Shalom: Community welcomes new J-school

When Congregation Beth Israel started its preschool with seven children in 1998, the founders weren't sure whether the start-up would succeed.

Six years later, their question has been answered.

The preschool is "bursting at its seams," says Liz Alexander, whose rising kindergartner Charlie is one of the nearly 50 students (including this reporter's son) ages 18 months to five years who were enrolled this past year.

But while graduates of CBI preschool have gone on to attend local public and private elementary schools, in fall 2005 they'll have the option of continuing to learn in a Jewish environment with the opening of the Charlottesville Community Jewish Day School.

For Alexander, a UVA professor of Jewish Studies, the new school marks the realization of a longtime dream.

"As a Jewish parent, this is a really important part of my identity," she says. "I want my child to be able to draw on all the values and the resources of Jewish culture and heritage as he goes out into the world."

Congregation Beth Israel's Cantor Allen Leider says that while the synagogue is not affiliated with the school, it is "absolutely" supportive of the venture, and has offered it classroom space for its first year.

"It's going to benefit our community in a lot of ways we don't realize yet," says Leider, who taught in a Jewish day school for five years before moving to Charlottesville. "A day school," he says, "can integrate learning so that Jewish learning is not separate from secular learning."

Despite their delight at the school's Jewish orientation, Alexander and others stress that it is primarily a "community school," and that in order for the preschool to succeed, non-Jewish members of the community must be comfortable enrolling their children.

"The Jewish Day School is not a religious school," explains Elliot Majerczyk, parent of preschooler Aviva. "The curriculum is secular," he says, "with a component of Jewish history, culture, and Hebrew."

Even within Judaism, levels of observance vary, from the most casual– Reform– up to Orthodox Judaism, which requires its adherents to eat specially prepared Kosher foods, observe the Saturday sabbath, and wear certain garments including a head covering for males called the yarmulke.

Alexander, whose family is Orthodox, says she will have no problem sending her child to the Reform school when her family returns. "We feel okay," she says. "Home and school will complement each other," she says, "not mirror each other."

In its first year, the Jewish Day School will offer kindergarten and first grade. Tuition, says Majerczyk, will be roughly between $7,000 and $7,500– comparable, he says, to other private school tuitions.

The school has raised more than $30,000 to help with start-up costs, and Alexander says she hopes the board will be able to hire a director this coming fall, if only on a consulting basis. To help raise money for the school, Alexander's father, Hershel Shanks, a world-renowned authority of biblical archaeology, including some strong views about the alleged brother-of-Jesus ossuary, will speak at the synagogue on Sunday, June 6 at 9:30am. [For details on this event, see the Walkabout feature on page 34.– editor.]

As for fall 2005, Alexander says eight students have committed, though she hopes that number will grow. While the initial plan calls only for grades K-1, Alexander says the school will consider adding grades two and three if interest is strong.

"The idea," she says, "is to have a reasonable plan that we know we can execute."

Charlie Alexander will attend the Charlottesville Community Jewish Day School when his family returns from a year in Jerusalem.