For Gesher Jewish Day School, Finally, a Place to Call Home

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

After 25 years of cramped classrooms, a computer room that doubled as prayer space and meager outdoor recess facilities, Gesher Jewish Day School has room to breathe.

Earlier this month, after six years of fundraising and construction, the 175-student school moved into a $14 million facility that has plenty of space.

Shari Schwartz, who has two sons at Gesher, compares the school's move to Shirley Gate Road, to that of a potted plant transplanted from a cramped container to a garden.

"This is a place where we can really put down our roots," Schwartz said.

The 46,000-square-foot facility is illustrative of the rapid growth in full-time Jewish education throughout the country. Jewish day schools (so named to differentiate them from synagogue-based part-time education) have proliferated as parents have embraced them as a way of fostering a committed and literate generation of Jews at a time when intermarriage and other factors are pulling some away from congregation membership.

The schools grew mostly in the later half of the 20th century as ethnic neighborhoods disappeared, Jews and non-Jews intermarried and families began to play less of a role in educating and rearing their children in the Jewish religion and culture.

Until recently, most day schools were affiliated with either the Conservative or Orthodox branches of Judaism. But in the past 20 years, Jewish "community" day schools such as Gesher, aimed at any Jewish child, no matter what the family's religious adherence or affiliation, have proliferated.

In the past seven years, the number of Jewish community day schools that are members of the Jewish Community Day School Network has grown 70 percent to about 120 from 70 in 2000, said Marc Kramer, executive director of the network. He said that mirrors the growth in the number of schools. "It has been growing at lightening speed," he said.

As with other religions, Jews are increasingly less inclined to align themselves with one particular branch of the faith, so a community day school -- generally not affiliated with any of the four major branches of Judaism in the United States -- is more appealing, Kramer said.

In the Washington area, other community day schools include Aleph Bet Jewish Day School in Annapolis, the Hebrew Day School in Silver Spring, the Jewish Primary Day School in the District and the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, which added a high school in 1999.

For 25 years, Gesher was housed in temporary spaces and was moved four times. Most recently, the school was jammed into two locations -- the bottom floor of the Jewish Community Center on Little River Turnpike and down the road in a building housing another Jewish organization, the Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia. Gesher's new facility will allow it to double its population and, with a few expansions, triple its enrollment in coming years.

Demographic studies of the number of Jewish households in Northern Virginia show there is plenty of room for that kind of growth, according to school officials, particularly since Gesher is the only Jewish day school in Northern Virginia. In the past two decades, the Jewish population in Northern Virginia has doubled, according to a 2003 study by the Jewish Outreach Institute, the fastest rate in the Washington area. The number of synagogues has more than tripled, to 20.

At Gesher, 40 percent of the curriculum is devoted to the study of Jewish religion and history. Students study Hebrew and learn the holidays and prayers. In the middle school, students study rabbinic texts and all four major branches' prayer books.

The new school's sunny interior has plenty of details emblematic of Jewish heritage. The golden-hued wall along the front of the school is designed to look like Jerusalem stone, a limestone quarried in Israel. A glass-roofed beit midrash, or study hall, serves as the architectural centerpiece of the school and will soon house the ark (where Torah scrolls will be stored) and serve as a worship space.

At the daily prayer service last Thursday morning, younger students recited prayers and wriggled in their seats as older students and teachers clustered around one of the school's two Torah scrolls in the front of the community room at the rear of the building. Wearing prayer shawls and tefillin -- small boxes containing Scripture attached to the head and arm by thin leather straps -- they chanted a portion of the Torah.

The morning prayer ritual is not very different from the service the school held each day in its previous space in the basement of the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax. But, said Head of School Zvi Schoenburg, "It just feels good to do the same thing in this nice space."

For eighth-grader Rachel Cotton, the new school has meant a separate wing for her and her middle school peers, her own locker and less effort to keep the noise down so they don't disturb others. "It's a lot easier because before we just kind of had to share classrooms, and the space was really cramped." The new building, she said, is "really cool."

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