Successful institutions seem like they’ve always been there, since the beginning of time.
It’s somehow wrenching to think of a school that seems so firmly a part of the landscape as once having been brand-new, a tiny creation, made of hope and connection and door-to-door student solicitation, put together in a small space above a deli.
But the Yavneh Academy in Paramus hasn’t always been there. It’s 75 years old, and is celebrating its origins this year.
It wasn’t created in a vacuum, of course — nothing is. The school’s history is part of the history of the modern Orthodox Jewish community in northern New Jersey, as it grew from its immigrant roots in the region’s small, separate working-class cities to merge into the large, complicated, vibrant world it is today.
Yavneh is a prominent, brightly colored strand in that tapestry.
But Yavneh also is a school made of smaller, more intimate, personal moments.
Pamela Scheininger of Teaneck has seen some of them. Today, she is the president of the school’s board of directors and the mother of one Yavneh graduate and three Yavneh students — a 10th, eighth, and first grader. But 12 years ago, she was just the mother of a prospective student.
She was school shopping then, Ms. Scheininger remembers, so she made an appointment to talk to Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, who is now the school’s head.
“When I went to meet with him, he wasn’t there,” she said. “He wasn’t in his office, and they told me to look for him in the lunchroom. So I went to the lunchroom, and he was standing there, and he said ‘Give me a minute, please. I like to spend some time in here every day, to see who is talking to who, who is sitting with who, how they are interacting with each other, to see who is smiling and who is not.’”
And she watched him watch the kids, seeing them as whole children, hoping to educate them as people and as Jews as well as students.
It is that level of personal concern that makes the school what it is, Ms. Scheininger said. It is teachers and administrators and even the head of school understanding that educating isn’t only about teaching subject matter — although certainly it is also and very much about that — but also about seeing each child as an individual, and teaching each individual child.
Yavneh began in 1942, during World War II, with six children, its assistant principal, Rabbi Aaron Ross, who has spent a great deal of time researching its history, said. Paterson, the Silk City, was home to European textile workers, many of them Jews; in fact, one of its mayors, Nathan Barnert, also was an active philanthropist both inside and outside the Jewish community, giving his name (as well as large sums of money) to both Barnert Hospital and Barnert Temple. But unlike Jersey City, in Hudson County, which had a day school, and certainly unlike New York City, which had many, Paterson had only Talmud Torahs, where children would go after school. Basically, the Talmud Torah was the precursor of today’s Hebrew schools. These Jewish leaders thought it was not enough.
“So to ensure the future of the Jewish community, a group of 18 people — not couples, 18 individual people — who really thought that something more was needed, put tremendous effort in putting together a school. They’d go door to door, canvassing the community, looking for kids.” The school opened with six students.
Rabbi Ross tells the story of a woman who reported that in October of that first year, a month after school started, that “the principal came knocking on her door, asking if she had or knew of a Jewish child who would be eligible.” She did — her own child — and she was so impressed with the outreach that she moved her daughter to Yavneh.
It was of course hard for people in Paterson to afford day school. It was on the whole not a wealthy town, and public school is free. “But no one should be turned away for finances; they weren’t then and they still aren’t now,” Rabbi Knapp said. “Admission was and remains need-blind.”
Like many new schools, Yavneh started with just a kindergarten, and then added grades until it reached the eighth, when it stopped; along the way it also added preschool classes.
Jerry Rubinowitz, who now lives in Little Falls but then was in Paterson, was in one of those first classes; he began kindergarten at Yavneh in 1943. His grandfather, Ruben Rubinowitz, owned Carroll Bakery, a well-known place to go for kosher bread, rolls, and cake. “When people who were organizing the Yavneh Academy were getting ready to open it, they said that it would be very good if we could tell other parents that Ruben Rubinowitz’s grandson was one of their students,” he said.
He started school when he was 3 1/2; “I always say that I am the smartest dumb kid, because I flunked kindergarten,” he said. “They kept me there for a year and a half.” It wasn’t that he was dumb, needless to say, but that he was young; “I was the youngest kid in the school,” he added.
Mr. Rubinowitz’s memories are the memories of a very young child; in 1947, his family moved to Florida, “and I was in the second graduating class of the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami,” he said. But he does have memories. “I remember my teacher, Miss Sakis,” he said. “I remember that we had nap time, and I remember that everyone brought their lunch in a lunch pail. I remember that Mr. Silverberg used to pick us up in his brown wooden-sided station wagon.
“He wasn’t a teacher or a parent. I don’t know who he was. I just know that he was Mr. Silverberg, and that he drove us to school.
“I remember one of the Hebrew teachers, Mr. Raichel, and that the rosh yeshiva was Rabbi Harry Bornstein, who was also the rabbi of the Hebrew Free School,” Mr. Rubinowitz continued. “And he always smoked a cigar. It was always in his mouth.” He does not remember whether or not the cigar was lit during classes, or just stayed cold in Rabbi Bornstein’s mouth, but “the teachers always smoked in high school,” he said. “They didn’t smoke in class, but even in high school, they all always smoked.”
When Mr. Rubinowitz lived in Florida, he came back to New Jersey for Yavneh’s first graduation, in 1952. It was the class that would have been his. As an adult, he moved back to New Jersey in 1965; he lived in Wayne for two years, and then in Elmwood Park for 40. He thought Yavneh’s education was so good that he sent his own children there.
“It was very intense,” he said. “They made sure that you got as much of a secular education as a religious one. And in the Hebrew division, they didn’t teach strictly from the religious standpoint. And although this was pre-state of Israel, we still were taught Hebrew as a modern language. We studied grammar and spelling. And we also studied history and prophets, and all the additional part of a Jewish education as opposed to what they do even today in a yeshiva, poring over the books.
“In Yavneh, we strictly spoke Hebrew in the Hebrew section, so we spoke English half a day, Hebrew half a day. I went to school 60, 65 years ago, and I have been to Israel twice and I was able to conduct a conversation there in Hebrew, from what I remembered.
“The education at Yavneh was phenomenal,” Mr. Rubinowitz concluded.
Rabbi Eugene Kwalwasser worked at Yavneh from 1977 until 2008; during most of that time he was the head of school, although he did not begin at that level and he ended his career there as a consultant. After he retired, he and his wife, Edna, made aliyah, but from Israel he remembers Yavneh with great love (and he is coming back for the school’s gala dinner).
“I loved going to school every morning,” he said. “It was a pleasure jumping out of bed and getting ready to go to Yavneh. I look back at my professional life there with only the fondest of memories. I don’t think there are many people in the position I was in, as head of school, who feel as I do. Many of them couldn’t wait for the day they retired. It was enough. But for me, it was wonderful. They were wonderful years.
It was under Rabbi Kwalwasser’s leadership that the school both expanded and moved; in 1981, after having been in a three buildings in Paterson, Yavneh followed most of its students to Bergen County.
Rabbi Kwalwasser grew up in Chicago, as some of his vowels still make clear. “I left for Yeshiva University when I was 17, and I never looked back,” he said. He had grown up in Hollywood Park, a neighborhood that once had been Jewish but had become increasingly less so during his childhood and adolescence.
During his undergraduate career and then as he studied for smicha, Rabbi Kwalwasser wasn’t sure about the direction he wanted to take. Did he want pulpit work? Youth work? Full-on education work? He and Edna moved to the Taylor Road Synagogue in Cleveland in 1969, where “I created and built up NCSY” — the National Council of Synagogue Youth — “which in those days was just in its infancy,” he said. “We were there for three years, and then it was time to move on. That was not the end of where we wanted to be.”
He realized that he wanted education; a short series of jobs led him from California to Long Island and then to an interview in Paterson. Although he, his wife, and their growing family were living in Far Rockaway, on Long Island’s south shore, and Paterson was basically the back of beyond from there, Rabbi Kwalwasser was tempted into going to Yavneh for an interview. And that was it. He fell in love with the school — and the feeling was mutual.
For the first six years, Rabbi Kwalwasser lived in Far Rockaway. “Edna and I made a critical decision,” he said. “We didn’t know how it would work out, and our kids were settled there. I didn’t want to hopscotch all over the map, so I said that I would commute, and if need be I will find a place to stay overnight if there are meetings.” In 1983, his children at easily movable points in their education, his wife working in Manhattan, and his love for Yavneh in full bloom, the family moved to Fair Lawn. The Kwalwassers now live in Beit Shemesh, “not the neighborhood in the news, but in a wonderful Anglo Jewish community,” he said. “We have fantastic friends. Everyone supports everyone. It has been wonderful.”
Rabbi Kwalwasser looks back at his earliest years at Yavneh, when the school was in Paterson, and draws some comparisons with his adolescence in Chicago. “The Jewish community in Paterson was dwindling quickly,” he said. “People were just leaving. By the time we moved the school, in 1981, I would park my car inside the gates of the school. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sure that it would still be there, if I would leave on a winter’s night, when it was dark outside.”
It wasn’t a frightening environment, he said, just a poor one, but the dangers were real. “You never stayed alone in the building,” he said. “If you stayed for a meeting, the last ones out would be me, the president, and the chair of the board. We put the chains on and locked the gates. You never went out alone.”
But that was a dangerous time in many cities. “Paterson wasn’t the only place where we would have been afraid of being mugged,” he said. “And we were already looking to move. We knew we had to get out of there.”
Another impetus for moving was the need to attract families. “The recruitment was getting tough when we were in Paterson,” Rabbi Kwalwasser said. “There were Jewish families then living in Teaneck, in Fair Lawn, in places like Wyckoff and Wayne and Franklin Lakes, and they wanted some form of Jewish education for their children. And Yavneh was there to provide it. We even recruited in places like West Orange and Passaic and Clifton. And the moment we announced that we were actively looking to move, we became more desirable. It was very important for people to know that we were leaving that geographic area.”
Yavneh was about much more than geography, however. “My vision and mission was to put together a faculty that shared my approach to Jewish education,” Rabbi Kwalwasser said. “That approach was an education that would be dynamic, conceptual as well as textural, filled with warmth and love and understanding. It would know that Judaic studies and general studies need to be integrated, and it would know and teach the importance of the state of Israel. It would be an outstanding academic institution, with tremendous concern for the individual child.
“That was my mission and my mantra throughout all my 31 years. It took on different forms as time went on, but it was very important to me that I never lost the mission and vision that I set out to achieve.”
He is enormously proud of the school’s reputation. “We were seen as the school where graduates would have the textural skills, the thinking skills, the conceptual skills, so that high schools really vied for them. I believe that is still the case.
“I see sometimes when graduates come to Israel and I see for myself, and I say to myself that I feel very personally fulfilled because of what we achieved at the Yavneh Academy.”
When you talk to Rabbi Kwalwasser, you often hear the words warmth and love. “Those are very important to me,” he said. “And it is terribly important for children to be seen as individuals.
“In the same way, my wife and I have three children. They come from the same genetic pool. But they are very different from each other. Each child must be seen as an individual.
“One thing that always made me shudder would be when I would hear someone say something like ‘I know your brother’ or ‘I know your sister’ or ‘You are like him’ or ‘You are not like her’ or ‘You are better at’ or ‘You are not as good at.’ That is unacceptable to me.
“Each child has to be seen as that child and only that child. Jake was Jake and Donna was Donna and Elie wasn’t Jake and Jake wasn’t Donna.”
Another subject about which Rabbi Kwalwasser is passionate is the school’s co-educational structure; all its classes are open equally to boys and girls. “That’s a part of my belief system,” he said. “There are not many schools in the modern Orthodox educational movement that are. I am a very big believer in God having created male and female, and there is no reason to separate them in the educational system, because they will learn to understand each other, to respect each other, and to appreciate each other.
“If you do separate them, you see the results when you walk the streets in Israel. In the ultra-Orthodox world, they do not know how to relate to each other. They create a wall between the genders. I do not want to do that.
“That was one of the biggest battles I had to fight, because in the traditional Jewish world, girls never learned Talmud. I will tell you that I had some female students who would be able to put male students into their back pockets, without even trying. That is how bright they are.
“There was no way that Dean Kwal-wasser would deny those girls a Talmud education,” he said.
Pamela Scheininger, the school board president, also is struck by the way that each child is treated as an individual, a separate person, his or her own person. “The most spectacular thing about Yavneh is that they are truly committed to finding a way in which individual children will succeed, in the context of their family, their specific upbringing, and their specific personality,” she said. “Yavneh tries to identify not only how each child will learn, but also how each one will succeed emotionally, intellectually, and in terms of ensuring their physical health, so each of the children will be at their very best.
“They do it by committing resources in a very smart way,” she continued. “That’s by hiring the best teachers, with the best training, so they can respond to each child.” Technology is used carefully, as a means rather than an end; “we use money in a smart way, to make sure that every penny is spent to further our larger goals,” she said. “And the goals are the emotional, social, religious, academic, and physical development of each child.”
Since 2013, the Yavneh Academy has been accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.
The school has continued to grow since it moved to Paramus; it’s added wings to the excessed public school building at its core. It now teaches about 750 children. “It’s larger than it ever has been,” Rabbi Knapp said. “We are at capacity.” Most of the students come from Teaneck, Bergenfield, New Milford, Fair Lawn, Paramus, Tenafly, and Englewood. “Admission is inclusive,” he continued. “The goal is to stretch ourselves and to accommodate as many types of learners as possible. We’re also needs blind, and we take everyone we can, as long as we can meet that child’s needs.
“We constantly reevaluate what we are doing, to make sure we are using best practices, and staying on top of theory as it changes,” Rabbi Knapp said. “Every school navigates the fine line between holding on to what’s working and investigating what’s new. And we too have changed. We have incorporated many cutting-edge programs in the areas of social and emotional growth, character development, and sensitivity to diversity.
“As the population has shifted to reflect the broader Bergen County Jewish population, at this stage the majority of our families would identify as being observant,” he said; Rabbi Kwalwasser had said that in the early years, that was not necessarily the case. “When we moved, Teaneck had two shuls. Now it has 22.”
Another value dear to the school is its American-ness. “We want to deepen our children’s commitment to Judaism,” Rabbi Knapp said. “That is our primary goal. At the same time, our unique engagement with the broader community is important as well. We continue to emphasize to the children what it means to be a citizen of this country. There is a tendency to be insular,” but the school does not give into it, valuing pride and knowledge over knee-jerk tribalism.
Barbara Frohlich of Teaneck loves Yavneh. She sits on its board, she has sent her children there, and she has watched it change and grow.
“I have been active in the forefront of Yavneh for just about 40 years,” she said. When her oldest daughter began at the school, when she was 3 1/2, Ms. Frohlich, who was 24, quickly became involved. That was due mainly to Irving Gelman, a man whose name is mentioned, with reverence, by many people who talk about Yavneh.
He was one of those men who formed the institutions that now are so natural a part of our surroundings that it is hard to imagine that they have not existed since creation.
“There was a group of men in their 60s, who created so many institutions, including the JCC, and including Yavneh,” she said. “And then there was a big gap. Irving — who was a legend, and an inspiration — saw that gap and realized it had to be filled, if we were to have any kind of future. So he took people like me, in our 20s — I became a vice president right away, at 24.”
It was Mr. Gelman who taught her to fund-raise, she said. “When we decided we were going to buy the building, we raised all the money,” she said. “We’d go out to two or three families a night, and ask them for money personally.”
The school was different then, she said. It was less professionalized. “Lay leaders really had to do everything. When we moved, we lay leaders physically moved things. We’d literally put things on the truck. There was food in the freezer, and we knew that it would be a while before there would be a freezer in the new school, so we put the food in our own freezer.
“People say I bleed Yavneh, I am so committed to the school,” Ms. Frohlich continued. “I truly feel that we have an obligation to give back — and what better or more appropriate place to give our energy than the institution that is providing our children with the foundation they need for the future?”
When it comes to giving back, she continued, no matter what school your child goes to, “that child’s schools should be your first and top priority. I have four children — Gayle, Elana, Michael, and Daniel — and they are each in different places, educationally and religiously, but the education they received at Yavneh was second to none.
“It gave them the foundation to accomplish anything they wanted. I am a very proud former parent of Yavneh, and I would choose Yavneh again if I were at that crossroad.”