By Deb Silverthorn
The first students of Yavneh Academy of Dallas reunited on Sunday, Feb. 28, in a most 2021 manner — on Zoom with one another and faculty from across the world.
The reunion brought together 11 of the 13 students who first walked into the classrooms of Yavneh, then based at the Lodge of the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.
“It was mindboggling to see these students, some of whom I hadn’t seen in 28 years — their young faces now of grown people, but I definitely still saw in each of them the student I knew and cared for,” said Rabbi Moshe Englander, Yavneh Academy’s first principal, who was joined by faculty members Stephanie Wulfe Epstein, Rabbi Yechezkel Fried, Rivky Fried, David Katz, Rivka Marcus, Grant Mindle, Sabrina Patton and Rabbi Falik Schtroks for the virtual get-together. “Every one of them has turned into a genuinely great person, a mensch and an asset to their communities.”
Through the years, many of the students have remained connected but it had been a long time since an in-person meeting had occurred. In a year when schooling and socialization has gone online, the reunion was an opportunity to come together. For some it was time for brunch, for others almost sundown.
“These are my lifelong friends of three decades and it was incredible to all be ‘together,’ even in virtual format,” said Bella Abramov Weissburd, now a mashgicha (kosher supervisor) with Dallas Kosher. “Even the first year we knew we were part of something special, a school in the J that was giving us the whole range of academics, but probably most lasting was the Torah knowledge and skills that are still the essence of most of our lives. It was special then and remains very special in my heart today.”
Classmates Chaya Rajchgod Berkowitz, Leora Berkovitch Betesh, Eve Edery, Rabbi Deon Nathan, Shoshana Rodin Ringelheim, Michelle Fogel Samuels, Akiva Shawel, Chaya Ambers Weiner, Bella Abramov Weissburd and Yonatan Wolk spread across the country and Israel for college and their adult lives. Their professions are business owners; financial, legal and marketing experts; costume designer; preschool teacher; and financial manager of a day school. For most, the experiences of their early high school years deeply affected their personal and professional lives.
“I remember the tremendous passion of everyone; the students, teachers and everyone with the start of something new,” said Rabbi Deon Nathan, Torah Day School of Dallas’ CFO and COO. Nathan, who also teaches at Mesorah High School for Girls and DATA/Dallas Area Torah Association, credits Englander with teaching him his first line of Gemara. “Yavneh is where I first learned that passion and I’ve carried it through my life.”
Some 28 years after its beginning, the spirit of a reunion is exactly the marker of the mission of a Jewish day school, said current Head of School Yaakov Green. “One of the goals of a Jewish day school is that it creates such important foundational memories and that which is beyond the skill sets and knowledge. It is the relationships and importance of our school in the lives of its graduates that it becomes the cornerstone for them to return to.”
Englander left Yavneh in 1996 but his connection remains close. He and his wife Sharon live in Baltimore as do their children Eli, Shalva and Yaakov. They make an annual Sukkot visit to Dallas to spend time with their daughters, Shani and her husband Andrew Margolies, and Ita and her husband Steve Fricker.
Early in his academic training, Englander learned to be a sofer, a scribe, and he is now featured in the “Ancient Art of the Torah Scribe” exhibit, virtually for the time being, at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. For him, the reunion was a gift.
“Jewish education is not an easy field, education in general is not, but what came from our gathering was like a badge of honor which made my whole career worthwhile,” said Englander. “There were only fine memories and the warmth and beauty of the school we began came rushing through.”