One year after setting up the first Chabad house in Old Tappan, Rabbi Mendy Lewis is set to create the town’s first Hebrew school this fall.
Registration is now open for the school, which Lewis will run with his wife Devora and which will meet on Sundays. Although it is scheduled to begin next month with less than half a dozen children, Lewis is confident it will succeed. And in an area without another shul, where children have had to go to Closter, Teaneck, or even New York’s Rockland County, for a Jewish education, Lewis believes the community is ready.
Old Tappan has close to 300 Jewish families and, with the surrounding communities, Chabad counts between 500 and 600 families in the area, Lewis said. A Hebrew school in Old Tappan signifies a significant shift among the borough’s residents.
"For a first year in a small community, that’s a tremendous sign of interest and growth."
Chabad will typically open a Hebrew school a few years after it enters a community. But Lewis said interest from parents led him and his wife to start the program now.
"I’m not sure we would have started something right away without the parents initiating it," he said. "It’s really coming from the community."
Tina DeNike was one of the parents who urged Lewis to start a school. She and her family live in Old Tappan but belong to an out of the area Reform shul where her 13-year-old son, Jake, was bar mitzvahed. Her 10-year-old son, Zachary, will attend the Chabad school.
"They felt like they could approach the rabbi so easily, there was no question that couldn’t be asked," she said of the relationship between the rabbi and her children. "Most important was the fact my children enjoyed being around him."
The school’s students are a mix of Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated. Chabad accepts students from every stream of Judaism, the rabbi said.
"We don’t push anything on anyone, we just teach and provide opportunities to learn, to grow, and to enjoy Judaism," he said.
The school will focus on reading, writing, an appreciation of being Jewish, an appreciation of Israel, and basic conversational Hebrew, said Devora Lewis.
"Because there is nothing here, you have children who have not had any formal Jewish education yet," she said. "People appreciate something local. We’re hoping to tie the community together."
Devora Lewis has spent 10 years teaching Hebrew school in Australia, Manhattan, and, most recently, Long Island, where she and her husband were teachers for five years before coming to Old Tappan. The Chabad Hebrew School in Port Washington, N.Y., started off with 40 students and had grown to more than 100 by the time the Lewises left. "That’s the way it works," the rabbi said. "It starts off with 10, 15 children and it grows. There has been a tremendous response to the program."
"With experience the school will definitely grow," Devora Lewis said. "People are also looking for something different. This is going to be a wholly different experience."
The school will use color-coded levels to pass students from beginning, white, to the top level, black, much like the belt system used in karate. The system has become popular in Chabad schools across the world, she said. Although the oldest student registered is in fifth grade, the school will eventually offer kindergarten through sixth grade. Devora Lewis has found that seventh-graders are often too busy with bar/bat mitzvah preparation to participate in other activities but the rabbi will offer bar/bat mitzvah training and, eventually, post b’nai mitzvah classes, as well, the rabbi said.
"We’d like to get this going first," he said. "I do see something like that happening in the near future."
For more information, call (201) 421-1551.