The Hebrew Academy of Orange County turns 50 years old this year. Today, the school is a mainstay of Southern California’s Jewish community. It has served more than 10,000 students and campers and has been a cornerstone of Jewish continuity for as long as anyone can remember. The spacious 11-acre Huntington Beach campus is well known for its beautiful new buildings, athletic fields, facilities, and classrooms. Its alumni fill leadership positions in every field imaginable. However, when the school was founded in 1969, few believed that a Jewish day school could succeed south of Los Angeles. Yet, the school continues to thrive today, serving as a leader in Jewish education, and a place where generations of students and their families belong and proudly embrace their Jewish identity.
The school’s humble beginnings date back to Dr. Irving Moskowitz, a Long Beach resident who reached out to Chabad and requested tutoring for his school-age children. Other families became aware of the opportunity for Jewish learning and joined classes. Rabbi Moshe Engel, founding faculty member fondly recalls the early days. “Classes and Sabbath services took place in a space directly above a bar, of all places! Some Friday nights Jewish patrons of the bar were invited to join the service upstairs to complete the minyan!” He goes on to recall the story of the Shabbat morning when the Long Beach minyan noticed a “For Sale” sign on a building directly across the street. “They sprang into action and acquired our first real home, which is now the Alevy Long Beach Shul.”
This new home served the community for ten years. Then, as demographics shifted it became clear that a larger school campus in further south was needed to serve the burgeoning Jewish community in Orange County. A school property became available, a deal was struck, and the Huntington Beach Hebrew Academy campus was born.
Families started coming. Some were spurred by the opportunity to give their children a strong Jewish education. Others were motivated by concerns about their Jewish future. They recognized that children who understood, respected, and loved their Jewish heritage were more likely to marry “within the tribe.” Others came because of the commitment to teach children “al pi darko”, a phrase in the Torah that states what modern educational theory has come to embrace only in recent years, “in accordance with the nature of the individual child.” Such educational opportunities were unavailable in even the best local schools. The Hebrew Academy offered a place where families could belong, and parents who wanted the best general education in addition to a genuine Jewish education could realize their dreams for their children.
The school’s earliest educators made sacrifices to get the fledgling school off the ground. Rabbis drove buses, picking up kids in far off places. Rabbi Engel began a summer day camp, schlepping lunches, sports equipment, and raising spirit with kids all day, running the administration and teaching classes by night. The now renowned Head of School Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, then a freshly recruited, patient, teacher par excellence even supervised the preschool toddlers daily.
Throughout his nearly five decades of leadership, Rabbi Newman has committed to growing the school in every way, never wavering from its Core Values and a commitment to whole-child education. His vision has kept The Hebrew Academy on the cutting edge of leading academic and educational trends, earning numerous accolades and awards over the years, including two National Blue Ribbons, a half million dollar grant from Kohl’s as the most “liked” Jewish school in the United States, and recently, recognition by The Guinness Book of World Records as the creators of the World’s Largest Latke!
Throughout its history, The Academy has maintained the highest national standards of excellence, continually improving on best practices, seeking out innovation, adopting new models for education and spearheading programs that ensure that students are prepared to lead and succeed in the future. Project-based and individualized learning, Universal Design for Learning, and social emotional education are just a few of the academic initiatives embraced and championed before they were adopted by other schools.
Lifelong learning is a historical cultural value, embraced and modeled by teachers and the administration. The Hebrew Academy dedicates over 100 hours a year to professional development, seeking out the most prestigious educational training programs available, including UCLA, The Buck Institute, and Harvard University. As a result of the school’s commitment to excellence in education, alumni have gone on to leadership positions in every field imaginable including space aeronautics, theoretical physics, medical research, law and higher education, all while remaining committed leaders in the Jewish community.
The Hebrew Academy of today would be unrecognizable to the earliest educators, parents, and students. The school has grown, changed, adapted, and above all, expanded. Improvements to the grounds and facilities have transformed the campus into the ideal learning environment that it is today, attracting diverse Jewish families from all over Los Angeles and Orange County.
Over the years many significant additions and upgrades have enhanced the sprawling Academy campus. In 1995 Walter Silver, a grandparent of children attending Camp Gan Izzy, donated a million dollars to build the Silver Swimming Center, which houses a fully enclosed Junior Olympic size pool, a wading pool and a new shower and locker facility. As the demand for early childhood education grew the Karp Early Childhood Center was opened in 2000, featuring four additional classrooms and a state-of-the-art new playground. Then in 2002 with the help of attorney Gene Goldsman, a beautiful sanctuary was constructed, where students expertly read daily prayers out of a Torah especially scribed for the children of the school and camp.
With focus on security at the institution, the construction of a new lobby and school entrance was completed in 2005. Shortly afterwards the kindergarten complex was remodeled with a dedicated playground added and its own child-centered kitchen. Every two years subsequently new development initiatives took place. First it was the Values circle, now an icon of the school’s campus and then an afterschool enrichment program was opened to include opportunities for Jewish children in public school. In 2014, The Academy partnered with AYSO to form the only Sunday soccer league run by community and in the same year 900 solar panels were installed to make the school entirely energy self-sufficient. In 2016 the Early Childhood Center expanded to include an infant center, which has been fully enrolled since it opened. Finally, the most recent facility improvement was completed this Jubilee year. A ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the grand opening of a state-of-the-art Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics Lab, or as it is affectionately called on campus, the xSTREAM Lab was created to ensure that students will be able to compete in the changing global and technological economy.
Through the decades the Alevy Family Foundation has sustained the school with millions of dollars of support to ensure an academic program of distinction and ensuring that students are prepared to attend and succeed in the best colleges in the country. Next year, with the continued help of the Alevy Foundation, The Academy will expand to a full high school program for young men and women.
Rabbi Newman says of the school’s five-decade history, “This is just our first 50. With the Rebbe’s blessing, we have been fortunate to create a school that has served many, many students and families. What will the next 50 years bring? The children attending today, please G-d, will be proud Jewish parents and grandparents in 2069…and that’s because in 1969, we began our journey, and 50 years later, we’ve still only just begun.
NELLI GREENSPAN IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.