Last week, an enthusiastic audience of Conservative Jews assembled at the Solomon Schechter Day School’s Upper Campus in West Orange to witness one of the school’s very first students, Daniel Och, announce a $15 million dollar gift, in memory of his mother, Golda, of Maplewood, who passed away last year. The donation by Daniel and his wife Jane, is partly contingent on the raising of matching funds. The amount of this gift was described by chairman of the board, Joseph Bier as “game-changing.” The school will now be known as The Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter School.
Bier, who was a classmate of Daniel Och’s and also the son of one of the school’s founding families, said the money will be used for financial aid to make the school affordable to all Jewish students qualified for admission. It will also be used to renovate the school’s lower campus, a former public school located at the intersection of Gregory Avenue and Northfield Avenue in West Orange. Discretionary amounts will be used for other purposes, such as two merit scholarships decided on last night by the School’s Board of Directors.
Solomon Schechter was born in Romania in 1847 and died in New York in 1915. In Europe, he enjoyed a reputation as an important, charismatic scholar with a teaching post at Cambridge University in England. Jews eager to establish a Conservative branch of the religion in this country, recruited Schechter to be the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. There, Schechter became known as the driving force behind the Conservative Movement in North America. Conservative Jews seek to integrate modern secular life with the traditional teachings, practices and philosophy of the religion.
In recognition of Schechter’s seminal role, schools throughout the USA and Canada that follow a dual curriculum, secular and Judaic, are considered to be Solomon Schechter schools. The West Orange School is one of the few to go all the way from kindergarten to grade 12.
As stated in the testimonials at the December 6th ceremony, during her life, Golda Och, who had a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “made the school go” and was said to have “a brain second to none.” At various times following the school’s first incarnation in rented classroom space in 1965, she served as board chair, business manager, teacher, parent, adviser and friend.
Golda Och was ambitious for the Jewish community. She wanted it to thrive and she believed that an excellent school was the best way to make that happen for future generations. She and her husband, Dr. Michael Och, who still resides in Maplewood, raised two sons and a daughter, all successful adults. Daniel, the oldest, has become one of America’s billionaires. Forbes Magazine includes him on its list of the 400 richest.
Och is founder and head of the Och-Ziff Capital Management Group LLC, a leading, global institutional alternative asset management firm based in Manhattan. Och, chairman of the board of the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, is also an officer in the Robinhood Foundation of New York City, a charity dedicated to helping the city’s poor.
During his speech at the presentation, Och said “The Golda Och Academy is at an inflection point in time. It seeks more students as parents engage intensely in asking what is the best education for their children so they can “go to the best colleges” and “have the best lives.” “The only material thing my parents ever asked of me,” he continued, was a few years ago to contribute to the endowment started for Jewish Day Schools in this area. The current gift builds on the one previously started.
The rededication ceremony at the Schechter School last week attracted an impressive array of area rabbis, alumnae, faculty, administrators, parents, and philanthropists. One of Golda Och’s friends and champions, Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was enlisted as guest speaker. Eisen, an expert on American Judaism, taught in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University immediately prior to assuming stewardship of JTS.
Eisen addressed the audience of approximately 600 with a booming professorial voice and with a message aimed “at the back of the room” where the school’s students were seated on the gymnasium’s bleachers. “You are tomorrow’s Jews,” he told them. “It is up to you to take the best that Judaism has to offer and the best that secular Western Civilization has to offer, to combine them and to make them your own.”
The ceremony concluded with Golda Och’s widower, Dr. Michael Och, lighting the Hanukkah Menorah. The satisfied audience emptied the gymnasium turned auditorium and then it became only a gym again. The same gymnasium where I watched my son play varsity basketball. The same gym where I watched visiting teams look in amazement as Schechter athletes sang The Star Spangled Banner and then Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.
Janet Armuth Wolkoff is the mother of three children. Two graduated from Columbia High School in Maplewood. One graduated in 2010 from the Golda Och Academy in West Orange. She is an advocate of strong public schools. She is also an enthusiastic supporter of the education offered at The Golda Och Academy, where her husband, Neal, is on the Board of Directors.