WEST HARTFORD – The trouble with founding a new organization is that it’s hard to know whether it will be successful or make it past those first months or years. In the case of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford (SSDS), founder Dr. Adele Perlman had a hunch that she was helping to start something big.
That was in 1971, at a meeting in the living room of Rachel and Max Javit (living rooms being the quintessential incubators for fledgling endeavors). Her husband, Dr. Sidney Perlman, had just announced to the other interested parents and community members that he would serve as the school’s first president. Adele was so certain of success, she started collecting Schechter-related materials – documents, photos, even receipts. She would soon serve as the school’s first treasurer.
Now that archive is 40 years old, and has been sent back to the West Hartford school to enhance the anniversary celebration planned for next month.
A formal history of SSDS has never been recorded. Instead, the Perlmans and others involved in the founding and early years of the school carry its story in their heads. Sidney Perlman wrote an account that he read at the dedication of the current Schechter facility, a document preserved in his wife’s archive. So piecing together the picture of how the school came to be is like embarking on an oral-history scavenger hunt, collecting details from one person and moving on to the next. Along the way, each historian points the seeker to another source of information. And each refuses to take credit for the success of the school; each praises a peer for his or her role. There is a collective modesty in the telling, a sense that it really did take a village. The caveat repeated over and over is that making a list of the notable figures and important facts is a chancy endeavor: one name or detail among the many may be inadvertently forgotten.
Schechter is about to enter its fifth decade, with a new head of school in the wings. This is as good a time as any to look back.
Here’s what the pioneers remember: In the early ’70s, the Hartford Yeshiva was the only Jewish day school serving greater Hartford. While the curriculum was suitable for Orthodox boys, there was no such institution for children from other denominations. (The yeshiva would become the co-ed Hebrew Academy, and is now the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield.)
“There was a group of people who had been thinking about starting a Conservative day school for many years, including Rabbi Stanley Kessler [then spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in West Hartford] and Rabbi Philip Lazowski [then spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield],” says Arlene Neiditz, who chaired the original education committee and served as Schechter’s second president. “But it was Rabbi Howard Singer of The Emanuel Synagogue who got it moving.”
In his account, Dr. Sidney Perlman attributes the school’s successful founding that year to seven factors: Rabbi Howard Singer, the political climate, the open classroom concept, Rabbi Abraham Feldman of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, “a tolerant host synagogue with a committed education director [Al Weisel],” “frequent backyard conversations between Adele [Perlman] and Arlene [Neiditz],” and a secondhand bus nicknamed the “Schechter Schlepper,” which extended the school’s reach to Rockville, Tolland, and Ellington.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, during a time of ethnic pride in the U.S., many young parents in the more liberal Jewish movements began to feel that the afternoon religious school was not the sufficient or efficient way to create an environment where kids would really be in love with their Jewish heritage,” says Neiditz. Parents wanted a place where Judaism and Jewish studies were considered as important as secular studies. Establishing a Jewish day school was meant as a positive move, she says, not to criticize or renounce a public school system. “It was a way to offer a more enhanced learning environment for Jewish children in a very positive Jewish setting, to give them the education and the confidence to be affirming, affirmative Jews.”
The new school’s Articles of Incorporation were filed with the state on June 2, 1971, signed by Rabbi Morris Silverman and Rabbi Howard Singer of The Emanuel Synagogue; Dr. Irving Starr, first dean of the College of Education at the University of Hartford; and Dr. Sidney Perlman. On July 29, 1971, the first board of directors and trustees was formed.
For the first four years, the board met in the Perlmans’ living room. Their twin boys, Michael and Richard, were the first two children enrolled, and by August, the three Neiditz children were the only others on the roster.
“We were all scared, taking our kids out of very good public schools,” says Adele Perlman, who recalls an exchange between her husband and brother at the time. “Sidney announced that he was going to a scholarship meeting and my brother laughed at the idea of a scholarship meeting for such a tiny school,” she says. “But these things are made by optimists.”
The Emanuel offered to house the school in its basement, with Ruth Weiner as organizing principal. Arlene Neiditz and Adele Perlman designed the space, according to Sidney Perlman’s account. But the day before the school was to open, word came that the rooms weren’t quite ready. The two women quickly organized an outdoor picnic and invited Rabbi Morris Silverman to offer a benediction. Afterwards, all the parents stayed to set up the classrooms, which were ready the following day. Thirty-two children walked through the doors.
Parents literally created Schechter in that early period. Irene Tabatsky, wife of Cantor Israel Tabatsky (z”l) of Temple Beth Sholom in Manchester, designed the logo still in use today. Howard Multer built the cabinetry, recalls Neiditz, whose husband Daniel lent money for textbooks and teacher salaries. Others held fundraising events. Some taught classes until Irving Starr had hired enough teachers for the school and helped secure state licensing.
It was the open classroom concept, imported from England in the ‘70s and popular throughout the U.S., that made it possible to function with such a small student body, Sidney Perlman wrote. For a time, Schechter consisted of one classroom for students in kindergarten through second grade.
The school would grow for a decade before the Emanuel’s basement proved too small, bearing out Adele Perlman’s original hunch. In 1982, Schechter took up residence in the former home of Bridle Path Elementary School and Hartford Christian Academy on Buena Vista Road in West Hartford, renovating the building and adding a new wing in 2000.
This July, after the celebrations, Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford will again get down to business. That’s when Rabbi Elliot Goldberg joins the staff as head of school, replacing Behzad Dayanim, who guided Schechter through the last three years and is relocating to Massachusetts to be near family.
Considering the do-it-yourself origins of the school, there’s a certain logic in the choice of Goldberg, who was among the founders of Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, Ill., where he is currently director of religious life. (The Ledger will feature an extensive interview with Goldberg when he arrives in West Hartford this summer.)
There’s also a certain logic to the fact that Schechter’s current president never meant to send her two children to a Jewish day school. The accidental true believer can sometimes make the most ardent spokesperson, and Robin Landau intends to help get the word out.
“The most important things to foster in a child’s education is a love of learning and critical thinking skills, and those are what kids really get at a school like Schechter,” she says. “They’re taught to challenge, to examine things in a different way, to look deeply into the material. In a safe and supportive environment, students are all held accountable for what they do and how they behave, and that helps them develop a strong awareness of who they are and their place in the world.”
Goldberg will take over a newly restructured administration, a process led by Dayanim over the last academic year. In addition to the head of school, who will oversee the entire staff, the board has created the new position of principal, a full-time staff person who will focus on academics and supervise the faculty.
“Offering a challenging and nurturing environment that is focused on the whole child and appreciates the diversity that an interdenominational environment presents is what sets us apart,” says Dayanim. “Our graduates do great things and go on to wonderful schools and occupations. More importantly, they become good people who reflect the values needed to live lives of integrity and meaning.”
As was true with the original founders, Schechter’s current leadership is aware of the importance of community involvement and creative outreach. A new summer camp led by the school’s athletic director helps generate revenue; Schechter lent its worship space to Congregation B’nai Sholom of Newington when the synagogue closed its doors last year.
“Things like this rarely get accomplished by just a few people,” says Blanche Savin Goldenberg, who served as one of the first presidents at Buena Vista Road. “Many people have put a lot of love and care and work into the school.”
And Schechter is still guided by its original vision. As archivist Adele Perlman puts it, “Above all is the need to impart to our children their glorious heritage.”