Who We Are

A Brief History of Berman

A Brief History of Berman

A Brief History of the Hebrew Academy of Washington, 1944-1994

By Evelyn Becker

Reprinted from The Record, Volume 20, 1993-1994, pp. 29-38 with permission from The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

The Idea

In 1944, a group of Orthodox religious and community leaders who were dedicated to providing the children of the Washington community with a proper Jewish education established the first Jewish day school in the Washington area. These people were proud and committed Jews and they saw the establishment of a day school in their community as a means of ensuring that their children and grandchildren would remain loyal to their Jewish traditions. The members of this group were committed not only to Jewish life, but to the American way of life as well. They were proud to live in the United States, a country ruled by freedom and opportunity, and they wished to create a strong Jewish community here. They looked to American Jewish children as the future of that community.

The founders of the day school in Washington were not the only Orthodox Jews during the 1940s who believed that American Jewish life needed an infusion of better-educated Jews. The year 1940 marked the beginning of an era of great expansion for the Jewish day school movement. Ninety-one percent of all Jewish schools in the United States and Canada were established after this date. In 1940, there were 35 yeshivot with approximately 7,700 students. By 1950, 23,100 children were enrolled in 139 day schools. With the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and The Maimonides School of Boston, the Hebrew Academy of Washington was one of the first Jewish day schools established outside of the New York area.1

The expansion of the Jewish day school movement did not take place without op position. Many people were concerned that day schools would segregate Jewish children from their non-Jewish counterparts.2 They also were concerned that such schools would undermine the American public school system.

Those committed to the establishment of day schools defended themselves against these concerns by stating that they did not wish to segregate their children completely from non-Jewish associations, and that the limited segregation necessary in order to train children as proper Jewish leaders was not too high a price to pay for the future of Judaism in America. They also argued that Jewish children would encounter segregation in America with or without a day school education. They claimed that the existence of Jewish clubs and fraternities which, except for their membership, were no different from non-Jewish clubs, showed that Jews were not fully accepted by non- Jews at all levels of American society. Those fighting for what they saw as the hope of an American Jewish future believed that a day school education would better prepare Jewish children for the shock of anti- Semitism by giving them a strong Jewish identity. In later years, children who had at tended day schools would be no less accepted in non-Jewish circles than other Jewish children. On the other hand, they were better prepared to serve as leaders of the Jewish community.3

Those in favor of day schools were also convinced that the right of separation from general American life was the very symbol of the free society in which they lived. They believed strongly that a day school could produce American Jewish children who would "ultimately become a Jewish community of exceedingly good, if not better, Americans in that they would have also found a Jewish pride in their American ism.4 The people who founded the day school in Washington were absolutely dedicated to the task of creating future generations of American Jews who were both committed Jews and loyal Americans.

Until 1944, after-school Talmud-Torahs, run by several Washington-area synagogues, were among the avenues of Jewish learning open to children in the local area. The majority of children attended such schools for approximately three years, between the ages of ten and thirteen, for about one-and-a-half hours, three days a week. They therefore received a total of approximately five months, or the equivalent of half of the first grade, of Jewish education. In that short period of time the Talmud Torah attempted to per form miracles with its students, speed- teaching them a foreign language, the Bible, and a love for Judaism and the Jewish way of life. That the Talmud Torahs held classes late in the afternoon, when children were tired after a full day at public school, made the miracle even more difficult to achieve. 5

The founders of the day school in Washington did not believe that the education offered by these institutions was sufficient to achieve their goal of ensuring future generations of strong, Jewish leaders in America. In his writings on the Jewish day school in America, Dr. Joseph Diamond, the executive director of the Central Bureau of Jewish Education in Toronto, Canada, posed the question, "What kind of Jewish life can evolve in America under a leadership and a following of Jewish first- graders whose accumulated Jewish knowledge must completely evaporate in the course of the years?"6 The group of founders of the day school in Washington refused to accept what it believed to be the answer to this question and in the late 1930s, they accepted personal responsibility for ensuring the development of the kind of Jewish life in America they wanted by beginning to work on establishing a day school. The main goals of the day school would be to prepare Jewish children in Washington for Jewish living; to help those children to develop mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially; and to prepare them for life in America.7

The group was led by two major figures in the Washington Jewish community: Rabbi Joshua Klavan, the rabbi of Ohev Shalom, an Orthodox congregation located at 5th and I Sts. NW, and Jeremiah Weitz, the president of the Agudath Hakehiloth, the Combined Congregations of Washing ton. Rabbi Klavan described the establishment of a day school in Washington as "the holy task of preparing our children to be good Jews devoted to our traditions, and loyal Americans dedicated to all the noble ideals for which our beloved country stands."8

Rabbi Klavan and a majority of the other school founders were observant of Jewish law. Therefore, the group understood Klavan's reference to the preparation of good Jews to mean Jews who were committed to being religiously observant. The religious nature of the group is apparent in the recordings of its early meetings. Each meeting was transcribed in Yiddish, and dated both with the secular date and by the Torah portion read that week in synagogue. Meetings often were held after Shabbat so the members of the group could carry out the custom of Melaveh Malkah together, sharing a meal while they discussed their plans for the school. This group of religious Jews who believed that Jewish education was the "lifeblood of Jewish ideals"9 dedicated themselves to the establishment of an institution in which to teach those ideals in the capital of their beloved country, the United States of America.

The First Meeting

The first official meeting of the founders of the day school in Washington took place on July 25, 1941, in the home of Jeremiah Weitz. That evening, after discussing the importance of establishing a day school, the members of the group decided to begin working immediately toward its establishment. Throughout the following months, they met often to discuss the various issues involved. These meetings often were hosted by the lay leaders of the group and held in their homes and, at other times, by the rabbinical leaders of the group and held in their various local synagogues.10

A variety of issues had to be addressed at these meetings, including finding a location for the school, planning a curriculum, and raising sufficient funds. One of the most important decisions was selection of a proper name for the institution. The group's decision to give the school two names reflected dual loyalties to America and Judaism. In English, the school was called The Hebrew Academy of Washington, and in Hebrew, Yeshivat Beit Yehudah, in memory of Rabbi Yehudah Loeb. Rabbi Loeb had been a leading rabbi in the Washington community, presiding over Adas Israel Congregation, and later several other southeast Washington congregations. He represented the goals and ideals of the founders of Yeshivat Beit Yehudah as he had devoted a lifetime to the furtherance of Jewish education in America.11

The Role of Women

Many tasks involved in the founding of the Hebrew Academy of Washington were accomplished by a group of women led by Mrs. Bess Goodman. She was committed to providing her son with both a strong secular education, based on the American tradition, and an unbreakable connection with his Jewish heritage. She said of the Hebrew Academy of Washington, "Here we will create the scholars to endow our people with life and meaning. They will learn the sustaining power of justice, the building power of righteousness, and the healing power of love and mercy. They will serve as ambassadors of goodwill, building bridges of understanding between people of all faiths and act as forces for good in the community."12

Bess Goodman created and led the multifarious activities of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Hebrew Academy. By 1943, she had recruited over a hundred women from the Washington area to "heed her call for the sake of Jewish heritage and Torah learning for the children of Washington."13 The involvement of these women portrays the extent to which modern American culture influenced the group of Orthodox Jews who founded Yeshivat Beit Yehudah. Throughout the early years of the school's establishment, American Jewish women in various communities were fighting to ex tend their role outside the home. The solution to their struggle became the widening of the concept of the home and its integration into the larger Jewish community. Hence sisterhoods were created in synagogues and other Jewish establishments, and Jewish women had the same opportunities as their non-Jewish counterparts to take on communal and educational responsibilities outside of the home.14

The sisterhood of the Hebrew Academy of Washington involved itself especially in recruiting students and provided each of the children enrolled in the school's first classes with a free lunch every day and with free transportation to and from school.15 In addition, the Ladies Auxiliary played a crucial role in raising funds for a building for the school; it held donor lunches, candlelight dinners, and testimonial lunches, and opened a thrift shop to raise the amount needed for a proper building to house the institution that would prepare some of Washington's and America's future Jewish leaders.

The Building

The physical appearance of the school they wished to build was a priority for the founders of the Hebrew Academy of Washington. This was another manifestation of their desire to be true Americans and reveals their internalization of such American ideals as materialism. They dreamed of a large and modern building that could accommodate several hundred children and serve the educational needs of the entire Washington Jewish community, and they wanted to find a piece of land, centrally located in the Jewish area of town, as a site for the building.16 At a ceremony held to lay the cornerstone of the founders' dream building in 1950, Eugene Meyer, Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Washington Post, made a statement that reflected this sentiment of the founders: "The structure of which this cornerstone marks the beginning is a monument in a sense to the Jewish contributions to American life. It is a testimonial to the freedom that Jews have been granted here and to their use of that freedom."17

Long before the cornerstone could be laid, however, the founders of the Hebrew Academy had to face the reality of their financial situation and search for a temporary location where the school could hold its classes until enough money could be raised for the new building. In May 1943 a three-story house was located at 1202 Decatur Street, near Georgia Avenue, in which to open the school's first classes, and it was purchased for $14,500 on August 25, 1943.18 The money was raised through contributions from members of the group and donations solicited from other sources. Every individual who contributed $100 or more to the establishment of the Hebrew Academy was considered a founder and charter member of the school; the names of these individuals are memorialized on a bronze tablet that still hangs in the school today.19

In September 1943, the Hebrew Academy of Washington was incorporated under the laws of the District of Columbia, and by January 1944 the first and only Hebrew day school in the Washington area, providing an integrated program of religious and secular education, was ready to open.20 Twenty-one children, most from religiously observant homes, enrolled to begin kindergarten and first grade in February 1944.

Before the house on Decatur Street officially opened its doors, the group of founders invited the Washington Jewish community to share in the joy of their accomplishment. On January 23, 1944 a dedication ceremony was held in Beth Shalom Congregation. Here several of the leaders of the founding group, including Jeremiah Weitz, Rabbi Joshua Klavan, Bess Goodman, Rabbi Jacob Dubrov, and Rabbi Zemach Green, shared their feelings of joy and excitement on the establishment of the day school. Following their remarks, everyone present sang the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Hatikvah" to the accompaniment of the Jewish War Veterans Brass Band, demonstrating once again their dual commitments as Americans and Jews. Further celebration occurred throughout the week, culminating on February 6, 1944 with the first annual banquet of the Hebrew Academy of Washington.21

The Curriculum

Following the celebration, classes began and the founders of the Hebrew Academy saw the realization of their goal: Jewish children gaining both an exceptional secular education and a proper Torah education under one roof. The curriculum was intended to produce both devoted Americans and devoted Jews. Half of the children's day was dedicated to secular courses that paralleled the subjects taught in the Washington public schools, and the other half was dedicated to reading and writing Hebrew, studying the Bible and its commentaries, Talmud, Jewish language, laws, ceremonies, and customs. Also taught were classes in Jewish history, ethics, and the fundamentals of the Jewish faith.22

One particularly important aspect of the school's Judaic curriculum was student participation in religious activities, which many day schools have termed the "doing phase."23 This method of learning through experience included daily prayer in the room of the school designated as a Beth Tephilah (House of Worship), and teaching the children the concept of Tzedakah (charity), through drives for the Jewish National Fund, United Jewish Appeal, and other American and Israeli organizations.24 The children learned about the Jewish holidays by decorating Sukkot and reciting the blessing over the lulav and etrog on Sukkot; lighting candles and singing songs during Chanukah; and planting trees and eating Israeli fruit on Tu Beshvat.25 On Passover, the school sponsored a model seder and the children ate matzoh, and on Lag B'Omer a field day was held at nearby Rock Creek Park with games and a picnic. Every Friday afternoon a special Shabbat ceremony was held where the children took turns lighting candles, drinking wine, eating challah, and saying the appropriate blessings. 26

In addition to all the holiday festivities, other special activities often were held for the first students of the Hebrew Academy of Washington. The Ladies Auxiliary began the custom of sponsoring an annual Bi lingual Book Fair for the children around the time of Chanukah, which also coincided with Jewish Book Month.27 Zionism and the desire to impart a love for Israel played an important role in the Hebrew Academy's curriculum, and in 1949, when the state of Israel celebrated its first birth day, a delegation of 50 students from the Hebrew Academy was sent to the Israeli Embassy in Washington to participate in the celebrations there.28

The man who served as the first principal of the Hebrew Academy, and led the children in all of these activities and in achieving exemplary scholastic records, was Rabbi Isadore Marine. He was from Rochester, NY and received his bachelor's degree from the School of Education of the City College of New York and ordination from Yeshiva University. He also completed courses toward a doctoral degree in Hebrew Literature and, before entering the rabbinate, served as the director of the Hudson Jewish Community Center in New York.29 Rabbi Marine embodied the values of the Hebrew Academy and his education reflected the kind of education that the school wished to give its students: one in which both secularism and Judaism played important roles. Rabbi Marine himself said of the Hebrew Academy's double curriculum, "While we seek to inculcate a love for Judaism and the land of Israel, there is no question of divided allegiance. Our children are taught as they are in the belief that they can best enrich American life by strengthening themselves with the spiritual values of our Jewish "30

In addition to Rabbi Marine, two other members of the Hebrew Academy's founding group made significant contributions to the school's early years. Joseph Viener and Rabbi Chaim Williamovsky served respectively as the school's first president and executive director. They were especially involved in the group's ongoing search for the funds and location for a new building.

Expansion

Almost immediately after the house on Decatur Street opened in February 1944, the founders acquired an adjoining structure at 4710 Georgia Avenue to accommodate the growing number of students. These facilities were intended to meet the school's needs for four years but did so for only two, as expansion occurred more rapidly than expected. By 1945, the Hebrew Academy's enrollment had jumped from 21 to 65 students, and by the following year, although only 70 children could fit into the school, parents of twice that many expressed the desire to have their children admitted.31

Viener and Williamovsky were forced to find a larger interim location. In 1946, the District Commissioners' Office of Washington granted the Hebrew Academy temporary use of the old Curtis school at 3235 O St. NW That year, the Academy enrolled 131 students. By 1948, 169 children were enrolled, and in 1949, the number reached 216.32 Throughout this time, one grade was added to the school's program each year so that by 1948, all the elementary school grades were offered and in 1949, the Hebrew Academy opened its Junior High School Division.33

A Permanent Home

In July 1945, a location finally was found on which the proper building for the Hebrew Academy of Washington could be erected. The school purchased a 42,000- square-foot piece of land at 16th St. and Fort Stevens Dr. NW for $35,000. By February 1950, enough money had been raised to begin construction at the site. The school, which cost $450,000 to build and was made of brick and limestone, was designed by two prestigious architectural firms in the Washington area-Murphy and Locraft, and Corning and Moore. It contained 14 classrooms, two kindergarten rooms, a library, chapel, clinic, administration office, two faculty rooms, a board room, modern kitchen, combination auditorium- dining room, an indoor playroom that could seat 600 people, and an outdoor play area.34 The founders of the Hebrew Academy finally had the school building they deemed appropriate.

By May 1951, the building was ready for the 276 students to be enrolled in the Hebrew Academy the following year. A dedication ceremony was held on May 6, 1951. All the students enrolled at the time ceremoniously marched into the new building. Also at this ceremony, David Greenberg, the District Commander of the Jewish War Veterans, made a presentation of the American flag to Bernard Danzansky, the new president of the school.35 The highlight of the day was an address by Abba Eban, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Enumerating the common principles behind Americanism and Judaism, Eban told the founders of the Hebrew Academy and their guests that the history of the new democracy of Israel paralleled that of the struggle of the American pioneers.36 In addition, he praised the establishment of the Hebrew Academy as an important contribution to general Jewish life: "Teaching of Hebrew and Hebrew culture make the Hebrew Academy of Washington a cultural and spiritual link between the people of America and the people of Israel," he said.37

A week of celebrations and dedications for the Hebrew Academy's new building culminated in a dedication banquet on May 13, 1951. The goals and ideals of the Academy's founders formed the major theme of the addresses given at the event. Many people spoke of the group's dual commitment to Judaism and Americanism and its dedication to the American Jewish community. The founders were com mended for their success in establishing an institution in the Washington area that pro vided children with both an excellent, secular education and a proper, Jewish education, and which prepared Washing ton's and America's future Jewish leaders by teaching children to be both good Jews and loyal Americans. Soloman Feldman and Joseph Viener, co-chairman of the Hebrew Academy's planning committee, summed up the sentiment of the banquet with this statement: "The principles of democracy to which we, together with all true Americans, are devoted, can best be preserved and strengthened by our unflagging devotion to the moral and ethical teachings of our own faith. This is the beacon which lights the path of the Academy as we embark on this new era in our history." 38

The founders of the Hebrew Academy succeeded in providing Jewish children in Washington the opportunity of receiving a "well-rounded Jewish and secular education, based on the Jewish faith and ideas, on Jewish culture and tradition, and on love for democracy and loyalty to America."39 The Hebrew Academy of Washington remains a vibrant and vital institution in the Washington Jewish community, still dedicated to the same ideals that generated its founding. The school's goals in 1992, almost a half century after it was established, were described in a booklet distributed at the annual banquet that year: "The multifaceted aspects of the world in which we live demand that students be prepared on many levels. The Hebrew Academy accomplishes this through its extensive dual- educational curriculum that stresses secular and religious studies equally. It synthesizes general education-science, mathematics, the humanities, and history-and infuses it with Torah precepts, dedicated to the commandments, and application of the highest standard of Jewish ethics to our daily lives."40 The Hebrew Academy of Washington was founded on dedication to the future of the American Jewish community and it remains committed to the perpetuation of Jewish life in America.

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