Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy: Continuing a Legacy
High-school sweethearts looked to their past when choosing Jewish day schools for their four daughters.
A Jewish education has always been important to Yoella Epstein and Jeremy Kriger. So much so that they moved back to Philadelphia knowing that they would send their future children to Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Why did Jeremy and Yoella long for the Barrack experience before they even had children? The reasons are plentiful.
As a pluralistic Jewish day school for grades 6 – 12, Barrack has been serving a growing number of families since its founding as Akiba Hebrew Academy in 1946. Over the past few years, Barrack’s reach has grown significantly. It currently serves families in the entire tri-state area – students travel to the school from 72 different zip codes. With low class ratios, highly educated teachers, and a 100% college acceptance rate, academics at Barrack are unparalleled. But there’s much more to it than just academics; Barrack is a whole experience for its students. “This school has been and continues to be a place where it’s trying to help children find their voices and their passions,” Yoella explains, “and have those things carry them through as they enter into their next stages of life. And be a community for that individual and their family forever.”
Before Barrack, twins Neli and Neima (12) benefitted from their education at Perelman Jewish Day School, where Jeremy was a student years ago and the twins’ sisters (Adel, age 8, and Kassia, age 5) are currently students. The Perelman emphasis on excellent education along with the core values of the Jewish faith allowed the twins to transition smoothly to Barrack, the Alma Mater of both Jeremy and Yoella, who started dating their senior year.
Despite the name change and a different campus, Yoella and Jeremy knew that Barrack was the only choice for them. “We have very, very fond memories of our school,” says Yoella. “Our friends from our school were then, and still are now, some of our closest friends.” Beyond the opportunity for deep, personal connections, Yoella and Jeremy sought a specific educational environment for their twins. “We really appreciated the learning that we received there, and in particular, the dedication to critical thinking… the Jewish education and Jewish perspective, as well as the connection to Israel,” Yoella says.
From the unique perspective of alumni, Yoella and Jeremy have observed that those Barrack core values of Derech Eretz, and the identity of the school as a whole, have remained in place over time. “It has still preserved the identity of what it was when we were there,” Jeremy says. From a challenging college preparatory curriculum to an emphasis on critical thinking and inclusivity, much about the school is unchanged. In other ways, Barrack has evolved to meet the needs of a modern student body. “Both in traditional academic ways and in non-traditional academic ways, the school has really advanced such that it is looking to find a way to support every child that comes, that child’s interests, and help them shine in those interests. The school is also trying to figure out how Jewish identity fits into those wants and aspirations,” says Yoella. “I think that the school has come a long way from when we were there, and I really like the direction that [Head of School, Rabbi Marshall Lesack] is taking with it,” Jeremy says. “And that community aspect – being all about the students and letting them showcase their abilities. Being a community for the kids is really still there.”
Yoella notes of the twins, “They’re very excited about both continuing with the strong friend-group they had [at Perelman], as well as the new kids that have come since that time.” Inside the classroom and out, students have chances to bond with each other and grow as a community. For example, at the start of the pandemic, when everyone was sent home, Barrack seniors offered complimentary tutoring to Perelman students. Not only did this strengthen the sense of togetherness, it allowed parents to see first-hand how creative, capable, and kind the seniors were in regard to the K-5th-graders, after having endured so much themselves.
To nourish and sustain this community, activities like book clubs, get-to-know-you dinners, social media groups, and carpools all bring Barrack families together. Athletics and drama productions provide students with opportunities for teamwork and leadership. “Both of my girls were in the musical last year, and it was the first time they were in a real production,” says Yoella. “It gave them the opportunity to be part of a team, to have productive relationships with kids in other grades, and to also experience what it feels like to be in the spotlight and to lean into that.” In addition, roughly 70% of the twins’ classmates turned out to watch the performance. This extensive support and inclusivity is a hallmark of the Barrack family. Jeremy, former captain of the basketball team, sees sports as a vehicle for connecting. He notes that in larger schools, the opportunity to play on a sports team often is unattainable, whereas Barrack affords that chance to its students. “To be able to play on sports teams with your closest friends I think is something that is irreplaceable,” he says.
Diversity of Thought
Barrack students espouse kindness and understanding even when discussing difficult topics such as book-banning. As Jeremy points out, “I think there’s a strong value in being able to disagree respectfully, and to not shy away from the complicated topics that might spark controversy…because they’re too complicated for young minds to tackle. Barrack definitely does not take the position that we should eliminate certain topics because they might spark controversy. There’s a trust in the students that they can talk about those topics respectfully.” This diversity of thought is paramount to Yoella and Jeremy. “Students in the class are really engaged with a lot of the sophisticated discussions that are going on in the classroom,” she notes. “The teachers work really hard – and I think a lot of the parents work really hard – to maintain that diversity of thought while also trying to support a culture of respect.”
Dollars and Sense
A school with an exceptional curriculum and a set of core values as its cornerstone comes at a price. However, that should not be viewed as an impediment, as Barrack offers a generous amount of financial aid. “Please don’t get deterred by the price tag,” Yoella implores. “Come into the doors and see what Barrack offers and the school will work with you.” Jeremy agrees. “I would encourage people to visit the school, look at the school, and assess whether or not it’s right for them.” As an inclusive, welcoming community, Barrack doesn’t want finances to be an obstacle. Yoella points out, “The school really does try to set the value of the education…and also not ever close its doors as a result of that price tag.”
Education, like many things, is an investment. To Yoella and Jeremy, it was an easy decision to send their younger girls, Adel and Kassia to the Perelman Jewish Day School, and to transition Neli and Neima from there to the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. While Jewish day school is an expense, Jeremy and Yoella also view it as an irreplaceable endowment in Jewish education. “To our family, [Perelman and] Barrack [are] a gift intended to help shape who our children are as people in this world and as Jews in this world,” Yoella says. “This is the biggest gift we can give our children, and it’s absolutely worth it.”
See Why Barrack Students Love Where They Learn
Open House events provide an opportunity for you to tour the campus, meet their senior administrators, hear personal testimonials from current students, and gain a fuller understanding of the Barrack school community. Attend the December 8, 2022 Open House, register here.
This Sponsored Story for the Main Line Parent and the Philadelphia Family Communities was written by Kristin Walker.
Photography was supplied by Ann Marie Casey, AMC Photography Studios.