The school year started a little newer last week at the Moriah Academy in Englewood.
Renovations over the summer refurbished and repurposed rooms for Sephardic services, audiovisual recording, and lower school classes for science and technology.
This is part of the ongoing capital campaign marking the school’s 50th anniversary. The school was founded in 1965, and it moved into its present campus not long after.
“Every year we’ve picked a number of capital projects,” Rabbi Daniel Alter said. Rabbi Alter heads the school. “Last year we redid our library. Giving our teachers the appropriate environment is part of a larger pursuit of excellence in every facet of school life.”
Sharon Sherman is excited about the renovated space now dedicated to STEM, the acronyms educators use to refer to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Ms. Sherman taught fifth grade at the school for 10 years. But last year she started teaching STEM to all its lower school students, particularly third- through fifth-graders, who meet with her for a 40-minute period every day.
Her lessons include computer programming, 3D printing, and building projects that demonstrate engineering principles.
Moriah’s new STEM space is made of two classrooms, reflecting different aspects of the field. One is oriented toward coding and typing, with chairs and tables and a smartboard. The other room is more open, and it is carpeted. “Kids can sit down on the floor,” Ms. Sherman said. “It gives them a more comfortable feeling. They can sit, plan, work, and think.”
She said that STEM has aspects of play. “It tends to be a lot more relaxed, a lot more creative. That’s what the space is giving our kids,” she said.
The room is decorated with motivational words and sayings promoting exploration and creativity. “It will get the kids’ juices going,” Ms. Sherman said. And that’s what she likes most about teaching STEM.
“It’s fantastic watching the eagerness and excitement,” she added.
It’s likely that Moriah’s new audiovisual studio will be greeted excitedly by the students who use it. For a long time, the school has had an audio studio. That’s where its music director, Rabbi Michael Nadata, taught students how to record music. Over the summer, the room was upgraded with updated audio and video equipment. The walls were painted a shade of green suitable for the video knock-out effects.
“We’re living in a world where there are so many media to communicate ideas and messages,” Rabbi Alter said. “The more we can give our students skills to do that in multiple ways the better. There are lots of opportunities for our students to show their content knowledge in creative ways using video.”
Rabbi Alter even is considering starting a video blog of his own.
Not all the summer renovations involved high technology. The new Sephardi prayer space features bookcases filled with hardcopy volumes.
It reflects the school’s decision a couple of years ago to pay attention to the growing number of Sephardic families moving to Englewood — and their desire to promote pride in the culture, which often has been erased by Ashkenormative Jewish institutions.
“The Sephardic heritage is so rich,” Rabbi Alter said. “How do we create pride in that? We want to celebrate the great diversity that exists within the Jewish people and within our school.”
Rabbi Mordy Kuessous, who leads Sephardic services at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, leads the Sephardic minyan at Moriah, where he also teaches Talmud and Tanach.
Ashkenazic students are welcome at the Sephardic service. For the visitors, “It’s a bit of a shock the first time,” Rabbi Alter said. The liturgy is a little different, and Sephadim say the priestly blessing — which kohanim recite only on festivals in Ashkenazic services — every morning.
“The first time it can be a little bit disorienting,” Rabbi Alter said. “But once our students attend, they get used to it very quickly.”
The Sephardic influence is making itself shown in all parts of the school. “In our Jewish law curriculum, we need to make sure it’s robust enough to talk about what Ashkenazic Jews do and what Sephardic Jews do,” Rabbi Alter said. “In early childhood, when we teach kids about a sefer Torah, we also show them a Sephardic sefer Torah.” (Sephardic Torah scrolls are kept in hard cases that stand up; the scroll, which is not removed from it, holds the Torah vertically as it is read.)
And at the pre-Shabbat celebrations every Friday, instead of having one child recite the kiddush, Moriah now has two children do it. One uses the Ashkenazic version and the other one uses the Sephardic. “Both have become normative in our community,” Rabbi Alter said. “Both are recognized by everybody.”