Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Robbins Family Builds School in Ghana

For most people, a family vacation means Disney World, Israel, or lying in the sun on a faraway beach. But Ghana? 

The Robbins family with the village chief
who had blessed Maya
The Robbins family – whose daughters Arianna and Maya are in the Golda Och Academy 10th and 6th grades respectively – travelled to Ghana, Africa during Presidents’ Week. And this was not a leisurely break from work and school. The Robbins family went on a mission to build a school in a village that is home to child slaves of the fishing trade – child slaves the Robbins family helped free.

“In exchange for releasing the trafficked children they would get a school,” said GOA parent Lisa Robbins of the deal made with fishermen in the village of Awate-Tornu. During the past six years the family, along with Mr. Robbins’ students at Metuchen High School, have raised over $75,000, allowing freedom for more than 30 children. A recent article in the NJ Jewish News featured their story.

Maya with new friends at a school where a formerly
trafficked child attended. 
Although the mark the Robbins family has left on these children and their families is priceless, an great impact has been made on Arianna and Maya as well.

“I feel it’s been good for them to see us embrace something that isn’t just a part of our lives,” Mrs. Robbins said. For Maya, the work for the children of Ghana has also been part of her bat mitzvah project. She collected soccer and school supplies from other GOA students and her soccer team to donate to the newly freed slaves. 

She recalled one boy in particular – Joshua – who the family was unable to rescue during a previous visit. He is now free. “I was playing soccer with him, and he was so happy to have a soccer ball,” Maya said. “All the other kids kept asking him if they could play. The kids in Ghana are so poor. They have to do a lot of work. I feel luckier now at home.”

Arianna with Bernice, who was freed about a year ago as
part of the arrangement with the school project.
When the village chief who oversees the region realized the significance of Maya’s bat mitzvah, she was made an honorary “queen mother” of the village. “They put clothes and jewelry on me,” Maya said. “I was given the name ‘Mama Divaketa’ which means ‘mother of development.’” The Robbins, along with their friends who went along on the trip, said Shehecheyanu as the villagers sang and danced.
“That day was unbelievable,” Mrs. Robbins said.

Although she does not like being the center of attention, Maya said she is proud she could be a part of the work her family has done for the Ghana children. “It’s good to help other people,” she said. “It’s important that all kids go to school.”

One of Arianna’s favorite memories of the trip to Ghana also involves Joshua. “Knowing that my family started all this makes it more meaningful,” Arianna said. “Seeing Joshua in real life, and when he jumped into my dad’s arms, it was so emotional. I really look up to my dad. It’s just an amazing cause.”

The Robbins family with Joshua.
She agrees with her sister that seeing the children in Ghana first-hand makes her appreciate her life in the United States much more than before.

“When I came back and people were complaining about the littlest things, I thought about my trip and got frustrated,” she said. “It’s very important for people to know what’s going on in the world.”
Arianna said she never thought her family could have such an impact on the trafficking problem in Ghana. The school the family helped fund will be used for children as well as the fishermen who oftentimes were trafficked themselves as children. Through education, the Robbins family hopes to end the cycle of child slavery.

“I never thought when we started this that we’d get this far,” Arianna said. “If you want to change something and are really interested in it, go for it.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Richard Perini – Has Appreciation for (Almost) all Types of Music

You won’t hear Golda Och Academy music teacher Richard Perini playing rap music, but he can definitely jam on the Irish tin whistle.

Mr. Perini has been teaching at GOA since 2009. He teaches music at the Lower School to third, fourth, and fifth graders. This year he also leads the sixth grade band at the Upper School.

“This is the best group of kids I’ve ever worked with,” Perini said. “These kids are happy to play. They’re happy to be learning.”

Mr. Perini has taught music since 1963 and says he is impressed with the students at GOA because their upbringing is reflected in their work.

“The kids want to achieve,” he said. “That’s a part of the culture. I always get positive feedback from students, parents, and teachers. There’s camaraderie amongst both staff and kids.”

When he isn’t teaching music, Mr. Perini loves to play music. Currently, he performs with the Irish-American group, the Willie Lynch Band, throughout New Jersey, New York, and Delaware. He plays the keyboard, clarinet, saxophone, flute, and the Irish tin whistle, an instrument similar to a recorder.

Primarily a Jazz music fan, Mr. Perini says he has an appreciation for all types of music – except perhaps rap. He explains, “Melodically, there’s very little happening…. Thematically, it’s very questionable.”

Married for almost 50 years, Mr. Perini has two children and three grandchildren. Between teaching and performing, he hardly has time for much else.

And what’s his wife’s take on his passion for music? “Adjusted is probably the best word to describe it,” he joked.

In addition to teaching at various public and parochial schools, Mr. Perini owned and operated Perini Music Studio in Somerville. He also was a computing instructor and owner of Compu Ed Services, Inc.

Mr. Perini attended the U.S. Navy School of Music and was First Clarinetist for the First Army Band in New York.

With all these accomplishments, Perini says he loves being a music teacher most of all.

“You always want to be innovative,” he said. “I feel more of a teacher of music now than ever before. I never feel like not wanting to come to work. Golda Och Academy is the best.”

For previous GO Behind the Scenes, click below:
Jordan Herskowitz
Paula Spack
Sandra Charlap

Friday, February 3, 2012

Jordan Herskowitz: Working at GOA Challenging, Rewarding

From the Lone Star State to the Empire State and states overseas, Jordan Herskowitz has definitely made his mark.
With the titles of Golda Och Academy’s Tefillah Coordinator, Experiential Educator, and Theatre Teacher, Mr. Herskowitz is the epitome of our well-rounded faculty.
Mr. Herskowitz joined the GOA family in 2010 as the High School drama instructor and Middle School multimedia instructor.
“For multimedia, we do different creative projects like podcasts, short films, cartoon clips, and voice-overs,” Mr. Herskowitz said.
With a theatre degree from The University of Tulsa, Mr. Herskowitz is also the assistant director for the school’s musicals. This year, he is the director of the High School play, a rendition of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which will be held on March 22 and 25.
“When I started last year, the school had never done a play before, just the musicals,” the Dallas native said. “It was a completely new experience for the kids. When you do just a play, you don’t have the spectacle of the music, and you have to focus on the acting.”
The diversity of the GOA arts department – music, acting, singing, and more – is always expanding, something Mr. Herskowitz is proud to be a part of.
“I hope that it gives the students a way to practice whatever art they want to,” he said. “I’d like to keep directing shows that challenge me personally and continue to connect to the students.”
Growing Up Jordy Pordy
Mr. Herskowitz began his career as the writer and performer of Growing Up Jordy Pordy in which he plays over 30 characters. “I talk about growing up Jewish in Texas, my family, wanting to be an actor,” he said.
He also talks about the importance of organ donation and cystic fibrosis, a disease that has directly affected his life. Both of Mr. Herskowitz’s brothers were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis; his brother Richie passed away in 2007 at age 17.
Performances of Growing Up Jordy Pordy raise money and awareness for organ donation through Richie’s Spirit Foundation, an organization founded by Mr. Herskowitz and his family. It offers a transplant assistance fund and a scholarship each year for a graduating high school senior.
“It goes to a student who embodies characteristics of my brother Richie,” he said.
In the past three years, Mr. Herskowitz said he has done about 350 performances including shows in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
“The show is one thing we do to get the word out,” he said. This summer, Mr. Herskowitz plans to perform Growing Up Jordy Pordy in Grand Rapids, MI, at the Transplant Games of America, an Olympics-style event for organ donors and recipients.
When he’s not working in the arts, Mr. Herskowitz serves as Golda Och Academy’s Experiential Educator.
“I’m in charge of programming – holiday and Shabbatonim,” he said. “I organize the different special holiday celebrations at school and organize and run the grade level Shabbatonim and the All High School Shabbaton in March.”
But wait, there’s more. Mr. Herskowitz is also Golda Och Academy’s Tefillah Coordinator, a job he finds both challenging and rewarding.
“I was looking to expand what I was doing here,” he said. “I wanted something that would allow me to work closer with the students. It’s really stretched my skill-set. There’s always something new about it.”
The tefillah options at GOA, which include a women’s discussion group, meditation, and art tefillah in addition to traditional prayer, are important to Mr. Herskowitz.
“Tefillah has changed from a very rigid prayer structure into a time to focus on one’s connection to God,” he said. “Our program really tries to echo what the students and our families want. We’ve grown as a school and the community has changed. These options reflect the needs of our students. Our program is adaptable and open for change.”
And that’s also a good description of Mr. Herskowitz – adaptable and open for change.
For previous GO Behind the Scenes, click below:
Paula Spack

Sandra Charlap

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rothenberg - First Female in GOA’s History to Score 1,000th Point in Basketball

Golda Och Academy junior Gloria Rothenberg scored her 1000th point in basketball Thursday – the first female in the history of the school to reach this milestone.

During yesterday’s basketball game against Newark’s Central High School, the game was stopped at the beginning of the second quarter so she could be recognized for her achievement. She scored 24 out of 28 points for the team.

“The fact that Gloria is a junior and the first female to accomplish this at GOA is even more special,” said GOA Dean of Students Adam Shapiro, adding that Stephanie Aaron (Class of 2011) and Whitney Gruhin (Class of 2007) were relegated to the 2nd and 3rd spots respectively – Stephanie with 902 points and Whitney with 754 points. Both Stephanie and Whitney attended Thursday’s game.

“It was an exciting and momentous occasion for Gloria and women's athletics at Golda Och,” said Janet Herman, Athletic Director at Golda Och Academy. “She’s a great role model for the kids, on and off the court. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer kid.”

Coach Josh Breitman, who has been coaching Gloria since sixth grade, said, “She is very well-deserving of this accomplishment. She works all year long on her game, and this could only happen with that hard work. I am very proud of her and glad that I can be a part of this.”

In the first five games of the season, Gloria scored 165 points, averaging 33 points per game. On Tuesday she had a career high 51 points against Immaculate Conception. In addition to being the lead scorer, Gloria is also the consummate team player with 30 assists (6 per game) and 49 steals (9.8 per game).

She was named the team’s MVP after her freshman and sophomore years. Following the 2010-2011 season, Gloria was named to the first team Liberty Division of the SEC.

Yasher Koach, Gloria!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Israel Club Denounces Beit Shemesh Attacks

The following article was writen by Daniel S., Sam M. and Carmelle B. on  behalf of the Upper School Israel Club.

I never meant any harm. All I ever wanted was to go to school. Yet, on the way to my all-girls school in Beit Shemesh, I have been spat at, and called terrible names by Haredi men. It is hard for me to understand why these men become so upset over the clothes I wear. I attend an orthodox school, and therefore abide by the dress code, stressing modestly. The verbal attacks have increased in number over the past few weeks, making me frightened of even walking to school. Sometimes, I am frustrated to see that fellow Jews treat other Jews this way. We all believe in the same God, the same morals, and the same values. With such malevolence towards one another, we will never be a unified Jewish nation. It is my dream that one day I, along with other Jews of all degrees of religiousness will be able to live with mutual respect, in this amazing country that we call home.

This story of Naama Margolise, an eight-year-old Orthodox girl who was attacked by right-wing extremists on her way to school in Beit Shemesh, struck our Israel Club as a disturbing example of disunity and extremism in our Jewish homeland. The students in our school have a strong personal connection to Israel and travel there in both freshman and senior years. We feel that it is incredibly important for Israel to be a stable and thriving country – “a light unto other nations.”

As a school that emphasizes values of Pluralism and Zionism, we feel it is extremely important to denounce the recent slew of attacks. While the Haredim are only a minority, (they make up only 10% of Israel’s population), recent history teaches us that the power of a violent minority should not be underestimated. The Arab Spring uprisings began as a small group of youth making their voice heard through the use of social networking. If the necessary steps are not taken to quell such acts of injustice towards women and other, less-observant Jews, the situation may escalate to become more violent and politically involved. This is why it is our job as Jewish leaders in our community to stand up for what Israel really is, a democratic homeland for Jews to live in coexistence, regardless of religiousness or gender.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Paula Spack - Giving her Heart and Soul

After talking to first grade teacher Paula Spack (fondly known as Morah P’nina), it seems no one could love teaching as much as she. And clearly, Morah P’nina was born to teach at Golda Och Academy.
“You can’t ask for a better place to be,” said Morah P’nina, a teacher with Golda Och Academy for 23 years and counting.
The 1984 graduate of the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union pointed out, “I have spent more than half my life in this school!”
She said her love for teaching began at an early age. As a high school student, Morah P’nina was always finding ways to spend time with the younger school children and would often get passes from her teachers to do so.
“I knew then that I wanted to be in education,” she said. “It’s in my blood. My grandfather, alav hashalom , was a teacher at our school.”
Over the years, Morah P’nina has taught kindergarten through fifth grade, both Judaic and general studies, at Golda Och Academy, including teaching integrated classrooms. Instead of students having one teacher for Judaic studies and another for general studies, “I taught them every subject,” she said. “I was the general and Judaics teacher.” It is not unusual to hear Morah P’nina speak Hebrew to her students when teaching math or other general studies subjects. Her classes are fully integrated.
“I love the little ones and being there at the very beginning of their learning,” she said.
Morah P’nina’s daughter, Liat Kessler, graduated GOA in 2010 and was on a gap year in Israel last year. She is now at Muhlenberg College. Her sons – Avi and Shachar Kessler – are current students at GOA, in grades 11 and 6, respectively. She also has two step-children who are former GOA students - Yael and Jonah Nelson.
Morah P’nina also enjoys Israeli dancing. For the past 10 years she has led our Lower School’s Israeli Dance Troupe – Raglayim Shel Zahav.
The third through fifth grade members of the dance troupe practice on Mondays during recess. In April, they performed in the Israel Folk Dance Festival and Festival of the Arts in New York City. They have also performed at community events, the JCC, and senior homes.
“I danced with this troupe when I was a kid,” she said. “We have three kids whose parents danced in it when they were younger.”
Israeli dancing is her passion, according to Morah P’nina. Every Rosh Chodesh, students at the Lower School start the day with Israeli dancing. “It connects the kids to Israel in another way,” she said. “It’s connected to celebration.”
As if all this weren’t enough to keep her busy, Morah P’nina also writes and directs the fifth grade Moving Up ceremony at the Lower School, and this year she is also in charge of the first grade Siddur Play.
The Caldwell resident is also active at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex, where she is a regular Torah reader and leads children’s Shabbat services.
From teaching to dancing to leading services, all of what she does centers around her devotion to Judaism, said Morah P’nina.
“It’s important to me as a Conservative Jewish woman to be an example to the students,” she said. “I plan on, God willing, being here several more years. I put my heart and soul in this place.”

For previous GO Behind the Scenes, click below:
Sandra Charlap

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sandra Charlap – Combining Work Life with Pastime

Everyone hopes to enjoy his or her work life. But when one can turn a hobby into her job, that can be a dream come true.
When she was about 10 years old, Golda Och Academy Upper School art teacher Sandra Charlap discovered her passion for art, and it hasn’t stopped since.  In one form or another, Ms. Charlap has worked in the arts arena all her life.
After attending the Parsons School of Design in New York, Ms. Charlap worked as a ceramic artist selling her creations at high-end stores such as Barney’s and Neiman Marcus.
While her daughters were young, Ms. Charlap began painting murals and faux finishes, but said the work became too physically demanding. With her daughters now ages 12 and 14, Charlap has more time to devote to painting watercolors, abstracts, and pet illustrations.
The bubbly art teacher enjoys trying out different types of art as she combines her work life with her pastime. “When you’re so curious to see how something works,” she said. “If you can keep that curiosity well-tended, you’ll never tire of it. It requires a tremendous amount of time, but it’s so gratifying.”
In addition to teaching at Golda Och, Ms. Charlap gives private art lessons and has a side business painting pet portraits.
Her artwork has been exhibited in several galleries including the Gas Gallery in Maplewood and the Pierro Gallery in South Orange.
“Next thing I know, I’ve got 20 pieces and I’m doing a show,” she laughed. “My home is filled with art.”
And so is her classroom – filled with the artwork of her students, that is.
Students brightened the room with their most recent creation, hand-painted tallitot, or Jewish prayer shawls. The students used hot wax as a resist on the fabric before they painted, a look much like batik textiles.
As if she weren’t busy enough, Ms. Charlap also runs a Creativity Minyan for about 20 High School students.
“It’s about opening up your mind as we do when we pray,” she said. “I try to direct them to tapping that part of their mind.”
This year, Ms. Charlap received a new “toy” for her classroom – a fine art printing press. Printmaking, she said, is her favorite medium now.
“I love the richness and technical requirements of this particular medium,” she said excitingly.
Ms. Charlap began printmaking while working on her degree at Montclair State University where she was greatly inspired by her teacher.
“I hope in many ways that I can be like that,” she said. “As a teacher you hope to be able to influence someone that way.”
Ms. Charlap has certainly made her mark at Golda Och Academy. A former student sent a letter about his decision to minor in art at the University of Maryland after having taken one of her classes at Golda Och.
“He said he loved the class so much and that it changed his direction,” Ms. Charlap said proudly.
She also runs art clinics for Middle School and High Schools students during lunch and recess. Other students visit during breaks to work on a project or stop by just to say hello.
“Even kids who haven’t always had an interest in art usually come around to it,” she said. “You might surprise yourself. It’s all in your attitude. Do your best to keep an open mind and take chances. None of this is ever a failure.”
You can see Ms. Charlap’s pet illustrations at
GO Behind the Scenes is a new column on our blog, which will highlight a different faculty or staff member every two weeks. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured, please email