By Deb Silverthorn
L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, the Ann and Nate Levine Academy, a Solomon Schechter School, is celebrating 30 years of inspiration, knowledge and character. On Sunday, April 25, the school’s anniversary will be formally commemorated at the Westin Park Central. The festivities begin at 5 p.m. with a Former Students/Alumni Association cocktail event and continue at 5:30 with a gala honoring the founding families of Ruth and Bernard Levy and the late Frances and Ervin Donsky, Sara and Jacob Feldman, Sadie and Bill Waldman. The evening, catered by Levine Academy parent Jeffrey Kollinger’s Spice of Life Catering and under the supervision of Dallas Kosher, will also feature entertainment by Hunter Sullivan and his big band.
“Solomon Schechter happened at the right moment with an extraordinary group of families, and a congregation and rabbi, Shearith Israel and Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer, who were open to raising and educating Jewish children,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who will be a special guest for the evening of celebration. Rabbi Feinstein was Solomon Schechter’s first head of school; he came to Dallas in 1982 after graduating from the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Judaism, Columbia University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, from which he received his ordination. Under his eight years of leadership, the population at Solomon Schechter grew from 40 students to over 500. “This was, and is, more than a school. It’s a place of connection with remarkable vision and deep commitment.”
“There is a sense of history and tradition at the base of Jewish life, and it is the base of Levine Academy. This school is an extension of our homes and families. There is no place in the world like Levine,” said Marci Frenkel, the school’s Parent Association president and mother of two Levine students. She is chairing Levine Academy’s 30th anniversary celebration with her husband Mark, the school’s next board president; Marla and Rowan Buskin; and Mahra and Kevin Pailet. Honorary chairs are Ann and Nate Levine and Helen and Frank Risch.
“To be involved in helping the school reach its potential is an honor,” Marci said. “Levine is the greatest gift I give myself because of what I can give my children. It’s all about priorities for ourselves, for our children and for the generations to come; that is the focus of this celebration — our roots, our children, our future. We are reflecting on our past, and on what our future will be.
“We are here because of the Donskys, the Feldmans, the Levys, the Waldmans; because of Rabbi Ofseyer and Rabbi Feinstein; and because of the parents and staff who helped plant the seeds,” Marci added. “They planted and have ever since watered those seeds, to tend to the orchard and to be sure the fruit ripens.”
Among those first gardeners were Ruth and Bernard Levy. “We believed strongly in giving a child an intensive Jewish education and so, while our children were past school age, we agreed to participate,” said Bernard, a Dallas native and student of Congregation Shearith Israel’s Religious School in the 1930s and 1940s. “I learned a great deal. Our program was four days a week for an hour-and-a-quarter plus Sundays. I can read, write and speak Hebrew and that’s something I wanted to give the children of our community. I knew that an integrated program of secular and Judaic studies was the way to go.
“When Rabbi Feinstein was first introduced to us, I remember the meeting at Jacob Feldman’s office with Rabbi Ofseyer, Ervin Donsky and Willy Waldman. We knew he was special,” said Levy, an example of how Jewish learning should never end — he recently celebrated his second bar mitzvah, once again stepping up to the bimah of Congregation Shearith Israel. “Rabbi Feinstein set the bar high, and today, this many years later, it remains at a level we are proud of.”
Another couple who helped build the school with bricks of love and hearts of mortar, tending to the orchard since its inception, are Peter and Beverley Lewin. Their four children graduated from Levine, and they watch now as two of their grandchildren make their way. “Schechter, now Levine, has always been a second home,” said Beverley, who has taught in the preschool for 31 years, while Peter, a past president of the school, has sat on the board for as long a time. The couple’s daughter Andy is now a Levine mom as well as the school counselor for children in preschool through fourth grade. “We had both graduated from Jewish day school in South Africa and we wanted more for our own children. We wanted them to live their Jewishness every single day of their lives.”
“Twenty years after I left Dallas, the school continues to thrive and I have ‘grandstudents,’” Rabbi Feinstein said with the greatest of smiles in his voice. He is now the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. Rabbi Feinstein also serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 2000 initiative. He is a columnist for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and his book, “Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life,” was one of the American Library Association’s Top Ten Books on Religion for Young Readers and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. “That is both thrilling and remarkable. I treasure the relationships which I made, and have kept, over the years. I see the children of families who cared about how they raised their children, doing the same. I’m very much looking forward to this event, to the simcha, and to being back in the ‘moment’ to share in the growth of a very special place.”
In a 1990 yearbook message, Rabbi Jordan Ofseyer, who was Congregation Shearith Israel’s rabbi at that time, said, “All humankind is created b’tzelem Elokeem, in the image of G-d; all G-d’s creatures and all humanity are equally precious in the sight of G-d. The task of a Jew is to spend one’s life seeking how best, Jewishly, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Solomon Schechter Academy was established in light of these principles, a school of both excellence and love, where children grow to be the most proud caring knowledgeable Jews they can be.” These thoughts ring true three decades later.
“Rabbi Solomon Schechter was the single driving force behind the reorganizing of the Jewish Theological Seminary and establishing Conservative Judaism in the first decades of our country,” said Rabbi Ofseyer, now retired in Palm Springs, Calif. He and his wife Veda will come to share in the night’s festivities. “It was truly something, 65 years after [Schechter’s] death, to open a Solomon Schechter Academy in Dallas, Texas.”
“I credit an incredible staff, an extremely committed leadership and Rabbi Ed Feinstein for allowing us to grow into something so special,” said Lois Davidson, who served as director of the preschool for 25 years. “Our preschool had 32 children and it was a lovely, connected shul place. I remember asking Rabbi Feinstein how we would ever meet a capacity of 100, which would be possible in the new building, and he said not to worry. We’ve grown ever since.
“Rabbi Feinstein was, and remains, my hero. He’s always been so wise beyond his age, so spiritual and just amazing to work with,” Davidson added. “He’s charismatic and he touched everyone from the youngest children to the parents, to the middle schoolers and every staff and board member. He’s a shooting star of a rabbi, a meteor to be cherished, and he was ours.”
It is as touching for Davidson, as it is for Rabbi Feinstein, to see the second generation now cruising the halls of Levine Academy. “The [former] students who have brought us their children to be our students now see the progress we have made,” she said. “They believe what we and their parents gave to them is important enough to give to their own children.”
The school that separated formally from Shearith Israel, and was incorporated in 1997, has grown from seven first-graders to 440 students in the Early Childhood Center, Beck Lower School and Middle School programs. What grew from one classroom at Congregation Shearith Israel into the William and Sylvia Zale North School has become the Ann and Nate Levine Academy. With classrooms that feature high-tech, more space and catered lunches, the essence of what was “then” seeps into much of the “now.”
Levine programs include Baby and Me; Challenge and Discovery; Mock Trial; B’nai Mitzvah program; Lab Band; Honors Band; Lower School Show Choir; Middle School Show Choir; cheerleading; chess; cooking; kung fu; Café Book; National Junior Honor Society; Student Congress; Student Ambassadors; Be the Change Club; Stanford University’s Challenge Success Program; Tefillin Club; Gabbai Club; Environmental Club; varsity sports; ECC ballet; Middle School trips to Texas, New York, Washington, D.C. and Israel; geography bee; speech contest; national mathematics contests; Handwriting Without Tears; high school placement and counseling; and the literary magazine. Levine Academy is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is a member of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association and the Texas Association of Non-Public Schools and is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
“There is the greatest Jewish feeling — heart, love and respect for learning and each other,” said Davidson, whose own grandchildren are among those reaping the benefits. “There are many schools where a child can learn to read, add and understand science and history. Someone once asked me why I work so hard, what is the key. I told them I wanted a place for my grandchildren to learn to become menschen and to know who they are. Now, it’s happening and I couldn’t smile brighter or be more proud.”
“Seeing them go through everything I went through makes it such a rich and warm experience,” said Jodi Frysh Norton, a member of Solomon Schechter’s first graduating class, in 1988, who now has children in both the Early Childhood Center and the Lower School. “My best memory at SSA is sitting on Shabbat morning, listening to Rabbi Feinstein tell stories, being enthralled with the beauty of the singing and getting into the spirit of Shabbat. To see that coming back, with the warmth that surrounds my children, is very special.”
“The sense of community I remember from my childhood, I still feel for my sons today. I always feel there are lots of sets of eyes — teachers, staff or other parents — who are looking out for my boys,” said Loren Jacobson, one of three siblings to graduate from the school. He gives credit to Levine Academy for the debates on ethical topics, as well as the encouragement to engage in and care for the world with the Jewish passion for tikkun olam, social justice. “I felt challenged; I went on to Greenhill, Yale and Cambridge with a sense of joy and pride in my preparedness. But the greatest lessons, the ones that lead my life, stem from the lesson taught every day, that G-d is in every person’s neshamah.”
Marion Peterson, who took the post of head of school at Levine Academy last summer, follows in the path of Rabbi Feinstein, Dr. Zvi Schoenburg, Dr. Howard Rosenblatt, Ruth Ritterband and Dr. Fred Nathan. Peterson’s efforts and those of her academic team — including K–8 Principal Dr. Susie Wolbe, Director of Jewish Studies and Programs Wende Weinberg, Campus Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz and Early Childhood Center Director Sheryl Feinberg — will keep the garden growing.
We are taught: “…and you shall teach them diligently to your children.” Levine Academy, during its history as Solomon Schechter Dallas and continuing through its 30th anniversary, has done and continues to do just that.
An online auction, at www.levineacademy.org, will accept bids from April 14 to April 21. At the April 25 event at the Westin Park Central, those items and more will be available at live and silent auctions. For reservations or more information, visit www.levineacademy.org or call 972-248-3032.