Golda Och celebrates golden anniversary

Jewish day school with two West Orange campuses applauds 50-year commitment to education

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Well-wishers in the Jewish community can often be heard saying, “May you go from strength to strength.” That is certainly what Jewish day school Golda Och Academy has been doing as it continues to grow and educate. The school in West Orange celebrated its 50th anniversary June 9 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.

Golda Och Academy was formed in 1965 and ran out of a synagogue in Union. That first year, the school had only two grades — kindergarten and first grade — and 15 students. But it steadily grew, adding a grade each year. In 1977, the school — at that time named Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union — graduated its first 12th-grade class of nine students.

During the past 50 years, the school has undergone many changes and moved several times, but its underlying mission and community have remained the same. After its beginning in Union, the school also housed itself at Glenwood School in South Orange and eventually moved to Cranford in 1979, though that school building eventually closed in 2008.

SSDS moved into West Orange in 1985 when it opened the Lower School on Gregory Avenue, which still educates Jewish youngsters today. The Upper School, which houses the middle and high schools, began construction on Pleasant Valley Way in 1990 and was dedicated in 1995.

One of GOA’s largest leaps came in 2010, when SSDS was renamed after Golda Och, a former board president who had been instrumental in getting the school off the ground. The renaming was set into motion when Daniel and Jane Och, her son and daughter-in-law, donated $15 million as a challenge to others to match it.

Daniel Och was actually a member of the school’s first kindergarten class “much to the chagrin of some of the teachers here tonight,” he joked at last week’s event.

In the past six years, the two West Orange campuses have seen massive renovations, making them state-of-the-art facilities, with the Upper School adding the Dr. Lynne B. Harrison STEM Center to promote science, technology, engineering and math.

And the school is going strong today, with more than 400 people attending the birthday celebration, which included food, drinks, music, some speeches and videos detailing the school’s history.

Perhaps nobody is in a better position to comment on the school’s successes than Head of School Adam Shapiro, who has worked there for 13 years. In his early years with the school, Shapiro was a history teacher and girls’ basketball coach.

“I can say, with full confidence, that the school has provided a lot for me,” Shapiro told the West Orange Chronicle via email. “I have grown both professionally and personally through the many different roles that I’ve held and I am happy to say that being both the head of school and a parent of two students has been incredibly fulfilling for me. It’s been a great journey to this point and I look forward to many more great things to come.”

As GOA celebrates its golden anniversary, faculty members, students and community members are provided the opportunity both to look back and to look ahead.

“The fact that we opened our doors in 1965 with 15 students and a beautiful dream, and have evolved into one of the finest Jewish day schools in North America over the past half century is quite remarkable,” Shapiro said. “We set out 50 years ago to work toward creating the ‘next generation’ of Jewish leaders and that mission has continued to this day and has now helped to create multiple generations of Jewish leaders.

“My biggest hope is that we continue to grow and strive for more,” Shapiro continued. “Resting on our accomplishments to this point is not something any of us plan to do and the work that we continue to do — both physically and academically — to our school is all done in an effort to continue our push for excellence both inside and outside the classroom.”

Middle School Director Jamie Himmelstein has also had a front row seat to many of GOA’s successes. Himmelstein, a busy administrator who spent her early years at the school as a sixth-grade social studies teacher, has been with the school for 20 years and still manages to teach, which is her passion.

According to Himmelstein, the school offers great opportunities and is consistently growing and adding to those opportunities. She praised the increase in elective class offerings, the growth in the arts program and the recently completed STEM center.

“The school itself has grown and we have the best kids,” Himmelstein told the Chronicle at the event. “I think Golda Och gives an opportunity for our Jewish students to be able to go to a school where they get to practice their religion and get a good education.”

GOA’s transformative experience for students extends past their graduations, with many attributing their successes to the school.

For Class of 1995 graduate Andrea Sherman, the school’s rigorous class schedule made later academic success a cakewalk.

“I went from having 11 periods a day to college having two or three,” Sherman told the Chronicle at the event, saying that maintaining a grade-point average of 4.0 in college was easy after SSDS. “I learned how to study, how to manage a caseload. College was a breeze.”

Class of 1990 graduate Marc Herman found the same thing to be true: that SSDS had prepared him well for the world.

“The school provided me with an incredible foundation to succeed both at college and in my career,” Herman told the Chronicle, citing the school’s dual curriculum and commitment to Torah as key causes.

Some students even felt so strongly about their education that they have returned as faculty members. Among them is Carrie Zucker-Siegel, an SSDS graduate in the Class of 1992, who returned years later as a teacher and is now the principal at the Lower School.

“I think I knew even as a kid that I wanted to give back to a school that had given me so much,” Zucker-Siegel told the Chronicle at the event. “I wanted to impact other children in the way I was.”

Zucker-Siegel stressed that a GOA education really focuses on the whole child, making sure they have the knowledge to traverse the world and the life skills to succeed.

“I think that Golda Och Academy gives Jewish children the opportunity to explore and experience all of the values of richness that make up their Jewish life,” Zucker-Siegel said. “The sense of family is palpable.”

For Class of 2009 graduate Arielle Herzberg, who is currently studying for the bar exam, that sense of family makes returning to GOA comfortable.

“It’s so nice to see everyone and it’s like no time has passed,” Herzberg, whose father was a past a president of the board, told the Chronicle at the event. “You still feel so connected to everyone at Golda Och.”

Donor Daniel Och even referred to the school’s sense of family as being one of its greatest attributes during a speech he gave, saying the school was ahead of its time.

“This school was one of the first institutions back in the ’60s and ’70s that realized women could do anything men could,” Och said at the event, adding that his mother and many other women successfully led the board and kept the school prosperous.

Speaking about his late mother, Och had to pause several times as emotion overtook him.

“When Golda says that’s what she’s going to do; get set, she’s going to do it,” he said of his mother, who had taught Jewish history at the school for a number of years. “When she passed away, a lot of people came to me and said, ‘You don’t know what your mother did for me. I was in trouble and she helped me.’”

And the school has made an impact on the community, thanks to annual events such as Community Service Day, during which GOA students work at various nonprofits throughout the area. And local politicians recognize the ameliorative effect GOA has had on the larger community.

West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi wrote in a letter to the school that he wishes future success to the school and congratulates it on past successes.

“As one of the first conservative co-educational Jewish day school in the United States, you took a chance on a brand-new school, Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union,” Parisi wrote in the letter. “You have made tremendous progress since 1965. You have two campuses in West Orange. You have a talented faculty and administration that provide Judaic and secular education. Your alumni are accomplished professionals and Jewish leaders who give back to the community. Your leaders’ and donors’ passion, commitment and generosity is unwavering. You are to be commended.”

“For 50 years, Golda Och Academy has graduated talented and hardworking students who are prepared with the skills that they need to pursue higher learning and begin their careers,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who has visited GOA numerous times during the past 15 years, said in a letter to the school. “Your remarkable success and many distinguished alumni area a testament to your longstanding commitment to excellence. You should be very proud of the countless lives your school has shaped over the past half century.”

And GOA is just as happy to share a community with West Orange and New Jersey.

“We very much value our partnership with Mayor Parisi and all of our town leaders and are also incredibly grateful for the support of our West Orange police and fire departments for all that they do to keep us safe,” Shapiro told the Chronicle. “We are beyond proud to say that we are located here in West Orange and love our community connections. Our school is great for the community and the community is great for the school because when students are learning and growing, the benefits absolutely go beyond the walls of our school.”

Photos by Yael Katzwer