This is the first in a monthly series of articles focusing on Jewish day schools in the Greater Philadelphia area. Each story will focus on the cutting-edge educational and extracurricular opportunities that nurture the academic and spiritual growth of each student, preparing them to take their rightful place in the Jewish community. Next month's article will spotlight the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Day School.
What would you call a school that boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, fields championship sports teams, attracts students from three states, and counts two Rhodes Scholars, a Pennsylvania State Representative and a National Public Radio guest commentator living in China among its alumni? You'd call this school the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, where 309 students in grades six to 12 are actively engaged in shattering the myths of Jewish day-school education.
Barrack Students Achieve National Recognition
Like any other college preparatory school, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, founded in 1946 as Akiba Hebrew Academy, is committed to academic excellence. An impressive 25 percent of the Class of 2009 are National Merit Scholarship finalists or semi-finalists.
Hands-on learning is encouraged. Twelfth-grade English-literature students grapple with the character complexities of Shakespeare's Hamlet, while seventh-graders collect specimens from the pond and woods on the sprawling Bryn Mawr campus for a science-class experiment in the school's new science labs.
Yet what sets this educational institution apart from its independent school counterparts is its unique, integrated curriculum.
"Our dual general and Jewish studies curricula add value to our students' education," reports head of school Steven M. Brown, explaining that "it stimulates and refines cognitive and creative skills, critical thinking, imagination and problem-solving."
Brown's views are confirmed by a 2007 study from Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which maintains that Jewish day schools prepare students to excel academically and socially in college, and to stay connected to Judaism in college and beyond.
Inquiring Minds Need to Know
"Barrack students are proactive learners," says Tom McLaughlin, a member of the school's humanities department. "Our students understand that asking questions is key to understanding."
Student Max Ephraim agrees: "At JBHA, everyone has tons of questions, and everyone's questions ALWAYS get answers in both our secular and Jewish studies classes." Ephraim transferred to Barrack from public school in Bucks County and has a five-hour roundtrip commute to the school.
"At Barrack," he adds, "the questions and questioning are considered good things; in fact, it's the way we learn here."
Max is not the only student who travels long distances to Barrack Hebrew Academy for an excellent education. Students commute to the 35-acre campus in Bryn Mawr each day from their homes in Delaware, Southern New Jersey and throughout the Greater Philadelphia area. They represent all streams of Judaism, and come from diverse social and economic backgrounds. Small class size and individual attention of teachers and staff are a major attraction for prospective students and their parents.
Jacob Feist, a seventh-grader from Cherry Hill, N.J., commutes more than one hour each way, but finds the bus trip passes quickly, thanks to "tons of friends" he's made since he began attending Barrack last year.
"I have a good school right behind my house, but I really wanted to stay connected to Judaism and meet new people, which is why I'm attending Barrack," he says, adding that all his teachers know him — a plus for any student.
Today, Jacob serves as a school ambassador to prospective new students and families touring the school.
Pluralism Promotes Tolerance
The school's emphasis on pluralism and diversity influenced Liz and William Shaid, members of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, a Conservative synagogue, to become part of the Barrack Hebrew Academy family.
"Within our own family, we all identify differently with Judaism, and all feel very comfortable and welcomed by the Barrack community," they say, adding that "our children — Erika in 11th grade and Michael in ninth grade — enjoy strong relationships with teachers who are truly invested in them, and share Jewish experiences and values with a diverse group of students."
Belinda and Steven Raikin, who attend Lower Merion Synagogue and define themselves as Modern Orthodox, also believe that Barrack is a good fit for their sons Daniel (10th grade) and Jared (seventh grade).
"Barrack offers an environment that provides an excellent secular education, while allowing for the particular religious needs of our children," says Belinda Raikin. Since moving to the new site on Federation's Radnor Campus, "the school has even arranged shuttle transportation for students coming from their original site in Lower Merion, enabling my sons to arrive in time for minyan," adds Steve Raikin.
New Campus: Cutting-Edge Facilities
While Lori and Raymond Levin, members of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, appreciate the academic institution's respect for religious diversity, they were primarily motivated to enroll their daughter, Danielle, a ninth-grader, and their son, Michael, a sixth-grader, because of Barrack's new campus and facilities.
"The fabulous amenities like the science labs, computer and technology center, a wonderful gym and an amazing turf soccer field is a dream come true," says Lori Levin. "My children take advantage of the many clubs and the after-school sports."
"Our academic excellence is now matched by state-of the art facilities," states Jay A. Dorsch, Barrack board president, "and our athletes enjoy a home-court advantage for the first time in our school's history."
Expanded Athletic Programs
Enjoying that advantage is Barrack senior David Barnett, co-captain of the school's championship soccer team and a member of Barrack's tennis team.
"We are encouraged to excel in the classroom and on the playing field," says Barnett, who is also president of the Student Association.
And Sarah Krulik hones her basketball skills as a member of the middle-school girls' basketball team, while her classmates learn the rudiments of hockey in the school's new gym.
Preparation for College and Beyond
It's hard to argue with perfection, and Barrack Academy seniors have a perfect record of college acceptance.
Carol Jacobs, director of college guidance emphasizes that "Barrack students received early-decision acceptances this year to such outstanding schools as Brown, Emory, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale."
Alumni also attribute their success after college to their education. Alison Klayman, Class of 2002, feels that understanding her cultural background gave her the confidence "to embrace the wide world, and engage with other peoples and places."
Klayman, who reported on the summer Olympics in Beijing, built a sukkah on the roof of her apartment house in China.
Pennsylvania State Representative Josh Shapiro is a member of Barrack's board of directors. He met and later married his fellow member of the Class of 1991, Lori (nee Ferrara).
Says Shapiro: "My education gave me an understanding that we must be committed to our fellow man and woman, and leave the next generation better off through our actions."
Barrack Education Available to More Families
Jeffrey Retig, a Barrack board member, and the parent of two alumnae and a current student, expresses his gratitude to the Barrack Foundation for the school's expanded ability to provide financial aid.
"We have expanded our merit scholarship programs to include a $3,600 merit-based tuition grant to all new students entering the school in 2009, regardless of income," he explains. And "given these tough economic times, we have also increased our Rabbis' Scholar program."
Those interested in the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy can contact Vivian Young, Director of Recruitment and Admissions, via e-mail at: vyoung @jbha.org or 610-922-2350. Or visit the school online at: www. jbha.org.