During the 1970’s, a group of young couples with preschool or early elementary age children started to investigate the options available for educating their children both secularly and Jewishly. Upon hearing about Jewish Day Schools around the country they were intrigued with the idea of a school combining a quality general studies and intensive Judaic curriculum. A group including Phyllis and Ed Zissman, Norman and Beth Loberant, Saul and Leah Zatz, Marcia Kerstein, Paul and Faye Jeser, Herb and Pam Licht, Abby and Tinker Sale, Carol Goss, Sam and Angela Jacobson and others decided to pursue a fact finding mission. The goal was to proceed toward the establishment of such a school if there seemed to be adequate interest. Zelig Wise was named the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando representative for education. The group contacted Dr. Leon Spotts of the Atlanta Bureau of Jewish Education. He came to town and after several surveys, analysis and much discussion it was determined that there indeed existed not only the need but the desire to start a Jewish Day School in the Orlando area.
The core parent group worked tirelessly raising money and registering potential students. At the same time it was necessary to look for a qualified person to not only be the administrator but to take on the overwhelming task of starting a school from scratch. Unfortunately in spite of much time and effort the circumstances and timing were not right and the school was unable to open that designated September.
In the fall of 1976, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federation was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A delegation from Orlando was attending and as usual one of the major themes was Jewish education. Philadelphia being Edward Zissman’s home town, he convinced the group to visit several of the day schools in the area. Perhaps with more information and resources the spark could be rekindled enough to try once again.
The core group grew and by now included Lynn and Charles Schwartz, Barbara Simons, and Arnold and Susan Bierman. They were undaunted and continued raising the level of consciousness in the community. Rita Bornstein and Tess Wise hosted the first Day School fundraiser. Two years later, in the fall of 1977 the Hebrew Day School of Central Florida opened in the education wing of Temple Israel. Some 43 children were enrolled from kindergarten through third grade.
Over the next few years the school would encounter many highs and lows. It became very difficult to blend the proper educational personnel with the needs of the brand new school. Several times during these years, qualified lay leaders had to fill the void of professionals. Cary Ser, Henrietta Katzen and Paul Jeser would be called upon to assume such roles. But despite the difficulties the school continued to function through these hard times. Gradually the Orlando community came to accept and respect the quality of education the children were receiving. Not only were these children being taught literature and mathematics, they were being taught Hebrew as a foreign language, and were being taught that they could learn and live their heritage in an everyday world as proud American Jews. They did not have to feel awkward about staying home for Jewish holidays. They could lead family seders. They could recite the Kiddish. They could understand the meaning of prayers in the synagogue. They knew what it meant to be a mensch. At the same time they were also winning spelling bees, science fairs and writing contests.
During the early 1980’s years, a group of visionary communal leaders met. Those representing the Day School were Marc Katzen, Zelig Wise, Sheryl Meitin, Ed Zissman and Charles and Lynn Schwartz. They envisioned a central Jewish campus adjacent to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) that would house a school building for the Day School, as well as nursery school facilities, a Holocaust education center and JCC – Federation offices. Because of their persistence and commitment that one facility not be built without all being built, the community was able to muster its resources and in September 1986 the Hebrew Day School of Central Florida opened its doors in a beautiful new facility which included modern classrooms, computer lab, library, music room, art rooms and a multi purpose room.
Morris Sorin was recruited to head the school in September 1987. Under his direction and vision the school truly matured. The students now studied Shakespeare as well as Sholom Aliechem, mathematical probability as well as the life cycles of a Jew, critical thinking as well as the interpretation of the Bible by Jewish scholars. In numbers alone, the school now enrolled 130 students, with two kindergartens, two first grades as well as third through fifth grades that were filled to capacity. The school added a grade six the following year and a seventh and eight grade followed.
In 1991, the school joined the Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS) and has enjoyed a continuous relationship with FCIS for the past twenty-five years. In addition, Hebrew Day School became accredited by the Florida Kindergarten Council.
In 1995, Dr. Zena Sulkes became head of school and it was during this time that the school witnessed unprecedented growth. During her tenure, the school grew to an enrollment high of 258 students in 2004. Also, in 1998, the middle school was re-organized and named the Patricia R. Selznick Middle School, following a generous donation from Dr. Steve and Karen Selznick. The school expanded and moved parts of its operations to a new building on campus.
Following Dr. Sulkes retirement in 2005, Lynn Shefsky became head of school and served in this capacity for 8 years. In 2011, after a recommendation based on a major marketing study, the school changed its name from the Hebrew Day School of Central Florida to the Jewish Academy of Orlando. During this period as well, the school shifted its focus to technology, and with the help and generosity of technology visionaries, innovators and supporters such as Marc and Henrietta Katzen, the school increased its technology infrastructure and program. The school was recognized in 2012 as an “Apple Distinguished School.” Upon Mrs. Shefsky’s retirement in 2013, Shari Wladis served as interim head of school while the school searched for a new head and leadership change. That same year, the school celebrated its “Double Chai” anniversary (36 years). In 2014, Alan Rusonik was hired as the new head of school. In 2016, following 12 years of declining enrollment and increased debt, due in part to the economic downturn of 2008, the school’s leadership made some very difficult decisions to re-organize, including suspending the middle school, reducing the overhead and contracting the school’s operations to its original space and decreasing the amount of tuition assistance dollars as a percentage of its operating expenses. These difficult but necessary changes were critical to the future success and long-term sustainability of the school, and while it is very early on in the process, the prospects look encouraging.
Throughout its history, during times of prosperity and times of struggle, the Jewish Academy of Orlando (formerly Hebrew Day School) has continuously served a critical role in the history of the Orlando Jewish community, and has maintained a high standard of academic excellence for its students, as well as the community that it serves.