The school day was just about to start at the Berman Hebrew Academy in Aspen Hill, which is why the children in the Kirsch family — three students and one toddler — were quickly finishing an avocado on bagel breakfast with their dad.
Inside the sun-filled Brett and Alana Fine Café, Jonathan Kirsch said that his kids had been asking to come to the café since it opened in the Orthodox day school earlier in the month.
“We all like avocado, so it was a treat to bring them here on a school morning,” said Kirsch, who lives nearby, as he pointed his older kids toward their classrooms.
Over at the café counter, teachers and students perused the menu and grabbed coffees (and lattes and cappuccinos) as the day at the 700-plus student school got started. Café program director Natasha Nadel, a former Berman teacher as well as cookbook author and cooking instructor, said her dream has been to offer healthy food to the Jewish community and that is exactly what she is doing.
Why a cafe at a school? While not unheard of — the SAR Academy in Riverdale, N.Y., recently added a cafe to its campus as well — a coffee shop inside a Jewish day school is rare.
The cafe gives parents a destination after dropoff, before pickup and just to meet up. It offers training opportunities for students. And, while years ago a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts was a nearby treat for Berman parents and their kids, the closest kosher option near Berman today is a 15-minute drive away.
Now, salads, soups and fruit are mere steps away, as are school-baked muffins and cookies. The croissants and bagels are made off-site. Everything is kosher under the supervision of the Vaad of Greater Washington.
Soups in to-go jars, ready to make for supper, are prepared by trainees in a Sulam program called Shearim, which includes vocational training for high school students with special needs. The Shearim students also have other café responsibilities, and will have the opportunity to try out different roles in the café to help prepare them for employment in the service industry.
And did we mention coffee?
The Fine Café is next to the school’s new Dennis Lee Berman Welcome Center, said Sarah Sicherman, the school’s marketing director.
Brett Fine, who funded the café with his wife, Alana, said the idea came from head of school Rabbi Yossi Kastan. Sponsoring the café “was an opportunity to build a community gathering place, provide school pride for the students and a place for them to relax.”
During one morning at the café, chatting students and teachers dispersed with the start of classes, but a few community members lingered over coffee.
Seating space for the café is in the Cheryl Stern Lounge, named for a much beloved and active Berman parent and staff member who passed away several years ago.
“Over the years Cheryl spent thousands of hours at Berman — between her hours working in the library and the hours she spent in the gym watching her kids’ basketball games,” said Daphna Raskas, a former Berman parent and board president. “I don’t know if Cheryl missed a single one of her kids’ many home and away games. Cheryl would have loved having coffee at the cafe with her many friends.”
The café is open during school hours, but students’ access is limited. Lower school students must be accompanied by a parent. Middle school students may order before and after school. And high school students can add class breaks to their before and after school time slots at the café.
Students and parents pay by charging their café purchases to a student’s account (which lets parents check on what kids are ordering). Outside guests can use credit cards. They must check in at the school’s security desk. Other than the Fine Café, the school is locked to outsiders, Sicherman said.
Parents say the new café has a happy vibe. “The new space is beautiful,” said Berman parent Lisa Brookman. “The coffee was delicious. I’m already looking forward to going back.” ■
Correction, May 21, 2023: The story was corrected to say that Shearim is a Sulam program.