Reimagine Judaic Studies @ AJA Lower School


Written by: Debbie Bornstein, Director of Judaic Studies, K-8

According to the Pew Research Center, only 28% of Jews feel that being part of a Jewish community is an essential aspect of being Jewish. At AJA, our entire mission revolves around the importance of community. Our Judaic studies program strives to create literate and fully-invested members of the Jewish community who exhibit a sustained commitment to our people, our history, and our values. We want our graduates to feel and live a life of connection to Judaism. 

How do we get there? 

  • - We provide experiential programming and enthusiastic role models who exhibit a love of Israel and Judaism. 

  • - Our curriculum is structured around problem and project-based learning to create authentic connections between students and our culture. 

  • - Chaggim (holidays) are a focus for integration of different methods of instruction and evaluation. 

  • - Starting in 1st grade, our students are introduced to texts and when coupled with Hebrew language instruction, our students learn the skills for navigating our siddur (prayer book), exploring our Chumash (printed Torah), decoding our Mishna (oral Torah), and delving into our Talmud. 

  • - As students progress through our school, we nurture developmentally appropriate higher level thinking skills corresponding to each modality of learning. 

The foundation of any successful program is the faculty. We are focused on finding and developing first class educators. Our plans call for an expansion of the Judaic Studies faculty for the 2017-18 school year and we are currently accepting applications, from both the United States and in Israel. 

AJA will be introducing a comprehensive evaluation system to track our students’ progress through the Judaic studies curriculum. This data will allow us to assess and track mastery and knowledge and structure our spiraled curriculum appropriately to maximize student success and learning. Currently under development, the initial roll-out for this program will be in 3rd and 4th grades with additional grades to follow in subsequent years.

This year, we have reimagined our Birkat HaMazon at the end of lunch. The words are now easily accessible to the students on a projection screen where they can follow along with the faculty member facilitating and adding Al HaMichya and Borei Nefashot when appropriate. Students are now exposed to a wider variety of brachot (blessings) which we hope they will continue to use throughout their lives. 

We are introducing Chumash towards the end of 1st grade (previously 2nd grade), in order to start textual skills earlier in 2nd grade. This will allow our students to be acclimated with learning from a text, to create the foundation for Torah study.

We have also reimagined middle school Tefillah. Students now attend classes with their Judaics studies instructors where they learn about the prayers and their significance in addition to recitation each day. 

Our 1st - 6th grade buddy oneg program which is held once or twice each month has been reimagined as a Parsha learning opportunity with handouts containing Divrei Torah and exercises to help our students gain an understanding of the weekly portion. 

We hope that our work here continues long after our students leave these doors. Lifetime engagement of our students in a commitment to living Jewish lives and Mitzvot (commandments), being connected to their Torah and Jewish community, and providing continuity to their own children is central to who we are as AJA. And we can’t do it alone. School provides only part of the equation for our mission.

Parents, family, friends, synagogue, and youth groups are essential components of success. What is important in our lives is important to our children. So I encourage you to come to school and visit us during Tefillah or take your child to Shul with you on Shabbat and show them your love and your commitment. 

- Debbie Bornstein, Director of Judaic Studies, K-8


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The Concrete Lane - Rebecca Lewyn


The Concrete Lane

Rebecca Lewyn, Grade 8 - Atlanta Jewish Academy


My footsteps mark the concrete lane
Whose scarred faces lay agape
Seasons of ruined fronds will shame
No thing will ever stay the same

Blankets ice the concrete lane
Whose cold frame standstill agleam
Eyes the beauty of recurring rain
Nothing ever stays the same

Shrubs wrap the concrete lane
Whose wounds fill with fowl pests
Feels the writhing in his mane
Nothing ever can stay the same

But somewhere along the concrete lane
My footsteps come across a body asleep
I gaze at its corpse and my heart fills with pain
Nothing could ever stay the same


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What Happened to Peace? Jolie Abadi

What Happened to Peace?  

Jolie Abadi, Grade 8 - Atlanta Jewish Academy

The windy morning, as quiet as can be,

Yet something took a turn inside of me.

A soaring surrender I wish I would see.

The ground shook,

And I sunk like an anchor,

On my trip to the bottom of the ocean.

My vision was blurred as I searched for an answer.

The darkness consumes us, where should we look?

A second ringing in my ears.

A second in time to fear and react.

The cries for help bring never ending tears.

My mind went blank, and my body went stun.

Do I look back or do I run?

Why must this happen here?

On the round Earth where I yearn for peace,

Will we ever get off this carousel of hostility?

Where the children are sobbing instead of loving,

On this panicked ride where I yearn for release.

I can feel the growing heat,

No matter the depths of defeat,

The fire within, for the country I love, will never be beat.

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Senior Talk - Daniel Shapiro


For those of you who don’t know me so well, I was born in San Antonio, Texas. When I was nine years old, my parents sat me and my sister down and said, “Kids, we’re moving.” My sister, who was in 6th grade and had all her friends in Texas, wasn’t too happy. I, who also had all my peers in my hometown, was the opposite. Instead of pouting and sulking like a regular 4th grader who was just told they were leaving everything they had known, I was excited and anxious to leave. I was ready for the opportunity to see new places and meet new people. I was ready for change.

This was the first example of the mindset I have had all throughout my life. I hate being in a rut, doing the same thing over and over again every day. I can’t do it. I have to always have something new to involve myself in. This may seem like fun, always finding different activities to enjoy, but in reality, it translates to a bad habit.

To prove my point, I will give a few anecdotal examples of this from my own life. In 7th grade, I joined the tennis team, played for two years, then stopped. I haven’t played tennis once since then. I would imagine I’m not so good anymore. I also learned a bit of coding. I got into Javascript, and later, TI basic, which is the program you can use on your calculator. Then I stopped, and all I know how to do now is write a program that lets you guess a number and it tells you if it's too high or too low, until you eventually get it right. Except when I try and write it, when I guess the first number, i get an error message and the program ends.

I also became very interesting in two things in particular, music and language. I learned piano and took lessons for three years, but now all I can do is play Great Balls of Fire - that song that Aharon Davidson was really good at. I took guitar lessons for two years, and all i can do is play a few songs with the chords in front of me... as long as there are no B flats.

Some of you know that last year I tried learning french. That didn’t work out so well, because by now all I can say is, “la garcon a mange une pomme,” which means, “the boy ate an apple.” I also learned sign language. Which is pretty cool, except I’ll probably never need to use except to secretly talk with my friends during class. During the summer, I wanted to learn some Russian because it is the language of my ancestors. I made it through the incredibly weird alphabet and learned one phrase. In my opinion it is really the only phrase you need to know, “Kactus Geyzesh,” which means, “How do you say?”

Anyway you all get the point I’m trying to make. I went through my life constantly trying new things and exploring new topics, but I never mastered any of them. I am a Jack-of-all-trades, or more accurately, but less flatteringly, a master-of-none. I know a very small amount of each of the things I learned and did, but I didn’t gain what I could have gained. My senior wisdom to you guys is, don’t be like me, always switching to a new activity when the old one became boring. Find something you love, in school or out of school, and don’t abandon it. Practice it, pursue it, and eventually, you will master it.



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Chanukah Gifts: Packing Your Values (and Yourself) into the Gift

The Atlanta Jewish Academy is glowing and ready for Chanukah, the holiday made of miracles and Jewish pride. Our children cannot wait for the flickering of the candles as we light chanukiot, spinning dreidels, and delicious Channukah treats. And of course, there are the Chanukah presents wrapped in shiny blue and silver paper.

In a fast-paced world like ours, with plenty of pressure to "keep up with the Goldsteins," how about considering some exciting and creative non-toy gifts for our children?

The message here is that not all gifts need to be toys. Giving should be something thoughtful; a gift, after all, comes from the heart.

Here are some ideas:

Coupons. An envelope of coupons that kids can "spend" at any time, like:

  • I'll do one chore -- no questions asked;

  • movie and popcorn night, you pick the movie;

  • 1:1 game of cards or basketball (whatever the child's interested in);

  • sit and read a book with me;

  • stay up 1/2 hour past bedtime.

Create your own space. Set up a tent or a corner with pillows for reading, alone time or parent-child alone time. Designing and decorating together makes the space even more special.

Photo Albums. Photobooks are simple to make. Together, tell the story of last year’s summer vacation, a family tree story book, or All About Me. You can find templates for photobooks online at Snapfish or Shutterfly, to name a few.

Parent/Grandparent dates. With our busy schedules, children value any one on one time with a parent or grandparent. Present your child with a “teaser”--maybe a bottle of nail polish, with an attached note that reads, "You've got a mani-pedi with Dad”; or a toy car, with a note that says, “Drive to the mountains with Nana…”

A new skill or hobby. Has your child asked for guitar lessons or shown a new interest in karate? This a perfect time to sign her up and help her soar into a new world of friends and experiences.

Doing a mitzvah together. There are many organizations that help children understand the importance of giving. Having your child/ren clean out their toys and give some that they no longer play with to other children is an easy way to model giving.

Here are some other ideas: donates books to a participating organization of your choice every time you read online with your kids. allows kids to donate hair 10 inches or longer to create hairpieces for children suffering from hair loss due to various medical conditions.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Ms. Sylvia Miller, School Counselor EC-8

Atlanta Jewish Academy

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Bill Shillito: Why I Teach

This is the story of how I fell in love with math, then grew to hate it, and then finally came to love it again.

I started loving math at a very young age, ever since my mother taught me to count (in both English and Spanish!) When I was in kindergarten, I used to watch a math-related show called Square One TV that introduced me to concepts that at the time were far beyond me – fractions, square roots, algebra, the Fibonacci sequence, infinity. It fascinated me, and I soaked it all up like a sponge.

Once I started school, that’s when things really took off. Math was like an infinite fountain, and oh was I thirsty. And the ones who lifted me up to that fountain so that I could drink from it were my teachers. I was lucky to have teachers every year who encouraged me, challenged me, inspired me, fostered and cemented my love of learning.

The one who most inspired me most was Mrs. Poss; she was my teacher for 9th grade Honors Algebra II and again for 11th grade Honors Analysis, as well as the organizer of the math team. Every day I looked forward to her class (even though I occasionally resented how much she made me work and wouldn’t let me off the hook). Mrs. Poss loved math. You could see it in her eyes. You could hear it in her voice. You could feel it in the air. She floated, sometimes almost bounced, around the room as she led us through new, uncharted territory in our minds – and nobody got left behind, because just as Mrs. Poss loved math, so too did she love her students. Her classroom was where we knew we were welcome, where we knew we could grow, where we knew we could succeed.

I remember coming to her one day in 9th grade, convinced that I had finally figured out how to divide by zero. Rather than brushing me off and saying “no, that’s impossible”, like it would have been easy for her to do, she smiled, and said “show me.” When I made my argument to her (which, for the math nerds, basically involved looking at the slope of a line that gets more and more vertical), she smiled even more brightly, and said, “Congratulations. You just discovered limits. You should look into calculus – I bet you’d love it.” There were two results of this. First of all, I went to my local library and checked out “Calculus Made Easy”, and as predicted, I loved it. But more importantly, that moment was when I first thought:

“I want to become a math teacher.”

I graduated high school and entered college as an applied math major, excited to take my love of math to new heights. But when I went to class, something felt different. Something was wrong – very wrong. I was no longer in a warm, inviting classroom with teachers who taught, but in a cold, stoic lecture hall with professors who … well … professed. There was no excitement. There was no beauty. There was no passion. There were only formulas not to forget, calculations to carry out, exams that were exhausting instead of exhilarating. And the worst part is that I believed it was my fault, that I really wasn’t good at math after all. In fact, I hated math. I ended up switching majors to International Affairs and Japanese which, while somewhat interesting, never brought me that same kind of joy as I trudged through the remainder of my four years.

Once I graduated from college, I started applying for jobs, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But as I went from cube farm to cube farm, I knew something was missing. I came to work, clocked in, got whatever the boss told me to done, clocked out, went home, and then did it all over again the next day. Nothing I was doing gave me any sense of purpose. I was just a cog in a wheel. And as a result, these jobs didn’t last very long, whether that was a voluntary decision or an involuntary one.

At some point, while I was particularly frustrated with my job search, I came across a tutoring center that was looking for a math tutor, and I decided to at least give it a shot. But when I began my first session with a couple of students who were addled by algebra, something inside me clicked that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I was in my element. I was excited. I was happy. I was falling in love with math again, but this time from a new perspective. Now I was the guide, helping my students forge paths, cross bridges, maneuver mazes, and climb to new heights. I remembered hearing my teachers talk about that fabled “light-bulb moment”. Well … that moment was real. And it was addictive. I had to have more. There was nothing that had ever been as fulfilling as getting to know my students and getting them from “huh?” to “aha!” With every student who came by my table, I realized more and more that this was what I wanted to do – no, what I was meant to do. From that point on, I focused myself in earnest toward that dream I had once had:

“I want to become a math teacher.”

And now here I am. It’s been a tough journey, and I almost lost sight of my path. But now that I’ve once again rediscovered that path, I’m going to follow it wherever it takes me. And more importantly, I’m going to help my students find their own paths, and do everything I can to help them along the way.

So why do I teach? I teach because I want to be for my students what my teachers were for me. I want to encourage them, to challenge them, to inspire them, to foster and cement in them a love of learning that will last a lifetime.


The Gift Giver
Joe Murphy, Vanderbilt University

To unsettle and alloy that bewilderment with joy

To allow flight and provide an unseen scaffolding of support

To hold tightly while letting go


To correct with precision and warmth

To reveal mysteries and provide ladders for climbing to understanding


To challenge, to exhort, to demand

To push, to pull, to carry

To build, to empower

To respect and acknowledge, to ennoble


To place one’s own heart on the altar and one’s own hands in the fire

To remember the forgotten


To feel, to share

To dance in celebration

To pass into the shadows


To teach


Bill Shillito teaches math at AJA Upper School.

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Dr. Paul Oberman: Lessons Learned in Acting Class

Last night was the culminating night for my acting class. I had memorized and rehearsed a monologue from the play Lunch Hour by Jean Kerr. I had worked on a difficult scene from Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abair with an acting partner—a scene in which we argued about a 4-year-old child we had lost to a car accident. The class had worked together on understanding the inner workings of each character, and the characters’ intentions throughout the scenes. We had worked on movement and voice, tone, and pace. During the last 30 minutes of this final class, we had invited family and friends to watch us in these scenes, so there was an audience of approximately 30 for our ten-person class. So how was I feeling heading into that final half-hour of class? Quite nervous.

The irony is that I’ve been involved in much bigger productions before. In college I played a bit role in a musical, a more substantial role in a play about the Holocaust, and the lead in a two-person play about college roommates. Since that time I have periodically been asked to play extremely minor roles in student productions at schools where I have taught. (My favorite role allowed me to have ONLY the very last line in a two-hour play by simply walking on stage and announcing “I’m home!” I then took a bow with the rest of the cast, feeling very guilty for receiving any applause at all.) These plays were in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds.

So why was I so nervous now, performing in front of my family plus a few strangers? As I reflected on that question, I came up with reasons that tie into our philosophy of education at AJA.

  • I wasn’t as well prepared as I like to be. We hadn’t had long to learn our lines, get to know our blocking, or even our acting partners. I like to really know the roles I’m playing, including how my characters grew up, their likes and dislikes, and even what time they wake up on a typical day. Lesson: The best and most comfortable learning takes place when you dive into a topic deeply over a period of time.

  • I didn’t know the other members of the class or the teacher all that well, and they didn’t know me too well. Don’t get me wrong—in spite of the 30-year age gap between the youngest members of the class and me, we all liked each other quite a bit. We just didn’t know each other. Lesson: The best and most comfortable learning takes place when you really know the others in the classroom and are known by them.

  • It’s okay to be nervous. Seinfeld used to joke that because the fear of public speaking is the #1 fear in the U.S., above even the fear of death, you would actually be doing someone a favor by killing them before they had to speak in front of a group! I was certainly nervous back then—yes, even for my one-line performance—and there is no reason I shouldn’t have been nervous this time. Lesson: Good (and fun!) learning can still take place even when you experience nerves!

As I anticipate the start of the school year—and, simultaneously, the start of my stand-up comedy class—I will continue to reach back to the lessons I learn as a student in my various forays into continuing education. See you soon!

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Dr. Paul Oberman: Now I'm a New Student, Too!

Last night, I participated in my first acting class at The Alliance Theater. As I entered the classroom environment, I was reminded of all that it means to be a new student: the excitement, the nerves, the eagerness to learn, and the concern about how I will stack up compared to my classmates. I also had a couple of other things on my mind that were somewhat unique to my situation. Because I had my kippah on, I wondered whether everyone would assume that I represented all observant Jews. Because I am recovering from toe surgery, I worried that my movement and participation would be hampered and/or painful. Finally, because this class is for working adults, it is fairly late in the evening, which I know is not my best time in terms of concentration.

The truth is that I signed up for this class for two primary reasons—1) because I am passionate about the theater and performing, and 2) because it’s important that, as a key leader at AJA, I know first-hand what it’s like to be a student. It’s especially relevant to be a student in an area where I do not already excel, as this is the situation our children find themselves in with some regularity. As Wendy Mogel explains in Blessings of a Skinned Knee, high school is really the last time we expect expertise in every area. Even though we would not ask our accountant questions about cell division or our doctor questions about integration by parts, we expect our children to excel across the board. Sometimes it’s just not that simple, as I was reminded again last night. Every student brings his or her own baggage (“My toe hurts. It’s late at night and I am tired. Are my classmates professional actors? Boy, am I nervous!”), and sometimes, questions his or her own abilities. 

It’s too easy to sit back and say of our own students, “he could do better if he only would.” In fact, as Ross Greene of Harvard Medical School reminds us, it’s usually the other way around: “he would do better if he only could.” (Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Rising to the Challenge of Challenging Behavior,” Educational Leadership, October 2012). As Mel Levine also reminds us in his book, with the self-explanatory title The Myth of Laziness, students want to please and do their best, and students have a natural curiosity about things, so it’s too easy to simply say “s/he is lazy.”

All of which brings me back to last night’s class. I was by no means the best; not even close. But the teacher singled me out briefly for kind words, and that made a difference. It felt like for that moment, the teacher understood that I was trying, that it didn’t necessarily come naturally, but that I was doing it. It reminded me yet again that “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” (Theodore Roosevelt and others; italics mine). I also got some nice feedback from classmates, and was able to reciprocate as we worked together to learn something new.

By the time the school year starts, I will be able to reflect back on this class and the lessons I have learned anew about being a student. And don’t worry…I already have plans for my next class! I’m enrolled in a class on stand-up comedy, and will be coming soon to an open mic near you!

I hope you are having a wonderful summer, and I am so looking forward to this next year with all of you!

Dr. Paul Oberman


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Embracing the Excitement of Change: AJA Middle School Graduation Address by Ian Ratner, Chairman of the Board

Dear graduates, families, rabbaim, faculty, administrators, and friends, this is an exciting evening, and celebrates a significant milestone in your life. Thank you for letting me share it with you.

My name is Ian Ratner, I am the President of the Board of Trustees of the Atlanta Jewish Academy, and I love this school.

I have been blessed to have three children graduate from AJA Lower School, just like these fine young adults here tonight; and one who will be on this stage, G-d willing, next year, on June 1st, 2016. (Yes, there will be a Grade 8 graduation next year). Two of my children have also graduated the Upper School, and one is a rising 11th grader.

As you see, Carol and I have partnered with AJA on raising our children, and we have not been disappointed.

I have served on countless committees, been on and off the Board a few times, and was once president of the school during a hard time. I hold the record as the worst Middle School girls basketball coach ever. And, like you, I have invested significant financial resources here.

There is a certain special chemistry that goes on within the walls of this school. It is:

  • part Jewish education,

  • part Zionism and love of our heritage,

  • part tefillah,

  • part love and kindness from the extraordinary staff, from the nurse to Felice at the front door;

  • part the amazing secular studies program, which is often underrated; and

  • part great friends and community.

The combination results in a wonderful place to have your children mature and be nurtured during their formative years. The proof is sitting on the stage with me tonight.

Many of these fine young teens have grown up together:

  • attended kindergarten together,

  • celebrated Colonial Festival together,

  • received their first siddur or chumash together,

  • played Middle School sports together,

  • attended each other’s bar and bat mitzvahs,

  • traveled to Israel together, and

  • taken leadership roles in the play and other extracurricular activities.

They sit here tonight, unified, and a shining example of hope for our future.

Many will stay on for high school at AJA Upper School. Others will start new chapters of their lives at other private and public schools in the area. One thing I know about these kids is that they are not afraid of change.

In Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, in the very first Mishnah, Ben Zoma says, "Who is wise?  He who learns from every person.” What does this mean?

The commentators tell us that someone who is wise can always learn, even from someone with less wisdom.

In other words, being wise is not being satisfied with the status quo, but knowing that every new interaction, every new situation brings opportunity for growth and improvement and, by definition, change.

We have all changed. None of us are the same people we were when we first walked into this building and dropped off our kids at pre-K or kindergarten. We are not the same as we were when we got married, or started our careers. Hopefully, we have grown and changed for the better.

This school, our cherished AJA, is also about change and growth.  

The AJA Lower School and its predecessor, Greenfield Hebrew Academy, can have a transformative impact on our lives. In my own life, AJA has enhanced my relationship with G-d, my relationship with my family, and certainly, some of my strongest friendships have been built within these walls.

Our growth as a school and as an institution continues, as it has in the past.

In July 2014, the Boards of the former GHA and Yeshiva Atlanta voted to merge the schools, and we are rapidly completing our first year as the first infant through Grade 12 Jewish day school in Atlanta. We will become the centerpiece of Jewish education in Atlanta by having a fully integrated school, offering a serious Jewish and secular education on par with the top day schools in the country.

Change can be scary. Our ancestors went through more than their fair share,

  • from being slaves in Egypt to relying on their faith to win their freedom,

  • from wandering in the desert to conquering the Promised Land to building rich and diverse communities in Europe and other parts of the world;

  • from surviving the unthinkable during the Holocaust to carving out a modern day state in Israel and a dynamic Jewish community in America.

Our forefathers were not scared of change; they embraced it and MADE THINGS HAPPEN. As long as they stayed close to their faith, belief in G-d, family, and community, they were able to change and grow successfully.

We must do the same. We can change and grow successfully as long as we stay close to our history and community—to the chemistry that I referred to earlier.

The young adults on this stage are not afraid of change. They are excited by it and ready to grow. We should be, too.

Our expansion and change will result in a state-of-the-art campus for all in the heart of Sandy Springs. Students in the Lower School who need more challenges will have the benefit of top high school teachers around the corner. An integrated curriculum will ensure a complete and thorough education, building on achievements from year to year. The energy and enthusiasm of teens singing, and dancing, and running Onegs for their brothers and sisters in the Lower School will echo in the corridors, adding excitement and vibrancy to the school. Enthusiastic cheering at sports events will ring through the halls. Excellent role models will be everywhere in sight. This educational model has been proven successful around the country, in both Jewish and non-Jewish private school environments.

It’s our turn!

  • Change is exciting.

  • Change is transformative.

  • Change gives us the chance to grow, and expand our horizon, and reshape our destiny.

Just look at how your own child, sitting on this stage tonight, has changed and grown over the last few years.

Mazel tov, and have a wonderful evening.

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The Big Question: AJA Upper School Graduation Address by Ian Ratner, President of the Board

Dear friends, rabbaim, teachers, administrators, parents, family members, guests and, of course, our graduates, welcome to you all.

My name is Ian Ratner, and I am the first president of the AJA Board of Trustees, and friend to many of you.

I am thrilled to be participating in the first graduation ceremony of the Atlanta Jewish Academy. You students spent the year at the Raymond Drive campus and although physically, things are only now starting to change, you are part of the foundation of a totally new school, a school that will soon become the centerpiece of serious Jewish and secular education in the Atlanta Jewish community. As the first nursery through 12th grade private Jewish day school in Atlanta, with a clear mission and vision, we are well on our way, and we have completed a phenomenal first year.

I meet young families all the time, and they wonder whether our school is the right choice for them—or even whether Jewish schools in general are the way to go. They consider all the different variables that young families focus on, such as:

  • the exact student/teacher ratio;

  • the exact number of minutes (or hours) of the Hebrew curriculum per day (or week);

  • the amount of time set aside for lunch (or recess);

  • whether recess is at the same time every day;

  • which math book the third grade teacher uses;

  • why the carpool line starts in this place or that;

  • whether their child will do the same projects that other kids in the same grade do in different classes;

  • and on and on and on…..

You know what I mean.

However, I often find myself daydreaming, focusing on the BIGGER QUESTION…and sometimes, depending on how I am feeling that particular day, I actually ask them that BIG QUESTION:

“How do you want your five or six year old to turn out when someday, he or she graduates high school?”

The response to my BIG QUESTION is often surprise—or, “I don’t know…I haven’t thought about it.”

From this night forward, I will go on to invite these parent or prospective parent to the next AJA Upper School graduation—like this very first one, TONIGHT. This is a much better strategy than responding to twenty different operational questions that, frankly, don’t even matter in the Big Picture.

Friends, tonight is the answer to the BIG QUESTION.

The program tonight includes detailed biographies for each graduate, and they are stunning. These graduates—like the many Yeshiva Atlanta graduating classes that came before and, G-d willing, the AJA graduating classes that will come in the future—are the answers to the BIG QUESTION.

The biographies paint a picture of well adjusted, knowledgeable young adults with high Jewish self esteem who are ready to take on the world as leaders in our communities, our businesses, our governments, and our world.

Members of the graduating class have been accepted to such fine universities as the University of Alabama, Barnard College, Boston University, Brandeis University, DePaul University, University of Georgia, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Rutgers University, SUNY-Binghamton, Touro College, and Yeshiva University.

This year’s seniors have made an indelible mark on the school and on their own community.

Student Council was led by Samuel Kalnitz and Zoe Ogden, and I understand it was one of the most active student councils ever.

  • They brought in an ice cream truck;

  • took over community time and made it a real event;

  • ran an Instagram contest;

  • ran a contest to produce a new school fight song;

  • instituted "Jag Swag Days" every other Wednesday, when students could wear shirts with jaguars or other AJA logos on them;

  • and the list goes on and on.

Seniors were also instrumental in:

  • Chagiga;

  • the spring play, “The Third Wave”;

  • Peer Leadership, a group that incorporated nearly half the class (12 out of 28);

  • Career Fair; and

  • my personal favorite, “Purimpalooza.”

There were boys and girls basketball tournament trips, a midterm trip to Stone Mountain, volleyball, etc., etc.

For a small school, we have lots and lots of extracurricular activities, and the seniors make many of them happen…and HUM.

Many of our students will take a gap year in Israel.

We have young men going to:

  • Mevaseret,

  • Lev Hatorah, and

  • Derech Etz Chaim

We have young ladies going to:

  • Nishmat,

  • Machon Maayan,

  • Midreshet Moriah,

  • Midreshet Lindenbaum,

  • Midreshet Harova,

  • Migdal Oz,

  • Emunah Vi'Omanut, and

  • Midreshet Yeud

This past year, we celebrated amazing academic achievements at AJA, and the senior class led the way.

There are 28 students in the Class of 2015, and 24 of them took the SAT. Of these,

  • seven students scored over 1900 on the SAT,

  • two scored over 2000,

  • and the highest score was 2220.

These are amazing statistics!

  • Thirteen seniors are members of the National Honor Society, which requires a minimum GPA of 3.70.

  • In four years, the Class of 2015 completed 2900 hours of Service Learning.

  • Finally, in January of 2015, twenty-five seniors pre-qualified for the HOPE Scholarship. How many schools in Atlanta can say that almost the entire graduating class pre-qualified for HOPE? Not many.

These facts mark a tremendous achievement, and are something of which we all can be very proud.

I wish that more of those young parents I spoke about earlier were here tonight….

In my mind, the answer to the BIG QUESTION is the best thing that a parent could ever hope for. We are graduating amazing young adults who have developed the Jewish skills, Jewish lifestyles, and academic prowess to compete in the larger world and succeed, wherever they find themselves.

Mazel tov to all of you…and thank you for being the BIG ANSWER to the BIG QUESTION.

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Leveling the Playing Field: Building Forts and Building Friendships

by Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Play is universal. Play is natural. It is spontaneous, exploratory, and intrinsically motivated. Play for children and adults can alleviate anxieties, inhibition, and fear.

"I wait all day for recess," says one student, zipping up her jacket in a circle of friends.

Students rush out the door. Some flock to the soccer fields with white and black spotted balls. Others race to see who will be first down the slides.

At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the third and fourth graders dart in and out of the woods surrounding the playground. The area is dotted with structures built of teepee-like formations of sticks or stacks of thicker limbs and branches of pine piled one on top of the other. These forts have been built with love and creativity. Occasionally, a group knocks down a structure—just for the fun of it—and the woods echo with the enlongated cry of “tiiimmmmmber…”

Fort play emerges here at AJA naturally, without adult promotion, usually between late second through fourth grade—sometimes even into the fifth grade.

Forts are terrific opportunities for kids to have unstructured playtime. Fort play has also leveled the playing field when it comes to the natural social hierarchy created in the classroom.

The hard truth is that social stratification is a real thing. The research states that social stratification starts early, somewhere around age four, and happens everywhere…regardless of class, race, culture, or geography. In fact, researchers have found this same social hierarchy emerges in groups of children living not only in developed media-rich countries, but also in remote villages in third world countries around the globe.

Social relationship formation is also related to some aspects of playground design. In playgrounds dominated by fixed play structures, children tend to establish social hierarchy based on physical prowess, while in playgrounds with natural features and vegetation, social hierarchy is based more on communication skills and creativity. (Malone and Trant, 2003.)

One of my favorite books on this subject is Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson, Ph.D. He breaks down the social hierarchy as follows:

  • For boys, dominance is based largely on physical ability. Who’s the fastest? The strongest? Who can do the most “epic” trick on a skateboard?

  • For girls, dominance is based on social skills. Who is the most persuasive? The funniest? The most confident? Who can draw other girls in, at the expense of their “old” friends?

Each step in the fort-building process reinforces the classroom and life skills we teach at AJA: planning, goal setting, interpersonal skills, hard work, perseverance, and pride in something bigger than oneself.

What I have witnessed is that fort building helps to encourage a greater feeling of healthy power and a sense of belonging in our students. On their own, our children have leveled the playing field by building forts and building friendships.

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Financial Literacy: How Will They Ever Know What to Do?

At this time of year, I am sure that many of you, like myself, are consumed with taxes and financial aid forms; and every year, I wonder how my children will learn and understand what to do when it is their turn. Setting up a budget with a cash flow, emergency savings, and retirement money is hard enough--and then we have to fill out all those obtuse forms for the government. OY!

More and more schools and businesses are recognizing the need for students to learn about finances in a formal way. In fact, President Obama proclaimed April as National Financial Capability Month, acknowledging that young adults must become financially literate in order to survive in the adult world. And in the spirit of early intervention, we must start teaching them at a young age.

In 2013, the Council on Economic Education released the National Standards for Financial Literacy for K-12. Developed by economists and educators, the benchmarks were developed to provide a framework of essential knowledge that will help students learn to be savvy financial consumers.  The standards cover six topics:

  1. Earning and Income;

  2. Buying Goods and Services;

  3. Using Credit;

  4. Saving;

  5. Financial Investing; and

  6. Protecting and Insuring.

We at AJA are joining that effort and declaring April as Financial Literacy Month! This will become an annual event to anticipate at AJA. The teachers have spent many months researching ideas and activities that will help accomplish these goals, and have developed developmentally appropriate programs to reinforce skills on each grade level. Here’s a look at the programs we’ve already implemented or have planned:

  • First Grade:  will design a business to earn money to go to the zoo.  Learning about wants and needs, inventory for a business, supply and demand and profit.

  • Second Grade: will create a restaurant where students order their meals, pay a bill (even calculate a tip) and get change.  They will also talk about food costs, quantity of food sold, and salaries paid to the restaurant workers.

  • Third Grade:  In their study of “Community,” they will learn about the role currency plays with regards to goods and services used in a community.

  • Fourth Grade:  will explore three categories related to money: coins, banks, and budgets. They will learn the history of money, how banks and credit cards work, and how to budget, save, and help those less fortunate along the way.

  • Fifth and Sixth Grades: will conduct an integrated Social Studies and Math unit focused on financial obligations and taxes.  The Judaics teachers will contribute to the unit by teaching about taxes in our Jewish texts and our obligation to give 10% of our income to tzedakah. One sixth-grade class is preparing for a day-long visit to a fully interactive town called Biztown on April 27th.

  • Seventh Grade:  One math class has already completed a project called "shopping spree," where they calculated the amount of money saved on items discounted by  5%,10%,15%, and 25% and computed sales tax while staying within a budget. In addition, they will be doing a project on the stock market. On April 21, they will be visiting the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Atlanta.

  • Eighth Grade: will learn about the risks and rewards of investing money in the stock market, culminating in a project which will include researching a company in which to invest, using an Excel spreadsheet, and computing the loss or gain of their investment.

I only wish my education included these topics when I was a kid. Maybe then I would be able to balance my checkbook….


Leah Summers

Associate Head, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Greenfield EC-MS


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Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Shares "Dear Parent: About THAT Kid..."

Here at Atlanta Jewish Academy, we know that our children walk through our doors carrying more than just books in those backpacks. Sometimes, those extra burdens can affect not only the children who bear them, but everyone around them. We at AJA feel that it is our calling to help all our children carry those backpacks.

I would like to share this essay with you, which I did not write, but which perfectly expresses the dilemma of helping "THAT kid." And please know that no matter what happens, we will continue to look for, and to find, the good, amazing, special, and wonderful things about your child and every child in our care.  

                                                  --Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Atlanta Jewish Academy


Dear Parent: About THAT kid…

 ON 10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Dear Parent:

I know. You’re worried. Every day, your child comes home with a story about THAT kid. The one who is always hitting shoving pinching scratching maybe even biting other children. The one who always has to hold my hand in the hallway. The one who has a special spot at the carpet, and sometimes sits on a chair rather than the floor. The one who had to leave the block centre because blocks are not for throwing. The one who climbed over the playground fence right exactly as I was telling her to stop. The one who poured his neighbour’s milk onto the floor in a fit of anger. On purpose. While I was watching.  And then, when I asked him to clean it up, emptied the ENTIRE paper towel dispenser. On purpose. While I was watching. The one who dropped the REAL ACTUAL F-word in gym class.

You’re worried that THAT child is detracting from your child’s learning experience. You’re worried that he takes up too much of my time and energy, and that your child won’t get his fair share. You’re worried that she is really going to hurt someone some day. You’re worried that “someone” might be your child. You’re worried that your child is going to start using aggression to get what she wants. You’re worried your child is going to fall behind academically because I might not notice that he is struggling to hold a pencil. I know.

Your child, this year, in this classroom, at this age, is not THAT child. Your child is not perfect, but she generally follows rules. He is able to share toys peaceably. She does not throw furniture. He raises his hand to speak. She works when it is time to work, and plays when it is time to play. He can be trusted to go straight to the bathroom and straight back again with no shenanigans. She thinks that the S-word is “stupid” and the C-word is “crap.” I know.

I know, and I am worried, too.

You see, I worry all the time. About ALL of them. I worry about your child’s pencil grip, and another child’s letter sounds, and that little tiny one’s shyness, and that other one’s chronically empty lunchbox. I worry that this one’s coat is not warm enough, and that one’s dad yells at her for printing the letter B backwards. Most of my car rides and showers are consumed with the worrying.

But I know, you want to talk about THAT child. Because a kid’s backward Bs are not going to give your child a black eye.

I want to talk about THAT child, too, but there are so many things I can’t tell you.

I can’t tell you that she was adopted from an orphanage at 18 months.

I can’t tell you that he is on an elimination diet for possible food allergies, and that he is therefore hungry ALL. THE. TIME.

I can’t tell you that her parents are in the middle of a horrendous divorce, and she has been staying with her grandma.

I can’t tell you that I’m starting to worry that grandma drinks…

I can’t tell you that his asthma medication makes him agitated.

I can’t tell you that her mom is a single parent, and so she (the child) is at school from the moment before-care opens, until the moment after-care closes, and then the drive between home and school takes 40 minutes, and so she (the child) is getting less sleep than most adults.

I can’t tell you that he has been a witness to domestic violence.

That’s okay, you say. You understand I can’t share personal or family information. You just want to know what I am DOING about That Child’s behaviour.

I would love to tell you. But I can’t.

I can’t tell you that she receives speech-language services, that an assessment showed a severe language delay, and that the therapist feels the aggression is linked to frustration about being unable to communicate.

I can’t tell you that I meet with his parents EVERY week, and that both of them usually cry at those meetings.

I can’t tell you that the child and I have a secret hand signal to tell me when she needs to sit by herself for a while.

I can’t tell you that he spends rest time curled in my lap because “it makes me feel better to hear your heart, Teacher.”

I can’t tell you that I have been meticulously tracking her aggressive incidents for 3 months, and that she has dropped from 5 incidents a day, to 5 incidents a week.

I can’t tell you that the school secretary has agreed that I can send him to the office to “help” when I can tell he needs a change of scenery.

I can’t tell you that I have stood up in a staff meeting and, with tears in my eyes, BEGGED my colleagues to keep an extra close eye on her, to be kind to her even when they are frustrated that she just punched someone AGAIN, and this time, RIGHT IN FRONT OF A TEACHER.

The thing is, there are SO MANY THINGS I can’t tell you about That Child. I can’t even tell you the good stuff.

I can’t tell you that his classroom job is to water the plants, and that he cried with heartbreak when one of the plants died over winter break.

I can’t tell you that she kisses her baby sister goodbye every morning, and whispers “You are my sunshine” before mom pushes the stroller away.

I can’t tell you that he knows more about thunderstorms than most meteorologists.

I can’t tell you that she often asks to help sharpen the pencils during playtime.

I can’t tell you that she strokes her best friend’s hair at rest time.

I can’t tell you that when a classmate is crying, he rushes over with his favourite stuffy from the story corner.


The thing is, dear parent, that I can only talk to you about YOUR child. So, what I can tell you is this:

If ever, at any point, YOUR child, or any of your children, becomes THAT child…

I will not share your personal family business with other parents in the classroom.

I will communicate with you frequently, clearly, and kindly.

I will make sure there are tissues nearby at all our meetings, and if you let me, I will hold your hand when you cry.

I will advocate for your child and family to receive the highest quality of specialist services, and I will cooperate with those professionals to the fullest possible extent.

I will make sure your child gets extra love and affection when she needs it most.

I will be a voice for your child in our school community.

I will, no matter what happens, continue to look for, and to find, the good, amazing, special, and wonderful things about your child.

I will remind him and YOU of those good amazing special wonderful things, over and over again.

And when another parent comes to me, with concerns about YOUR child…

I will tell them all of this, all over again.


With so much love;




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I was thinking...about merging two schools, by Leah Summers

The theme for our Staff Day this past Monday was "Am Echad, Lev Echad, One Nation, One Heart."

It was the first time that the entire AJA Upper School faculty and staff and the entire AJA Lower School faculty and staff had an opportunity to come together as a united group. Our goal was to begin the process of becoming "One Faculty with One Vision." 

The morning was spent in our separate groups, working on division-specific topics that each school needed to address. But the afternoon was spent together.  We spent time getting to know each other through a mix-it-up lunch and a Human Bingo. We also were privileged to study together with consultant Dr. Deena Pargman about how to have "crucial conversations" in order to move the relationship forward in a productive and constructive manner. It was powerful.

And I had an epiphany...I kept thinking about Shabbat. I was reminded that we welcome Shabbat on Friday night with the lighting of individual candles, representing the different experiences that we each lived through during the week.  However, on Saturday night, we then bid farewell to Shabbat by lighting a single Havdalah candle with intertwined wicks, representing our coming together as a community after having enjoyed shared experiences with family and friends.    

Yesterday, I felt that we started off the day as individual schools, with different histories and different stories; but we ended the day coming together as a unified force, with the energy and enthusiasm to create a new story together.   

Leah Summers, Associate Head of School

AJA Greenfield Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School 




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Leah's Thinking About…Mascots!

Go, AJA!!!

There is tremendous excitement building about our new Infant through 12th grade school, Atlanta Jewish Academy. With AJA t-shirts, AJA sunglasses, and AJA chocolate, the enthusiasm has just mushroomed.  I can't believe that we have been in school for only two weeks and yet the name AJA is naturally rolling off our tongues.  This is our new identity.

Of course, no school can function without a school mascot.  But what should it be? 

In keeping with our philosophy, which values student input and student engagement, we have begun the process of empowering our Middle School and Upper School students in choosing the mascot. The students in each division were given forms on which to submit their ideas. They were asked to include a suggested name as well as a reason for why that particular mascot would best represent our school.  On Monday, the Middle School students voted on their favorite choices, and I tallied the votes in real time via a Google Doc that the students saw live on the classroom Smartboards.  Our top three choices have been combined with the Upper School's top three choices to form a new ballot of six options.  We will all vote on the six top choices and will be ready to unveil the final decision tomorrow to the whole school.

Stay tuned for the final decision.  Go, AJA!!!

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I was thinking…about integrated learning

Sounds complicated, I know. But it’s a wonderful approach to learning, and we try to incorporate it into every area of the school.

Integrated learning simply means that we try not to learn subjects in isolation. For example, our Judaism and our love for Israel are such vital parts of who we are at GHA that it underlies all our learning. Why not bring it out into the open in art classes, or literature classes, or science, math, or drama?

As I walked down the hallways this week, a beautiful exhibition of the work of our eighth graders caught my eye. Art teacher Anita Stein and Judaics teacher Debbie Bornstein collaborated on a project about the Four Sons of the Passover Haggadah. Mrs. Bornstein analyzed the famous parable with the eighth graders, discussing the lessons learned from studying these four sons and their Passover education; then, Mrs. Stein had students draw themselves as all of the Four Sons, with a short paragraph examining how each of these figures might sometimes represent a quality they find in themselves. Mrs. Stein taught the students how to create the four identical but differently colored prints in the style of artist Andy Warhol.

Not only was the students’ work arresting and beautiful, the content that informed their analysis of the Four Sons—and themselves—was equally lovely, and brought all the different pieces in all of us—wise son, defiant son, simple son, silent son, Jew, artist, student, teacher—into an amazing, integrated whole.

I am so proud to be a part of the remarkable community of learners/teachers at GHA, where everything comes together.



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I was thinking…about testing

Well, the results are in!  We received the ERB scores and found what we already knew—that our students are doing great.  Our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders scored way above the independent school norms, and all those who qualified for untimed testing consistently scored way above national norms.   

However, the question I still have to ask is, "What does this mean?"

Recently, there has been a spate of articles questioning the validity of using standardized tests. Information has surfaced indicating that these norm-referenced tests were never intended to measure quality of learning or teaching. They ignore the fact that there are multiple ways to reach the same outcome. Alfie Kohn, a popular author and lecturer on education, states that the "main objective of these tests is to rank, not to rate; to spread out the scores, not to gauge the quality of a given student or school."  Some maintain that the "one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient, but lazy."

As I have remarked in the past, scores on tests should be seen as only one piece of data in a full educational profile.  There are truly gifted students who perform poorly on standardized tests, as well as average students who excel in their testing. 

Yes, we showed well as a school; but the data does not truly tell us about the learning that is taking place for each individual child.  Let us not make the mistake of defining our children by this rigid tool of measurement alone.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as our children's education profiles are greater than this one small component. 

First Lady Michelle Obama, Princeton and Harvard graduate, once said, "If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here.  I guarantee you that."

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I was thinking...about teaching social skills in school

Six years ago, all our teachers were trained in an approach that deliberately teaches emotional and social skills to improve the classroom environment. The two programs we used were called Responsive Classroom technique in the elementary school, and Developmental Designs in the middle school.  Whenever we talked about the teachings of these programs, we fondly referred to the "RCD2 approach." Teachers could be heard saying, "Oh, this is so RCD2!" or "RCD2 is magical."

We knew that these techniques create more harmonious classrooms and better-behaved children, but there were few studies that looked at the academic impact.  

Lo and behold, on March 6 of this year, the Washington Post published an article citing a long-term study that demonstrates how improved social and emotional skills also lead to greater academic achievement.  In a randomized controlled trial, researchers found that children in classrooms where the "RCD2" techniques were fully implemented scored significantly higher in math and reading tests than students in classrooms where they weren’t applied. 

It is so gratifying to know that GHA is on the cutting edge of what is Best Practice in education.  Go GHA!!!

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I was thinking…about the joy of learning

Mishenichnas Adar Marbim b'Simcha… When Adar comes, our joy increases…

Every morning, I arrive at school at 7:00 a.m.  It is always dark and chilly.  I usually enter the building with my eyes half closed, grab my first cup of coffee, and check out my email before I get ready for the day. 

This past Monday morning was different.  It was still dark and chilly, but my eyes widened when I saw a big sign welcoming me to Hogwarts.  Quidditch sticks and owls lined the walkway up to the door. On Monday morning, instead of going straight to the teachers' room to get my coffee, I just had to turn towards the lunchroom, drawn by the figures of Harry Potter and his friends in the hallway, each representing a different character from the Purim story with an accompanying verse from the Megillah. Hagrid pointed me towards the lunchroom, and there they were: four long tables for each of the four Hogwarts houses.  I smiled…I giggled…and started my day as it should be started on the first day of the month of Adar.

I was eager to see what else our talented B’not Sherut had in store for us.  And if I was that excited anticipating what delights might come next, how much more exciting would the experience be for our students? 

It occurred to me that this is what I love about GHA.  Yes, school is about formal learning, but it is also about real and meaningful applications; it's about joyful engagement. 

"Ultimately, we want our kids to love to learn.  A passion for learning is quite different from just studying to earn a grade or to please parents or teachers.  Those who develop a love of learning at an early age continue the process throughout their lives and are generally more successful, interesting, and happier than those who don't."

Let's keep the joy of Adar with us as we move into the final third of our school year.    


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