gerald Wolf, who was president at the time, called me and asked me to chair the committee searching for the next principal, I was surprised and delighted at the chance to make a significant impact.”

He and his committee “interviewed a number of candidates,” he said. “We were underwhelmed.”

For help, he turned to Rabbi J. Shelly Applbaum, whom he had known as a camp owner and director, as well as the principal of the Kingsway Academy in Midwood, Brooklyn, the yeshiva at Kingsway Jewish Center, the shul where he had grown up. “He was a known quantity as a principal, and his skills were clear,” Dr. Prager said. “He was a superb administrator, had a keen eye for educational talent, and he knew how to get things done.

“So I called him up, and asked him for his thoughts on the people we had interviewed. He was as unimpressed with them as I had been. And I will never forget this – it was a Sunday afternoon, and I was talking to him on the phone, and all of a sudden I said to him, ‘Shelly, would you be interested in the job?’

“It just popped into my head. And he said, ‘You would have to ask your father.'”

Dr. Prager’s father, Max, was president of the shul. “So I would be poaching,” he said. But he realized that Rabbi Applbaum hadn’t said no. “I asked my father, and to his credit, he said, ‘Whatever Shelly thinks is best for him is fine for me.’ That’s the kind of guy my father was.”

Some members of the committee worried that Rabbi Applbaum was perhaps too much of a camp director to work out as a school principal, but they were outvoted, and the offer was made and accepted. Rabbi Applbaum, a Brooklyn boy to the depths of his being, moved with his family to the suburbs, where he fell in love. With Moriah.

Soon after he got to the school “he held a meeting,” Dr. Prager said. “It was in the gym. The place was packed. He ran the meeting, and it was clear that he was the boss. It was clear that he had a plan, he was experienced, he had what it took to run the school. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“It was under his aegis that the school ballooned from about 250 to 1,000 students. He undertook several major building plans, and he was as involved with the plans as he was with the kids.” And that meant that he was very involved with them.

“He attracted wonderful teachers, and the kids absolutely loved him.” (That word again.) “He was a cigar-chomping guy. He didn’t look cuddly. But the kids loved to be sent to his office.”

His son, Allen Applbaum, who was 15 when he moved to Englewood with his family – too old to go to Moriah but young enough to still be at home for those first few years – confirms the love that his father felt for the school and for the students, and they for him. He knew every single child by name, and always would greet students as they came off the buses in the morning and again when they left, late in the afternoon.

“My father had spent his whole career in Brooklyn, and it was a huge thing in the ’70s for my parents to move out of Brooklyn and go to Englewood, New Jersey. It might have been Montana. It was all very challenging for him.

“His approach to education was unique in those days. He really looked at each kid holistically, and very much separate from the way their parents saw them. He saw things the parents didn’t necessarily want to see.

“He would advise the kids and their parents and teachers in what was best for each kid, with no agenda. There were kids who were struggling with the dual curriculum, and there were no early intervention programs yet. He would advise parents; he’d say, ‘I don’t think the dual curriculum is working.'” He would suggest that some students not go on to a yeshiva high school, although continuing to get a Jewish education was profoundly important to them. “It was controversial, but if it wasn’t the right fit, he’d say so,” Rabbi Applbaum’s son said.

“He worked on instinct,” he continued. “It was all by gut. He didn’t have a Ph.D. in education. He loved the students. He knew every single kid.

“It was punishment to be sent to the principal’s office,” Mr. Applbaum said, setting a scene which just about everyone who knew Rabbi Applbaum also would sketch. “The kids really loved him. They’d talk to him.

“He was not at all an animal lover. We never had animals growing up. Never. But he had an enormous fish tank put in his office. When I first saw it, I was like, ‘This is … a … fish tank… Why is it here?’ But later I realized that it was for the kids. They’d talk about the fish, and it would defuse the tension.

“It was so incongruous. Fish! But it wasn’t about the fish, and it wasn’t about him. It was another way of connecting with kids in a human way.

“He believed that kids were pure, and that instinctively they would do the right thing if they were given the right path, the right guidance, and the right teaching style. Now that I have my own kids, and I’ve seen a lot of different education styles, I see that it really was a very innocent pure love that he had for the students.

“He really lived and breathed those students.”

Rella Feldman of Teaneck was Moriah’s president from 1996 to 2000. She has five children, who each graduated from Moriah, and now she is the grandmother of 14; eight of them live in Israel, but the other six are at Moriah.

“My children range in age from 43 to 28, and all have nothing but extremely fond memories of their time at Moriah, and they all have friends from those days,” she said. “Part of the job of an elementary school is to create positive feelings, to form the groundwork and foundation for all education, especially Jewishly. We want to give the kids a positive, warm, and fuzzy feeling. My kids have that.

In this, as in so many other ways, Rabbi Applbaum was key to that process. “He had wanted to be an architect, but his parents convinced him that it would not be a good job for an Orthodox Jew, because of Shabbes,” she said. It would be too hard for him to keep those 25 hours sacred because he’d be pressured to work. “So he went to rabbinical school.” But he was a natural architect nonetheless, and his instinct for the practical proved as useful to Moriah as his instinct for emotional connection and educational innovation.

Ms. Feldman, like many longtime Moriah parents and grandparents, has watched the school grow.

The school’s neighborhood is very imposing.

The houses, set way back from the road, surrounded by stately old trees, are huge, gorgeous, classic, well-maintained, and old. It is a neighborhood of taste, money, proportion, and gravitas.

It’s not necessarily the neighborhood that’s likely to welcome a school – children are noisy, and their buses rumble and hoot and take up lots of space. But improbably enough, there Moriah sits, a school of about 1,000 children, behind an old house that once was home to Alfred and Ethel Frisch, who were among the school’s founders.

The school started with five acres; as it expanded another five were added, behind another house. That’s to comply with the rules that say that a school is fine, as long as it is not visible from the street. That’s why the two houses remain – they are the school’s frontage on the street.

The school itself unfurls from the center where it began, with halls leading out in all directions. New wings offer new opportunities. Rooms that once would have been painted a dull cream or tan or an insipid bile green now are in bright, vivid colors. Tables and chairs come with wheels so the room can be reconfigured easily, and some tables in the back are high, with high chairs, to allow students changes of angle and position. Light floods in from all over.

Students regroup in various ways, aided by the cutting-edge technology and a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation, the Kohelet Foundation, and the Affordable Jewish Education Project, which help them afford all the wonderful new stuff.

So what makes Moriah special? Evan Sohn, the president, answers the question. “We have an incredibly educational program, with incredible support services, special services, and enrichment programs.

“We have an incredible parent body. We have 390 families, and well over 250 parents volunteered for something last year. And that’s despite the fact that a significant percent of our community are families with two working parents.

“We now have an afterschool program called Moriah Plus, an afterschool program organized and run by parents. My fourth-grader is taking fencing at Moriah Plus. It’s amazing!”

Another important Moriah initiative is its “sensitivity to tuition affordability,” Mr. Sohn said. “We are the only school in North Jersey now that actually has a tuition affordability program.”

Tuition is based on “your income and real estate taxes and the number of kids you have in Moriah or a Jewish high school.

“We are the only ones to have this amazing program. Imagine the sensitivity that its funders – who are also Englewood community leaders – and the board had in improving and pushing this plan. They realize that sending a bill to someone who can’t afford or can’t quite afford it, or making them go through a financial aid process,” is disheartening at best, and can actively propel families out of the system, leaving them angry, humiliated, and without access to the education they wish to give their children.

“What we do is based on third-party verification and tax rolls,” Mr. Sohn continued. “It’s not parents who are looking at your tax return. It’s seen by a non-parent. And it is a simple formula. Here is your tax return, here is your real estate tax bill – and here is your tuition bill.

“What an amazing thing.”

So Moriah, it seems, is an amalgam of things. Just as Rabbi Applbaum managed to combine the skills that come from directing a camp, running a school, and running a construction site, the school combines generations of Jewish connections, up-to-date technology, timeless texts, and a 50-year-old love of a very specific Jewish community to create a seamless Jewish education.

We look forward with curiosity and anticipation to the next 50 years.

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