Head of School

Welcome to Golda Och Academy!

We are proud to be an independent, Pre-K - 12 Jewish day school drawing students from communities all over the state of New Jersey and parts of New York.  Founded in 1965, Golda Och Academy’s three pillars – academic excellence, Jewish identity and values, and community – are the critical elements that serve as the foundation to prepare our students for their academic journey both here in our school and for the rest of their Jewish lives. 
 
We offer our students a rigorous dual curriculum that challenges them to think and seek answers to life’s essential questions. Our exceptional faculty inspires our students to think critically while exploring and collaborating with one another inside the classroom. At the same time, our wide range of athletic, artistic and experiential opportunities provide our students with the ability to grow outside of the classroom as well.    
 
When our graduates leave the halls of Golda Och Academy, they are prepared to take on leadership roles as a result of their engagement and exploration of Jewish life, texts, traditions, and values throughout their time in our school. They understand what it means to live an ethical and just life and have developed a strong connection with the Jewish people, Torah and land of Israel.
 
Our warm, supportive environment enables students and parents to form strong and lasting friendships imbued with Jewish identity and moral values. I encourage you to visit our school ─ whether it is to tour our campuses or attend a special event ─ and look forward to welcoming you into our Golda Och Academy community.
 
Adam Shapiro
Head of School
 

Head of School Blog: Jewish Life and Learning

September 2019
 
There is something special about hearing the shofar blasts every morning in our Lower School at Morning Meeting and during Tefillah in our Upper School throughout the entire month of Elul. In a year like this, we have almost a full month of hearing this powerful call to action. The sound of the shofar makes us all alert and readies us for the work that we all must do - both internally and externally - during the chagim that arrive in the month of Tishrei. It is so fitting to have this important time, at the beginning of a new school year, to celebrate the renewal and excitement that comes with - in the case of our students - getting a bit older, meeting new teachers and facing the challenges of the year ahead. Our team has been hard at work readying ourselves for 2019-20, and we look forward to sharing information about the work we are engaged in at GOA. 
 
Our newly-adopted Strategic Plan is one filled with important goals for our institution. It is my hope that you will learn even more by reading News on the GO, speaking with teachers at Open School Nights and conferences, and through Head of School updates and communications from other members of our team throughout the year. 
 
As we implement this new plan, we have made a number of important and exciting changes over the past few months in our school. There are physical upgrades and new members of our professional team that I am confident will have an enormous impact on the student experience and overall family experience as well. 
 
 
Strategic Plan: Jewish Life and Learning
 
In our Strategic Plan area of focus entitled Jewish Life and Learning, our stated goal is a promise to “...create meaningful and intentional experiences filled with the joy of being Jewish centered around ritual, celebration and Tefillah.” 
 
In our Lower School, this is very much anchored in our classroom learning and milestone events. When our students take the stage to receive their first siddurim and chumashim, when they stand proudly in the Horace Bier Beit Knesset in front of their parents leading a Rosh Chodesh service and when they prepare and teach words of Torah to their peers and parents. At each of these moments, their learning, poise and growth are on full display. 
 
In our Upper School, this takes place both inside and outside of the classroom, whether it’s through deep and meaningful text study, during Tefillah, on Shabbatonim, while assisting the Jewish communities in Cuba and Puerto Rico or on our Na’ale (9th grade) and Neshama (12th grade) Israel programs. These are just a few examples of these values in action. 
 
 
Expansion of GOA's Jewish Life and Experiential Team
 
As we look ahead to the coming year, we are thrilled about the changes we have made that will further enhance the work we are doing - Pre-K through 12th - as it relates to Jewish Life and Learning in our school. We’ve expanded our Jewish Life and Experiential Education team and have done so with the explicit goal of creating an even more impactful experience for our students. We are fortunate to welcome Rabbi Adir Yolkut (Tefillah and Jewish Life Educator), Mr. Ohad Porat (Senior Israeli Shaliach), Mr. Craig Resmovits (Golden Ochtaves Director and Music Educator) and Mr. Andrew Mittleman (Multimedia and Experiential Educator) to our talented team alongside Rabbi Meirav Kallush (Director of Israel Education), Ms. Jamie Mittleman (Arts and Experiential Educator) and Mr. Eric Fox (Student Activities and Experiential Educator). Ms. Lori Jaffe will be overseeing this group as the Chair of Jewish Life and Experiential Education team. Ms. Jaffe is well-respected by her peers and has created strong bonds with our students over the past two decades working in our school. I am confident she will successfully guide this team as they work to elevate our entire program. 
 
This tremendous team has hit the ground running and has already impacted our students. Our 12th graders spent a meaningful Shabbat together last weekend on the Upper West Side for their Senior Shabbaton, our high school students returned from Camp Ramah Nyack on Thursday from their back-to-school Y’mei GOA Retreat and our 7th and 8th graders will travel to Ramah next week for their Y’mei GOA Retreat. Additionally, this morning all of our Upper School students gathered for their first weekly school-wide Kabbalat Shabbat.    
 
Last week, our 5th graders began their work with senior Israeli shaliach Mr. Porat and over the course of the year will have the opportunity to learn more about Israel, its culture, people and beauty. Additionally, birthdays will now be celebrated monthly in the Lower School during an exciting and energetic Kabbalat Shabbat service. Students who have birthdays during that particular month will celebrate with their classmates at that time, combining Shabbat with their own personal simchas.  
 
 
Introducing Special New Jewish Life & Learning Family Events
 
At Golda Och Academy, it is our explicit goal to create deep and meaningful experiences for our students and their families. We are currently planning two new special family events - a Havdalah program this fall and a Kabbalat Shabbat program in the spring. In addition, we will be starting a new tradition this year - beginning with our 7th grade students - to invite families into school during their child's bar/bat mitzvah week so that we can celebrate these special occasions together.
 
We look forward to sharing more and inviting you into school for a range of experiences - some new and some that have become GOA traditions - in order to celebrate the true essence of Jewish life and Jewish living that is the foundation of our school. 
 
Looking forward to an exciting and meaningful 5780! 
 
 



Past Blog Entries

List of 17 items.

  • Reimagining Physical Space, Programming and Personnel

    August 6, 2019
     
    As the calendar has now turned to August, we are looking ahead to the 2019-20 school year with tremendous excitement for all that’s in store for our students. In anticipation of the new school year, I wanted to update you on some developments regarding our physical spaces, programming and personnel. I’d also like to remind you to stay tuned for more detailed, campus-specific updates from Mrs. Siegel and Mr. Herskowitz in the coming weeks.
     
    We have made a number of changes to our Eric F. Ross Upper School Campus that I know will be appreciated when our halls are once again filled with students and teachers next month. The greatest transformation has occurred in our Beit Knesset where we have undergone a major renovation in an effort to enhance the student experience for davening and other community programs. We have also upgraded a number of our classrooms with new technology and furniture, redesigned the entryway to our main office and created a new Upper School Learning Lab on the first floor attached to our Guidance suite. 
     
    Our Upper School Learning Lab, while still in its pilot stage for the coming school year, will be a dedicated space to provide a structured program where students with learning differences can receive more individualized support. In our Lower School, we are excited to build on the success of our alternative Judaic Studies track as we continue to support the range of learners in our program. Year two of our pilot will welcome new students into our multi-year Judaic Studies 3rd/4th grade classroom under the expert instruction of Lower School Learning Specialist Ms. Sandi Fein and Hebrew teacher Morah Yael Safran. Additionally, we are eager to broaden our approach to Hebrew language learning in 5th grade for students who completed our pilot in 2018-2019. We are confident this new stand-alone program will further enhance their learning and language acquisition experience.

    In addition to the enhancements to our physical spaces and program, I am delighted to share some exciting personnel additions and changes for 2019-20.

    Rabbi Adir Yolkut has joined the Upper School Jewish Life team as our Tefillah and Experiential Educator. Most recently, Rabbi Yolkut – a graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University – served as the Assistant Rabbi of the Westchester Jewish Center. He has also served as a group leader on United Synagogue Youth’s Pilgrimage Program as well as United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Nativ program. I am looking forward, with great anticipation, to our students having the opportunity to learn with and from him.

    Mr. Jonathan Hefetz has been appointed as the Chair of our Upper School Language Arts Department. Since arriving at GOA in 2014, Mr. Hefetz has had a tremendous impact on our students and their learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Our outgoing chair and current Middle School Director, Ms. Jamie Himmelstein, has been working closely with Mr. Hefetz to ensure a smooth transition. This will also enable Ms. Himmelstein to spend more time working with our Middle School students and those transitioning into the Middle School.

    In addition to her role as Lower School Assistant Principal, Mrs. Karen Spector, will also be assuming the newly-created role of Director of Early Childhood Education (Pre-K through 1st grade). In this position, Mrs. Spector will work closely with our early childhood teaching team, students, current parents and prospective families. I am confident that her 14 years of experience in our school - which includes time spent inside the classroom and as a member of our school’s leadership team - will serve her and our entire community well as she takes on this new role. 

    The upcoming school year promises to be one of growth and meaningful learning for our students. Please continue to check our school calendar in the coming weeks as it is in the process of being updated. On Monday, August 26, class sections for the Lower School and individual student schedules for the Upper School will be released on our website. I am looking forward to welcoming all of our students and teachers back for our first day of school on Wednesday, September 4 and to welcoming our parents for Open School Nights on September 17 (Upper School) and September 25 (Lower School).  
     
    I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to acknowledge the horrific acts of violence and terrorism that occurred in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend. Our world was once again shaken by these two acts of senseless violence for which there is truly no explanation. Many of us struggle with understanding these atrocities and how to address them with our children. Although school is not currently in session, please know our team of professionals are always available to speak with any students or parents who may want to reach out. We hope and pray for a full and speedy recovery to those who sustained injuries this past weekend and pray that the memories of those who perished be for a blessing.
  • Responding to Poway

    May 1, 2019

    I am terribly saddened to be once again writing about our school’s response to yet another unthinkable tragedy. Six months after the devastating attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we are again forced to confront an evil attack on a house of worship — this time at the Chabad of Poway, California. An attack that claimed the life of Lori Gilbert-Kaye z’l, a passionate and dedicated member of her community and founder of her shul, and injured three others. We pray that these three victims have a full and speedy recovery, while also recognizing that the grief felt by the Poway community — and our entire Jewish community — will take much longer to heal.
     
    It is at these moments that we as educators need to be strong and supportive for our students while also grappling with these tragedies in our own minds. I am grateful to Mrs. Siegel and Mrs. Spector and our entire Lower School team for speaking with our students during morning meeting yesterday, reaffirming that they are safe and making themselves available for those who have questions and wish to speak further. Our 4th and 5th grade teams, in an age-appropriate manner, also spoke with their students during class time to reassure them that questions were always important to ask and space was given for those conversations to take place.
     
    During Shacharit, our Upper School students added prayers and readings to their services. I am grateful to Rabbi Goldberg and Ms. Himmelstein (6th/7th minyan) and Rabbi Kallush and Mr. Herskowitz (8th-11th minyan) who led the students through these prayers while also facilitating very important conversations fueled by guided questions. I feel fortunate that I was able to daven Shacharit with our 8th-11th grade students and take part in the conversation that ensued. Our students are always eager to engage in these conversations, and I am always in awe of the passion and dedication that comes through in their words.
     
    While there were many points raised and questions asked, there were also some in the room who — much like many adults — feel somewhat hopeless in the face of people who are bent on evil and the prospect of changing those mindsets. Not wanting to let this moment pass, I pushed our students and challenged them to stand up and make their voices heard. While it is indeed much easier to sit idly by, Pirkei Avot teaches us that while it is not our job to always complete the task, it is impermissible for us to shy away from taking on such challenges. They were reminded that while some things may be easier to change than others, that all change begins with small acts that can lead to bigger and greater things.
     
    Following this horrific attack, while still in the hospital recovering, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, sent out a message imploring all of us to go out and do something positive, something that can bring light to the darkness. As he said, “A little bit of light pushes away some darkness; a lot of light pushes away horrific darkness.” These powerful words from someone who had himself seen the deepest darkness just a few hours prior, should inspire all of us to want to do more, to show kindness and compassion towards others and do all that we can to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.  
     
    Our 8th grade students are demonstrating this through their work in their Am Echad course and their lobbying/social media efforts, and I am thrilled that our entire school — Pre-K-11th grade — will be engaged in our annual All-School Community Service Day tomorrow, May 1. It is this work, these small (and sometimes large!) acts of chesed and tikkun olam that show our students and the larger community that with care shown towards one another that change is indeed possible.
     
    While we are facing difficult, uncertain and scary times, the dedication and conviction of our students give me comfort knowing that it will enable them to become the leaders who effect change in the future. As a school, we will continue to support and encourage our students, continue to debate the hard issues and surround one another in an environment that teaches kindness, compassion and understanding.
     
    Recognizing that you are engaging in conversations at home as well, I am including the following links (links that we have shared in the past as well) in order to help you navigate this difficult topic with your children.
     
     
    As always, I encourage you to reach out to me or to any member of our educational leadership team should you have questions or concerns about security and/or the health and well-being of your child. 
  • Golda Och Parent Advisory Committee (GOPAC)

    As our Board Chair Rebecca Berman and I wrote to you last week, we recognize the desire of many of our parents to have deeper and even more meaningful communication and access. To that end, I would like to invite our current GOA parents to participate in our newly-formed Golda Och Parent Advisory Committee (GOPAC).
     
    Through our surveys and focus groups, parents have expressed the desire to be more deeply involved in the overall Golda Och Academy experience. Parents play a vital and integral role in building a school community and in providing needed perspective to work through issues important to the school. To capture this viewpoint, we are introducing GOPAC — a new committee whose mission will be to make recommendations to improve the overall educational, social and spiritual life of the students in our school.
     
    GOPAC will be comprised of committed parents and administrators who will meet every six weeks throughout the school year beginning with our first meeting on Monday, January 7 at 7:00 pm in the Upper School. GOPAC will address issues viewed as important to the school and provide recommendations to me for changes and enhancements to our program. I am looking for parents to sit on this committee from all grades within our school. If you are interested in joining and want to learn more, please complete the brief signup form by clicking here.
     
    We are committed to working together as we see a real opportunity to effect change that will enable us to be the best school we can possibly be. Should you have any additional questions after reading this letter, please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly.
     
    In partnership,
     
    Adam Shapiro
    Head of School
     
     
    About GOPAC
     
    The prime objective of GOPAC is to make recommendations that will enhance the quality of the overall experience in our school. Minutes from every meeting, including information about sub-committee progress and committee-approved recommendations, will be posted on the back end of our school website for all parents to access. Our administration will report back to GOPAC on the implementation of all recommendations that the school moves forward with. 
     
    Some examples of the types of recommendations GOPAC might make include (but are certainly not limited to):
     
    • Recommendations on school policy
    • Effective means of communication between school and home
    • School culture
    • Program enhancements and adjustments
    • Event planning—speakers, social, etc.
    • Facilities usage/upgrades
     
    Please note: GOPAC will not be a forum to discuss personnel issues dealing with individual faculty, staff or administrators. Issues of a global nature regarding faculty, staff or administration may be discussed and appropriate recommendations made.
  • Looking ahead to 2019-20

    January 23, 2019

    This year has been one of continued growth for our students and teachers — a year of tremendous excitement and impactful learning from Pre-K through 12th grade, and one that has been filled with meaningful reflection and active listening.
     
    Through professional development work over this past summer, and throughout the first part of the school year, our teachers have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Responsive Classroom approach and have demonstrated the ability to utilize it in their classrooms. The results have been quite visible from the mood meters (where students are empowered to gain a deeper understanding of their own feelings and abilities) to the myriad modalities employed by our faculty on a daily basis. The end result is an emphasis on our students developing the necessary academic, social and emotional skills under the guidance of teachers who are attuned to their individual strengths and areas for further growth.
     
    This work has also been evident in our 8th grade Am Echad course where our students have engaged in a multi-disciplinary project that has been uniquely created by them and for them by a team of four highly motivated teachers. The end result has been an engaging opportunity for our students to research real issues in need of advocacy, make a case to one another about the importance of their issue and decide by vote which single issue they would take on together. This authentic learning experience has created a purposeful, active and interactive learning environment where every student is able to thrive.
     
    Every teacher is charged with creating classroom environments where students are encouraged to grow and think on a deeper and more critical level. Our Lower School teachers make a point to give a special welcome to each of their students before they enter the classroom to capture their engagement and build on it during the rest of that learning period. Similarly, our Upper School STEM instructors assist our students in honing their skills to accomplish a number of impressive feats including, once again, qualifying for the NJ State Tournament for Robotics.
     
    Our students and teachers have grown tremendously this year and have experienced a great deal of excitement along the way. Without a doubt, our inaugural, all-school Hanukkah celebration stands out above all else. To see our entire kehillah (community) singing, dancing and celebrating Hanukkah together was truly a sight to behold. Our Pre-K students lit the hanukkiah surrounded by our 12th graders. Before the sufgniyot were served, we gathered all of our current students who are the children of alumni — all 76 of them! — for a group picture that speaks to the power of a GOA education, the desire of our alumni to return to our community as parents (and in some cases grandparents), and provide that same impactful educational experience for the next generation.
     
    Another exciting, important and inspiring moment happened during Hanukkah as well. Twenty Golda Och students and three incredibly dedicated chaperones traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico to take part in a tikkun olam (repair of the world) relief mission, becoming the first group from Greater MetroWest to visit the island since Hurricane Maria to engage in this type of work. Three days of painting, working with other relief groups (such as Nechama and IsraAid), and touring with members of the Jewish community of San Juan provided our students with experiences that will stay with them forever and encourage them to continue engaging in tikkun olam efforts for many years to come.
     
    While these are just a couple of examples of the excitement in our school, it certainly does not end there. Our students have been engaged both inside and outside of the classroom in the arts and through sports, and it is our hope that these experiences continue to shape who our students are and the kind of people they become. We also understand that it doesn’t simply end at graduation. There are countless examples of our alumni making us proud on college campuses and beyond, and I am struck by one statistic in particular. Currently, Golda Och Academy alums serve as the Hillel chapter presidents at Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon and Columbia/Barnard, and two more alums are the presidents of Hillel and Chabad at Muhlenberg. To see our students engaged as leaders in Jewish life on campus encapsulates so much of who we are at GOA. They are applying the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills honed here to lead and help others and we, as a school community, should all be bursting with pride knowing this.
     
    We are also blessed to have a dedicated Board of Trustees to go along with our incredibly committed parent body at GOA. So many of you helped us over the past year as we asked you to let us know what you were most proud of and in which areas you would like to see our school continue to grow. We learned a lot by listening and look forward to sharing our vision once our school’s new five-year strategic plan is completed and approved this spring.
     
    I am pleased to invite you to continue on our journey as a school and community in the coming year. This week you will receive re-enrollment information directly from TADS.com. Please watch your inbox for this important email as it explains the re-enrollment process and next steps. We kindly ask that you adhere to the re-enrollment deadline of March 1 as this enables us to plan and schedule most effectively for the coming school year.
  • Israel

    May 15, 2018

    November 4, 1995 is a day I will never forget. My classmates and I had just finished a wonderful Shabbat together and had made plans to travel to Kings of Israel Square (כיכר מלכי ישראל) in Tel Aviv later that night for a peace rally that was set to feature an appearance from Prime Minister Rabin. For some reason that I can't quite recall, at the last minute we decided not to travel the short distance to Tel Aviv. What happened next shook me and the entire State of Israel to our core as later that evening Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated while leaving that rally.
     
    Two days later I found myself - along with close to 1 million Israelis - waiting outside of the Knesset in an effort to make my way towards his casket and pay final respects at the lying in state. Those days following his assassination and the weeks that followed had a profound impact on me, the people of Israel and the entire narrative of the history of Israel. Whether you agreed or disagreed with Rabin's policies, it marked a period of mourning and a loss of innocence for a country that was not yet 50 years old.
     
    As I fast forward to these last few days and the many conversations I have had with Rabbi Meirav Kallush, Director of Israel Education and Jewish Life Programming, here in the US and our team of Neshama leaders in Israel who are currently guiding our 12th grade students on their powerful three-month journey, I can't help but stop and think about what our students are experiencing now that they have become fully immersed in Israeli society.
     
    Yesterday's historic move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem was yet another one of those moments. I have no doubt that our students who found themselves just minutes away from this new embassy in Jerusalem will forever be able to tell people exactly where they were on May 14, 2018. They were there, experiencing both the jubilation and trepidation that comes with this move. Their madrichim (counselors) and many others who they have been working with have also helped them to gain a deeper understanding of this new and changing reality for Israel and its people.
     
    While the safety and security of our students is of paramount importance (and has absolutely been top of mind in all of these conversations), I could not be more excited for them to find themselves in the middle of history - at the center of the story. At the same time, the rest of us find ourselves bearing witness to this transformative moment and while there are many emotions and unanswered questions in our minds, no one can deny its gravity. The eternal capital of the Jewish people being recognized as such by the United States of America marks a powerful moment that few believed attainable in 1948 (and possibly not even in 1995 following the passage of the Jerusalem Embassy Act).
     
    One of the core values of our school is that of Ahavat Yisrael (Love of Israel) because we empower our students to develop an ongoing personal connection to Israel by studying its history and its culture. Our students learn the importance of Israel both in the classroom and within the land itself and we all need look no further than to our Neshama students who are doing just that on behalf of our entire GOA community. The bond between the United States and Israel is an unbreakable one and never has that been more fully on display than at this moment in time with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
     
    Perhaps it's no coincidence that this historic moment also coincides with Rosh Chodesh Sivan - the month in which we celebrate God's revelation to Bnai Yisrael at Mount Sinai. Just as that moment marked a new beginning and deeper understanding, so too can we hope that this moment in our history will be one that inspires a continued love for the land and the people of Israel and a renewed dedication to further understanding and dialogue as we continue on a path towards peace.
  • Faculty Appreciation

    May 4, 2018

    Pirkei Avot
    teaches that one should, "Provide for yourself a teacher and acquire yourself a friend..."    
     
    Next week, we will be celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week at Golda Och Academy. I wanted to take this opportunity to reach out to our families and express my deep appreciation for our talented and dedicated teachers who work hard every day to inspire and educate our students. At the Lower School, I see them nurturing our students, instilling them with a love of learning and Judaism, serving as role models on how to be good friends and mensches, and giving them the foundation that they will need in their educational and Jewish journeys. At the Upper School, I see our teachers planning exciting classes, helping students in clinics at lunch, advising an array of clubs and teams, planning unique field trips and experiences to enhance student learning, offering extra help and guidance, going the extra mile to nominate students for awards, scholarships and community programs and writing college recommendation letters. Our dedicated teachers take the time to know each student at Golda Och Academy and strive to support student learning and growth in any way they can.
     
    Recognizing that two of our core values are kehillah (community) and kavod (respect), it would be special in the week ahead for you (and/or your students) to think about a teacher who has made a difference in the life of your family and send them a note/email of appreciation.
     
    I also want to take this opportunity to recognize three very special members of our faculty who will be retiring this year after a combined service of over 80 years to our school and students. We salute and thank them for making a difference! They will be missed and we look forward to recognizing their service to our school in the coming weeks before the end of the school year.
     
     
     
    Janet Herman 
    Upper School Athletic Director and Chair of the Health and PE Department
    (27 years) 
       
    Rabbi Herb Kavon 
    Upper School Judaic Studies Teacher        
    (29 years)
     

    Paula Spack '84 "Morah P'nina" 
    Lower School Judaic Studies and Math Teacher and Director, Raglayim Shel Zahav Israeli Dance Troupe              
    (29 years)   
     
  • Josh Randman z"l

    January 31, 2018


    On Monday morning I received the call that I knew was coming and had dreaded more than anything. The voice on the other end of the line was that of a mother, a woman who I have come to recognize over the past three years as one of the strongest, kindest and caring individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. No one should ever have to make that call and certainly no parent should ever, ever have to know what it means to lose a child. Her words were few and neither of us were truly able to process it all in that moment. What we both did fully understand, however, was that he was gone. Josh Randman zichrono l'vracha, a young man who fought valiantly over the past three years, was unable to fight any longer.
     
    Since Monday, I have been trying to make sense of it all, and I continue to be drawn back to the words from the Book of Job that were said multiple times during the funeral:
     
    יְהוָה נָתַן, וַיהוָה לָקָח, יְהִי שֵׁם יְהוָה מְבֹרָךְ
    God gives, and God takes away, blessed is the name of God. (Job 1:21)
     
    We know as people of deep faith that it is sometimes too difficult for us to fully understand the obstacles and challenges put in front of us. We cannot fathom the loss of a young adult, a person with so many dreams and incredible intellect, because we are not supposed to. Instead, we come together as a community, we support his loved ones, grieve together and celebrate a life that was cut far too short yet one that was lived to the fullest.
     
    From the moment Josh was diagnosed with this terrible form of cancer back in 2015, he made a point to let all who would listen know that he would not allow his cancer to define him. His words, "Cancer is what I have, not who I am," resonated with his classmates, teachers and friends and later took a prominent place on the Team Josh shirts that were created as a fundraiser to support him and his family. He worked hard - even through some excruciatingly difficult treatments - to get his work done and never stopped seeking out wisdom and knowledge.
     
    He told me, without hesitation, that he was still going to graduate on time with his classmates. Not surprising at all, Josh fulfilled that goal. Following many months spent in Houston receiving treatment and recovering, Josh returned to New Jersey during his senior year and continued working towards completing his high school requirements. On May 26, 2016, with our community all on their feet cheering loudly and proudly, Josh walked across the stage to receive his diploma. The embrace we shared on that stage is something that will remain with me forever.
     
    Josh was an inspiration to all who had the blessing of knowing him. It was clear in the outpouring of love and support that was on display at his funeral with so many teachers, current students and alumni in attendance. We were there because that's what we do - both as a people and because that's what it means to be a part of the Golda Och Academy community.
     
    It is fitting, on a number of levels, that Josh was last here in school just a few weeks ago for our Alumni Basketball game. It is a moment for our young alumni to come back and reconnect with their friends and teachers and an opportunity for our younger students to see how passionate our alumni still are about GOA and the experiences they had here. Josh and I shared a few moments together that afternoon and didn't really say much. Silence dominated the conversation and, using our tradition as a guide, I think that's quite ok.
     
    In parashat Shmini (Vayikra 10:3) Moshe attempts to comfort Aaron following the death of his sons, and we learn that after Moshe spoke Aaron remained silent (וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן). This type of silence comes from a place of not being able, at certain incredibly difficult moments in our lives, to fully fathom God's power and actions. We can allow that silence to fill an awkward space or we can simply embrace it and recognize that it is in those moments - when silence dominates - that we are truly comforting ourselves and others by simply being present.
     
    Josh z'l was present in so many of our lives and will always hold a special place as part of our Golda Och Academy community. We will continue to support his parents, Gary and Elyssa, and his brother Noah, as they traverse this very difficult path towards healing. Josh's legacy has and will continue to live on. It will be remembered in our conversations and will be felt every time our Coderunners Robotics team readies themselves for a competition. It will also, I hope, be felt by all of us who work hard to make the most of every moment in our lives - that is how Josh lived every day of his too-short life and he should be an inspiration to us all.
     
    יהי זכרו ברוך - May Josh's beautiful memory be a blessing to all who had the honor and privilege of knowing him.
     
  • Reaction to Las Vegas

    October 3, 2018

    Waking up to the horrific news from Las Vegas yesterday of yet another mass murder made me feel like our country had taken another punch to our collective stomachs. We are faced - just 16 months after Orlando - with what is now the worst mass shooting in the history of our country. We are once again forced to deal with the reality that we have people in our country who are filled with hate and desire to cause unthinkable destruction.
     
    I, like many of you, am left feeling helpless. Helpless in making sense of this for myself, and the pit in my stomach grows deeper and deeper as I think about how many times we have had to have this conversation with the students in our school. Even beyond this, I am left feeling a great deal of anger every time one of these stories hits the news as it presents yet another opportunity for the innocence of our students to be stripped away. We strive to teach our students to dream big and have hope for their future. We want them to look at the world as their laboratory and feel safe to explore, grow and experience all kinds of incredible things. We don't want that flame to be extinguished. We don't want hate to prevail, and we certainly don't want our children - or any of us for that matter - to ever live in fear.
     
    To maintain that positivity, we must continue to teach our students to be the best people they can possibly be. From the cloud of sadness of yesterday morning, I was enlightened to see our Pre-K through 5th grade students wearing blue to school as part of the World Day of Bullying Prevention initiative. I was even more hopeful after hearing some of our youngest students ask why this type of day would be necessary if we are nice to one another and always work on being good friends. It is moments like these that can and should be a source of strength. Our Upper School students took the time to discuss and process this tragedy during tefillah. They were given the time and space to think more deeply about it and together participated in a moment of silence - time to reflect on the magnitude of this event and offer their own prayers for peace in the world. 
     
    Sukkot, which begins at sundown tomorrow night, has many names and one of them is Chag HaAsif, which is translated as the Holiday of Gathering. On one hand, we speak of celebrating all that has been gathered throughout the harvest and on the other we can understand it as the gathering of family and friends and creating joyousness in our sukkot. At these times when we may be struggling, we are fortunate that Jewish tradition shows us the importance of coming together as a community and experiencing joy with one another.
     
    The unspeakable tragedy of Las Vegas reminds us that while evil still exists in the world, we must embrace the special moments in our everyday lives. I pray that as we gather in our sukkot in the coming days that we find strength from that togetherness, draw meaning from the holiday, and continue to teach our children the value and need for tikkun olam - repairing the world.
     
  • Accreditation

    March 23, 2017

    Earlier this year at our Open School evenings, I spoke about the fact that we would be going through our decennial re-accreditation with the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS) this year. We take our status as an accredited institution with NJAIS very seriously. Therefore, in order for this visit and evaluation to be as successful and meaningful as possible, it's important that everyone in our community - students, faculty and parents - fully understand what this process entails and means for our school.
     
    Over the past 18 months, we have been engaged in creating an intensive and highly-detailed Self-Study Report. As the title suggests, this process examines all of the key areas of our school and community to assess how we are doing, reviewing our successes and identifying areas we would like to improve upon. We have spent time thinking and answering some detailed, standards-based questions about our mission, school governance structure, academic program, technology plan, school finance and facilities. Additionally, we have had the opportunity to reflect on our mission as a religiously-affiliated, independent school. The creation of this final document (which will be submitted to NJAIS just before Pesach) has been an incredibly collaborative process. Under the direction of our Accreditation Steering Committee Co-Chairs Gail Shapiro (Director of Admissions & Outreach) and Karen Spector (Lower School Assistant Principal), our entire faculty and staff - along with our administrative team and members of our Board of Trustees -  have been involved in the creation of this report. We feel confident that our hard work, along with the responses we have received from our parent and student surveys throughout the year, will provide NJAIS a comprehensive view of our school and the work that we are doing here.
     
    With this background information in mind, it is also important to let you know the next steps for our re-accreditation. First and foremost, please mark your calendars for May 9-12, 2017, when the visiting accreditation team will be here at Golda Och Academy. The accreditation team will be made up of approximately seven teachers and administrators from other NJAIS accredited schools here in New Jersey who will be present on both campuses during those days. Their visit will include observing our classrooms and interviewing teachers, students, staff and lay leaders. It is their plan, and our hope, that they will see all of the many incredible aspects of school life in action - both inside and outside of the classroom - and we look forward to seeing their final report at the end of their visit.
     
    We have been honest and reflective and eagerly await feedback and thoughts on our strengths and areas of change. Ultimately, we look forward to using this report from NJAIS to generate the next strategic plan for our school. Over the last year, we have dedicated ourselves to working towards the goal of re-accreditation, and I truly want to thank our staff, faculty and parent body for their collaboration and cooperation. We are confident that this visit and subsequent report will go a long way towards making our school an even stronger and more dynamic place.   
  • Israel Education

    October 7, 2016

    Create a new and updated syllabus? Check. Set up the class webpage? Check. Ready to get back in the groove of grading papers? Check. While I have taken a hiatus from the classroom over the past few years, I am honored and excited to be back working with our entire 12th grade this year teaching our History of Modern Israel course.

    I began teaching at Golda Och Academy in 2003 as a member of both the Social Studies and Judaic Studies Departments. During that first year we spent a lot of time discussing the need to teach a more formalized Israel curriculum beyond the excellent work being done on our Neshama program and during our Israel Club meetings and activities. The following fall we began offering an elective course for our seniors that I was fortunate enough to be able to teach.

    The learning and discussions that went on in those classrooms over the next (almost) decade were vibrant, deep and always interesting. Our students engaged in conversations about Zionism, immigration to Palestine, the development of a new government, war and the growing pains of a young nation, the Arab-Israeli conflict and of course Israel’s many modern cultural and technological developments. In short, the course took the students on a journey through history to provide them with a deeper understanding of a country that they loved so much and cared so deeply for.

    I first worked on developing a formal Israel education curriculum during my years of undergraduate study at Emory University while learning with Dr. Kenneth Stein — one of the foremost scholars in the area of Israeli History and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dr. Stein, who is still teaching at Emory and is now also directing the Center for Israel Education (CIE), has been wildly successful in the classroom and has spent the better part of the past two decades working with elementary through high school teachers developing curricular resources to support their work in the classroom.

    We were fortunate to have three of our educators — our Director of Israel Programming Rabbi Meirav Kallush, Social Studies Department Chair Heather Mendoza and Gan teacher Yael Safran — attend the CIE Teachers Workshop in Atlanta this past summer and look forward to more members of our faculty attending this upcoming July. The goal behind this participation is two-fold. First, we are working hard to enhance the way we are currently teaching about Israel in grades Pre-K-12. Second, Rabbi Kallush (along with faculty from both campuses) is engaged in a longer process of assessing what we are currently doing in the area of Israel education to ultimately create a comprehensive curriculum map for our teachers to use as a guide in both the Lower and Upper School.

    While we consistently review and enhance our Israel curriculum across all grades, I am honored to be back in the classroom working directly with our senior class who will soon graduate and take their knowledge into the next stage of their lives, well prepared to become change-makers, Israel activists and Jewish community leaders. The world has changed quite a bit since the last time I was teaching this class, which is why I am now dedicating more time towards helping our students understand things like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement and the current feelings on college campuses throughout the country as well as Israel’s place in the world today. It is by no means a simple task, but it is incredibly important if we are to fulfill our mission of helping our students to create a deeper and more “...personal relationship with the State of Israel and its people.”
     
  • Thoughts on the Presidential Election

    November 18, 2016

    Much like what has happened throughout our country over the past week and a half since our presidential election, there has been a range of emotions felt throughout the halls of our school. While we recognize that there are passionate people on both sides of the aisle, we also recognize that the rhetoric throughout this election was raised to a fairly high level and, as such, we took some time to speak with all of our students (Pre-K-12) last week in order to help them process the election results.

    From our youngest students to our oldest, we stressed the importance of kindness between friends and reminded them that no matter who they may have supported in this election, we are now focused on moving forward as a caring and respectful community with core Jewish values.

    Last Wednesday afternoon, I had the great privilege of speaking with both our Middle and High School students during their afternoon Mincha service. I shared many of the same thoughts with regard to showing consideration and respect for one another. In speaking with both groups, we discussed the dynamic nature of our democracy and recognized how incredible it is that we have over 200 years of history in this country with peaceful transitions of power from president to president.

    Recognizing the importance of our democracy and the transition from one leader to the next is certainly compounded by the fact that each of us has different thoughts and priorities when it comes to who we want leading our country. While we embrace the individuality of our students and the passion of their positions, we also must take opportunities such as these to discuss the importance of seeing the bigger picture and rising above the negative rhetoric.

    The way we make this possible is by continuing to follow the standards that we have set forth in our school. We very much want our students to think critically and engage in positive discourse with one another and fully understand that the conversations don’t simply end with Election Day.

    Our community is one that thrives on engagement and participation in the world around us. Our democracy is strong because individual voices are encouraged to be heard. To that end, we will continue the conversations here in school and affirm our students’ rights to think and speak freely about that which they are passionate. Again, we may not all agree, but the energies focused in these debates must always remain positive and respectful in order for our school to continue to live the Jewish values which we continue to hold dear.
  • Gan-5th Grade Buddy Program

    One of the great programs we have at GOA is the Gan-5th Grade Buddy Program. We started 21 years ago, and its an opportunity for our 5th graders and Gan students to be paired up with one another. It gives our 5th grades an opportunity to be leaders and role models, and it gives our Kindergarteners students they can look up to and emulate in their day-to-day activities. Hear from students themselves how they benefited from this wonderful program: watch the video now!
  • Jewish Values

    The latest edition of Mr. Shapiro's Head of School Blog highlights the Jewish values that permeate throughout our school, from Pre-K through 12th grade. Special thanks to Ms. Jarmel, Lower School Program Coordinator, and Mr. Herskowitz, Upper School Director of Student Life, for their insights. Watch the video now!
  • Security

    Throughout the past few years – while serving as both Upper School Principal and now Head of School – I have received calls and emails from parents asking about our school’s security procedures. The response has always begun with a reassurance that we take security very seriously. First and foremost, we are quite fortunate to have a fully-trained security team made up of retired police officers, captains and chiefs. Our security team is stationed in both buildings all day, every day while students, teachers and parents are present on our campuses. We also spend a great deal of time working with the head of our security team, an independent security consultant and many members of our local police and fire departments to ensure that our plans and procedures are always up-to-date and in line with best practices when it comes to emergency management and response. Our number one priority is the safety and security of our Golda Och Academy community.
     
    One of the most important ways that we ensure the systems we’ve put in place are working is through drills – both fire and lockdown – on both of our campuses. While these can be cumbersome at times and potentially scary for our youngest students, our administration and faculty do a great job of educating our students and teachers about the importance of these drills. They also stress the importance of listening and following directions in case of an emergency in order to keep everyone safe. We encourage our students and parents to ask questions and are always here to provide help and guidance when necessary. My own children have come home from school asking questions, and I am always eager to hear their thoughts, feelings and observations. I’m sure that many of our parents have had similar conversations at home, and it is my hope that these discussions provide a valuable lens into these events at school.
     
    While the security measures our students and faculty see and experience firsthand are easier to digest, it’s the confidential or “behind-the-scenes” measures that often fuel the most questions.  A well-developed security plan and many of the protocols that we would put in place in the case of emergency, by definition, cannot be discussed to a wider audience for fear that important information could be compromised. What can be stated definitively is that our school’s security expenditures are quite high, and we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy reviewing our procedures and protocols with both our local law enforcement and our security team.
     
    Whenever we are planning activities here in West Orange, discussing our activities for our students to take part in while traveling to places like New Orleans or Mexico City, or putting together the itineraries for our Israel experiences, questions of security are always at the forefront. There is a big difference between living in fear and living with awareness of our surroundings. Through the measures we’ve put in place, and continue to work on, we feel confident that we are teaching our students what it means to be very aware while still fully participating in the world around them. While I know many of our parents never had to encounter such security measures and drills as children, we are living in different, and more challenging, times. I hope you can feel some assurance knowing Golda Och Academy is taking all necessary precautions and measures when it comes to the safety of our students, faculty and staff.
  • Early Childhood Education

    I hope you enjoy this latest edition of my Head of School Blog which focuses on our dynamic early childhood education program here at Golda Och Academy. I want to thank Lower School Principal Mrs. Siegel, Morah Alexis and Morah Blair (our two PreK teachers) for speaking with me about our program, and also extend a special thank you to the rest of our early childhood educators for inviting us into their rooms to capture their students in action. Watch the video now!
  • Israel Education

    This past Wednesday morning marked the end of our 9th grade Na’ale experience in Israel. The entire grade landed safely in Newark and exited security with smiles on their faces, making statements about their longing to be back in Israel and excitement about what they had just seen and done. Na’ale is a critical element of our academic program in the high school and one that we are all excited for the kids to experience and eager to hear all about. Throughout their 10 days in Israel, our students were fully immersed in the sights, sounds and tastes the land has to offer. They traveled from Har Bental to Arad and from the Mediterranean to the Kineret.  They had talented madrichim (counselors) working with them and spent a great deal of time with students from our Greater MetroWest partner school in Merchavim.
     
    While we know that the love of Israel and learning about her history begins much earlier in our Lower School, this journey is the first experience that our students have in the heart of Eretz Yisrael. It also marks the beginning of their four-year learning partnership with our friends in Israel. In 10th grade, students from Merchavim visit us in the U.S. as part of our Neshama Yetera program, and in 11th grade, our students work collaboratively with their friends from Merchavim on projects throughout year.  The capstone to this rich educational experience happens with our Neshama program during the second semester of 12th grade when our students have the opportunity to, once again, live and learn in Israel for three months.
     
    Although this year’s program was quite successful, we were faced with some difficult decisions prior to the trip.  With our friends and loved ones in Israel facing an onslaught of random acts of violence over the past two months, we deliberated whether to send our 9th grade students at this time. Our school’s mission speaks of “…a meaningful partnership between school and home...” and that “…our students develop a love of learning, [and] a personal relationship with the State of Israel and its people…”
     
    Keeping both of these points in mind, we included our parents and students in the decision-making process. From our first conversations, we made it clear that we would only travel to Israel if we felt confident about the security measures that were taken and if we were able to run an educationally rich and dynamic experience.  In the end, we felt strongly that our students would have a meaningful experience in Israel and thus we decided to go.  While there was a tremendous amount of excitement surrounding the trip, there was also a great deal of satisfaction – from all sides – recognizing that all concerns were addressed when making our final decision.  
     
    Our bond with Israel – both here at GOA and throughout our community – is an unbreakable one. Our students spend a great deal of time learning about their homeland, so we are always eager to provide real and meaningful experiences for them both in the classroom and firsthand. None of this would have been possible without the hard work and dedication of our Director of Israel Programming Rabbi Meirav Kallush, our Israel Programs Leader Rabbi Naama Levitz Applbaum and her team in Israel, and our two talented and dedicated teachers from here at GOA – Mr. Lev Metz and Ms. Bethanie Watson – who joined our students on every step of their journey. Our professional team, our students and their parents were completely dedicated to the success of this program and for that, we as a community, should be incredibly proud.
    Click here to see more photos and to read updates about Na'ale 2015.
  • Capital Improvements

    September 2015

    I'm thrilled to show you some of the capital improvements that we made on both campuses over the summer. I hope you enjoy and I look forward to bringing you an in-depth look inside the halls and classrooms of GOA in my future blogs — both video and written — throughout the year. Watch the video now!