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School combines secular, religious CULTURAL CLASSROOM


When Dr. Aaron and Roz Goldberg were looking over the Jewish schools in northwest Baltimore two years ago, they wanted one that would pass along their values to their children. But what they found were schools at different ends of their religious spectrum.

The Goldbergs, who are Orthodox, worried that their children would stand out from the majority of students in the non-Orthodox Jewish schools. They feared awkward moments over invitations to Saturday birthday parties, for example, from Jewish families who do not observe the Sabbath.

And the established Orthodox schools in the area seemed to the Goldbergs to make too much of a separation between secular and religious life.

One day, as they were visiting with other like-minded Orthodox Jewish parents, Mrs. Goldberg said, "either we do something or we stop complaining about it." The parents decided to do something.

The result is Maimonides Academy/Yeshivat Rambam which opened last September, reflecting the "Torah U'Mada" strand of Orthodoxy. Torah U'Mada stresses greater integration between strict, Sabbath-observing religious life and the secular world.

The school has 55 students in kindergarten through third grade. Another grade is to be added each year, up through the 12th. Charges for tuition, supplies and fees range from $3,800 for kindergarten to $4,000 for the third grade. Pre-registration for next year is now at 90 students and counting.

The school day at Yeshivat Rambam is evenly divided between Jewish studies and a general curriculum. Students learn the English and the Hebrew alphabets and begin their reading in each language. They learn social studies as well as Jewish law and customs. Sometimes the teaching crosses over, or combines religious and secular learning, which is in keeping with the Torah U'Mada philosophy.

A recent example comes from the celebration last month of Tu B'Shevat, a new year festival for trees. The school taught the Jewish tradition of not plucking the fruit of a tree in its first three years of life as well as the environmental concern about recycling timber pulp products.

The Goldbergs, who were among the 13 founding families of Yeshivat Rambam, regard their school as a healthy sign of how large and diverse their Orthodox community has become. The Orthodox population in northwest Baltimore and surrounding areas is estimated at about 8,000, with as many as 150 more families arriving each year, attracted by the strong, Sabbath-observant culture.

Many of the 200 families who expressed interest in Yeshivat Rambam during small group meetings before its founding were typical of Orthodox newcomers who are drawn to Baltimore for fellowships at medical institutions and end up staying.

"They couldn't understand why there wasn't a school here" with their philosophy, said Dr. Goldberg, an internist who grew up in Baltimore. His wife, an audiologist, is now president of Yeshivat Rambam.

Among those new families was that of Dr. Ethan and Cheryl Spiegler, who moved from New York in 1987 so he could take a two-year medical fellowship. He now works at St. Agnes Hospital.

Mrs. Spiegler said that without Yeshivat Rambam, they might have moved to Montgomery County to enter their children in a more "modern" Orthodox school in Silver Spring. Some Orthodox parents in Baltimore send their children, starting in middle school, on a 45-minute bus ride each way to the Silver Spring school for an education that is more embracing of the secular world.

"That's the kind of education we wanted for our children," Mrs. Spiegler said.

The Goldbergs, too, say they might have left Baltimore if they couldn't find what they wanted for their children here.

"It would have been a struggle, but we've got to live in a place where we're comfortable with the education," said Dr. Goldberg. Since his graduation from Talmudical Academy on Old Court Road in 1975, he said, "just like in politics, there's been a move to the right in religion."

The Goldbergs say their efforts met with philosophical objections at first from some in the local Orthodox rabbinate and with undertones of concern among the established Orthodox schools about another school drawing from the same pool of support.

Other Orthodox schools in the area are Talmudical Academy and Torah Institute, both for boys, and Bais Yaakov for girls. Beth Tfiloh, a Jewish community school, also attracts many Orthodox students.

Rabbi Heshy Dachs, education director of Talmudical Academy, xTC was diplomatic about the arrival of Yeshivat Rambam. "We wish them the best of luck," he said, adding that the new school is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the rapid influx of Orthodox families.

But he believes Yeshivat Rambam is "a duplication of services" and argues that various understandings of Orthodoxy, including the Torah U'Mada concept, have been accommodated at Talmudical Academy.

"You can't 100 percent meet every single nuance of every single faction," he said, adding that his school has no shortage of students. "We will continue to serve the breadth of the entire Orthodox community."

Talmudical Academy remains neutral on Zionism, Rabbi Dachs said, so that students' families may handle the subject as they wish.

Yeshivat Rambam, however, is explicitly Zionist, in contrast to the distinction that many Orthodox Jews draw between the land of Israel, as the place of their religious heritage, and the state of Israel, in which the laws do not fully conform to Jewish law and custom.

As for the Torah U'Mada concept of integrating the religious and secular worlds, Rabbi Dachs said, Talmudical Academy boys learn that a secular career is necessary but not an end in itself, while study of the Torah is "supreme" and an end in itself.

To find out how to start a school in Baltimore that was closer to their own interpretation of Orthodoxy, the early organizers of Yeshivat Rambam consulted Yeshiva University in New York, a guiding light of Torah U'Mada in this country. The university referred them to families who had started schools in Cleveland and Toronto.

Mrs. Goldberg, an audiologist who is president of Yeshivat Rambam, said that with money raised among interested parents and grandparents, and from fund-raising events in the Orthodox community, the school founders reached their goal of raising about $300,000 to start the school and support it for the first year.

"As things start taking off, people start becoming more generous," Mrs. Goldberg said.

One of the most crucial decisions along the way was the hiring of a principal. Dr. Rita Shloush, who was recommended through a network at Yeshiva University, left her job as head of a large Orthodox school in Atlanta to lead the small fledgling one in rented quarters at the Greenspring Valley Synagogue on Pimlico Road.

"From my perspective, it was the chance of a lifetime," said Dr. Shloush, referring to the "idea of creating a school starting from ground zero."

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