For half a century, “yeshiva” in the Washington, D.C., area has not meant a university in New York but a homegrown junior and senior high school that has served the community as a hub of Jewish learning and education, the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.
“The thought was that there should be a place where the Jewish community can come learn,” said Rabbi Scott Hillman, enrollment and communications manager at YGW.
The Yeshiva has been teaching students for 50 years but it took a lot of time and effort to make the first lesson possible. In the fall of 1964, that first class consisted of just six girls. At first, the school provided classes for girls in 10th-12th grade, but the founders knew that if the Yeshiva worked out, it would likely grow in scope and size.
Thanks to dedicated staff and an unplumbed well of community interest in expanding the Jewish education opportunities for their children, the YGW has a lot to celebrate, with multiple generations of students coming together at a series of events to highlight the half century of education provided by the school. A recent barbecue brought some of those multigenerational alumni together to share stories and memories of their time at the school. The centerpiece of the celebration will be Sunday, Jan. 12, when the school will host its 50th-annual banquet at the Marriott on Rockville Pike.
“It’s a chance to connect again with the community we’ve been a part of for so long,” Hillman said.
The banquet will serve primarily as a way to officially dedicate and name the YGW for founder and first head of the yeshiva Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer z’’l.
“His wife will be there to accept on behalf of his family,” Hillman said. “It will be a celebration of his legacy.”
The banquet will also serve as a chance for the school to honor Sima Jacoby with the Akeres HaBayis award for her four decades of service at the Yeshiva.
“I have to credit some of it to divine assistance,” Jacoby said. “But there is a real sense of mission that does help lead to success.”
Jacoby, who is principal for secular studies and dean of girls at the school, said when she first began at the school she had no idea it would be more than temporary between schoolings of her own but found it to be rewarding enough to come back again and again.
“I got hooked,” she said. “It’s been a great source of satisfaction.”
She was not the only one to find it a rewarding career. Today there are students whose parents and even grandparents attended the Yeshiva. That first class may have been small but the seed had been planted in fertile soil and the Yeshiva grew quickly. So quickly in fact that it sometimes had trouble finding space for the students and made frequent migrations over the next few decades.
“The next number of years [after the school began] was a time of wandering Jews,” Hillman said.
Moving around the southern Maryland area and in the District, the Yeshiva hit new landmarks in growth, adding a boys school the next year and expanding into providing a junior high school as well in the 1980s. The school now has classes for seventh- through 12th-graders.
The movement of facilities over the years has reflected the growth of YGW but its current home is actually a kind of homecoming.
“We’ve been in many synagogues and homes,” Hillman said. “But we were in this building about 30 years ago.
In addition to the junior high and high school, YGW added a yeshiva gedolah in 1995. This addition provides an opportunity for adults to study and obtain a degree in Talmudic law and study Torah or combine studies with college courses. Many of the men studying there are married or have other careers but want to extend their Jewish education.
“It’s a place for Torah learning for the community,” Hillman said.
The secular education of the boys and girls division, when combined with the Judaic studies, make alumni able to face nearly any kind of career they may choose Jacoby said.
“We give them the tools to succeed in whatever they choose,” she said.
She said that a large fraction of alumni make aliyah to Israel, probably around a quarter of graduates, and that doctors, lawyers and other professions are heavily represented in alumni careers.
In her decades as a teacher, Jacoby said a key lesson she has absorbed is the importance of sensitivity to different kinds of learning and intelligence, helping those who struggle and finding ways for every student to achieve.
There will be other events in 2014 to celebrate some of those who have served longest at YGW such as Rabbi Avrom and Sarah Landesman as well as a planned alumni get-together in New York. But it’s the education that matters and that will keep the Yeshiva going for another 50 years.
“It’s about helping pass the torch of learning to the next generation,” Hillman said.