Jay Rosenthal says that dropping his daughter off in the morning at the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School, where she’s in Grade 1, is “very much a downtown experience.”
For one thing, they take the subway to the campus, which is on the upper levels of the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre at Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue.
But there’s also the fact that entering the elementary school through the bustling, downtown community centre each day means encountering what Rosenthal described as a “very vibrant, and some would say chaotic place with a real buzz around it.”
This is a key component of the special quality of Paul Penna, which celebrates its 18th anniversary this year, said Rosenthal, a member of the school’s board and a passionate promoter of the pluralistic Jewish institution.
“A big part of the educational ethos of the school is the kids finding their role in Jewish life as well as in the larger community,” Rosenthal said.
To mark Paul Penna’s Chai Life Celebration, the school held a fundraiser on May 16 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
With about 300 people in attendance, the evening included a reception; a live auction; a conversation between Jordan Banks, the managing director of Facebook Canada, and David Kaufman, the CEO of Westcourt Capital Corporation; a tribute to community leaders Wendy and Elliott Eisen – Wendy’s activist work included advocating for the freedom of Soviet Jews in the 1980s – who are co-chairs of the Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum; and several musical performances, including songs by cast members from the musical Jersey Boys.
The evening’s goal was to celebrate how far the school has come and to raise money for scholarships and subsidies, technology upgrades to the school and revitalization of the building’s rooftop, where students play twice a day.
To date, Paul Penna’s Chai Life Celebration campaign has raised $520,000 from ticket sales, sponsorships and major contributions, surpassing its initial goal of $500,000.
“This amount seemed really ambitious when we first set out to [plan the event] a year ago, but the president of our board, Danielle Keystone-Adler, just said, ‘We’re going to raise five hundred grand,’” Rosenthal said.
He noted that the organizers were intent on having “high-level entertainment” at the fundraiser and they selected Banks as the evening’s keynote address because of his ability to reflect on the ways that technology and social media aren’t just being used for socializing, but for pushing forward social change.
“Talking about how social media can be used… as a tool for good, this speaks to how we’re trying to raise our kids,” Rosenthal said.
The evening also featured a short video presentation from Paul Penna’s founder, Cynthia Lazar.
Lazar opened the school in 1998 because she saw “a Jewish community thriving and growing in downtown Toronto and felt there should be a day school that serves its needs,” Rosenthal said.
She and several other families got together and launched Paul Penna with an initial class of 10 children.
Enrolment has since grown to 144 students and the school runs from senior kindergarten to Grade 6, with about 23 kids per grade.
Being pluralistic means the school is open to all Jewish families, and it prides itself on being inclusive – the community includes LGBTQ families and intermarried families, Rosenthal stressed, saying, “Our [student body] reflects the downtown Jewish community in a real way.”
Over the last 18 years, Paul Penna has not only grown in terms of the number of students, Rosenthal said, but it’s developed a strong feeling of community and “become a hub for Jewish life for many of the parents and students.”
The advantage of having a relatively small student population is that the kids form strong bonds both within and across grades, and a real sense of school pride is fostered among them.
“My daughter’s class now has a former Paul Penna student doing her teacher’s college practicum with them… I think that’s amazing, and I think we’ll see a lot more of things like that as the graduating students grow up and become an age when they might send their own kids to Paul Penna,” Rosenthal said.