This Motzei Shabbat, January 13, Yavneh Academy will host its 75th anniversary dinner, honoring Joel Kirschner, the Carmel/Zakheim Family and Judy Friedman. In addition to celebrating the achievements of these most deserving honorees, this year’s dinner will highlight the history of Yavneh Academy and the values that have consistently been a foundation of the yeshiva since its establishment.
Yavneh Academy was founded as the Paterson Yavneh Yeshiva in 1942. Prior to its inception, there were Talmud Torahs to attend but no yeshiva day school. Eighteen people came together and decided it was time to form a yeshiva. Atop a deli in Paterson, with six kindergarten students enrolled, Yavneh Academy was born. In September 1950, the Paterson Talmud Torah was absorbed by Yavneh. At that time, Yavneh added an eighth grade and was now a complete elementary school with both Judaic and secular studies departments. In 1951, Yavneh graduated its first class of seven graduates (quite small in contrast to this year’s graduating class of 112).
To accommodate its growing enrollment, a new Yavneh Academy building was purchased on the estate of former Governor John W. Griggs and dedicated in 1954. As the ‘60s approached, Bergen County communities like Englewood and Teaneck began to flourish, prompting increased registrations. With its student population on the rise, in 1981 Yavneh purchased its current building in Paramus, adding a new cafeteria and more classrooms. Since that time they have added additional middle-school classrooms, a beit midrash, a gym, the recently completed Judah Marans Art and Music Center and a new technology center. Today, 64 of the families enrolled at Yavneh contain at least one alumni parent.
Judaism teaches us that it is important to remember our history and how it affects our lives today. Today, the halls at Yavneh Academy are filled with the noise of 750 children, not to mention those in early childhood. However, back when the school was being established, there were many challenges to overcome. It was difficult to find children, compelling the principal to go door-to-door to solicit students. Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, Yavneh’s head of school, recalls a story told by a former Yavneh student who remembers the principal knocking on her parents’ door asking if they had a child eligible for Jewish day school. They indeed did and her parents decided to pull her out of public school and enroll her in Yavneh.
Back in the post-World War II era of the 1940s and ‘50s it was not a mainstream decision to send children to yeshiva. Many families certainly could not afford the financial strain of a private education and therefore sent their kids to public school. It represented a leap of faith to enroll a student in yeshiva; it is important to recognize that today’s flourishing Jewish community in northern New Jersey would not be possible without the courageousness of those who came before. “We need to appreciate the sacrifices people made to give their kids a Jewish education,” said Rabbi Knapp.
While there has been a wide array of changes over the course of 75 years, many things at Yavneh have also stayed the same. “The core mission at Yavneh is and always has been to provide a superior academic program that is religiously inspiring and engaged with society in a warm nurturing school community,” said Rabbi Knapp. At Yavneh, the goal is to move ahead academically without sacrificing a cherished legacy, he explained. If the founders saw how Yavneh has evolved over the past 75 years they would be both shocked and elated, Rabbi Knapp believes. Shocked, because in the ‘40s they were struggling to succeed, yet elated that the core values implemented at the start are still the fundamentals of Yavneh Academy today.
The strength of the foundation that was provided to Yavneh is remarkable, said Pam Scheininger, president of the board of directors. That small group of people who had a revolutionary vision for Jewish education displayed courage and dedication that subsequently set the tone for Yavneh’s approach to education in the past, present and for the future. “Even though Yavneh has been around for 75 years, we are never complacent. There is a continuous effort to ensure that we are always changing in a way that is smart, and not change for change’s sake, but in a way that results in a more effective institution with a better way of teaching children,” added Scheininger.
A primary focus at Yavneh has always been to strengthen children’s commitment to Judaism. That said, engaging students with the broader community is also a priority, Rabbi Knapp explained. “We continue to emphasize to the children what it means to be a citizen of this country,” he conveyed. Yavneh works hard to maintain a top-level education while researching what is up and coming in secular education.
“We recognize the need to progress and challenge ourselves by providing more religious inspiration as well as advancements in the curriculum related to STEM, arts and music,” added Rabbi Knapp.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Ross, middle school assistant principal of Judaic Studies, has been at Yavneh for 19 years. As both an administrator and a parent of three graduates and two current students, Rabbi Ross has seen many changes at Yavneh, yet agrees with his colleagues that the ultimate mission of the school has always prevailed. “As much as certain things change educationally or physically, we always know what we are checking ourselves against,” Rabbi Ross noted. The goal is to do everything possible to educate the type of student they aim to produce upon graduation, he added. “Everything we do has to pass that test.”
The students also understand what the expectations are of them. “We teach our sports teams that it is equally important how they behave on the court as how they play on the court,” stressed Rabbi Ross. The same holds true for classroom etiquette and tefillah protocol. There is consistent messaging that has been seen throughout the history of the yeshiva. People who are affiliated with Yavneh have an innate understanding of the guiding principles on which the school was founded.
By Andrea Nissel