Washington Jewish Week / September 3, 2008
By Larry Luxner
In Classroom #1, nine second-graders — five girls and four boys — happily sing "Shalom Yeladim" as their Israeli teacher, Libi Digadker of Ashkelon, helps them with the difficult words. Colorful Hebrew letters dance over the blackboard, while a large map of the United States hangs on the wall behind them.
Down the hall in Classroom #3, fourth-graders listen intently as science teacher Gale Davidson discusses the unique role of bees in nature.
Welcome to the Hebrew Day School of Silver Spring — not to be confused with the Hebrew Day Institute of Rockville. Last week, the two private Jewish schools with similar-sounding names kicked off the 2008-09 school year in larger, more comfortable homes to accommodate the changing nature of Jewish demographics in Montgomery County.
"Our new classrooms are much larger, brighter and more open," said HDI's head, Madeline Rothbard, speaking from her new office at Tikvat Israel in Rockville. "The Jewish population is bursting, and there are a lot more conservative synagogues in this area for us to draw from. We wanted to be more accessible for people in Rockville, Gaithersburg, Olney, Germantown and Potomac whose kids would attend a Jewish community school."
HDI had previously been housed at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring. That shul is now home to HDS, which had called the Silver Spring Jewish Center home for more than 30 years.
"It was really about location," said Rothbard. "We did have other options, but when it came down to negotiations, this place was ready and waiting for us to move in. It was fortuitous that HDS was planning to move out of their space when we needed it."
HDI's kids don't have to live in Montgomery — some arrive every day from as far away as Prince George's and Howard counties — but they do have to be Jews. The school caters to Jewish families ranging from unaffiliated to Orthodox.
"Obviously, when you're in a day school, you integrate Judaic studies and general studies," Rothbard said. "You have much more in-depth education that you cannot get in a supplementary school. Here, we teach values, we do Jewish holidays, we teach presidential elections, we run the gamut of a complete education. It's not like you're American half a day, then Jewish half a day."
HDI currently has 60 students, said Rothbard, who's beginning her fourth year at the community day school. Tuition runs $15,000 for first- through sixth-graders and $11,000 for kindergarten kids, compared to $12,500 and $10,500, respectively, at HDS.
Rabbi David M. Serkin, principal at HDS, said he's thrilled with his new digs.
"G-d opened the door for us, and it was obvious that it was time for us to move," he said as a group of noisy first-graders returned from outdoor recess. "Before, we had one classroom per grade, and we didn't have a library room, a computer room or an art room. We were caught in this Catch-22, because we needed more students to grow, but we couldn't get any more students because we had no place to put them."
Now, said Serkin, his 87 kids have "a large learning lab, a technology center, a science center and an art room, all in one. And even though the classrooms themselves are smaller, we have more of them, so we're able to split our first grade into two classrooms of 10 students apiece, which we could never do before."
Adds Hope Taragin, the school's vice-president: "We needed more room after 30 years in the other building."
HDS, which serves a modern Orthodox clientele, draws 85% of its students from the Kent Mill area, home to three Orthodox shuls. Serkin said the school is also beginning to attract business from religious families in Georgetown and elsewhere in the District. He'd also like to lure the children of Israelis in the Rockville area who might otherwise be scared off by the idea of a strictly Orthodox religious school.
"Our classes are mixed," he said. "It's no accident either. It's by choice that we keep them mixed."
Serkin, pointing out that his students learn Bible and Chumash from the original texts, said in his general area there's no modern Orthodox school.
"We offer a very strong general studies program modeled after Montgomery County public schools," he told WJW. "Our Judaic studies curriculum includes Hebrew immersion, which starts in kindergarten and goes through sixth grade. The kids have three hours a day of Hebrew and three hours of English, five days a week, 35 weeks a year. That's more intensive than an ulpan in Israel."
Serkin said his school is giving out $150,000 to $160,000 a year in scholarships
"Because of the current economic situation, we can't raise tuition, so we have to do more fundraising," Serkin said. "We looked at this move as a way to place ourselves within the Jewish community as a viable option for parents as well as donors. We needed this as a jumping-off point."
Taragin, whose 10-year-old daughter Lauren attends HDS, said she couldn't recommend a better Jewish school. "Our kids are extremely happy. My son Benjamin just graduated sixth grade, and he wishes he were still there."