School for the Modern Mensch
By Colin Shalo
I’m standing next to the head of school of the Arthur I. Meyer Jewish Academy, and we’re looking up at the galaxy.
“There’s knowledge and then there’s wisdom,” he says to me. “Most schools teach knowledge: what you should know. But at Meyer Academy, we teach wisdom: what you do with what you know. This galaxy puts things in perspective for children.”
We’re looking at a large backlit rendering of the galaxy constructed into the ceiling at the Meyer Academy’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility that recently opened for the school’s 41st year. After 16 years on Military Trail, the International Baccalaureate school (which serves kindergarten through eighth grade) is now in the Melvin J. & Claire Levine Center for Jewish Learning on Hood Road in Palm Beach Gardens.
This galaxy painting, Head of School Nehemia “Nammie” Ichilov explains to me, is one of many features of the school that is both artistically awe-inspiring and educationally purposeful. “The architecture and design are part of the educational experience,” he says. “The entire building was created to be part of the children’s learning experience, rather than simply a building to house it.”
We walk down the hall and I look up again. Large rectangular objects seemingly float from the ceiling above. They look like clouds. I’m in the Noah’s Ark section of the school. An ark-like structure comes out of the wall, leading all the way up to the shingles on the roof. The design functions as a tie to history and Judaism, a feature Rene Tercilla – the school’s architect and senior vice president at Harvard Jolly Architecture – was drawn to when he accepted the project.
“Hearing a desire to look for ways to integrate religious content into everyday life at the school was exciting,” said Tercilla. “It led to the design of very obvious parts of the building such as the Ark within the media center – but also to less visible differences like a media center that’s more of a ‘living room’ than library.”
Beside the ark, I’m struck by what I see through a nearby window: a room that looks like a TV studio. “Students will write, produce and have all the responsibility to create TV news for their peers,” Ichilov tells me. “Giving them this responsibility is a part of that ‘teaching wisdom’ philosophy.”
I walk upstairs to a science classroom – or, as it’s known at the school, a “Fab Lab” (short for “fabrication lab,” which school officials tell me will soon be equipped with a 3D printer and many other advanced technological resources). Here, students not only build their ideas into tangible prototypes, they are taught that their work may potentially fail or not go as predicted when tested. As a result, students are encouraged to experiment and learn from their experiences.
“Meyer Academy is not just teaching my boys to read, write and do math. They are teaching my children to be independent, resourceful, smart, creative and kind,” said Tracie Kreiger, whose two sons attend Meyer Academy. “This school develops so much more than children’s academics – they are developing every single beautiful part of my children.”
Though school is now in session at the new facility, many design features are still being constructed. School officials tell me that this is on purpose: students are growing not just in the new building, but with it.
One feature recently installed is a large wall outside the lobby, fashioned to appear like shelves with book titles that are actually engravings written by past, present and future students and their families. Dubbed the “Building Our Future, One Book at a Time” project by a student at Meyer Academy, the wall is one of the many recognition opportunities for the community members who funded the school’s construction with the Tomorrow Today Campaign (TTC).
Meyer Academy’s new building is just one result of TTC, a community capital campaign spearheaded by Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and a group of Jewish community leaders to reimagine the Jewish community of the greater Palm Beaches. Honorary co-chairs include Sheila and Alec Engelstein, Barbara and Jack (z”l) Kay, Marilyn (z”l) and Arnold Lampert, Ellen and Irwin Levy, Barbara and Mort Mandel, and Sydelle Meyer.
Ron Pertnoy, a principal of Shapiro Pertnoy Companies and President of the Palm Beach County Jewish Community Campus Corporation, dedicated his detailed knowledge of the real estate industry to guide Jewish community institutions to best meet the changing needs of the population. Pertnoy’s efforts to relocate Meyer Academy and Mandel JCC to Palm Beach Gardens, for instance, came in response to the area’s blossoming Jewish community – one of the fastest growing in the country.
The school’s new home is also the result of a landmark expedition to the Washington, D.C. area. Six school and community leaders – including Ichilov, Tercilla, Federation professionals and members of the building and design committee – traveled to our nation’s capital to visit some of the most renowned independent schools in the country. Their goal: draw inspiration from these shining examples to build the dream school for our Jewish community.
“We spoke to school leaders across the country. We listened to the things that worked as well as those that didn’t,” says Miki Leibowitz, chair of Meyer Academy’s building committee and parent of two alumni. “The process allowed us to explore the best of what existed and learn from others’ successes and challenges.”
“It is rare in this day and age to be given a blank sheet of paper and told to create the school of your dreams,” said William Meyer, a lead donor to the school, board of trustees member and the son of the school’s namesake, philanthropist Arthur Meyer (z”l). “But that is what you see before you today.”
When I was a kid (and maybe when you were, too), a schoolyard was a bare and characterless blacktop. That’s all there was to it. At Meyer Academy’s new facility, that idea has been turned on its head. I walk outside and see a giant map of Israel engraved into the courtyard where children play, learn and absorb. The map will soon identify key cities, including our area’s partner region known as TZAHAR (an abbreviation of the cities of Tzfat, Hazor HaGlilit and Rosh Pina).
“When visualizing the school, we spoke about what types of activities and what type of learning would take place in these areas,” said Michelle Jacobson, a mother of Meyer Academy alumni, chair of the school’s design committee and immediate past president of the school. “It was a fun place to conceive and design.”
The map is just the beginning to students’ Israel experience at the school. Many teachers are actually from Israel. Students stay connected to their Israeli peers through a school twinning program and a network of immersive travel experiences – all thanks to Partnership 2Gether, a living bridge program between the Jewish community of the greater Palm Beaches and Israel’s TZAHAR region. Partners from the region have already visited Meyer Academy twice this school year, and students look forward to their eighth grade trip to Israel, where they will meet Israeli friends they have made through letters, emails, FaceTime and Skype.
But the school isn’t only about teaching Israel. A few yards away from the Israel map, under a large permanent awning, is another giant map built into the ground: that of the United States.Educators can teach U.S. geography and history, employing immersive tactics far more exciting than textbooks. What could have been standard pavement instead ties into a much more resonating learning experience.
“Our youth have a spectacularly designed and built environment to absorb the excellent academic and Jewish education provided by Meyer Academy teachers and staff,” said Michael Kaufman, founder and CEO of Kaufman Lynn Construction, whose company built the school.
As I go to exit the school, I see a student walk up to a small slot in a unique wall. He drops a note into the slot. The wall looks familiar: built with imported Jerusalem stone, it’s a replica of Jerusalem’s Kotel. Using the mail slot built toward the bottom of the wall, students (or, actually, anyone from the community) can leave prayers and messages throughout the year. During the course of the year, the eighth grade students are responsible for collecting these notes and ultimately fulfilling the commandment of being shlichei mitzvah (“emissaries of good deeds”) when they drop them off at the Kotel in Jerusalem during their annual spring trip to Israel.
As Nammie puts it: “The students are living Jewish values.”
While I am not what most people would call a religious person, I have spent my share of time in Israel and a lot of other places around the world. This new home for Meyer Academy is, to me, refreshing. The school not only embraces the beauty of Judaism and the Jewish homeland, but it so clearly dedicates itself to creatively surrounding children with the rich history that serves as our foundation and the wisdom to lead us into the future.
Nammie turns to me as he walks me out to the parking lot. He tells me about one more feature coming soon that he thinks will interest me: a 9’x9’ video matrix wall inside the school that will show live video feeds from around the world. Students will be able to view, in real time, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza, CNN’s student news feed or even our local weather forecast – among countless other options. The wall can show one giant image or nine different feeds.
With features like the video matrix wall, the giant map of Israel and the picture of the galaxy, children are introduced from kindergarten onwards to a broader understanding of local and global perspective. Boys and girls learn there’s a big world out there – and they have the potential to affect it for the positive.
At Meyer Academy, they learn to understand that they might sometimes fail – and, in turn, learn to accept the importance of getting back up and trying again.
Children are immersed in the Jewish values of tzedakah (Hebrew for “justice” but commonly signifying “charity”), chesed (“kindness”) and tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) – giving them the tools to understand for themselves how to be the best they can be.
“In other words,” says Nammie, “we educate and graduate mensches.”
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