As the former Hebrew Academy says goodbye to the past, the New England Jewish Academy plans for the future
By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD, Connecticut – Next fall the lower school students of the New England Jewish Academy (NEJA) will at long last join their older counterparts at the Orthodox Jewish day school’s West Hartford building.
Since NEJA was formed three years ago, the result of the merger of the Hebrew High School of New England and the Bess & Paul Single Hebrew Academy, the preschool through 7th-grade students have remained in the former Hebrew Academy building on Gabb Road in Bloomfield.
Now, on June 12, NEJA will host “Saying Goodbye to Gabb Road,” a celebration of the Hebrew Academy building and campus, home of the elementary school since 1974. Students, alumni, parents and faculty of Hebrew Academy and its predecessor, the Yeshiva of Hartford, will attend the family-friendly event and the community is invited as well.
Also attending will be Rabbi Baruch Hilsenrath, the beloved principal of the school from 1986 to 2001.
“It’s kind of themed after what [the annual Lag B’Omer] field day at the school used to be like, so we will have a barbecue, sports, games – just kind of a last hurrah of families getting together and saying goodbye to this building,” says Isaac “Yitz” Moss, who serves as NEJA co-president together with is wife, Juanita Moss.
“People have such fond memories of that building that we wanted to give alumni and staff a chance to come back to the building. It holds so many memories for people,” adds Juanita. The Moss’s have two children in the upper school and two in the lower school.
After the fun and games, the work will begin as NEJA starts to “reconfigure” the West Hartford school building on Bloomfield Avenue so that it can comfortably house the entire student body of 120 students.
“In the short term we’re going to do some internal renovations,” Yitz notes. “The school is two floors and the high school is spread out over the two, but it doesn’t really need all that space. So, the high school will be mostly on the top floor and the lower school will be on the bottom floor. … It’s really moving some walls around, not a major renovation. And then we’ll all be on one campus, which is exciting.
“In the long term, we want to construct, a state-of-the-art new wing, especially for our preschool, kindergarten and first and second grades,” he explains.
The new wing envisioned includes a new early childhood center focusing on the Reggio Emilia Approach, an educational system that is child-centered, with classrooms that are warm and inviting, and aesthetically-pleasing.
Architectural plans have already been drawn up for the new early childhood center which will be built behind the school gymnasium. NEJA has gone to the town of West Hartford and is waiting for approval and permits to be granted. After that, the construction project will be put out to bid. It is estimated that the new early childhood center will cost around $3 million. According to Yitz, the school already has $100,000 in pledges, with the launch of a capital campaign coming soon. Plans are for the addition to be built over the next year.
“Our entire school community is energized by the prospect of being together on our beautiful West Hartford campus,” says NEJA Head of School Naty Katz. “Unifying our school will strengthen us educationally and fiscally, and create a central address for Orthodox day school education. The upcoming construction of Reggio Emilia early childhood classrooms will provide a shining gateway to our school for new families. We are excited for the new school year and the chance to finally have all of our students and staff under one roof.”
In June 2021, the Gabb Road building in Bloomfield was sold for $2.3 million to 55 Equities LLC, a company owned by Gershon Eichorn of Brooklyn, New York.
“His plan was to turn it into a Chabad post high school yeshiva and we were really happy about that because this is a building of Jewish education,” Yitz reports.
The new owner has rented the building back to NEJA for the past school year.
“The lower school never actually made the move to West Hartford, as we determined each year that the Gabb Road building was actually the best option for us to educate the students,” Yitz explains. “We had to sell the old campus in order to fund an expansion project. We planned to merge on paper, which we did, and then eventually merge [the student body].”
The goal three years ago – and the goal now – is to unite NEJA’s student body in the West Hartford building in order to strengthen the school and, in turn, strengthen the local Jewish community.
“Having two different institutions sort of removed the focus from either one of them with respect to community, with respect to volunteers, with respect to leadership. And since both institutions had a similar religious philosophy – they’re both Orthodox schools – the merger made sense. So from a communal perspective it just philosophically made sense that there should be one institution,” Yitz says.
“One of the beautiful things about our campus in West Hartford is it’s right across from the JCC, so it’s sort of at the center of Jewish Hartford,” he notes. “So, in terms of raising the profile of the school, which is important to us, it puts us at the center of the community. We thought this would be a way to really put our school on a more solid ground, taking it toward the future.”
Meanwhile, Juanita Moss, has been leading a crew of volunteers in cleaning out the last vestiges of Hebrew Academy history from the old building. In fact, they have been slowly packing things up since the merger became a reality three years ago.
“One of the special things that the Hebrew Academy used to do was a yearlong art project by the eighth grade, and the artwork was displayed up on the walls – 40 years of artwork that was displayed at Gabb Road,” Juanita says. “Three years ago we took down the artwork and it was photographed and categorized. We stored some of that hoping that it would kind of move with us and hold up.”
Old plaques, photographs and other artifacts have already been boxed and stored, and in the past few weeks they have been dealing with boxes filled with documents, including 40-plus years worth of student health records some from as far back as the 1940s.
Founded in 1940, the yeshiva moved to the 8.7-acred site in Bloomfield in 1974 when the Hartford Jewish community began moving to the suburbs.
Designed by the architectural firm of Stecker and Colavecchio, the modern 36,100-square-foot, three level building was designed to resemble the city of Jerusalem.
“It’s a very interesting property,” says Yitz. “It was custom-built for this school. It even won awards, I believe, for architecture at the time because it’s a very interesting building with large atriums and sunlight and a central area with natural light that goes through the whole building and the classrooms around it. It’s in a beautiful area with a lot of space around it.”
Judy Leichberg of West Hartford attended the Yeshiva of Hartford on Cornwall Street until the 8th grade. Her daughter Batsheva Oberstein, now development director of NEJA, and Oberstein’s two teenaged children followed in Leichberg’s footsteps, attending Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield.
“We are three generations – me, my daughter and now my grandchildren go to NEJA,” Leichberg said proudly.
“I think the building on Gabb Road served its purpose,” she adds. “It was a very interesting, open layout, with children on all three levels. But I think that this is a much better location in West Hartford. It’s a state-of-the-art, beautiful, modern building that has everything for the kids. I think it’s time to modernize and we are very excited the entire school will be on the same campus.”
All three of Audrey and Arlen Lichter’s children attended Hebrew Academy and HHNE before the merger – in fact, daughter Jenny Shmuel was a member of HHNE’s first graduating class. Today, Shmuel lives in West Hartford with her husband, Eliad Shmuel, and the couple’s three children, all of whom attend the NEJA lower school.
“The school is very important to us as a family,” says Lichter, executive director of the Jewish engagement program, Chai Mitzvah. “It was a place where we all grew in our Judaism – not just the kids – and it was a school where the teachers and the administration were really a part of the community and were connected to all of us. It really was a community school.”
Sending their children to the local Jewish day school was important to the Lichter’s daughter Jenny and her husband Eliad, but they really have their sights set on their kids’ high school education.
“It is very important to us that our kids have the option of getting a Jewish high school education,” Jenny says. “It was very formative for me and from what I can tell, the high school has a really excellent reputation, so we are excited to have more access to that, even though my kids are not in the high school. NEJA has great resources and great teachers, and the kids that graduate go on to do really impressive things, so it’s great to have that option for our kids.”
Shmuel asserted that her experience going to school in the Gabb Road building is a bit different than her children’s experience.
“I think it was a different time – there were a lot more students,” she says. “It’s fun that my kids got to experience that building – it is a beautiful property. But I do think it’s time for them to move and I definitely think it was a good decision for the two schools to combine and move into a more state-of-the-art facility.”
To help the student body begin to bond, NEJA will hold a school-wide Lag B’omer celebration and field day before school ends in June. And the faculties of both schools recently participated in a professional day together to get to know each other.
“I think us being on one campus brings a lot of benefits to the whole community,” says Juanita Moss. “A strong Orthodox school is vital for the growth and maintenance of the West Hartford community. I think by moving we will position this school in a much more visible way. I see this as a new chapter in our history and it will bring bigger and better things for the school and the community.”
“Saying Goodbye to Gabb Road” will be held on Sunday, June 12, 12 noon – 4 p.m. To receive an invitation, send your contact information: name, phone, address, and email address, as well as your affiliation with the school (former student/parent/faculty member etc.) to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, contact Anne Marcucci at NEJA at (860) 231-0317.
Main Photo: The building of the Bess & Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy was designed to resemble the city of Jerusalem.