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RHA alumni gather as school marks 50 years

Debbie Rothstein

TORONTO — Robbins Hebrew Academy (RHA) – formerly United Synagogue Day School (USDS) – will celebrate its 50th birthday this month at a gala event followed the next day by a Kabbalat Shabbat  service and dinner for alumni at Beth Tzedec Congregation.

The hors d’oeuvres and dessert gala, featuring comedian Elon Gold, will be held at 7 p.m., Mar. 22, at the Warehouse Event Venue at Downsview Park.

Shauna Merkur, gala co-chair with Sara Gottlieb, expects about 300 people at the event, a fundraiser for technology, bursaries and alumni initiatives.

Claire Sumerlus, head of school for the past three years, describes RHA as “an incredibly warm community that is dedicated to academic excellence in both Jewish education and general studies.”

She lauded the “great foundation” the school had built before she arrived in Toronto from Winnipeg. It made it “easier to move it into the 21st century, because education has really changed and the world has really changed.”

Her predecessor, Lucy Cohen, retired in 2007, and the school was without a head of school for more than a year.

RHA, which has 600 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 at two campuses, is the largest school in the Solomon Schechter Day School Network. The network operates under the umbrella of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Alumni chair Debbie Rothstein said she made lifelong friends at USDS, which was renamed in 2010.

As well, she credited her former teachers for “assuming a certain level of intellectual maturity” on the part of the students. “They were constantly challenging us. They spoke to us as if we weren’t kids.”

Rothstein – a school parent and also the granddaughter of one of the school’s founders, J. Barney Goldhar – noted that RHA is the only Conservative school in the city. As a parent and a Conservative Jew, that was important to her, she said.

USDS’ first principal, Aaron Nussbaum, right, recalls that the school actually dates back a few years longer than half a century.

USDS started as a “foundation school” at Beth Tzedec in the late 1950s, said Nussbaum, who retired as director of education 19 years ago.

The term “foundation school” meant “that children would be attending nursery [through] Grade 2, like a foundation,” he explained.

“The kids would get a fantastic background in language and many other things – in happy living Jewishly – and then the idea was to go to the public school, so that you get both worlds – the Jewish world, the Hebrew world – and that when they started an afternoon school they would be starting with a great foundation.

“At the same time, you would not keep kids out of the mainstream of the public school. That was a very important ideal for many of the early generations. As well, this was supposed to be the approach of the Conservative movement in the ’50s and early ’60s… The idea was to integrate into [North] American life, not to be ghettoized.”

The foundation school approach was proposed by the Conservative movement but taken up only by a small number of congregations, he said. Rabbi Stuart Rosenberg, then Beth Tzedec’s spiritual leader, was a driving force in the school’s creation.

But something unexpected happened, Nussbaum said. “When children reached the end of Grade 2, the feeling was ‘It’s so good to have a day school – let’s continue on.’”

The new school, for which Nussbaum was hired as principal in 1961, was sponsored by all of Toronto’s Conservative congregations – hence its name. There were 115 students.

“It was a small, little school,” Nussbaum said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

Among the school’s innovations, he noted, it was termed a beit chinuch (house of education) instead of a beit Sefer (sefer is Hebrew for book), to reflect the idea that education isn’t limited to books.

As well, there was an attempt to integrate general studies material into the Hebrew department and vice versa, a new idea at the time.

The school grew, and in 1969 a second branch opened at Beth Tikvah Synagogue on Bayview Avenue. (A third branch, in Richmond Hill, opened about 30 years ago, but has since closed.)

At one point about 30 years ago, USDS ran a Jewish day high school, Nussbaum said. It merged with the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto after three years of operation.

Also, he mentioned, in the mid-1970s USDS was the first school to get a Solomon Schechter award for excellence in Jewish education.

For more information about the 50th-anniversary events, go to

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