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Honor roll of rabbis demonstrates school's strength


Like most American Jewish boys in the 1920s, Sylvan Wolpert was learning his religion in Hebrew school after putting in a full day of public school -- until his father demanded one day that he read aloud from a Hebrew prayer book.

"I struggled along," remembered Mr. Wolpert, who is now 75, a retired accountant living in Park Heights.

His father, who had heard enough, snapped the book shut and said, "he's going" to the new Jewish day school in town. Then called the Hebrew Parochial School of Baltimore, it was the third Jewish day school started in this country, the first outside New York.

Seventy-five years later, the school, now called Talmudical Academy, continues to put boys through a double load of learning -- secular and religious -- steeped in the traditions of Orthodox Judaism.

Alumni and friends of the school will celebrate the anniversary with a banquet tonight honoring its founder, Abraham Nachman Schwartz, a rabbi who left Russia in 1906 at the outbreak of a pogrom only to perceive a new threat in America -- declining observance of Jewish religious law among children.

"Judaism will never survive in this country on three days a week of Hebrew school," Rabbi Schwartz told supporters as he sought to establish a school here.

Judaism, of course, has since flourished in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States. And those associated with Talmudical Academy like to think it has played a role in the successes of Orthodox Judaism. More than a quarter of the academy's graduates become rabbis or go into Jewish education, school officials say, with many becoming leaders of rabbinical seminaries and postgraduate programs.

"It shaped the Jewish aspect of my life, certainly," said Rabbi Israel Miller, senior vice president of Yeshiva University in New York. He attended the academy in the 1920s and '30s.

Even those who go into secular careers typically spend a year or more after graduation studying the Torah -- the body of Jewish religious literature -- in Israel before returning to college in this country.

The school has outgrown three buildings, each situated farther to the northwest in keeping with the flow of Jewish suburban settlement. The fourth and current site, on Old Court Road overlooking the Beltway, has 650 boys attending from preschool to 12th grade.

In recent years, school officials say, one or two students in each senior class of about 12 has been a semifinalist or better in National Merit Scholar competition.

The school was at the forefront of the Jewish day school movement. In the early years, many American Jews pursuing the ideal of the ethnic melting pot resisted the idea of segregating their children. Jewish schools were thought to be insular and unlikely to propel students into successful secular careers. "You wouldn't be a mensch [mature person]," explained Rabbi Joshua Fishman, executive vice president of the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools in New York.

But since World War II, with the destruction of Jewish centers of learning in the Nazi Holocaust and fears about losing Jewish identity within American culture, he said, Jewish day schools gained appeal as "a bulwark against intermarriage and assimilation."

Rabbi Yehuda Lefkovitz, Talmudical Academy's president, works in an office lined with large books in Hebrew -- out of print, some a few hundred years old, and sought after as references by local scholars. The books are from the library of the founder, Rabbi Schwartz, who was regarded as the chief rabbi of Baltimore until his death in 1937.

Admission to the school is based on the willingness of a student's family to pursue Orthodox Jewish life and learning.

There are enrichment programs for quick students, tutoring for slow ones, and a separate special education section for those with learning disabilities. Tuition runs from $3,300 a year in kindergarten to $4,500 in high school.

The day starts for most students at 7:30 a.m. with prayer, followed by breakfast and a morning recess. Religious studies begin at about 9 a.m. and run, with a break for lunch, until about 2 p.m. Studies in math, science, English, foreign languages and other subjects last as late as 6:30 p.m. for high school students. Many boys return to school three nights a week for further Torah study.

On the nights of school basketball practice, Roger Lerner, a 12th-grader from Pikesville, doesn't get home until 9, when he starts about two hours of homework. Sometimes he reminds himself that Pikesville High gets out at 3 each afternoon.

But in reflecting on his own school, Roger said, "It's just a better atmosphere here." Many of the faculty invite students into their homes, he said. "They're always available to help."

The school days are shorter on Friday and Sunday. Saturday, the Sabbath, is the only day off.

Like all but one or two boys in his class of 12, Roger says he doesn't date girls yet. Unlike others, he does watch television occasionally, though the school frowns upon it. "Certain things they show aren't proper for a young person like me," he said. But, "I like to know what's going on in the world."

Roger plans to spend next year studying in Israel, after which he will apply to the University of Maryland.

Jake Schuchman, Class of 1961, said the all-male, religious academy has escaped "social problems you have at other schools."

"Your focus is more on studies. It's very intensive," said Mr. Schuchman, who directs information management systems for the Howard County Schools.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, when drugs and rebellion against authority shook most American schools, Talmudical Academy felt a slight breeze. Dress got sloppier and hairstyles got shaggier, but the hair never reached the shoulders, said Rabbi David Katz, Class of 1971, who now teaches there. He said he doesn't remember that anyone got involved in drugs.

"A lot of the ideas of the '60s were diametrically opposed to what the school stands for, to what Orthodox Judaism stands for," he said. While students were aware of changes in society, they mostly rejected them, he said.

Rabbi Lefkovitz said students "are exposed to everything" in American youth culture. "We don't live in a shtetl where you're isolated," he said.

But through keeping kosher dietary laws and observing the Sabbath, "we're used to self-control," he said. "This extends into moral values, ethical values."

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