Encounters of like-minded people, at the right place and right time, can alter history. Such is the case with Andy Elster and Karin Hepner who met in 2013 attending synagogue services while each was grieving the loss of a parent. Transforming their heartache into a sense of purpose, they partnered in conceiving a vision for the future of Jewish Orange County: a new, innovative model of Jewish education.
They envisioned a school that is steadfast in its commitment to Jewish learning and identity, nurturing personal growth, while having the highest standards for academic excellence. In communities of similar sized populations there are often upwards of 6-8 Jewish day schools to accommodate diversity. Says Elster, “Jewish education is the cornerstone of a Jewish life, and the lifeline to a Jewish future. We knew Jewish education must become accessible to those who hadn’t found their home in the options that existed.”
Andy, a software engineer and native of California, was influenced by his frustration with his relatively basic Jewish education as a child which “simply scratched the surface of Jewish knowledge.” However, a formative experience as an adult at the Pardes Institute in Israel opened his eyes to the necessary skills to access Jewish texts. This shaped Andy’s conviction that every Jewish child should be given “the ‘keys’ to the vast Jewish library, so they can seek meaningful answers to their questions, becoming active participants in their Judaism.”
Dr. Karin Hepner, a research scientist and native of New York was becoming increasingly more concerned since moving to OC in 2003 as she was speaking regularly with young professionals from outside of the area who, despite exploring a possible move to OC, ultimately determined that their family’s needs were not represented in the Jewish school options that existed. “A community that cannot attract a diverse demographic of young families, cannot sustain itself.” says Hepner. “We knew that a change was of imminent importance.”
When Andy and Karin met the now Head of School Tammy Keces, it was unequivocal: she was the one to execute and even elevate their vision. Tammy possessed the expertise to weave together Jewish and rigorous academic learning with the renowned approach Positive Discipline that supports the development of emotional intelligence, and in turn, high performance and personal fulfillment. Tammy passionately elaborated on the vital importance of nurturing intrinsic motivation, creativity, problem-solving, perseverance, effective communication, and an entrepreneurial spirit, all while insisting on the highest expectations for academic excellence, first rate staff, and, when the time would be right, a campus that would foster the flourishing of our community’s children.
They understood the obstacles involved in building something new in an established community. “But our commitment to the community’s future gave us the fortitude to challenge the status quo. And we knew that Irving Gelman, z”l, our mentor and inspiration, believed in ever-expanding access to Jewish education.” says Hepner
These visionaries set out to create a premiere Jewish day school; starting with a one-room kindergarten in 2014, to purchasing a 5-acre campus in 2019 that has been called an “urban oasis.” At this new campus IHDS is currently serving kindergarten through sixth grade, and has plans to offer K-8 grade in the next school year. IHDS has already achieved full WASC accreditation and has received national recognition as an exemplary, progressive educational model for interdisciplinary learning. Tammy Keces was selected by PRIZMAH, the central network of Jewish day schools, to participate in educational research to accelerate educational innovation, establish a professional development “hub” at IHDS for Jewish educators, sit on the Hayidion editorial board, and present in national education conferences. Tammy also presents at the California Association of Gifted Children Conference, the California Charter School Conference, and has developed a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program at IHDS.
IHDS is committed to a school culture that is inclusive, welcoming all members of the Jewish community, from all educational, denominational, economic backgrounds, and supporting the learning needs of all students. IHDS celebrates diversity, transcending that which divides us and emphasizes that which unites us as a Jewish people. Says IHDS Director of Jewish learning Rabbi Baruch Rock, “A healthy ecology, such as the Amazon Rainforest, is an expression of ever increasing diversity. Diversity is an expression of health not only in nature but in education. Diversity of thought, where each member is strengthened…that is IHDS.”
The new campus allows IHDS to become a focal point of Jewish life in OC. IHDS is now offering extensive community after-school clubs such as Chess, Robotics, Musical Theater, and Sports, as well as classes for adults such as Mindful Monday (Hebrew Yoga), Torah Tuesday with Rabbi Rock, and Positive Discipline parenting workshops. The centrally located property in Santa Ana is ideally positioned for IHDS to extend its reach to both north and south county. They offer round trip transportation service from Irvine, and now, thanks to a generous donation from Allen and Deanna Alevy, round trip service from Long Beach. Beyond that, they have plans to host Israeli Scouts weekly, Women’s Philanthropy, JNF, JCC, PJ Library, a concert featuring Broadway stars Adam Ben-David and Jarrod Spector and students from OSCA, and Heritage Pointe, with discussions in the works to build a collaboration with FIDF. The new campus has unique features such as a 700 person auditorium with state of the art acoustics, black box theater, teen lounge, newly renovated kosher kitchen, playing fields, a basketball court, and large classrooms designed to inspire creativity. Grant support from the Jewish Federation & Family Services and Jewish Community Foundation for community-wide Israel educational programming extends the school’s unique Israel curriculum, one that has earned national acclaim, to the general public. Says IHDS supporter Alisa Abeccasis, “Purchasing this absolutely incredible property was a game-changer both for IHDS and for the community.”
Educational excellence is a critical element of the IHDS mission, utilizing the most reputable academic curricula from highest-achieving countries such as Singapore, Finland, and Japan. Says Keces, “we have a dual focus for success, which includes academic rigor and social emotional learning, which the most current research demonstrates as essential for success in our current academic and professional environment in a fast-paced world.” Tammy explains that studies from leading educational institutions such as Harvard and Stanford show that in addition to academic skills, emotional intelligence is the greatest predictor of long term achievement and accounts for more than 90% of what moves the highest achieving educated adults up the ladder of success.
The standardized academic achievement test scores at IHDS speak for themselves. IHDS has a percentage of gifted students that is greater than 10 times the national average, and notes that the trajectory of growth for its students significantly exceeds the national projected growth trajectory. “It was thrilling to have such powerful confirmation that our approach has raised the bar for excellence.”says Keces.”To achieve these scores in two independent standardized tests with multiple data points was a stunning result. We have schools from throughout the country contact us to learn our educational methods.”
This triumvirate, Elster, Hepner and Keces, have come to be known as “Thought leaders” of OC. Andy has over 30 years in Jewish communal leadership, and as a software engineer of 33+ years working with complex systems he has a unique perspective on the importance of integrating learning and technological literacy. Karin, who has her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and cancer genetics, understands that working collaboratively and persevering through challenges are essential to success. ”Our students are intrinsically motivated and have an insatiable desire to be challenged. Our mantra at school, ‘Mistakes are Opportunities to Learn’, could be plastered on the walls of the most highly prolific scientific labs throughout the world. At IHDS, we start teaching this lesson in kindergarten.” Tammy, a leader in educational innovation says “Our students are flourishing because we are responding to what they need to reach their greatest potential. Our education raises the bar because we are teaching not only children, but empowering individuals to inspire humanity.” These IHDS leaders have become resources to not only educational institutions, but to innovators locally and beyond.
IHDS is engaging its stakeholders in the next intriguing endeavor: re-naming the school to reflect its ethos and values. Stay tuned for an exciting announcement soon!
Visionaries are driven by a sense of purpose, and inspire change. They not only “think outside the box,” but reject the idea that a “box” even exists. The visionaries of IHDS, along with its board, families, stakeholders and supporters, have ignited the spark that will bring light to our Jewish community for generations to come.
JANET VINOGARD IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.