Jonathan Polon, a member of the 1992 graduating class at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, sends his oldest daughter to first grade at the Rockville school.
“I just wanted to be able to give them the same experiences I had. I have nothing but fond memories,” said Polon, who a plans to enroll his younger daughter there as well. A kindergarten through 12th grade education there will show his daughters “who they are. It will teach them values,” he said.
“We have an amazing public school system” in Montgomery County, “but it’s the values,” that makes CESJDS special, he said during the school’s 50th anniversary kickoff celebration Oct. 26.
Festivities will continue throughout the year, including on Nov. 20, the 50th day of school, and a social justice panel on Martin Luther King’s birthday. There also will be a week of art classes led by David Moss, who specializes in Jewish illumination and animation. An intergenerational family trip to Israel in June will mark the culmination of the celebrations.
The school’s roots began to take hold in 1965, when seven children attended a Solomon Schechter School in the basement of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Silver Spring. The school’s annual $17,000 budget covered the salary of the lone teacher, Masha Spiegel, books and other supplies, including jump ropes.
Paul Berger’s daughter was one of those first students, and his involvement grew as did her education.
Following the release of a 1970 Jewish Federation study that cited the need for a Jewish day school in the Washington area, Berger became the chairman and president of a group of people dedicated to opening a day school locally.
Enrollment grew to 170 students, with a 25-member faculty; classes were held at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.
In 1972, the Solomon Schechter School officially became a Jewish day school. Five years later, with a student body of 500, the school moved to its first permanent home, a $2.7 million facility on a 10-acre site at the corner of E. Jefferson Street and Montrose Road. The Lower School campus is still located there.
Berger is not sure the community could have raised enough money for the school had it not been for a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who spoke at a dinner. Berger still recalls Rabin’s forceful words as he told those gathered, “Without Jewish education today, we will not have a Jewish state tomorrow.”
Charles E. Smith “heard that message loud and clear,” Berger said of the late real estate developer for whom the school is named. It officially became the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in November 1980.
The students knew Smith. “They called him Papa Charlie,” Berger said, adding that the school “was the love of his life.”
Back then, while fundraising for a building, Smith told the students and parents, “We must recognize that none of our Jewish agencies would long survive the deterioration of Jewish education. Conversely, we must recognize that if Jewish education is effective, there is reason to hope that all aspects of Jewish community life, including the State of Israel, will flourish.”
Sandi Tipograph, who was PTO president from 1986 to 1988, believes that mission is being accomplished daily. “My kids are mensches. I sent them there so they could go anywhere in the world, and walk into a synagogue and be comfortable. And they do,” she said.
“It’s an education that keeps on giving in so many ways.”
Carol Feder, who was one of the chairs of the 50th anniversary kickoff celebration, agreed. “This is a school that really grounds kids in Jewish identity, teaches them to find their voice, to know their values.”
CESJDS “gave them roots and wings to fly,” said the Potomac resident, who sent her children there.
Debbie Bash, who spent 20 years transporting her four children from Virginia first to Ohr Kodesh and then to the current locations, said her children have sent their own children to Jewish day schools. “They looked hard to find a school like this to send their kids to,” she said.
Berger is proud of the school’s curriculum in both Judaic and secular studies, but he kvells when he speaks about how his three children and nine grandchildren are turning out, crediting in part their years at CESJDS.
“They are very much part of the Jewish community. They have a deep connection with Israel, all of them,” he said. “They have the values the school has always practiced, tikkun olam, a need to help” both Jews and society in general, said the North Bethesda lawyer.
Through the years, as attendance rose, it became obvious that more space was needed. In 1999, a second campus was opened on Hunters Lane in Rockville, which is still the site of the Upper School.
CESJDS now boasts an enrollment of 1,000 and a faculty and staff of 250. Beginning next year, a junior kindergarten will be added.
In addition to the school’s growth, the years have been marked by projects and events, including the first prom in 1984 and the collection of 1.5 million pennies that were used to purchase a sefer Torah.
Cousins Nathan Bortnick and Jacob Ravick went through 12th grade at CESJDS. They are proud members of the Class of 2001. Bortnick, a commercial real estate developer, has fond memories of “the people along the way, the friends that have lasted a lifetime.”
The Potomac resident said he will always cherish “the family-like atmosphere that was felt, from Purim carnivals to Yom Ha’atzmaut and color war.”
Ravick, an attorney, still remembers his senior trip to Poland, where in the midst of visiting concentration camps and cemeteries, students were able to celebrate life itself: All of a sudden, “we stopped everything and had a snowball fight,” he recalled.
Dr. Yael Mosse, a member of the Class of 1989, first came to CESJDS in fourth grade. Moving to the area from France, she “knew no English and no Hebrew.”
She was not treated as an outcast. “I just remember that everyone here made me feel so comfortable and so safe,” said the physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, adding that she gained her love of science at CESJDS.
Barbara Ascher taught at the school for more than 30 years, 20 of them spent as a kindergarten teacher. “Where ever I go, to an airport, in Europe, at any museum, anyplace I go, I meet people who know me,” she said.
Rabbi Jan Kaufman taught at the school for 10 years and now lives in New York. It’s not uncommon for former students to come by and share a Shabbat dinner with her when they are in the Big Apple, she said at the 50th anniversary celebration. Throughout the event, former students and their parents hugged her.
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school since April 2013, summed up the school’s philosophy in a statement to Washington Jewish Week.
“Our true vision, as Charlie Smith so beautifully articulated, is to ensure a vibrant Jewish future, which we accomplish through engaging students in an exemplary and inspiring general and Jewish education,” he said. “The evolution of our school throughout the decades is inspirational and incredible.” n