Schechter School looks to past, future in 50th year

Schechter School of Long Island students are seen in a photo from the school's 1979 yearbook. The school is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (Photo courtesy of Schechter School of Long Island)

A close network of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe founded the Schechter School of Long Island in 1967 as an institution of Conservative Jewish education, as were several other schools named for Solomon Schechter, the rabbi who shaped Conservative Judaism.

Over the past half-century, the school has worked to give students as rigorous an education in the Jewish faith as in all other academic subjects, said Cindy Dolgin, the current head of school.

But the Schechter School in its 50th year looks quite different from its first, she said. 

The 370 students at its campuses in Williston Park and Jericho come from a range of traditions, ethnic backgrounds and nations, Dolgin said; they even learn songs in seven different Judaic languages.

“While I would say the core of our mission is very similar to what it was 50 years ago, we really have evolved to become Long Island’s Jewish day school for all Jews on Long Island,” Dolgin said.

The Schechter School is preparing to celebrate its history, diversity and mission at its 50th anniversary gala on March 30 at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, where it once held classes.

Schechter School students pose for a photo in September 2016. (Photo courtesy of Schechter School of Long Island)
Schechter School students pose for a photo in September 2016. (Photo courtesy of Schechter School of Long Island)

The school started at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn in 1967 and moved to the Old Westbury synagogue and other locations before taking over the Robert Williams School in Jericho in 1979, where it’s been ever since, Dolgin said.

Its first high school opened in Hicksville and then moved to Glen Cove before taking root in Williston Park at the Cross Street School, which is owned by the Mineola school district. The “upper school” there houses grades six through 12.

The school serves many students from Nassau and Suffolk counties, but also draws some from Brooklyn and Queens, Dolgin said.

They take a challenging “dual curriculum” in traditional academics — with a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in recent years — and Jewish subjects, including Hebrew, rabbinics and Jewish history, Dolgin said.

The goal is to give students a strong sense of their Jewish identity, regardless of their religious tradition, and to make them “globally engaged citizens,” Dolgin said.

Schechter offers an immersive Jewish education that goes far beyond what they can get at most synagogues, said Rabbi Michael Stanger of the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, whose children attend the Schechter School.

“I think it inspires a sort of holistic Jewish approach — Jewish history, Jewish culture, Jewish observance,” Stanger said.

That’s especially important at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, as recent bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country show, Stanger said.

While the school started with a predominantly Eastern European student body, students’ families now come from Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Argentina and other countries, Dolgin said.

And the curriculum has evolved as Long Island’s Jewish community has become more diverse.

“We put a very strong emphasis on embracing traditions, ritual, foods, music from the whole globe, because we are the quintessential global people,” Dolgin said.

Through a program called Face to Face, Schechter students talk with students in schools from Scotland to the Gaza Strip, Dolgin said. And fourth-graders have become pen pals with students at a school in Texas that has no Jewish students, she said.

Schechter also has local interfaith partnerships to help its students understand other religions, Dolgin said.

One of them is with Williston Park’s St. Aidan School, a Catholic school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Both schools’ eighth-graders gather at Schechter each year for an interfaith passover seder.

The Schechter School’s move to rent the Cross Street School from the Mineola school district in 2011 drew opposition from Williston Park residents and some parishioners at the Church of St. Aidan that some viewed as anti-Semitic.

Swastikas were found on the school grounds and some religious artifacts were destroyed in the school’s first year, Dolgin said. But local leaders and residents came to the school’s defense, and a “beautiful relationship” has developed since, she said.

The opposition six years ago came from “a select few people,” and “the community has moved on and has accepted [the school] wholeheartedly,” Paul Ehrbar, the Williston Park mayor, said.

“They’ve been a good addition to the community, and it’s been nothing but positive reviews since they’ve been here,” Ehrbar said.

At its 50th anniversary gala this month, the Schechter School will honor 16 of its previous presidents, Dolgin said, a nod to the event’s theme: “Celebrating the Past, Inspiring the Future.”

It will show that the work of the close-knit group that founded it decades ago “is still bearing delicious fruit for Long Island,” Dolgin said.

“We’re proud to reach this milestone and proud to be of service to the Long Island community,” she said.


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