From 2 rooms to over 200 kids — school marks 30 years

Launched by seven families as a secular Sunday school with a focus on history, culture and ethics but little emphasis on ritual, the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education began modestly 30 years ago in two rented rooms of an old house.

Today the school not only emphasizes parent-child education and holiday celebrations, but it also offers bar and bat mitzvah instruction and celebrations as well as Hebrew classes.

Over the years, the study of ritual has augmented the curriculum, which spans pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The majority of families are not synagogue members, but they nonetheless want their children to have a strong background in Judaism.

"Sixteen years ago, when I came, there were 90 students," recalls Leah Bernstein, JASJE principal. "Now we have grown to over 200 students and we are the Jewish community for 95 percent of our parent group.

"The growth of the school has been [accompanied by] a sense of family, a real feeling of comradeship with the parents and children being together."

The school celebrates its 30th anniversary Saturday, March 15 with a Back to the '60s dance at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, where the school has been headquartered for 14 years.

Lil Fishman, who helped found the school with her late husband, Norman, said PASJE grew through word of mouth with parents pitching in, university students serving as teachers and PASJE graduates returning as teachers' aides.

"At one location our students went next door to the Stevenson House for seniors and conducted a model seder. My husband wrote the Haggadah," she says.

While religious ceremonies were not originally part of the school's objectives, the focus has always been on Jewish education. In the early days, the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education helped the school in a number of ways, including posting notices for prospective teachers around Stanford University.

"The best thing that has happened is the fact that the school has remained strong and is still growing," says Fishman.

Leon and Myrna Rochester, who with their three children have been involved in the school for 18 years, have also observed changes. "In the late '70s, the school population went up and down gradually," says Myrna Rochester. "Now, the school is a real part of the Jewish community on the Peninsula. Many people who are unaffiliated feel comfortable going to our school."

In recent years, families have become increasingly interested in b'nai mitzvah ceremonies. Now three-quarters of the families are participating, with children attending Hebrew classes from beginning to advanced levels as well as b'nai mitzvah preparation classes. Hebrew studies, which are optional, are held at 9 a.m., an hour before the Jewish studies program begins.

In addition, the school offers parenting seminars on topics ranging from the Christmas-Chanukah December dilemma to Israeli politics to child-raising issues. This past week, a docent from Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum presented a program.

"I feel the school has helped to keep people connected and create a sense of Jewish identity not only for the students but parents as well," says Rochester.

Parents must volunteer for three hours each school year, assisting in various activities ranging from library work and holiday celebrations to classroom activities. Currently, more than 40 parents are working on the upcoming Purim festivities.

Although tuition has risen over the years, the school is an independent nonprofit Sunday school. Fees are $350 per child, plus additional fees for books, membership, Hebrew study and materials. Scholarships are available, and no one is turned away.

"The school performs a great service to give children a valuable Jewish education," says Bernstein, "making them feel positive about their Jewish background."