ORANGE COUNTY IS HOME to more than 100,000 Jewish residents and, until 2014 there were just two Jewish day schools. That changed when Andy Elster and Karin Hepner recognized a need in the community for Jewish families to have more access to different educational opportunities and co-founded– Irvine Hebrew Day School. The school is located on the newly renovated Temple Beth Sholom grounds – five-acres including playgrounds, open fields and gardens for organic planting and meditation.
IHDS caters to students from across the Jewish range of Orange County. The school values and celebrates diversity. Children not only learn the language of, but are shown how to rejoice in that which unites all Jews and experience the process of exploring those differences. By teaching the language of mutual respect, the school’s goal is to create a united Jewish future.
“IHDS is an entirely new and unique concept, a design that has never before been drawn,“ says co-founder Karin Hepner. “We are a tent, and like our forefather Abraham, we keep our tent proudly open on all sides, welcoming all of our Jewish brothers and sisters who approach us from any direction with open hearts and minds. In our tent we focus on being a place of connection where there is ongoing learning, reflection and celebration for all those who enter; a place where we joyfully encounter Jewish texts, history, and a spiritual relationship with G-d and ourselves, together as a community.”
Tammy Keces, Head of School, also describes it this way, “Our dual focus for success including academic rigor and social emotional learning sets the foundation for a school culture that authentically supports each child’s spiritual and intellectual growth, innate curiosity and creativity, and has the highest expectations for student achievement. The curricula are chosen for their emphasis on analytical thinking, depth in learning and creative problem solving… Everyone is encouraged to model effective communication skills, respectful language, collaboration, wonderment and a passion for knowledge.”
Irvine Hebrew Day School reaches out into the community to create unique relationships as well. Like the one it recently developed with Heritage Pointe. “We have had a very powerful collaboration with Heritage Pointe as a partner in our Jewish intergenerational program ‘Project Elef Dor. ‘, says Hepner. “The goals of the program include: building a sense of community identity and connection, promoting transmission of history and traditions, inspiring our elder generation to have hope in our Jewish future, promoting positive attitudes towards aging, and providing companionship and joyful Jewish experiences for our seniors, including Jewish art, music and Holiday/Shabbat celebrations. We have done Passover crafts, Lego robotics, and we even have an upcoming interactive klezmer concert at Heritage Pointe at the request of the residents!”
The school’s philanthropic organization, the Golden Circle, is also based on Heritage Pointe’s Diamond Donors. The original founders of the Diamond Donors, Leo and Shelia Pinsky and Michael Pinto, helped organize the group that asks for a yearly commitment for 10 years. The kickoff event was attended by a cross section of the community—with members from congregations of many denominations—indicating the support of the whole Jewish community. It culminated with students presenting a check to Leo Pinsky and becoming members of the Diamond Donors. As a result, the IHDS students have become young supporters of Heritage Pointe as well.
And that is not all that is new at IHDS. “We have created our ‘Israel Education institute,’ with support from the JCFOC, through which we developed our Israel STEAM program, culminating in our community-wide Israel Mini Maker Faire, says Hepner. “The Israel Mini Maker Faire was attended by hundreds of people in the community, where community children explored the innovation of the many different regions of Israel through hands-on, experiential activities. For example, the children learned about the Hula Valley and pollution that was affecting bird migration, and then created robotic prototypes to address the problem.” IHDS is also expanding its STEAM & Chagim curriculum funded in part by a grant from JFFS, in which it explores innovation and creativity through Jewish holiday themed activities.
Of special note is the way the IHDS staff shines as well. Tammy Keces, head of school, was recently invited by the Jewish Day School Collaborative and AVI CHAI to lead a national cohort of Jewish day schools to train them in Positive Discipline, an explicit social emotional method that has allowed IHDS to build a community of mutual respect and diversity. IHDS is being recognized as an innovator in character education as the foundation for long term success and growth.
And the community response has been growing. Most people learn about IHDS by word of mouth and call wanting more information about the school. “Some of our families chose the school for its innovative best practices, strong social emotional curriculum, gold standards in excellence and meaningful character education,” says Tammy Keces. “They might have chosen a public school, but they saw our school as an opportunity. Discovering the Jewish piece added something meaningful to their family life, and now they are building their Jewish practices and becoming part of a Jewish community.”
The school is also accredited by WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges). Accreditation serves as certification to the community that a school is a trustworthy institution of learning and validates the integrity of a school’s educational program as effective in meeting rigorous learning objectives. Irvine Hebrew Day School is very proud to have official recognition of its successes! Currently the school has more than 50 students enrolled and caters to grades kindergarten through fifth.
Jewish Unity is the phrase that would best describe IHDS—providing an opportunity for Jews of all levels of observance to provide their children with a Jewish education.
* IHDS thanks Jane Nelsen, founder of Positive Discipline.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.