Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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70 and 30

Two Denver day schools mark 100 years of revolutionizing our community

One century.

That’s the combined contribution of two Denver Jewish day schools that recently marked major anniversaries: their 70th and their 30th.

On their milestones we salute those other anchors of the Jewish future in our community — the other day schools. But in this season we focus on two galvanizing dinners at which two Denver day schools sent the message: We have made a critical difference. The evidence is in.

The schools’ 100 years have changed the face of Denver Jewry and changed the mindset of Denver Jewry.

Back when Hillel Academy began, a Jewish parochial school was deemed “unAmerican” by much of Denver Jewry. The word is in quotation marks because that is exactly the word — the accusation — thrown at the pioneering founders of Denver’s original day school. 

It was a biting accusation: Graduates of a day school will never be able to make a living, will never make it in the professions, will marginalize, stigmatize and embarrass the Jewish people. Such a school will make it tough for Jews in America.

Seven decades ago, one wasn’t supposed to be — another term used back then — “too Jewish.” 

Jewish day schools have brought  not just a beneficial change in mindset to the larger Jewish population. There is also the change in the level of Jewish literacy in our community, and a change in the level of Jewish observance and sensitivity. Not to mention, a change in our community’s continuity.

That’s the summary — a skeletal one — of the contributions of the Denver Academy of Torah, which marked 30 years at a glorious celebration on May 10, and of Hillel Academy, which marked 70 years at a dramatic dinner on May 30.

The effects of Jewish day schools ripple outward.

Ripples from Hillel Academy include the presence of the first two Jewish high schools  in our community. Ripples from DAT include the first eruv in our community and the strengthening of its pro-Israel voice. Ripples from both schools include the legitimation of post-high school study in Israel. 

Ripples from all Jewish day schools include the addition to our Jewish community of a host of literate Jews, as well as the schools’ teachers their families. 

Needless to say, the ultimate ripple is the presence in American society of a strong and growing cohort of proud and literate Jews who contribute to all levels of society and thus sanctify the Divine name. Far from being “unAmerican,” day school graduates have enhanced this country at the highest levels. And this is besides the eminent Jewish scholars who have emerged from our day schools throughout the US and in Israel.

It is still more. It is an enhanced Denver Jewish community whose daily rhythms have become more Jewish — a community in which it is now common to greet each other with “Good Shabbos” or “Shabbat Shalom” on Fridays, regardless of how one respects Shabbos; a community in which it is now common for adults to take up the study of Hebrew, of Talmud or of Tanakh; a community in which the articulation of Jewish values in community decisions has become a given. 

One may trace the proximate causes of these and the other Jewish rhythms in our community to various individuals or institutions, but if you trace the causality back far enough, you will find their ultimate roots in the immersive Jewish education of the Jewish day schools.

It wasn’t this way in our community when Hillel Academy began 70 years ago or even when DAT began 30 years ago.

We hesitate to mention names because the success of both of these schools is due to the devotion of too many people, in too many categories, to name. Educators. Parents. Donors. Administrators. Fundraisers. Volunteers. Staff. Specialists (curriculum and otherwise). Officers. Boards. Community Cheerleaders. Not to mention — the students themselves! That being said, it would be incongruous not to invoke two names that add one additional and essential category: Visionaries. The late Sheldon Beren at Hillel Academy. The lateM. B. Glassman at DAT. They stood on the shoulders of giants, even as they were the indispensable giants themselves.

It takes giants to found a school  with no more than 27 students in rented classrooms at the old BMH Hebrew School on 16th and York. It takes people willing to go against the grain. 

Not only could they not imagine a time when Hillel Academy would have 300 students. They surely could not have imagined the day when their efforts would be imitated by five additional schools! They are, in the order of their founding, Yeshiva Toras Chaim, Beth Jacob High School, Herzl Jewish Day School and  Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy (now merged as the Denver Jewish Day School) and the Denver Academy of Torah.

As these new schools were founded, they demonstrated a critical Denver Jewish sociological truth: the addition of a new Jewish day school does not diminish the others. The pie is not sliced into ever smaller slices. Each school, with its own ideology, identifies a specific cohort and adds to the total overall enrollment.

Alas, the reason for this is that day school education in Denver still represents a small percentage of the overall Jewish youth population. The cause of Jewish day schools is still an uphill battle. But the symbolic century of Hillel and DAT certainly cast an optimistic canopy over the prospects for growth.

Intensive day school education is paradoxical. Its short-term results are almost imperceptible. Its long-term results shape American Jewry for the better more than any other investment, bar none. 

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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