June 18, 2019

Irvine Hebrew Day School turns one

According to Karin Hepner, Orange County is home to more than 100,000 Jewish residents and, until one year ago, just two Jewish day schools. Hepner thought the community needed more choices. So she and her friend Andy Elster, with the help of several others, started Irvine Hebrew Day School (IHDS).

IHDS, which bills itself as the first Modern Orthodox school in Orange County — though it  welcomes all Jewish families — opened in fall 2014. The school rents space from Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine. Hepner, 42, a New York native with five children, ages 4 to 14, had no previous experience opening a school — she’s a molecular biologist specializing in cancer research. But she describes herself as “a very determined person.”

A conversation about the limited school choices had been going on for many years among Orange County Jewish families, Hepner said. But she had never seriously considered starting a school herself. That changed in 2013, when she and Elster, united in grief, grew close.

“Andy and I both lost a parent within two months of each other,” she recalled. “We were saying Kaddish in shul together, in synagogue, daily. My father and his mother. In a way, I think that propelled us both to want to do something. We see this, in a way, as their legacy.”

Unlike Hepner, Elster, 55, a software developer, did have school administration experience, having sat on the board of Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School, a K-12 “pluralistic, educational community” in Irvine (according to its website).

The founders decided they needed at least six students to go forward. They opened with eight kindergartners. The plan is to grow organically, adding a grade each year, until they are a K-5 school. So this fall, there will be a new class of kindergartners —12 are registered — as well as a first-grade class with a few second-graders sprinkled in, as some new families with second-graders were eager to enroll. 

Of course, opening a new school has not been without hurdles. Some in the community wondered why another school was needed, and managing finances while capping tuition has been challenging. IHDS charges around $12,000 a year, less than other Orange County Jewish schools and significantly less than many Los Angeles-area Jewish schools. But being affordable was a priority for the founders. The downside is that additional fundraising is necessary. The school’s parent-teacher organization has a number of fundraising events planned for the fall and spring.

Another challenge the school faces is “legitimacy and people trusting a new institution,” Hepner said. That, and simply getting word out about the school.

But many things have fallen into place, not the least of which is principal Tammy Keces. Keces, 45, a Laguna Beach native and lifelong educator, had spent the last few years consulting with local schools and districts on the practice known as “positive discipline,” which emphasizes respect and encouragement. She’s a certified trainer in the field. 

From the moment Keces sat down with the school’s founders, it was clear their philosophies were in sync. “It was kind of beshert,” Keces said. “At the time, I was simultaneously getting my administrative credentials.”

This past year, Keces also served as lead secular educator. “I thought it was essential our curriculum was implemented as per our vision,” she said. “I wanted to be in the thick of it.” Now that Keces is confident the school has “a really strong foundation,” she can be a full-time principal. 

Two experienced general studies educators have been hired to teach kindergarten and first grade. The school also employs a Hebrew teacher, whose creative approach includes a daily recess period conducted entirely in Hebrew, as well as a rabbi who oversees Jewish studies. This year, Rabbi Amittai Moshe Steindler, an Irvine native who recently moved from New York back to his hometown, will fill that role.

“We really collaborate as a team to coordinate our efforts,” Keces said. For Tu b’Shevat, the Hebrew studies teacher did a vocabulary lesson on trees and a complementary art project. In Jewish studies, the students read and discussed Torah portions and talked about the importance of doing mitzvot for the environment. Keces led a science unit about trees and the students planted a tree.

“That’s so unique in Jewish education to have this interdisciplinary approach,” Keces said. “In a lot of Jewish day schools, it’s hard to coordinate the disciplines. Everyone is doing things in isolation. Learning happens when there is a lot of breadth and depth.

“[IHDS is] a deeply spiritual environment,” she said, adding, “so much of what we do is based on tradition. Every morning we have tefillah. The children sing Modeh Ani. … We want their Jewish learning to be meaningful. We don’t want it to be rote or [to] indoctrinate them.” 

It’s an approach that resonates with parents such as Stephanie Gavshon, 44, whose son Lev completed kindergarten this year. 

“He is getting Jewish skills that my husband and I couldn’t teach him,” Gavshon said. “We didn’t grow up observant. He’s learning Jewish content we couldn’t give him. … What I was looking for is that when is my son is an adult, he could practice any kind of Judaism he wanted to. So it would be effortless. I want it to feel very comfortable to him … to feel being Jewish is a strong part of his identity, not that a secular life and an observant life are separate.” Gavshon also is thrilled with the academics and the positive discipline approach, with its focus on social-emotional wellness.

She shared an anecdote about the Friday home-style Shabbat lunches the students participate in every week in their classroom. Of late, her son, of his own accord, has been making a plate of food for the rabbi first. 

“I think it’s made him a very nurturing child,” she said of IHDS.

Gavshon admits to being nervous about sending her child to a brand-new school, at least at the outset. But, she said, “My husband and I are overjoyed we took this risk. It has been amazing for Lev … and our family.”