In 1974, a small group of dedicated Jewish community members with an ambitious vision gathered to discuss the possible establishment of a Jewish day school in Ann Arbor. Among them was Jehuda Reinharz, a former Professor of Jewish History at the University of Michigan and former President of Brandeis University, who remarked: “There was a wonderful esprit de corps” among those who had made the decision. Such a school would be “a major contribution to the life of the Jewish community.” The group’s dream became reality when the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor opened in the fall of 1975 with a class of 12 “gansters” (kindergartners).
The school was initially housed in the old B’nai Brith Hillel building on Hill Street. The School added a grade each year, and by 1977 it outgrew its facility and moved to the Bethlehem United Church of Christ. In 1979, the school relocated to Beth Israel Congregation’s new synagogue building on Washtenaw Avenue. By 1987, the school had reached its capacity at Beth Israel. A final move to the Jewish Community Center [JCC] building on Birch Hollow Drive allowed student enrollment to almost double in a few short years.
Under the leadership of Marlene Gitelman, the school became well known as offering a superior secular academic elementary education together with an excellent Judaic curriculum. In 1995, HDS began a Hebrew immersion program, which has become a model for day schools nationwide. HDS students in Grades 1 through 5 spend half the school day learning Judaic subjects in classes conducted entirely in Hebrew. Starting in 2003 the school added a half-time Hebrew teacher in the Gan who converses with the kindergartners solely in Hebrew. As a result, by graduation, HDS students are able to converse easily in Hebrew as well as write and read the language.
The Hebrew Day School’s founders and subsequent leaders had a vision. Their dedication and hard work along with that of countless volunteers, faculty, staff, and parents guided the school from an experimental program to an established and highly valued part of the Ann Arbor and larger Jewish community. Now the challenge is to further raise awareness in the community of the importance of raising literate Jewish children who have the knowledge and skills to become our future leaders. We look forward to seeing the current generation of students flourish in those roles.