Bat Torah’s principal ponders the school she loves

Bat Torah’s principal ponders the school she loves

Q: Can you tell us something about the history of Bat Torah ?

A: Bat Torah was established about 35 years ago, as a girls’ yeshiva high school named Torah Academy of Rockland, by the elementary school ASHAR (then known as the Hebrew Institute of Rockland, or HIROC for short) in Monsey, under the leadership of Rabbi Nachum Muschel. Until then, the only girls’ high school in the area was the Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley, and most graduates of HIROC traveled to Central (Yeshiva University High School for Girls) in Manhattan for high school. However, the board of HIROC soon tired of the effort and expense of running a high school and decided to give it up.

At that time, members of the parent body turned to Rabbi Berel Wein, who had recently established a new synagogue (Bais Torah) and a yeshiva high school for boys (Shaarei Torah), and asked him to undertake the leadership of the girls’ school. He agreed, renamed it Bas Torah, and hired a principal to run the school. Within a few years, however, the school was once again about to close, this time over the issue of “dress codes”. As unlikely as this may seem, the differences of opinion over some seemingly minor points were so severe that they almost brought the school down. As Rabbi Wein told me in his dry sense of humor, “we almost had to call in the police to break up the fights at the last board meeting.”Ironically,as the first female member of the Frisch Judaic Studies faculty, I happened to be teaching a TaNaCh class with many girls from Monsey who had transferred as a result of that new policy. At that auspicious time about 30 years ago, Rabbi Wein decided to give the high school one last chance, this time hiring a woman to head the school, and I became the principal.

The incoming 9th grade that greeted me in my first year had five girls, and people who knew the oftentimes-complicated religious politics in Monsey at that time told me that there was no way that the school could survive. Perhaps because I was new to Monsey, and because I had four daughters in grade school who would soon need a good high school, I felt it was worth the effort. With the help of Hashem, a dedicated faculty and some very helpful members of the community, the student body grew to well over one hundred students, and within a few years we had to expand, adding a beautiful two story wing and more than doubling the size of our building.

After about twenty years of growth, however, the tide began to turn and our board began to sense that there was not a long future in Monsey for Bat Torah (although the school I took over was named Bas Torah, the Board and I decided to rename it Bat Torah to reflect the fact that many of our courses were taught in Ivrit). The key factor was the demographic change in Monsey. The once-thriving modern Orthodox community in Monsey, which centered around Community Synagogue (headed by Rabbi Moshe Tendler) and Bais Torah was no longer in a growth mode. On top of that, there was a real proliferation of high schools in the area, including no less than four Bais Yaakov high schools serving the Monsey community. By this time, over half of our student body was coming from Bergen County, so it seemed logical that we should relocate to that area.

I won’t bore you with the details of the many years of searching for a location in Bergen County. As it turned out, I think that our move to the former Frisch building was a very good thing for the community at large. It provided the Frisch school with an alternative to selling a very valuable property in a terrible market, and it kept the yeshiva building in Jewish hands. However, being the new school, the “outsider”, and especially the small school, made it very hard to attract the necessary number of students. Until a few weeks ago, I still felt that it would turn around and, in fact, we had almost twenty terrific 9th graders registered for the upcoming school year. But we were very concerned because our overall numbers were still very small. When a few of the students decided recently not to return for the upcoming school year (in two of the cases because of aliya, which is of course a move that we applaud), it tipped the balance, making it seem overly optimistic, perhaps even irresponsible, to make the commitment to another school year.

Q: From your vantage point with several decades of experience in yeshiva high school education, can you tell us how yeshiva high school education has changed over the past thirty years?

A: I think that the quantity and quality of the young people entering the field of chinuch has been on a steady rise. Years ago, I would always worry about finding the right person to fill an opening. Over the past few years, when a position in our school opened up I had no difficulty finding a talented young teacher to fill the spot, and I was fortunate to be able to engage some of the bright, enthusiastic and caring young people at the start of their teaching careers who became star teachers in our environment. The mix of new teachers with our core of outstanding veteran teachers produced a faculty with whom I felt privileged to be associated.

While the main areas of study have not changed dramatically, we and all the yeshiva high schools in Bergen County now place a great deal of emphasis on “AP” courses (i.e. college-level courses under the auspices of the College Board). At the same time, there is an increased amount of time spent on cocurricular or extracurricular activities, including trips, shabbatonim, shiriya, color war, etc.

Some of these activities have an undeniable place within a school. At Bat Torah, we had a wonderful shabbaton each year, where students and faculty bonded in a more relaxed setting. Last year, I organized a week-long trip to Israel for the entire school. But we always tried to keep the focus on education. So we favored museum trips over paintball, and a typical trip to Manhattan would combine a morning at an open rehearsal of the NY philharmonic at Lincoln Center or a visit to an art museum, along with lunch and a “fun” activity, like visiting the design studio of one of our alumnae. And the trip to Israel, which was incredibly exciting and fun, served as a living classroom to promote Ahavat Eretz Yisral-love of Israel, by teaching the history and the current events of Israel.

In general, extra-curricular activities have to be what the name implies ““ they are the “extra” (or bonus) activities that are in addition to the primary focus of a school. They cannot be allowed to become the primary focus of what a school provides to its students and what the students are looking for in a school. A good school has to be first and foremost about education.

When I began my career at Bat Torah, I was just back from a sabbatical year in Israel and very excited about transmitting the magnificent Chumash lessons that I had studied with Nehama Lebowitz at the Hebrew University. For many years, I taught the honors-level Chumash courses at Bat Torah and I can recall how the girls would compare notes on how many hours they had studied for the upcoming exam…typically ten hours or more. And that was a source of pride among the students, not a complaint!

Obviously every class is unique and back then there were certainly students who were focused on things other than how many hours they studied for their Chumash exam, just as today there are still many students who push themselves to excel academically. But at the big-picture level, I see a growing trend for schools to provide so much in the way of extracurricular and social activities that we are to some degree getting away from our primary mandate, which is to teach our students how to learn and to love learning. In any case, this is a complex issue and should probably be dealt with in a separate discussion or forum.

Q: Are there special moments that stand out in your memory and things which make you proud?

A: There are so many that I’m not sure where to begin. So let me begin at the “end” of the high school experience. Every graduation was always a “high”, standing in front of a class of sophisticated young women and recalling how they had entered four years earlier as young girls. Knowing that they had all gained acceptance to the finest seminaries and colleges made me proud. Participating in students’ weddings is also equally exciting; each one is unique in some special way.

There are hundreds of individual “nachat” moments. For years, we had an ongoing relationship with the Torah education department of the Jewish Agency in Israel, and each year educators from Israel would visit the school to share ideas, meet our students, and invariably tell us how impressed they were with our program. Once, after asking our girls some questions about the history of modern Israel, the head of the group turned to the others and said in Hebrew, “I wish girls in Tel-Aviv knew this much about our history”. Similarly, whenever we had guest speakers, I always had the pleasure of hearing from them how they found our students to be mature, intelligent and respectful.

I look back with pride at the years when we had more students reaching Merit Finalist status than even large yeshiva high schools, when we were the first girls’ high school to incorporate the prestigious Bechina Yerushalmit (Jerusalem Exam) into our curriculum, and more recently the very first high school to participate in the E2K Program sponsored by the Gruss Foundation, to address the learning needs of gifted students. I am also proud that all of our students were required to take a rigorous program including French or Spanish, three years of science and four of mathematics.

There were special days every year. One such day occurred every time Mr. Stephen Flatow addressed our students. Learning about Alisa made our students keenly aware of the maddeningly difficult problems facing the Jewish people. Hearing Stephen Flatow talk about the tragedy taught them how to respond to terror and how to become involved and knowledgeable advocates for Israel.

The week-long shabbaton in Israel this past year consisted of seven consecutive special days. If I had to pick one moment to highlight, it would be the feeling I had sitting alongside several faculty members and our students in Independence Hall in Tel-Aviv. We had just arrived that morning so all the girls were sleep-deprived but that didn’t detract from the experience of sitting in the very place where the State of Israel was officially declared and listening to a recording of the original declaration followed by the singing of Hatikvah.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

Of course I wish things recently had played out differently. I was very enthusiastic about relocating to the Teaneck Jewish Center. I think the facility was perfect for our school in many ways, and it was a real pleasure working with the leadership of the TJC. So I would have preferred that I and our faculty were getting ready for another school year. Several new teachers and student activity staff were bringing new and exciting ideas which the girls would have loved, the location was much better for high school girls and the well maintained building itself, with the beautiful gym, auditorium and swimming pool would have been wonderful.

But that obviously is not what was meant to be at this time. So instead I look back at the school’s 30+ year history, and I have a great deal of pride in knowing that our school produced so many wonderful alumnae, many of whom are leaders in their community, accomplished professionals, noted educators, and of course raising wonderful Jewish families both here (many of them in Teaneck and Bergenfield) and in Israel. I am also proud of the fact Bat Torah was sensitive to the challenges faced by parents even before the term “tuition crisis” became a household word, and was able to provide a first-rate education at a reasonable cost by working hard to use parents’ hard earned tuition money efficiently.

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