Longevity, Legacy and Love of Learning
How does a community celebrate the retirement of a beloved head of school, the hiring of a new head of school who is also an alumnus, and 75 years of Jewish pluralistic Jewish day school education during a pandemic?
This is the question we grappled with this past year. Early in the planning we agreed that our gala, which would be the transitional celebratory event, would be in person. We decided to move the gala from the spring to the summer, hoping that we would be in a safer place re: Covid, and indeed, in early summer, it seemed we would be. However, by mid-July it became clear that our August gala was in jeopardy. Deposits had been paid, plans were made but our medical advisory committee warned that feeding and celebrating with that many people was too risky.
With weeks to go to the gala, our team worked around the clock to pivot once again. We would no longer be serving food or drinks, we would use our turf field and separate guests, we would shorten the program, but we would celebrate together because we have so much to honor.
This September 11, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy will mark 75 years since it opened in 1946 in Philadelphia as Akiba Hebrew Academy, the nation’s first pluralistic Jewish secondary day school. Our school’s founders envisioned a school where Jewish adolescents would experience a dual curriculum of secular and Jewish studies, prepare for leadership roles in the Jewish community and the community at large, and come together to study their common heritage, living Jewish values in a pluralistic and mutually respectful setting. Throughout our 75-year history, we have grown and changed with the times without losing sight of our essential heritage and mission.
Philadelphia is somewhat unique in that many people who grew up in the area stay to raise their children or return to the area while their children are school-aged. At Barrack, we currently have 70 legacy students whose parents or grandparents went to our school. We are pleased that we have alumni on staff, including our new head of school, Rabbi Marshall Lesack, ‘97, and myself, ‘91.
Our Akiba/Barrack alumni community is strong and proud, with nearly 3,000 alumni around the globe. This year, our gala celebration featured presentations by five of our outstanding alumni: Rabbi David J. Wolpe, ’76, bestselling author and Newsweek’s most influential rabbi in America; Chaim Bloom, ’00, chief baseball officer for the Boston Red Sox; Jamie Geller, ’96, bestselling cookbook author and chief media and marketing officer at Aish Global and CEO of Kosher Network International; Dr. Leah Lande, ‘89, pulmonologist for Main Line Health and Barrack chief medical advisor; Josh Shapiro, ‘91, Pennsylvania attorney general, and Jake Tapper, ‘87, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent.
Our honoree was Sharon Levin, who spent the past 35 years leading and teaching and who is retiring after most recently serving as Barrack’s head of school the past 10 years. Sharon is also a past parent who embodies so much of our history and is connected to 35 years of alumni, past parents, faculty and lay leadership. Our gala commemorated our school’s history and, most importantly, celebrated the people who have been our school’s greatest point of pride and success.
As the rain began to fall, our gala came to an end. Guests made their way off the field to their cars, and we were grateful that we were able to share a remarkable evening together. This past year has taught all of us that even our best, well thought out plans are vulnerable to change. Nonetheless, as we look ahead at our 75th year, we will continue to celebrate Barrack’s proud legacy—our teachers and students, past, present and future.