Schechter Bergen turns 50!

Schechter Bergen turns 50!

Halachic egalitarian community school celebrates and looks to the future

Schechter Bergen is turning 50 this year.

The school — formally it’s the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, but who’s so formal now? — remains, as it always has been, the only egalitarian Jewish day school in the county.

The school, which was housed briefly in Teaneck and then in Englewood before moving to its permanent home in New Milford in 1989, has changed over the decades, but its focus, “embracing the vales of Torah, peoplehood, and Israel,” as well as its commitment to egalitarianism, has remained unaltered, its head of school, Steve Freedman, said.

“It was founded in 1974, incorporated in April, on the heels of the Yom Kippur War” of October 1973, Mr. Freedman continued. “Think about what the community was like back then.

Bergen Schechter’s students, above, and its staff, below, seen in a range of activities, beam for the cameras.
(All photos courtesy Bergen Schechter)

“I was a teenager. I remember the threat to Israel, and also the pride that Jews had in Israel and in its ability to defend itself, and how important Israel was to the continuity of the Jewish people.

“Now, 50 years later, Israel is in the midst of defending itself. Most Jews are encircling the country and our people” — metaphorically, that is — “and our right to live and thrive and be proud of who we are.

“That reflects the reason why the school was founded in the first place.”

Now, he said, Schechter Bergen is at a crossroads, as any institution that’s been around for half a century should be. He’s grateful to the founders, “the people who came before us and built the school with their hands, and with their sweat. They understood that the way to have a bright, thriving Jewish community, in the United States and in Israel, is to have well-educated Jews, committed to living a Jewish life, and leading when it’s necessary.

“We benefit from their work, and to show our appreciation we’re honoring all past presidents. They’re symbolic of all the lay leaders, volunteers, and professionals who worked with them to build the school. We are standing on their shoulders.”

Now, Schechter Bergen, with its fealty to both halacha and egalitarianism, “is the school with the wide tent, the school that celebrates and embraces the diversity of the Jewish people,” Mr. Freedman said. “We recognize that people approach their Judaism in many different ways. Part of what we value here at Schechter is the ability to have open conversations and respect for the wide variety of ritual practices. We celebrate that diversity.

“We also know that it is important for children to have a deep and meaningful Jewish education. Day schools are best positioned to provide that education.” Also, he added, “we have experienced the consequences when people don’t invest in the education of our children.”

Given its strong educational background, Mr. Freedman said, Schechter Bergen’s leaders “want to make sure that it is financially strong and sustainable for decades to come. We want to recruit and retain the best teachers for our children. A school is only as good as its teachers, and given the market out there — there is a teacher shortage — we want to be sure that we have an environment that the best teachers want to be in.” The school has begun a professional growth program and other initiatives for teacher training and retention. “So while we celebrate the past, we are very much planning for the future.”

As for the present, “the story of this year was how we responded to the crisis of October 7,” Mr. Freedman said. “We ended up being one of the schools that brought in the most Israeli students. At the peak, we had more than 60; now, we still have 18 Israeli students who will finish the year with us.”

There are many Israeli Americans among Schechter Bergen’s families, Mr. Freedman said, and it was that network that brought the Israeli students to New Milford. “It started with relatives, and then those relatives have friends, and those friends have friends. The first round of phone calls were from people who we know, and then it took off. We got phone calls from Israelis who wanted to leave the country for a time.” They were looking for safety for their children.

“We didn’t think twice about it,” he said. It is true that expanding a school at short notice is not easy, “but our teachers were amazing. They rose to the occasion, and so did our parents, and so did our students. We made it work. We made those kids feel welcome and at home. Our students were amazing in the way they — the way we all — lived our values.”

Those values include community and family; they also include active learning. “We are not a drill and kill school,” Mr. Freedman said. “We don’t drown kids in worksheets. We’re a school that values children’s time and energy. We learn by doing. We learn by collaboration, dealing with real-life issues, and empowering students to identify and solve problems.”

Schechter Bergen’s youngest students are in its early childhood program. The program’s director, Gena Khelemsky, embodies two stories. One is about the Reggio Emilia approach to learning that she oversees, and the other is the family story that is so visible in Schechter.

Ms. Khelemsky is the daughter of the school’s librarian, Beryl Bresgi. She and her siblings all graduated from Schechter Bergen, and both her sister’s kids and her own two are students there now. This is not by accident or for convenience; it’s because “there was never a question that I would send my children to Schechter Bergen. Based on my experiences as a student, I knew that this is where I wanted my children to grow up.”

She uses the Reggio Emilia approach because “we believe firmly and deeply that children can determine their own learning,” she said. “That means that we use the children’s interests in order to cultivate and deepen their learning — and to become wonderful humans.”

The approach, as implemented in Schechter Bergen, has teachers “put out a lot of exciting and inviting and beautiful materials that are open-ended, and they watch how the children use those materials.” Because children each have their own inclinations and interests, and because every group of children develops its own personalities, that means that every class, every day, every lesson is different. The method demands a great deal from teachers, but it gives them great satisfaction.

“I have been formally trained in the method,” Ms. Khelemsky said. “I was a teacher in a school under a division director who had been trained in Italy, in Reggio Emilia, and then recently I went on a training there myself.”

There are subjects that the class investigates — say bear hibernation, or Jewish holidays — but they’re taught slightly differently.

Pre-K at Schechter Bergen: a student browses in the reading corner, and another one showcases his model of the Pesach story, part of a classroom-wide Pesach-themed museum. It’s the emergent curriculum in action.

“Jewish days schools can get tripped up because it’s hard to have an emergent curriculum” — that’s the term of art for the way early childhood programs allow children’s interests and aptitudes to shape their learning — “when we have so much content to teach.”

Ms. Khelemsky and her staff are on it. “Our teachers are constantly in professional development,” she said. “We teach all the chaggim. The children pray every morning. We do Shabbat every week. Our school has a lot of core characteristics based on our Jewish values. We incorporate all of that, but through the children’s lenses.”

By the time they finish kindergarten, Schechter Bergen students are ready for the next step, the kehilla model, which will take them through the rest of their time at school.

In that model, “first grade, for example, is not separated into three distinct, self-contained classes,” Mr. Freedman said. “Instead, three rooms have been opened up so they all flow into each other, and all the children work with all the teachers.

“The teachers plan collaboratively, and they know all the kids in the grade. That means that all these adults can talk together about each child. One teacher might see something different in a child, so you get a richer, more complete picture.”

That means that in, say, fourth grade math, “you can group kids by level. You might have 30 on grade level and three who need enrichment.” That means that teachers can work with students at different levels, but those students can be reshuffled into different configurations. “They are not stigmatized based on level,” Mr. Freeman said. Also, “they grow up together.” Administratively, that also reduces a particularly nagging problem. “That takes away parents saying they want their kid in any one particular class,” because they’re all in the same class.

He talked about a fourth-grade project to study the effect of latex balloons on the environment, including the risks they pose to birds. “The kids made a whole presentation about why Schechter Bergen should prohibit latex balloons,” Mr. Freedman said. “They wanted us to eliminate them at the school, and they convinced us. We’ve banned all balloons. We’re now a balloon-free school, to protect our environment and protect birds.”

Fourth graders also were worried about the dangers of crossing the busy street close to the school. “They petitioned the township to put up yellow lines to identify crosswalks,” and it worked. “Now you see these yellow lines,” Mr. Freedman said. “That reflects our values.

“It creates community. It created greater collegiality among the teachers and allows for more thoughtful planning. It’s a very flexible, child-oriented model. Over the next decade, more and more schools will use this model; some public schools already are going there.”

The class of 2023 is in Jerusalem, just about a year ago, for its Israel Encounter trip.

Grades are paired in the kehilla model as well; first and second are together and so are third and fourth. Then, in middle school, fifth and sixth grades work together, and so do seventh and eighth. That means that each student in the school will know students in the grade above and the grade below, creating even more community.

Students in middle school have a science fair. “They have to pick a topic to explore deeply, and sometimes they work to find a solution to a problem,” Mr. Freedman said. “We did a project with Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem, where kids are given a real-life physical challenge that one of their patients have. The kids are asked to come up with a possible solution. And then, with the support of the science department and the Popkin Innovation Lab, the students design a prototype of the device, the prototype is presented to the hospital, and the students get feedback.

“Last year Alyn took one of the prototypes and actually made a real tool for the patient. That was awesome! Alyn actually used our student’s prototype!

“The students were learning a gazillion skills. They learned design and problem solving, iteration and reiteration. And they learned empathy, applying their energy to help solve a science problem to improve the quality of a real person’s life.

This is the 1998 kindergarten class picture.

“It is both thrilling and exciting.”

Schechter Bergen also has music and arts programs, an annual musical, and “an amazing garden,” Mr. Freedman said. “Last year, we created a garden in the front of the school with native species, and it also brings birds and insects that are important to our ecosystem. We worked with two specialists in the field, who worked with our resident horticulturalist and the students.”

When he arrived at the school in 2019, Mr. Freedman said, Schechter Bergen reflected on its mission and values, as it has done frequently over the last half-century. “We reaffirmed that it is a halachic and egalitarian community day school, it is not affiliated with any movement” — it had been part of the Conservative movement but disaffiliated in 2009 —“and affirmed as a point of pride that this is the one place in the county where girls have full participation. We didn’t give up the halacha, and we didn’t give up the egalitarianism.

“This is a place where Jewish families feel comfortable because we are an open school. That means that we don’t have a particular stake in the ground in terms of affiliation. If you go to a Conservative shul, you feel comfortable here. If you daven in a modern Orthodox shul and our philosophy of education speaks to you, you have a seat at our table. And you also are welcome if you are unaffiliated.

The class of 1992 in Temple Emanu-El when it still was in Englewood. This is the last class to graduate from that building.

“It is not about religion. It is about peoplehood. We are a people with a language, a common story, a country, and a religion. Your religious practice should not disqualify you from being part of the school. If you do or don’t observe Shabbat, fine. If you do or do not keep kosher, fine. We are an inclusive community. At school, we observe Shabbat and kashrut and we expect all our families to do so at school and in any communal gathering, for the purposes of inclusion.

“We don’t intrude on your home practices, but if you want your children to have a strong Jewish education, to learn tefillah, to learn about God, this is the place for you.”

Most of all, Mr. Freedman said, “the secret sauce of Schechter is the intense Yiddishkeit, the warmth that permeates the building. It’s the amount of Hebrew you hear in the school, the amount of commitment and love and concern that people have for each other.

“I’ve been to many schools — I’ve been on an accreditation committee, and I know my former school, which I loved — but there is something about the atmosphere of this school that just feels different. I think it’s the combination of people who chose to come here, the number of Israelis here, the high number of people who are Jewishly knowledgeable and observant, the high number of people who are deeply connected with Israel, who went to Jewish camps or send their children to Jewish camps, the nature of the teachers — you mix it all together and what you get feels a little different from what you typically experience at other schools, even if they have a lot of the same elements.”

Family and friends hold an unfurled Torah scroll around second graders as part of their milestone Chumash ceremony.

Freddie Kotek of Fair Lawn is the father of three Schechter Bergen graduates, was the board president from 2003 to 2005, is the great uncle of the school’s marketing and communications director, Micaela Gold (who is the mother of Schechter Bergen students), and always has been and continues to be a serious school booster.

“I have been involved with the school for 33 years now,” Mr. Kotek said. “I have volunteered in every capacity, and worked with every president since Sy Sadinoff,” the visionary who was among the school’s founders, “and I continue to work with them.”

He’s proud of the school’s resilience. “In the last two periods of disruption — the pandemic and October 7 — the school’s value to the community has proven itself beyond most people’s expectations,” he said.

His expertise leads him to concentrate on the school’s financial health. “Now it’s time to do everything possible to make sure that it lasts in perpetuity; that we have the funds to employ the best educators, keep tuition within reason, and continue to be financially stable.”

Students collaborate in design class in the Popkin Innovation Lab.

He and his wife, Beth, “donated the Morris and Ruth Kotek z”l Holocaust Resource Center,” he said, as well as other Holocaust-related programs and tools.

He loves the school, he said, because “you have this generational love and commitment. I felt it in my own school, growing up, but I feel it even more strongly here.”

Brandi Rubin of Demarest is the president of Schechter Bergen, and the mother of two graduates — one a high school senior, the other a tenth grader — and two children in Schechter Bergen now — one in eighth grade, about to graduate, and the other in second grade.

“We moved to Demarest from the city so my oldest child could start public school, because the town has a great public school,” she said. “But I realized that we were missing the Jewish component, so I visited Schechter, and I was blown away by it.

First-grade students sing to family and friends during their siddur ceremony, celebrating the beginning of their lifelong relationship with tefillah.

“So my oldest child started first grade there in the fall of 2012. It was the most amazing experience for him, and for our family.

“He’s a boy, and he was a little slow to appreciate being in school and sitting still in a classroom. But he wasn’t reprimanded, as he had been in public school, he flourished.

“I still remember one of his teachers in first grade telling us, ‘He’s like the wind. We just have to blow him in the right direction.’

“Schechter allowed him to be who he is. It built his confidence. And the school instills values of community. They really built children up.

The school’s founders and builders included Bernie Chalfin, Milt Gralla, Harris Shapiro, Henry Vorenberg, Arthur Joseph, and Jules Edelman.

“Each one of my kids is very different from each other, but the school built up confidence in every one of them.”

Ms. Rubin talked about the school’s soccer teams. “Both the boys and the girls teams were in the championships last year, and both teams ended up winning,” she said. “And the entire school — the head of school, the principals of the lower and upper schools, the administration, teachers — they were all there. They packed the stands to support the teams.

“Many kids came. There was enormous school spirit.

“There had been pep rallies for the teams,” she continued. “Everyone was involved, and it was filled with ruach.”

Students on Israel Encounter have many volunteer opportunities; here, the class of 2023 works at Pantry Packers.

Like Mr. Kotek, Ms. Khelemsky, Mr. Freedman, and Ms. Rubin, Ms. Gold talked about the very real community the school has created and maintains.

“The school does an amazing job of integrating everyone,” she said. “It’s separate when it needs to be, and comes together when that’s what it should be doing. “The eighth-graders are buddies with kindergarteners.

Since October 7, we changed the way the morning starts,” she continued. “Everyone gathers in the gym to sing ‘Hatikvah’ together, and to hear the morning announcements together. We started doing it because we had so many Israeli students who came then, but we have continued to do it. We continue to have the whole school sing ‘Hatikvah.’

“It is very beautiful. This school is a very special place.”

Yom Ha’Atzmaut in 2022. The celebrations are full of ruach, learning, fun, and love of Israel.

Ruth Gafni was the head of school immediately before Steve Freeman; she lived in Fair Lawn then. (Now she’s at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, where she heads the nursery through eighth-grade divisions, and she has moved to that borough.)

When she talks about Schechter Bergen, she beams.

“What I love about Schechter is that every student and family there is recognized, loved and cared for,” she said. “We” — because her feeling of connection to the school is so deep that even years after she left, she still is part of the community — “offer students a broad lens in which to look at the world so they have ownership of their learning, develop deep interests, and live according to Jewish ethics and morals with joy.

“With the students’ depth of understanding of Jewish text, their knowledge of tefillah and Hebrew language, their connection to Israel, and their appreciation of the rich life we live in our country, the United States, we raise amazing young people,” Ms. Gafni said.

The school has marked its 50th throughout the year. The celebrations will culminate in a gala on June 2. Learn more about the school at, and about the gala at (Or just google “Schechter Bergen 50th gala.)

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