Oakland Day to use $200,000 grant for middle school

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Chanukah came early this year for Oakland Hebrew Day School. The school is getting a $200,000 grant.

Started in 1992, the program is one of just eight Jewish day schools in North America selected for new grants by a Massachusetts-based philanthropic group called the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

The eight schools join four others now in their second year of funding, including the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School of Palo Alto.

At Oakland Hebrew, the money will be used to help create a middle school.

"Start-up schools are very, very difficult to do financially," said Rabbi Elie Tuchman, the school's director. "These funds are really to build something solid."

Now serving 95 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, the school last year decided to expand through eighth grade over the next two years. The money from the partnership will make that job considerably easier, said elated school officials.

Without the grant, "We were going to have a great school," asserted Tuchman. "But [now] we're going to have a super great school. "

The grant must be matched by equal dollars raised by the school. The money will be used over the next three years to plan a Jewish and general studies curriculum for middle-school students, develop a computer network, equip a science lab and create a Judaic study hall and library called a Bet Midrash.

"This grant has allowed us to do things we wouldn't be able to do otherwise," said Dr. Brian Kaye, the school's president and parent of two of its students.

Ultimately, PEJE plans to hand out $18 million to help support existing day schools and create new ones in the United States and Canada. Founded by a group of Jewish business and philanthropic leaders, PEJE hopes to "bring about a true renaissance in Jewish education," said the organization's chairman, Michael Steinhardt, in announcing the grants.

Each of the eight new recipients, located throughout the United States as well as in Toronto, will receive grants ranging from $200,000 to $275,000 over the next three to four years.

In addition, the four schools now in the second year of the program, including Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, will receive $300,000 over four years.

Oakland Hebrew was one of only two day schools in the state selected for new grants; the other is in Southern California. This year, almost 40 schools applied for the funds.

"We're really very proud of our school," said Tuchman. "They visited a lot of schools and they chose us."

The Oakland school operates a modern Orthodox program with instruction frequently presented in broad units. For instance, second-graders recently studied music and sound by learning about music in different cultures, the history of music and how sound is produced. They also explored the shofar and designed their own instruments, Tuchman said.

Started as a kindergarten program at the old Oakland-Piedmont Jewish Community Center, the school moved four years ago to a former Lutheran church building on Ridgeway Avenue.

Already, it's outgrown that spot and is looking for another campus to house its elementary and middle-school students. "There are some places we're exploring," said Kaye. Ideally, school officials would like to find a new home in Oakland or Berkeley by next fall, he said.

For the seven students in Greenberg's sixth-grade class, the idea of staying at Oakland Hebrew Day School through eighth grade probably was more exciting than news of the grant.

"We always get new desks every year," said sixth-grader Alta Kelly. "We always get the new teachers."

Said another student: "We want to be the oldest kids always."

Parents were understandably pleased by the funding. Susan Schickman of Berkeley said she'd planned to keep her son, Nathaniel, in the school for seventh grade next year because she'd been so impressed with the Judaic and general education he'd been receiving. Still, she added, "as a parent, you're nervous because it's a brand new venture.

"The PEJE grant gave it credibility, made it absolutely possible that the things that were dreamed about were a reality."