Step into the bright foyer of the Farber Hebrew Day School and the excitement in the new building is palpable. “You know the feeling when you open the door of a new car and your heart races just a little? It’s like that, only much more enduring and satisfying” says Rabbi Scot A. Berman, Head of School.
Reflecting on first impressions of the new building, Rabbi Berman noted the abundance of windows, and how much natural light they let in to the school’s environment, “There’s so much more light than we had in the past, and that impacts globally on everything that happens in this building,” he says. “Our high school was in the basement of the old building, and now every classroom here is exposed to light. It effects our moods. Being in the new building, students and teachers feel good, and that has a great impact on the overall learning that transpires.”
“I think there’s an excitement any time you get something new,” says Anita Batt, Director, Early Childhood Center. “And that excitement is permeating in every aspect of the school — with our children, our staff, our parents. They are beyond thrilled to be here. The move has been a rejuvenation for us. My favorite memory of the transition to the new building was watching families come in for the first time — seeing that sense of awe – that feeling that this is theirs: a new kind of gathering place, a new home base for the community.”
A 21st-century learning environment
Since moving into the building on February 28, the students, the staff and families of the school are still taking in the wonders of their vibrant new space. In terms of square footage, the building is not much larger than what it originally had in the adjacent Yeshivat Akiva building (previously Congregation Beth Achim). What’s different is the use of space in the best way possible for dynamic study and collaborative activity. The 69,000-square-foot facility, built in 15 months by Rand Construction and designed by French & Associates, now provides separate wings for its Early Childhood Center, Elementary, Middle School and High School Divisions, each designed to inspire and foster students’ personal, educational and spiritual growth.
The improved features of the new building include three science labs, a computer lab, an art room, and “flex spaces” – collaboration hubs – where students can break from the classroom and work individually or in small groups. Classrooms are equipped with Chromebook carts to provide the use of laptops for each student. Collaborative spaces also have ports so that students can use their devices throughout the building.
“Practically speaking, I think the shared space is a huge asset for us,” says Rabbi Aaron Leib, Principal of Farber Hebrew Day Elementary and Middle School. “We have these new flex spaces where the kids can explore learning and expand their horizons beyond the classroom. Our technology is amazing also; the fact that we have Chromebooks in every classroom, Smart Boards, projector boards – it’s such a boost.”
Rabbi Noam Stein, Principal of the High School, notices the impact of the new space on the students’ performance. “I see the students taking a real sense of pride in their space,” he says. “They now have areas which were crafted and designed specifically for their use, and they are feeling their sense of ownership in using those spaces. Being in a space specifically designed for learning lends purpose to what everyone is doing. I think it’s impacting the entire attitude of the student body — what it means to be here, and why.”
The spiritual focal point of the school is the multi-purpose Beit Midrash on the second floor. With its stained-glass windows taken from the sanctuary of the old school, and its partition wall that divides the room in two, the space transitions to the House of Study, shared and independently used by both the Middle School and High School throughout the day.
Mishmar, Davening for Donuts and more
Without the partition, the room becomes a large collaborative space for special programming and community activities – events like the weekly Mishmar at 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. Open to the community and growing in popularity, the Mishmar at the Farber School is part lecture, part social gathering, an opportunity for Torah study b’chavruta (learning in pairs). A pleasant prelude to Shabbat, serving a traditional cholent and sweets, the event attracts up to 70 students and adults in attendance each week.
On Sundays, the Farber School is open at 9 a.m. for Davening and Donuts — just as delightful as the name sounds — for families and children of all ages.
Additionally, there are programs specifically open to women: Rabbi Leib holds a Women’s Weekly Parsha Shiur (class) on Tuesday mornings and on Tuesday evenings, Amy Stein leads a weekly course on Family Dynamics in the Book of Genesis.
A transformative gift, in gratitude to the Farber family
With a ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication scheduled for Sunday, May 21— less than a month since the passing of William (Bill) Farber — the new Farber Hebrew Day School now stands as living testimony to the generosity and vision of the Farber family whose gift solidified the school as a cornerstone in Detroit’s Jewish educational landscape.
At the groundbreaking last November, Nanci Farber, daughter-in-law of Audrey and William, explained that “this gift to a Modern Orthodox school from a Reform family demonstrates a commitment to embrace all Jews across denominations and the continuous need to support and strengthen all aspects of our community.”
The Farbers’ generosity not only built the school’s physical new home, but also has directly impacted its comprehensive academic improvement plan, guided and funded by the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education of the School of Education at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the William Davidson Foundation, respectively. The Farbers’ gift inspired the school’s name change from Akiva Hebrew Day School to Farber Hebrew Day School-Yeshivat Akiva.
To achieve its academic and facility goals for the future, the school created its Unified Campaign that combines its building fund and academic improvement plan. It funds academic improvements, construction of the new facility and an endowment for maintenance of the new building. As of the start of 2017, pledges have been secured for 91 percent of the $16 million goal, leaving less than $1.5 million to be raised.
The new Farber HDS building would not be possible without the support of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, whose partnership steered this project from dream to reality. Jim Gustafson, director of Real Estate Services for Federation, along with Newmark Grubb Knight Frank as managing agents for the United Jewish Foundation, oversaw the planning and building of the new facility from start to finish.
The sense of gratitude perhaps is best expressed by the enthusiasm of the students themselves:
In his thank-you note to the donors, second-grader Ami Feldman writes, “I could not wait to learn in the new building. I was especially excited for the new computer lab, art room and ‘quiet room’ space where I now enjoy reading during recess.” Sixth-grader Dalia Wolper loves the windows and all the natural light and notes how much she loves the science labs, art room and separate hallways for each division.
As the school’s physical space expands, its mission remains the same: to provide a “best of both worlds” education to its hundreds of graduates, who continue to succeed in personal, professional and religious endeavors.
As the only Modern Orthodox institution in Detroit, Farber Hebrew Day School-Yeshivat Akiva strives to blend contemporary sensibilities of academic excellence, developing the unique character of every child, and participation and engagement in our greater society, with allegiance to Torah and its values, and commitment to an observant lifestyle. And now, with the transition into its beautiful new facility, the school is poised to achieve its mission more fully.