Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning “world repair,” is synonymous with social justice and action in modern Jewish circles.
The concept of human rights, opportunities and equality is a core value of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, and one of upper school Principal Todd Clauer’s educational touchstones.
As Hyman Brand celebrates its 50th year, its leaders and students are committed more than ever to their mission of tikkun olam. In the past three years, Clauer has launched the school’s Social Justice Project and just last year began a partnership with University Academy — an award-winning Kansas City college preparatory public charter school.
Ninth- and 10th-graders from Hyman Brand and University Academy recently returned from a 10-day historic Civil Rights Tour of the South that embodied Clauer’s long-held dream to bring tikkun olam to life on a deeper level. The students were able to experience the seminal moments of the American civil rights movement — some of the key events of which are also marking five decades this year — visiting sites that served as ground zero for the country’s violent struggles during the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s.
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The school’s mission of world repair and social justice is personal to these students. Just two years ago, the Jewish Community Center, where Hyman Brand is located, came under attack by an anti-Semite; two people visiting the center were killed. The tragedy occurred on a Sunday, when classes weren’t in session, and was perpetrated by a gunman whose sole intent was to kill Jews.
“Going to Hyman Brand means becoming an active member of the Jewish community, maintaining Jewish traditions and values, and reaching into the community with programs such as the Social Justice Project,” 17-year-old junior Leah Sosland said. “And from tragedies like the shooting at the Jewish Community Center, we learn we’re all vulnerable, whether you’re white, black, Jew or Christian — that others hate irrationally. We must keep leading meaningful lives and strive to understand and love one another.”
Indeed, part of Clauer’s vision to embark on a trip with University Academy aligns with several of Hyman Brand’s guiding principles — to provide an environment in which varied cultures, backgrounds and religious beliefs are respected and enable students to become valuable members of a global society.
“Hyman Brand is a nondenominational community Jewish day school, and we take that mantel seriously,” he said. “We’re a home for everyone — Conservative, Orthodox, Reform — with respect for each other’s beliefs. We have regard for the larger community and ethnic and religious backgrounds. This trip represents the outward growth of our school’s pride into the community.”
While other Jewish day schools have struggled to weather the recession, Hyman Brand remains steady. As the academy’s 50th celebration approaches, one of the school’s founders reflects on the anniversary’s magnitude.
“It’s a wonderful milestone,” said Blanche Sosland, professor emerita at Park University in Parkville. “We’re a small Jewish day school with remarkable teachers, parents, students and supporters. Nationally, few have reached this benchmark. We are solid going into the next 50 years.”
Howard Haas, Hyman Brand head of school since 2007, echoed Sosland’s assessment.
“We are helping young people realize their full potential and become courageous Jewish leaders,” he said, “with the help of really talented staff and passionate supporters. We’re teaching children, at a very young age, to care for one another, whether it’s through volunteering at a food pantry or singing to people in a retirement home. It’s part of the lessons of Judaism. You take care of others, and things will work out.”
Haas looked forward to joining students on the Selma, Ala., leg of the civil rights trip and making the symbolic journey with them across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the March 7, 1965, so-called Bloody Sunday violence.
Speaking before the trip, Haas said, “It will reinforce what was going on in the 1960s and, ideally, they’ll learn things about each other’s cultures they didn’t know before. It promises to be a pivotal experience.”
Clem Ukaoma, University Academy upper school principal, viewed the Civil Rights Tour of the South as the epitome of experiential education through purposeful, direct engagement.
“How’s that for building bridges of mutual understanding?” he said.
The notion of tikkun olam came into play following the April 13, 2014, shooting on the campus of the Overland Park Jewish Community Center and the Village Shalom parking lot nearby.
Three non-Jewish lives were claimed.
The Jewish community — and Kansas City as a whole — was stunned after 14-year-old Reat Griffin Underwood and his grandfather William Lewis Corporon were gunned down at the community center and Terri LaManno was killed nearby at Village Shalom.
“If anything, the shooting brought our community that much closer,” Haas said. “It was difficult to comprehend but inspired our faculty and staff in regards to our continued commitment to educating students who are knowledgeable and proud of their heritage.”
Hyman Brand brought in experts who work with schools that have experienced similar tragedies to assist students in processing feelings, fears and concerns.
“Students appreciated their connection with their Jewish friends and family even more,” he said. “We did a great deal of work with students to ensure everyone felt safe within our walls and could move forward from the shooting.”
Two years later, security at the Jewish Community Center has been heightened with visible improvements, such as uniformed police officers at activities, locked entrances in places not locked before and changes not publicized out of concern for safety.
Beyond additional security, Haas noted the shooting furthered the school’s efforts to build bridges with other communities.
“We work with other schools and agencies from all faiths and cultures to ensure a future filled with love and understanding for our students,” he said. “The Civil Rights Tour of the South with University Academy students stands out as a prime example of this community-building, and even our youngest students engage in helping others outside of the school.”
Hyman Brand lower school students act as reading buddies at Allen Village charter school in Kansas City, and middle school students do community service projects around the city. Upper school students are looking at child care issues in Kansas City through the Social Justice Project. A recent mitzvah day found lower school students visiting several Kansas City nonprofits where they learned about efforts to help others in the community.
“Our focus goes beyond the Jewish community, into what’s best for all of Kansas City,” Haas said.
For Clauer, the 2014 shooting reinforced the worth of Hyman Brand’s social justice work.
“As Howard said, we believe part of the way you build bridges within the community is to actively take an interest in the plight of others,” he said. “In the instance of the shooting, the community came together by strengthening bonds across cultural, religious and ethnic lines. We don’t want kids to be afraid in the larger context of the world — we help them develop an awareness of injustice and, at the same time, threats to justice.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and uses legal means to pursue them, was added to the Civil Rights Tour of the South to show students the human and civil rights work being done today.
“We want them to understand how they can make the history they want,” Clauer explained. “We want them to come away empowered to act and feel like actions matter, that relationships between different backgrounds and speaking out about what is right and humane in the local, national and international community is vital.”
One thing is for certain: The 2014 shooting doesn’t define the Hyman Brand administration, faculty or students.
“Light will come from darkness,” Clauer said.
Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy began in 1966 in Overland Park with 33 Jewish children in kindergarten through third grade studying in rented facilities at Ohev Shalom Synagogue. Nine seniors graduated from the first class in January 1976. A dramatic increase in enrollment necessitated a larger building and, in October 1979, Hyman Brand relocated to a former Blue Valley school district elementary school on College Boulevard.
A snapshot of today’s Hyman Brand reveals a vibrant educational institution. Now K-12, the multi-Jewish denominational, award-winning school — Kansas City and Kansas’ only Jewish day school — is housed on Overland Park’s Jewish Community Center campus.
Since its inception 50 years ago, when it was known as the Hebrew Academy of Greater Kansas City (the name changed in 1977 to honor its first president), the school has ushered 1,566 students through its doors. Currently, 230 students are enrolled and of those, 76 students have parents who are alumni. One former student, 24-year-old Micah Margolies, is on the 68-member faculty. Clauer’s wife, Mirra Klausner, graduated from Hyman Brand in 1988, and the couple’s three daughters attend.
Hyman Brand is the world’s only Jewish day school offering a parallel-track Jewish studies program, enabling students to learn Judaism in accordance with the way they practice in the home (there is an Orthodox track and a general Jewish studies track). One hundred percent of graduates pursue a college education. In 2015, Hyman Brand was ranked as the Kansas City area’s second-best private high school based on average ACT scores (29.2 for 41 students) by Ingram’s Magazine.
Built on the fervent dream of parents yearning for a dual-curriculum Jewish day school education for their children, the academy was founded by Sidney and Carol Deutsch; Milton and Bea Firestone; Neil and Blanche Sosland; Joan March; Beryl Silberg; and Carl Puritz and Joan Puritz Greenberg. Its mission statement is to prepare students for fulfilling lives as Jews and as honorable and contributing citizens of their community. It offers an integrated program of academics with moral, ethical and spiritual values and is a magnet for Jewish families relocating to the area from other cities.
According to Blanche Sosland, a strong public school advocate responsible for the committee that hired the academy’s foundational teaching staff, the driving force was to provide students a top-quality Judaic/secular education.
Although there was vigorous community support for a Jewish day school in Kansas City, including people with grown children too old to attend, there was also opposition. Synagogues throughout the city had traditional three-day-a-week schools; some thought those were sufficient and the academy wasn’t needed.
“Kansas City was the country’s last Jewish community of its size to open a dual-curriculum day school,” Sosland said. “We established high standards from the very beginning, allowing our children to receive Jewish-rich heritage and secular education.”
Today Hyman Brand is one of 700 Jewish dual-curriculum day schools in North America. According to RAVSAK, The Jewish Community Day School Network, more than 20 schools across the country have closed since 2004 for various reasons.
Hyman Brand’s Academy Access Program was implemented in 2008. An innovative approach to school funding that helps reduce tuition costs (currently $9,300 — one of the lowest for an independent, private school in the Kansas City area), the program funds the school and encourages family involvement. It has enabled the school to meet expenses through a combination of generous community funding and tuition, along with voluntary contributions by parents, family members and friends.
“The Academy Access Program was piloted at Hyman Brand, which turned things around for the school’s enrollment during the recession and continues to create a model that makes the school financially accessible for all,” Haas said. “Eight years later, our enrollment numbers remain strong and consistent.”
Clauer stood at the front of the crowded Hyman Brand assembly room on a recent Thursday afternoon. Quietly surveying small clusters of students engaged in conversation and laughter, a broad smile spread across his face.
This was Clauer’s dream, coming to life.
His voice rose above the excited chatter of 50-plus kids from Hyman Brand and University Academy gathered for final preparations before the Civil Rights Tour of the South.
“Form a large circle,” he directed, making an expansive sweeping motion. “I want to see a rainbow mix, interspersing students. Don’t stand by a friend. When we board buses on Sunday, know each other’s first names. Let’s nurture a sense of community.”
Following ice-breaking exercises — “Find a stranger, ask what three things they must have in their fridge at all times” — Clauer’s tone shifted dramatically.
“This video from the Equal Justice Initiative is about challenging racial injustice and incarceration,” Clauer explained. “We’ll visit the Montgomery nonprofit that works on social justice everyday, on behalf of people who’ve been denied fair and just treatment by the legal system.”
The room fell silent as students watched the intense short with interviews from poor white and black people committed to life without parole in the late 1990s. Visibly moved students brushed tears away from cheeks, bowing and shaking heads.
“Think about current events,” Clauer said. “This is the essence, the ethos of what’s happening today in our country. On this trip, we’ll witness the civil rights movement’s front lines. What we’ll see and experience is important. What we’ll learn about each other will be even more important.”
A debriefing of the trip’s rigorous itinerary followed: synagogues, churches, museums; tours of Selma, Ala., and of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. — the target of the racially motivated bombing that killed four young African-American girls in September 1963.
Amanda Sokol, an Overland Park Hyman Brand sophomore whose brother and sister graduated from the school, expressed excitement.
“It’s an opportunity to walk in the shoes of modern history,” she said. “We’ll be in places vital in the movement for equality and with kids whose experiences are different from ours. It will provide great insight.”
University Academy junior Will Powell from Kansas City said the chance to see what he’s heard his dad talk about for years will answer questions.
“I’ve done lots of research, especially about the march on Selma,” he said. “We will get to actually talk with someone who was there — that’s living history.”
The mood lightened as the crowd disbursed and T-shirts with “#southboundkc” were distributed.
“As Jews, we feel an obligation toward social justice work,” Clauer said as the last student walked down the hallway, the bright yellow and blue shirt disappearing around a corner. “Every other year, Hyman Brand takes a Jewish heritage trip to Poland and Israel. This civil rights tour will allow kids to learn from the landscape, stateside.”
Paramount to Hyman Brand’s success — and at the root of the founders’ initial plan — is an engaged administrative staff and faculty.
Thirty-six-year-old Josh Goldberg is Hyman Brand’s social studies department chairman. Relocating with his wife, Amelia, from Napa Valley, Calif., to Olathe last June, Goldberg, a Salt Lake City native, has been an educator for more than 19 years. Part of his personal teaching philosophy is to inspire critical thinking, responsibility and moral action.
Goldberg, who served in the Israeli army as an American volunteer, immediately embraced the social justice thread that runs throughout the Hyman Brand culture and was a faculty member on the civil rights trip.
“Promoting a just community and tolerance for all is central to my beliefs,” he said. “The trip … is what Hyman Brand is all about. Partnering with University Academy is an example of using education to make a difference.”
Margolies graduated from Hyman Brand in 2008 and, after completing studies at the University of Kansas, was offered an English and math position in 2013 at his alma mater.
Margolies, Hyman Brand’s youngest teacher, canvassed door to door with students in 2015 as part of Clauer’s Social Justice Project, educating voters about Missouri health care reforms. He also participated in the midterm candidates forum.
“Community outreach is a fundamental part of who we are, what we teach,” he said. “It’s what Hyman Brand stands for.”
Margolies figures the school’s founders 50 years ago came up against doubters who thought the Kansas City Jewish community wasn’t large enough to sustain a day school — let alone a nondenominational one.
“But we’ve proven differently by constantly growing, never becoming complacent in how we teach or reach out to the community and the world past our doors,” he said. “I hope we continue to significantly impact generations of Jews.”
Josh Sosland, a 1978 Hyman Brand graduate and president of his family’s Kansas City enterprise, Sosland Publishing, and Neil and Blanche’s second oldest child, regards his Jewish day school education as integral to giving him an aspirational moral light and compass.
“We were taught our Jewish heritage, do’s and don’ts of a good Jew and a good American,” Sosland said. “More importantly, Hyman Brand created an environment to help people find their own life path. Respectful challenging and questioning was always welcomed, expected and a hallmark of the school.”
“Now that the Civil Rights Tour of the South has come and gone, what have we learned?”
University Academy Principal Ukaoma posed the question one day after students returned to Kansas City.
“Overwhelmingly, the most lasting effects reported by our students was ‘discovering’ their common humanity,” he said. “They learned that Hyman Brand students like the same things they like — the same music and shows — and they agree that injustice in our world is unfair and unacceptable. When the idea was broached about doing this again, they all agreed that this would be a good idea.”
As Hyman Brand moves into its 51st year, Haas said the school aims to build upon social justice programs and to send students on the Civil Rights Tour of the South every two years, based on the first trip’s success.
“As we evolve into the next generation of Hyman Brand,” Haas said, “we will continue to embrace change and expand to meet the needs of an ever-changing global society. Yet even as we embrace it, we keep our focus on the individual, teaching each student how he or she can have the most beneficial impact.”
One of the trip’s memorable moments for Clauer was the Selma visit, when students met Joanne Bland, a protest marcher who was 11 in 1965.
“Her sister led us on a town tour and at the Selma Interpretive Center, right before we crossed the bridge, she sang songs from the era,” Clauer said. “The kids joined her. We sang going across. It was something you can’t script.”
Just as the Soslands’ and other Hyman Brand founders’ dream of building a dual-curriculum Jewish day school whose lessons would be taught far beyond the classroom was realized, Clauer’s potent dream of delivering experiential education to students was fulfilled 50 years later by a Civil Rights Tour of the South — with a symbolic walk across a bridge.
Civic Service Award gala
Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy will hold its 2016 Civic Service Award gala — the school’s 43rd — in celebration of the 50th anniversary on Monday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The evening will honor two of the school’s founders and supporters, Neil and Blanche Sosland, and will feature a cocktail reception, light dinner, special performance by the Kansas City Symphony and music director Michael Stern, and postperformance dessert buffet. For more information, call 913- 327-8156.