It began with a Facebook posting. Hesitantly, this past Chanukah I joined the ranks of millions who participate in “Throwback Thursday,” the day when people post a nostalgic photo. The response caught me off guard.
The photo was from 1966, the year the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy (HBHA), then named the Hebrew Academy of Greater Kansas City, opened with 33 students. I was one of them.
In the photo I’m with three first-grade classmates lighting the Chanukah candles. I look timid and perhaps somehow knew we were part of a grand experiment, a “start-up” day school with no building of our own, few students or teachers and little support from Kansas City’s organized Jewish community.
My father, then the rabbi of the largest synagogue in town (1,600 families), was one of its few staunch advocates, and he played a key role in the school’s establishment. Today HBHA, renamed after its first president, Hyman Brand, a prominent Jewish leader in Kansas City, is a thriving school with nearly 250 students, a beautiful building and impressive faculty. But back then the future was uncertain, as day school education outside the framework of the Hebrew school system was controversial. However, my father, whose synagogue had a large Hebrew school, had no greater wish than to put his own school out of business. I still recall his excitement when showing me an article in The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle in 1966 announcing the school’s fall opening. It was accompanied by a photo of two administrators, and with pride and joy he told me they would be my new teachers. I was only 6, yet had a strange sense this was a big deal.
Half a century later, when I posted my “tbt” photo on Facebook, I was stunned by the more than 100 comments it generated; they were mostly from HBHA alumni. Many were from the “original 33,” as we affectionately call ourselves, now scattered throughout the country and Israel, and all — firmly ensconced in middle age — actively involved in Jewish life. Tragically, a month earlier we found solace while bonding via social media when we went into collective shock over the brutal murders in Har Nof, which included one of the “originals,” Rabbi Kalman Levine. What compelled the rabbi, or “Cary” as we called him back then, along with other HBHA graduates, to make aliyah? What was it from our HBHA education that kept so many of us engaged in Jewish life long after we had graduated? Why do we still feel like family?
Suddenly I found myself thinking about HBHA and other day schools, in particular SAR Academy and High School, the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School and the Solomon Schechter schools, as I have a personal relationship with these institutions. Do these and other Jewish schools instill the same sense of pride among their graduates? Also, I wondered, do the current and former students know anything about the names behind these institutions: Hyman Brand, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Solomon Schechter and Israel Salanter?
Brand was a dear family friend. One of my strongest childhood memories is going to the Brand home to break the fast after Yom Kippur, and to this day I remember every dish that was served. Long after he has passed he remains a real person to me, and not the name of an institution. But what about the other names, all towering figures in Jewish history, but whom sadly few students at schools with their names know much about.
The Heschel School, which teaches extensively about the life of its namesake, the philosopher and civil rights activist, and models the school after his worldview, may be the exception. Salanter (the “S” in SAR) was born in 1810 in Lithuania and was a renowned Talmudist and leader of the musar movement, believing that the study of Talmud had to be learned alongside ethical studies. It was Schechter who revitalized the fledging Jewish Theological Seminary when he came to the States from England in 1902, transforming JTS into a vibrant force and recruiting an outstanding faculty of Jewish scholars.
So what’s in a name? A lot. As I recall the names of all the “originals,” it’s even more important to know the names of icons in Jewish history. Jewish illiteracy is rampant, and willful amnesia is frowned upon in Jewish tradition. The very heart of our liturgy, the Amidah, begins with the words “Praised You, Lord our G-d and G-d of our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” As my father said, “to be cognizant of our ancestors is one of the pillars of both the faith and the destiny of our people.” Thirty-seven years after graduation, I feel privileged to have known the late Hyman Brand, and proud to call myself a graduate of HBHA.
My next Facebook posting? Perhaps a bio of Rabbi Israel Salanter, and here’s hoping it will generate more than 100 comments.
Malka Margolies is a former publishing executive and is currently a freelance writer and publicist.