For 50th Anniversary, Portland Jewish Academy reflects on its own history.
Every student studies history; this academic year, Portland Jewish Academy also gets to reflect upon its remarkable legacy as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Portland, like the rest of America in 1961, was poised on the precipice of great change. A small but prominent Jewish population – by most accounts, less than 10,000 – called the city home. From Mosler’s bakery to Meier & Frank department stores, a bevy of Jewish-owned businesses were among the city’s most popular destinations. Small synagogues dotted leafy Southwest avenues, now home to Portland State University buildings.
Despite this bustling presence, Portland’s Jewish community lacked a day school.
Like most local Jewish children, Fern Winkler Schlesinger and her siblings attended public school. While many of Fern’s classmates co-existed with her peacefully, one began to hurl both epithets and fists.
Her father, Jack Winkler – a Holocaust survivor who fought with the Polish Army and Polish Resistance Movement – had little tolerance for oppression. He and fellow parents Harry Nemer and Marvin Schnitzer began discussing the viability of a Jewish school. The project quickly gathered steam, and the trio divided duties: as Fern recalls, Nemer was tasked with raising money, Schnitzer with hiring teachers and staff, Winkler with the recruitment of students.
The following autumn, in September 1961, Hillel Academy opened in Northwest Portland at Congregation Shaarie Torah. The student body consisted of 26 students in grades 3-6; most were children of the school’s initial organizers.
Harry Nemer’s daughter Linda Nemer Singer was among the charter class. She recalls, “I was the only 3rd grade student. The first year there was one combined class for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade. They started with those grades because those were the ages of children of the founding parents.”
Rabbi Scheitzman, the first staff, was hired by Schnitzer from an established Jewish school in San Francisco. As Linda reminisced, “He made learning so much fun!”
Fern added, “The first day that we learned Torah, the rabbi had honey and treats for everyone, so we would associate it with sweetness; he did it the right way. He got all of us so intrigued about learning Torah and Hebrew. He also got us going to synagogue every Saturday. It became quite competitive – he had a big chart, we got sticky-back stars next to our names when we attended!”
Hillel Academy grew and gained momentum throughout the following decades. Lisa Katon and her brothers attended in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now a development department staffer and parent of two PJA students, Katon said, “The community, while diverse, is cohesive, caring and supportive … everyone takes great pride in being there. I appreciate the educational and Jewish foundation I received; I know that many alumni share my sentiments.”
In 1986, Hillel Academy and the Jewish Education Association decided to merge. The JEA had operated an afternoon Hebrew school program two days per week in Portland since 1934.
The merger created Portland Jewish Academy, welcoming students from all branches of Judaism. The school’s reputation for strong academics and outstanding student experience also attracts students from “blended faith” and non-Jewish families.
The march of progress continued in 1987, when the community voted to move PJA to the larger, modern Mittleman Jewish Community Center (the school’s current location). The center was expanded to house the school, which is now equipped with three age-appropriate playgrounds. PJA students also have the use of the MJCC’s gymnasium, pools and indoor Soccerplex – a far cry from the bare parking lot where Hillel Academy’s recesses were first held.
Like Portland, PJA has evolved, now boasting enrollment of more than 325 children. Students flock to the modern campus to attend infant-toddler programs, preschool, lower school and middle school through 8th grade. Added in 1995 with a class of six, the middle school has blossomed to enroll more than 80.
PJA has become known as a place where students don’t just learn – they thrive. Many have credited small class sizes and higher levels of individual attention, and commended PJA’s emphasis on arts education and spiritual development.
The school’s principal, Merrill Hendin, explained, “From the time that they are young, students at PJA feel that they are at home here at school. Teachers love and nurture our students as individuals, and treat them with the utmost respect (kavod). Our faculty and staff is a group of stellar human beings who care deeply about education and about helping to raise mensches in today’s world.”
She added, “At PJA, we live the [Jewish] traditions and holidays, and learn about them in a very hands-on manner. We taste traditional foods, sing songs, learn dances, prayers, history and rituals of the holidays. We learn to think for ourselves and work for the world.”
PJA students often learn by doing, inquiring and experiencing. For example, students regularly participate in hands-on, off-site events that redefine the term “field trip”: 5th-graders visit Islandwood, 6th-graders embark on an outdoor field school experience, 7th-graders visit Ashland to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and 8th-graders spend two weeks in Israel as a culmination of their years of Jewish and Hebrew education at PJA.
Today’s curriculum remains built on enduring foundational traditions, while embracing new methods and technologies to equip students for an increasingly digital world. For instance, this year’s annual fundraiser auction will bring increased technology integration into the daily learning experience, including in-classroom laptops and digital projectors.
“As our graduates go onto high school, many have noted how advanced and exceptionally well prepared they feel in their freshman classes,” said Linda Nemer Singer, who served as PJA admissions coordinator for many years and is now the MJCC community concierge. “They get to start their new high schools with a sense of who they are, and with old PJA friends!”
PJA has spent 50 years perfecting the art of building leaders by looking to the past while racing toward an ever-changing future.
“My dream is to see this school continue to provide a strong Jewish education for many years to come,” said Hendin. “We hope to impart upon our students the importance of being a link in the chain of a long and rich tradition and history.”
Pre-arranged campus tours available with Admission Director Inge Hoogerhuis
Portland Jewish Academy
6651 SW Capitol Highway