Oakland Hebrew Day School expanding to eighth grade

At Oakland Hebrew Day School, students fulfill the Torah's mission to "explore the world" by integrating Yiddishkeit with their secular studies.

Next fall, the school will open the East Bay's only modern-Orthodox middle school.

Expressing the need for such a school in the region, the day school's director, Rabbi Elie Tuchman, says, "Existing middle schools, while all really good schools, don't have our unique approach."

Judaic and secular curricula aren't simply given equal weight; they are interwoven.

"When Tu B'Shevat comes, the children might be studying about Tu B'Shevat [while] reading stories about trees in both English and Hebrew, studying the scientific aspect of trees in science, tree products in social studies," says Brian Kaye, whose daughter will enter the middle school next year.

Oakland Hebrew Day School, located at 215 Ridgeway Ave., started in 1992 with a kindergarten class of 12. The school now has 70 students through the fifth grade. Middle school constitutes sixth through eighth grades. The school can be reached at (510) 652-4324.

Parents at Oakland Hebrew Day School say their children are learning more than academics. They are learning to be menschen.

"In their Judaic learning they learn that there's a good way and a not-so-good way to treat other human beings," says Rochelle Wirshup, board member and parent of two children at the day school.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of competitiveness, teasing about appearances. I had a public school education. There was a lot of mean-spiritedness going on. I don't see that here."

While many Jewish parents worry about assimilation and intermarriage, Wirshup says children at the day school have a strong sense of their Jewishness.

"They feel very identified with their own tradition, but they also feel that they can go out into the world and interact with other people. With middle-schoolers, there are lots of issues that come up in terms of testing out who you are in relation to other people."

Parents cite small classes of 12 to 13 students as one reason for the day school's effectiveness. Because of the school's small size, however, Tuchman is looking for ways to provide a broader social experience for the middle-schoolers.

"We're looking into working with other middle schools, afterschool programs and Sunday sports leagues to give our children a larger peer group," Tuchman says.

The day school will address the needs of middle-schoolers by incorporating a conflict resolution program, involving community meetings in which students will sit with an adult and discuss their concerns.

"Middle-schoolers want to talk," Tuchman says. "They want to feel things out. They're developing their sense of self and who they are."

While the modern-Orthodox school embraces contemporary knowledge, Kaye says the students are sheltered from some of modern culture's less positive influences.

"The children have had an opportunity to really be children, and haven't had as much exposure to the violence and sex that society exposes children to at younger and younger ages."

Kaye's 10-year-old daughter, Naomi, has attended Oakland Hebrew Day School since kindergarten.

"I feel at home there," she says. "You feel like your religion is respected." Though she does not have a favorite subject, she especially likes to learn about literature and Jewish law.

Her father says that while the students' exposure to both Judaic and general studies is "great," it may not be the most important lesson his youngsters are learning.

"When you're 30 years old nobody asks you when the Declaration of Independence was signed," Kaye explains. "But they'll look at what kind of person you are."