Lifting up the kids

Lifting up the kids

Lubavitch on the Palisades’ elementary school in Tenafly grows quickly and joyfully

Rabbi Mordechai Shain, right, and Joshua Lapsker of Tenafly are surrounded by students at Lubavitch on the Palisades elementary school.
Rabbi Mordechai Shain, right, and Joshua Lapsker of Tenafly are surrounded by students at Lubavitch on the Palisades elementary school.

It took only 36 hours to raise the first million dollars toward a $4 million, 18,000-square-foot expansion of the rapidly growing preschool and grade school of Lubavitch on the Palisades/Beth Aharon Forem Chabad House in Tenafly.

The borough recently approved plans to add a floor to the building at Harold Street and Piermont Road, which will include eight classrooms, a 7,500-square-foot gym, and a science lab.

Seven years ago, when a group of parents asked Lubavitch on the Palisades’s executive director, Rabbi Mordechai Shain, about adding a kindergarten level to the center’s well-established nursery school, Bergen County already had five Orthodox and two Conservative elementary day schools. He wasn’t sure there was a need for another.

“We hesitated because there are so many great day schools in Bergen County,” Rabbi Shain said. “But we saw that the parents in this community prefer public schools or us. Tenafly, Cresskill, and Alpine have good public schools and these families pay taxes that support the schools, so they feel they should benefit from them.

“But they liked our style in preschool, and they told us that if we offered more grades they were willing to try it. We realized that getting the kids to continue in a Jewish school depended on our starting a school. And after we started a kindergarten, the parents liked it so much they wanted us to add first grade.”

The Lubavitch on the Palisades School now has 330 children from preschool to sixth grade; a seventh grade will start in September. In addition to the main feeder communities of Tenafly, Cresskill, and Alpine, students come from other Bergen communities, including Englewood and Bergenfield, and even from Rockland County. At least half of the children have Israeli parents.

“We saw that it’s not just a need for the kids in our community; many children need this kind of environment,” Rabbi Shain said. “Our academics have to be as good or better than public school, but the most important thing is the warmth and menschlichkeit. In order for a flower to grow it has to have a good environment and nurturing. So we nurture the soul and the body.”

The grade school’s steady growth is evident in the class sizes: There are 10 sixth-graders, 18 fifth-graders, 23 fourth-graders, 25 third-graders, 28 second-graders, and 30 first-graders.

Jennifer Davis, the associate principal for general studies, estimates that about 70 percent of the students otherwise would have gone to public school. In other words, LPS isn’t really competing with the now eight Jewish day schools in the county. It fills a unique niche.

“We moved to Tenafly because we wanted to send our kids to the public schools,” said Shavit Eini, a mother who is a strong advocate of the school.

She and her husband, Shlomi, were born in Israel. He was raised in an Orthodox home, she in a Conservative home. Their four children went to the preschool at LPS, and the oldest went on to public school because there was no kindergarten at LPS at the time. The three youngest children remained in the Jewish school despite the Einis’ original intentions.

“I observed first grade and within 10 minutes I was hooked,” she said. “The love of learning and of Torah and the amount of positive energy in the classroom was something that I never saw in my daughter’s public-school classroom.

“If my children are going to spend eight hours away from me, I wanted them to be in a warm place with a love of learning and Yiddishkeit without it being forced. There’s never been one day my children ever said ‘I don’t want to go to school,’ and our oldest is going into sixth grade. If they’re happy and loved, learning and growing, and having amazing experiences close to home, why would I move them?”

Though the majority of the school’s families are not religiously observant, the school takes the all-embracing approach of Chabad Lubavitch chasidism, in its worldwide Jewish outreach network of 3,300 institutions. It is not, Rabbi Shain emphasized, a Lubavitch cheder, but rather a Jewish day school infused with Lubavitch values.

“This is for Jewish children to have a fun Jewish experience and a top education,” he said. “The Judaic studies teachers in the elementary school are Lubavitch, but they’re not teaching the Tanya” — the basic handbook of Chabad philosophy — “or telling anyone to wear a sheitel” — a wig.

“We just give the children a good feeling for who they are and make them well-versed in Jewish texts but with a Lubavitch soul.”

“Nobody feels judged or threatened,” Ms. Davis added. “Everyone is taught to feel comfortable with his or her level of Judaism.”

Ms. Davis, who is not Lubavitch, is now finishing her third year at LPS; before she got there, Ms. Davis taught at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. “When I decided to move back from Florida, I wanted to find a school that was genuinely warm, that was growing and that I could grow with, a spiritual place, a place for all children no matter their background,” she said. “And this fit the bill perfectly. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer environment.”

She observed that many young parents become acquainted with the school through the center’s synagogue.

“People spend time at the shul and they feel the positive energy. They love and trust Rabbi Shain, and they see that whatever he plans happens beyond all expectations.”

Indeed, Rabbi Shain commented that if anyone cannot afford the tuition (which starts at $6,985 for the half-day program for 18-month-olds and rises to $14,600 for sixth- and seventh-graders, with no building fund or dinner requirements), “We help out a lot, because for us the main thing is that they’re getting a Jewish education. The money is secondary.

“God will provide it somehow; He knows our bank account number.”

His confidence seems well founded. For example, in 2005 a congregant left his entire multimillion-dollar estate to Lubavitch on the Palisades, enabling a major expansion of the building.

The recent $1 million school fundraiser was kicked off by three groups of donors, each offering to give $250,000 if the final $250,000 could be raised within 36 hours. On May 25 and 26, 737 donors — including children with piggy banks — came forward with amounts large and small, and the campaign put $1,004,000 into the building fund.

The school is staffed with 15 full-time classroom teachers and two full-time resource teachers. A Hebrew-speaking teacher works with pre-K children three times a week and with grade-schoolers every day for 50 minutes. Bergen County Special Services sends personnel three days a week to work with eligible children.

“We’re a 21st century school,” Ms. Davis said. “We focus on communication, collaboration, and technology. We have smartboards and Chromebooks. It’s very student centered, yet traditional at the same time. Every student has an enrichment folder tailored to his or her strengths, weaknesses, and areas of interest. We have a fabulous art program, an amazing music program, and weekly electives. Our general studies and Judaic studies are really strong, and we are passionate about the arts.”

Orite Rubenstein, the director of the preschool and of Judaic studies in the elementary school for the last eight years, said teachers are encouraged to “find a way for each child and family to celebrate their Judaism” and to take a whole-child progressive educational approach to such subjects as literacy, expressive language, and writing.

Rabbi Shain said: “I have so many children who wouldn’t have gone to Jewish school if not for this school. As I told someone today, ‘Your child is a gem and deserves to get a gem education.’ The goal is to lift them up.”

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