By: Mozelle Mimran

The sleepy Jersey Shore, home to many and summer haven to many more, known for its sunny, placid and calm demeanor, was rocked to its core last summer.

While everyone was trying to make sense of the events, a well-established Jewish girls’ school, home to over 200 community girls, found itself besieged by financial turmoil and in danger of collapse. Once a safe refuge from the street culture, which strongly influences the way young girls dress, the music they listen to and the way they relate to family and Jewish values, the school was left adrift and in need of strong leadership. Through no fault of their own, these innocent young girls were being thrust into the upheaval that rocked the community and were in danger of being cast out into an unfamiliar educational environment. The students were in danger of losing the shelter and security they had always known within the walls of their school.

A Beloved Rabbi to the Rescue

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the committed parent body, and equally committed administration, began a crusade to ensure that the school would not only survive, but continue to thrive. They approached Rabbi Shmuel Choueka, who had been teaching halacha at the school for seven years, and beseeched him to lead them into the next phase of the school’s evolution. The rabbi’s commitment to the community generally, and to his students in particular, led him to accept the position and the substantial responsibility it carried. Marjorie Kairey, a long time parent and current PTA President, says, “I always knew the school would continue – how could it not? But I never dreamed we would be so lucky to have Rabbi Choueka lead us. He works tirelessly and selflessly on our behalf and he deserves our utmost hakarat hatov (gratitude).”

Rabbi Choueka’s first challenge was to get the teachers and administration on board, considering that the existing staff hadn’t received salaries in six months. Then, to help clearly define the school’s goals and ideals, the institution was named Beit Yaakov, a designation that represents the gold standard in the education of young Jewish girls. The school’s mission was clear: Provide girls from pre-k through high school with the finest Judaic studies curriculum coupled with a rigorous academic curriculum that will prepare young women of our community for the venerable role of wife and mother and equip them with the skills necessary to enter the workforce.

Beit Yaakov – A History of Vision and Success

Beit Yaakovis a loving term to describe the daughters of Israel (Shemot 19:3), and this is the name chosen for the system of educating young Jewish women that was started by a young seamstress in Cracow, Poland in 1917. During the 18th– 19thcentury, the Haskalah, the so called “Enlightenment,” which began in Germany and eventually spread throughout the continent, wreaked havoc on European Jewry. It is estimated that up to a quarter of a million of Jews converted to Christianity and hundreds of thousands joined the ranks of Reform. Soon, Torah-observant Jews were an embattled minority. From the villages of Poland to the city of Vienna, Sarah Schenirer saw an alarming rate of assimilation amongst the young Jewish girls of her time due to the secular influences of the non-Jewish schools that they were attending. She understood that to effectively combat this phenomenon, communities needed to provide young Jewish women with a thorough, school-based Jewish education. She started a school of her own, trained other women to teach, and set up similar schools in other cities throughout Europe. She obtained the sanction of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan(the Hafess Haim), who wholeheartedly supported her cause, giving the movement credibility and financial support.

As she wrote in her biography, Sara Shenirer believed that “the main goal of the Beth Jacob school is to train the Jewish daughters so that they will serve Hashem with all their might and with all their hearts; so that they will fulfill the commandments of the Torah with sincere enthusiasm….” The humble seamstress observing a tremendous void and potential catastrophe in the community responded with determination and leadership and changed the course of Jewish education for girls.

A Special Atmosphere

Working with this same underlying philosophy for educating young women, the Beit Yaakov of the Jersey Shore has inculcated a Sephardic flavor and commitment to Sephardic heritage in its’ educational practices. The administration has succeeded in creating an environment that nourishes each girl’s individuality and encourages her to reach her full potential. Offering small class sizes (an average of 15 students per class), a state-of-the-art computer room, a gym and resource services, the school succeeds in meeting the academic, social and emotional needs of each student with an emphasis on character development. Rabbi Choueka described the unique atmosphere that pervades the school, which encourages personal growth. “There is a happiness among the girls, a desire to be in school and to learn.” He believes that this atmosphere of acceptance allows each student to thrive. “Our goal is to provide a rigorous academic curriculum to prepare our students for higher education. We encourage our students to pursue careers and welcome them back as teachers.”

The administration, most of which has been with the school since its inception, is comprised of dedicated professionals, familiar with the needs and traditions of our community. The pre-school consists of three divisions: a pre-nursery for three- year-olds, aptly named Cuddles and Hugs, a nursery and a kindergarten. The three programs are run by Mrs. Hadassa Svay. Marjorie Kairey describes the programs as “warm and loving,” adding that “the kindergarten really prepared my daughter for first grade.”

“Multiple Intelligence”

Overseeing the secular studies department for both the elementary and high schools is the erudite educator Dr. Judy Shoner. Her great love for education and the community have been crucial factors in the success of the school. In a recent conversation, her enthusiasm was palpable. “My philosophy is that success breeds success and that we must address the individual learning styles of each student.”

“Multiple intelligence” is the term Dr. Shoner uses to describe the broad learning styles of various students. “When we assess a student, we have to allow her to use whatever talent she has to express herself.” This means that sometimes an assessment is made not through a multiple choice test, but rather through an oral report, a scrap book on cells, or a modeling clay solar system.

She has infused the school with a love of reading with her annual readathon held in May. “May is spring fever month, and the readathon gets the girls excited and back on track.” The objective is to get the students to read as many books as they can, with prizes awarded to the students of each reading level who read the most books, and to the class who collectively reads the most books. “By giving the class prize, we foster teamwork as the students work together and encourage each other to read.” Shari Franco, a parent of several girls, shared Dr. Shoner’s belief that the readathon “turned every one of my girls into readers.”

Working hand-in-hand with Dr. Shoner are Rena Molinowitz – or “Morah Rena” as she is affectionately known to her students – Judaic Studies Principal for the elementary school, and Mrs. Channie Gordon, who serves as Judaic Studies Principal of the high school.

High School – The “Training Years”

As principal of the high school, Mrs. Gordon takes a personal interest in her students which continues long after the young woman graduates. Students will return to seek her advice and guidance on career issues, questions regarding shidduchim (matchmaking), and simply to feel her warmth and concern. “Every year at orientation, I tell the girls the same thing and it bears repeating – elementary school prepares you for high school and high school prepares you for life.” The objectives of the Judaic Studies Department are to provide a comprehensive curriculum that covers the gamut of subjects from Torah, Navi and Halacha to midot and hashkafa. “Our academic program keeps an eye on what will benefit our students to become neshei hayil – women of valor who will build homes based on Torah values and kedusha (holiness). High school comprises the training years; it is the time to fortify the girls so they will be successful in the future.”

The student government organization, or G.O. for short, is a vital part of the high school program. It offers the students the opportunity to be creative, develop leadership, and create camaraderie all in a fun and exciting environment. “There are a lot of rules and authority here, but the girls embrace them because they are presented in a warm, positive and upbeat way. And while the girls are respectful of my authority, they know that although I am busy, I am never too busy to speak with them.”

As with any educational institution, The Beit Yaakov of the Jersey Shore has financial concerns. Only half of its $2 million budget is raised through tuition. Rabbi Choueka explains, “We are very sensitive to the parent body, many of whom are struggling in these difficult financial times, and we rely on the generosity of the community.” Even if one lives across state lines or ideological lines, the necessity for the existence of the Beit Yaakov on the Jersey Shore is clear – young girls must be educated in Torah values, because as mothers of the future generations, they are a vital link in our heritage and tradition.

The Beit Yaakov of the Jersey Shore invites you to its annual bake sale on July 29, and to hear the always-inspiring Rabbi Paysach Krohn on Wednesday, July 28 at the home of Denise and Joey Sutton, 1 Saxony Drive. Come support the girls and young women of our community, as Sara Schenirer encouraged her students: “Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.” It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure the perpetuation of Torah values and morals, for the benefit of our children and our entire community.