Jewish School Has Plans For a Place of Its Own

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005

As Zvi Schoenburg, head of Gesher Jewish Day School, celebrated Rosh Hashanah this week, he thought about the special meaning the new year will have for the school's students and teachers.

In just a few weeks, construction is set to begin on a school campus at a wooded lot near Shirley Gate and Braddock roads in central Fairfax. School leaders are hopeful the $12.3 million facility will open next September.

"Rosh Hashanah is about looking for God's blessings in the coming year," Schoenburg said. "New beginnings are exactly appropriate. We really want to make Gesher a guiding light, a resource for education in the community."

Although many synagogues in Northern Virginia offer Jewish nursery schools and Hebrew Schools to members, Gesher is the only facility that offers a full private-school curriculum as well as teachings in the language, culture and religion of Judaism.

The school's 174 students currently attend classes in leased space at two Annandale locations -- the Jewish Community Center in Annandale and a nearby synagogue -- and the school has long sought a building of its own with room to grow.

Schoenburg noted that the Jewish population in Northern Virginia has been increasing in recent years and said Gesher leaders envision the campus as a place to hold adult education classes and summer camps as well as the school.

"The Jewish population is really a growing and substantial part of this community and our community is gearing up to meet that challenge," Schoenburg said.

In 2002, Gesher purchased the 28-acre parcel for $1.25 million and got approval from the county to build a campus. Arnie Hiller, the school's former president, said that the school will cost about $12.3 million and that Gesher has raised $7 million so far.

"We've got a ways to go, but we're confident we'll make it," Hiller said.

The Gesher school was founded in 1982 at Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. In 1994, after outgrowing the Alexandria space, it moved to the Jewish Community Center in Annandale. In 1998, space again became tight and classes expanded to the nearby synagogue.

The new 46,000-square-foot school, for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will include a library, gymnasium, cafeteria, kosher kitchen and about 20 classrooms. There will be science and computer labs and an art studio. The school also plans to build an outdoor swimming pool.

Hiller said 14 acres that include ponds will be left undisturbed to serve as an outdoor classroom. He said Gesher administrators have been in discussions with a company in Israel that offers a curriculum on "the values of environmental science and the Jewish religion."

The school will be built to house 350 students but could be expanded to accommodate 540, Hiller said. He said the school also has bought an adjacent 19.5-acre property and hopes to someday expand the campus.

Ann Bennett, the school's vice president for long-range planning and the mother of two students and one graduate, said it will be good for the students to be in a single building where they can interact more easily.

"I think when you're building a community it's easier to build it when the kids can have an impact on each other," Bennett said.

Bennett said even the youngest children are caught up in the excitement. On the way to school the other day, she said, her son, Jared, a first-grader, mentioned the new building.

"He said 'Mom, I can't believe it's only going to be one more year before we can have a new school,' " Bennett said. "He knows something exciting is on the horizon."

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