By Amy Sorter
Alex Radunsky decided to attend Yavneh Academy of Dallas for one reason: Most of his Akiba Academy of Dallas friends were going there. Radunsky would graduate in 1998, Yavneh’s first graduating class, though at the time, he was unaware of whether, or if, the school would survive.
“At the time, we didn’t have a clear sense of trajectory of the school as an institution,” said Radunsky, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Global Health at Harvard University. “Those first two years, things were a little haphazard, but I didn’t mind it at all. I enjoyed it. It was fun and empowering to help set the tone of the institution.”
Twenty-five years after its launch in a small building on the campus of the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center, Yavneh has grown into a well-respected, highly acclaimed preparatory Dallas-area Jewish high school.
The school’s focus is that of modern Orthodox study, combined with stringent secular education. Yet, Yavneh’s overall goal is to “appeal to the entire Jewish community, regardless of observance or denomination,” said David Radunsky, Alex’s father and a member of one of Yavneh’s founding families.
Added Rabbi Howard Wolk, who led Congregation Shaare Tefilla at Yavneh’s founding and is now community chaplain for Jewish Family Service of Dallas: “Yavneh allowed Jewish kids to continue their Jewish education, and for them to be with other Jewish kids.” Wolk, one of Yavneh’s founders and among its first teachers, sent his three sons to Yavneh.
Keeping Jews in DFW
While Deena Zucker was attending seventh grade at Akiba during the early 1990s, parents Michael and Karen Zucker faced a difficult decision. The family would have to send their eldest child out of town for a Jewish high-school education. This dilemma prompted the Zuckers to join other families interested in forming a local Jewish high school.
“I didn’t want to send her out of town,” Michael Zucker said. “I didn’t want my child being raised by someone else.” Deena and her siblings Sara and Arye ended up attending and graduating from Yavneh. Meanwhile, the Zuckers’ youngest, Nachi, will graduate in 2019.
The Radunsky family faced a similar issue, though at the opposite end of the familial lifecycle. The three Radunsky children attended Akiba, with the older two ending up at a secular private school. However, Alex, the youngest, had “become taken with Orthodoxy,” David Radunsky said. “Our family had, by accident, turned into one of those in which we had to decide to send our kid away to school.”
Yavneh allowed both families, and others, to keep the children home, while keeping other Jewish families anchored to the region. Wolk commented that one of the school’s main benefactors, Oscar Rosenberg, had a strong sense that, without a Jewish high school, families not wanting to send their children out of town would leave. “Yavneh helped us hold on to important families in the community,” he said.
Furthermore, many Yavneh graduates return and become active in the Dallas Jewish community. Said Wolk: “The ones I know are all active in their congregations and community; many have served on the Yavneh board. The community continues to reap the benefits.”
Though a Jewish curriculum is a highlight, Yavneh also focuses on a rigorous secular program. David Radunsky pointed out that the goal of the school, overall, was to provide an outstanding preparatory school for college and life.
“It’s an opportunity to have an excellent, small private-school experience, which focuses on education and strong student-teacher relationships,” said David Portnoy, Yavneh’s head of school. “College admissions deans have told us they find Jewish high-school graduates very well prepared to take on the workload and time management of college,” Portnoy said.
Daniel Bonner, a 2008 Yavneh graduate, discussed the student-driven environment and the emphasis on self-reliance and independence. “If there was something you wanted to study, you could study it,” said Bonner, now director of Jewish and Israel philanthropy at the Paul E. Singer Foundation in New York. “No question, or opinion, was off limits. Yavneh taught us how to be curious, not anxious, about new ideas.”
Furthermore, the students found a flexibility that might not have been possible in other school settings. Alex Radunsky tells the story of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, with one of the first being a physics class. “But I said I didn’t want to take AP physics. I was more interested in AP biology,” Alex recalled. Yavneh managed to include an AP biology class for Alex and another student. “The institution put a lot of energy into making that happen,” he said.
Yet, at the beginning, Zucker, Yavneh past president, acknowledged the risks in sending his eldest daughter to a school that, in its first five years of existence, relocated at least five times, had a handful of teachers and a series of heads of school.
“Yavneh was fully accredited,” he said. “But no one had ever heard of it when Deena graduated.” Yet all the Zucker children who graduated from Yavneh ended up with outstanding grades and are pursuing meaningful careers.
“I am the proud father of three independent children,” Zucker said, noting that he expects Nachi to be equally independent. “These guys will stay together, build friendships and an extended family you can’t duplicate, outside of the college experience.”
Alex Radunsky pointed out that most of the students in his class of 1998 spent a gap year in Israel following graduation to continue their studies. As a result, “we were positioned to represent ourselves well,” he said. “Even if institutions had been skeptical of our high school, they saw us, saw our applications and what we’d accomplished.”
Bonner agreed, adding that the Jewish day school education offers more than, well, a good Jewish education.
“As you grow up and make your way in the world, it isn’t just about a degree or the title you have, but the kind of person you are,” he said. “Yavneh, by virtue of the fact it offers education rooted in Jewish values, is producing good people in a dark world that needs more of them.”
Polishing the crystal ball
Portnoy and others stress the need for the school to be a self-sustaining entity and to continue being a student-driven school with outstanding instruction. This, in turn, requires continuous funding and endowments, which is why the Pam Hochster Fine and Jeffrey R. Fine Yavneh Academy Scholarship Endowment Fund (see sidebar), as well as other donations and endowments, are so important. Such resources help the school continue recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, Portnoy said.
Still, as Yavneh celebrates its silver anniversary, it is a success. The school has its own campus. Its students graduate and attend prestigious colleges that include Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of Texas. On the sports side, the Yavneh boys’ soccer and basketball teams have made it to state and national finals. “We’re on the map now, both in terms of North Texas schools and national Jewish schools,” Portnoy said.
For Zucker, the school’s ability to focus on core values has been very important. “We can’t control how our children decide to practice religion after they leave our care,” he observed. “The best we can do is give them a foundation of our core values.”
Meanwhile, Alex Radunsky now understands the trajectory from Yavneh’s early classes to where the school is today. “It’s wonderful to see how the founding families and new families contributed to this wonderful enterprise,” he commented. “It makes me proud to be one of the early students at this institution.”