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A Brand-New Place of Study, Built in Honor of a Former Student

December 21, 2006 By:
Ryan Teitman
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(From left) Blu Greenberg, Nancy Levites, Amina Levites-Cohen and Rafael Levites escort a Torah into the Beit Aliza Chavurah for Girls, a prayer chapel in memory of an Abrams Hebrew Academy alumna.
The day was one for remembering the past of Abrams Hebrew Academy, and looking with hope toward the future. "We're here to inspire," said Rabbi Ira Budow, the academy's director and a 26-year veteran of the institution.

On a balmy December day, Abrams dedicated its new Beit Aliza Chavurah for Girls and the Beit Aliza Torah, both in honor of former student Aliza Rachel Levites, who died last year in a car accident at age 23.

He noted that though the day was a somber one, the goal was to make people proud of their religion.

"Today, you will see the champions of Abrams Hebrew Academy, from generation to generation," he said.

Devra Goldstein, a student from the academy's class of 2008, described the importance of her study at the school. "We are committed to Judaism," she said, and then went on to describe how in the new prayer chapel, her class explores the beauty of reading the Torah.

"She is an inspiration to all of us," Goldstein said of Levites.

'History Through Generations'

The ceremony also dedicated the "Link," the structure that connects the Henrietta Milstein School Building to the long-standing Abrams classroom building and the school's gymnasium.

The hallway houses an exhibit put together by New York designer and Abrams alumnus Daniel Schnur, and Abrams past president Ruthellen Rubin; it's a collection of pictures and quotes from generations of students, parents and teachers from the educational institution.

It "depicts history though the words of three generations," explained Rubin.

"It's really a gift to the students of the school," she added, so that they can understand the facility's history and place in the general community.

"It's a celebration of where Abrams has been, where Abrams is, and where Abrams is going," said Dr. Sherri Klemow-Shelvin, president of the Abrams board of directors.

Coming as the event did on the second day of Chanukah, remembering the past was also a key to looking toward the future.

"The very word 'Chanukah' in Hebrew means 'to dedicate,' " explained Ira Schwartz of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. But it also means to educate, he noted.

"The most intensive and transformative form of education is a day-school education," he said. "It gives us all reason to believe that the flame of Jewish life will never be extinguished."

Andrew Frank of the United Jewish Federation of Princeton-Mercer-Bucks views the school as "the future of Jewish renaissance and community."

Delivering the keynote speech for the dedication ceremony was Blu Greenberg, author and founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. "In the past 30 years, there has been an explosion of women's learning," particularly in the Talmud, she said. "This is the most learned generation of women in Jewish history."

Torah study "has a unique and powerful value," she continued, though in the past, "it only applied to one-half of the Jewish population."

Women were left out of the learning process, she noted, and that affected the structure of Jewish society.

"In Judaism, learning is the root of power," said Greenberg. "Our leaders were our scholars."

Yet those leaders, she noted, were not female.

As feminism gained strength in the 1970s, it took root in different ways in Judaism's main branches. The Reform movement began to ordain female rabbis. In the Orthodox movement, said Greenberg, it took root in the form of learning.

"The walls that separated women from the rabbinic texts began to fall," she said.

Today, a new group of young women will continue such study in their chavurah at Abrams.

"It will be a special place for generations," she said -- a place of prayer for young women.

Greenberg then praised Budow as "a traditional rabbi who's always doing the cutting-edge thing."

Spirituality and Faith

After the dedication ceremony, Rabbi Elliot Strom of Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation offered musical accompaniment with his guitar to the procession as the Torah was led into the new prayer chapel.

Standing in the newly dedicated chavurah, Nancy Levites, Aliza's mother, said that the structure would always remain special for young women.

"A chavurah is not a place you can build with conventional materials," she said -- it is a place of spirituality and faith.

That type of study was an important part of her daughter's time at Abrams, she said: "It is our hope that her voice will be echoed in all the girls."


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