Unseasonably muggy weather for mid-September couldn't keep more than 500 people — students, alumni, parents, teachers and Jewish communal members — from celebrating an event 21 months in the making: the dedication of the new home for the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy on the site of the former American College in Bryn Mawr.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia purchased the space, which is located in Radnor Township, in July 2007 to be an educational campus similar to Federation's Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park. The pluralistic Jewish day school, founded as Akiba Hebrew Academy in 1946, is Federation's first tenant on the scenic 35-acre property. The school relocated from its previous location on Highland Avenue in Merion Station in time to begin the new academic year Sept. 8 in the spacious facility, formerly the Gregg Conference Center, located at 272 South Bryn Mawr Ave.
On Sunday, Sept. 14, blue and white balloons lined the road leading up to the property entrance, down the driveway and past the tennis courts to the main doors of the recently renovated building that will serve Barrack students in the sixth through 12th grades.
The day began with a champagne breakfast for about 100 supporters, elected officials, dignitaries and communal leaders.
"We have every reason to be excited about this new endeavor," said Dr. Steven M. Brown, the new head of school who assumed his duties in July, citing no more crowded hallways and more space for potential expanded enrollment. He acknowledged the contributions of those present "for making this dream a reality" and thanked them for their determination and commitment.
During the breakfast, a framed portrait of Jack M. Barrack, whose name graces the school, was unveiled. In the painting, a youthful Barrack is seen in his army uniform. Leonard Barrack, president of Federation and an Akiba alumnus, spoke of his older brother who was killed, along with their father, Morris, in a plane crash in 1960.
In February 2007, Akiba accepted a gift of $5 million from The Barrack Foundation, headed by Leonard and Lynne Barrack, and the school was renamed in memory of Leonard's deceased brother, whose portrait now hangs near the main entryway.
New Home for Torahs
The celebration continued outdoors, as four Torahs were escorted from the school's former location to their new home by Barrack family members, faculty and students, who sported green, blue, red, orange or yellow T-shirts with the school logo. Hundreds of people lined the driveway — clapping, cheering, singing and dancing — while the scrolls were carried under a chupah toward the main entrance. Jewish and Israeli music played, as those present joined in a large hora around a landscaped roundabout. After some comments from Brown, who joined in the dancing, the Hanukat Habayit, or welcoming ceremony, continued with Barrack board president Jay Dorsch affixing an ornate mezuzah to the doorpost, as those gathered recited the Shema and the Shehecheyanu prayers.
Several speakers highlighted one of the main components the Barracks' gift will allow: a significant increase in tuition-assistance and scholarships, thus making Jewish day-school education more affordable for those who might find it out of reach financially.
The ceremony came to a close as Brown offered a blessing to the more than 40 juniors who will spend the coming semester studying in Israel. The students gathered under a tallit held by their teachers, as those present wished them a safe journey.
Once the festivities were completed, students led tours of their new state-of-the-art classrooms, science labs and library, pointing out specific features: a computer center, ergonomic desks in the classrooms and a spacious dining commons, with trees surrounding the circular room.
Adam Wachs, 16, one of the 11th-graders who was leaving the next morning for Israel, said he and his peers — including his sister, Danielle, a ninth-grader — are excited about what the new building has to offer, especially the dining hall ("It's really what we needed") and the athletic facilities.
"There's so much space to hang out," said Wachs. "The new building is so different from what we've been used to for so long."
For Wachs, the great-grandson of Abe Birenbaum, an Akiba founder, the day was especially exciting and meaningful in the spirit of l'dor v'dor ("generation to generation").
"He believed so much in Jewish education," said Wachs of the ancestor he's named for and grew up hearing about. "He would have been really, really happy to see what the Jewish community here has grown to today."