WEST ORANGE, NJ – More than two decades ago, when Janet Herman took over as Athletic Director at Golda Och Academy – which was then called Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union – there weren’t many athletic programs at the small West Orange-based school. Plus, there weren’t many girls’ programs.
But Herman was determined to change that.
Under Herman, the number of programs eventually doubled, with some sports added, such as swimming, cross-country and boys volleyball. And at a time when gender equality wasn’t even a buzzword, Herman increased the number of girls’ programs.
Herman reflected on her memorable time at West Orange-based Golda Och Academy as she prepares for her retirement at the end of August.
“It was a great experience,” said Herman of her service at Golda Och Academy. “I wouldn’t have traded it in for the world. I was charged way back then with growing a program. We had about 13 or 14 teams, maybe 15, and one point, maybe 10 years ago, we were up to over 30 teams – that’s middle school, jayvee (junior varsity) and varsity. I added several sports along the way.”
Even though the swimming program this school year was dissolved due to a lack of pool time and other reasons, which still disheartens Herman, the other programs have thrived, thanks to the tireless dedication and commitment from coaches and student-athletes.
Prior to her arrival at the school, Herman taught in a large public high school and then was a health and physical education teacher and the director of interscholastic programs at the Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, which has since been renamed to Gottesman Academy.
In her first year at Solomon Schechter, she was a health and physical education teacher. The next year, she became the chairperson of the health and physical education department. In her third year, she was named the Athletic Director and has served in the role for the past 25 years, in addition to continuing as the health and physical education chairperson. The school was renamed to Golda Och Academy about eight years ago.
Herman has had the pleasure of working with dedicated coaches at Golda Och. One of them is boys’ basketball head coach Sandy Pyonin, regarded as one of the top boys’ basketball coaches in the state, who also directs an AAU program that has produced several outstanding players, such as West Orange native and NBA superstar Kyrie Irving.
“Working with Sandy has been an amazing experience and I learned a lot from him,” said Herman.
The boys’ basketball program has achieved fine success under Pyonin. The Roadrunners won a Jewish tournament title in Baltimore, Md. several times until it couldn’t participate in that tournament once they joined the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The boys’ basketball team also won back-to-back New Jersey Interdependent School Athletic Association Prep B state tournaments in 2006 and 2007.
Another thrill for Herman was watching Gloria Rothenberg eclipse 2,000 career points for the girls’ basketball team in 2013. Another current player is following in Rothenberg’s footsteps. Ally Landau, who will be a junior in the fall, already has over 1,000 career points and was one of the top girls’ basketball scorers in the state this past winter.
But it’s not just all about basketball at Golda Och. Herman points out that the school has several Super Essex Conference Divisional championship banners in tennis, volleyball, soccer and softball. Additionally, many GOA’s athletes are named to the SEC Divisional all conference teams at the end of each season.
What amazes Herman is the strong commitment from the student-athletes. Most of them reside in towns that are long-distanced. The school day ends at 4 p.m. and the student-athletes don’t end practice or games until about 7 p.m. And for most of them, it takes more than an hour to commute to home.
To Herman, however, wins and titles are an added bonus. At Golda Och, Herman’s main goal was always to provide an educational-based quality athletic experience for the student-athletes, who are given the opportunity to play sports in which they wouldn’t have had otherwise if they attended their hometown school or other larger private schools. In fact, the average participation rate at Golda Och is around 70 to 75 percent, compared to the national average of approximately 55 percent, according to Herman.
“My main goal was to provide a quality athletic experience for our kids,” Herman said. “Even though we are a small school, and several of our kids have continued on and participated in college athletics, many of our kids couldn’t cross the line in the large public schools of their sending districts. Many of our kids received a quality athletic experience that they may not have had at a public school or a larger private school. So I think that is one of my proudest accomplishments. Win, lose or draw, whether they were the starter or the last player on the bench, they were all involved and benefited from all that interscholastic athletics has to offer.”