Above: Hillel students, faculty and staff spell out 60 in honor of the school’s 60th anniversary.
Nurturing Jewish leaders traditionally and now in 21st-century fashion.
As Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit heralds its 60th year, it celebrates the transformation of a school from a traditional academic model into an institution that is nationally regarded as a model for 21st-century learning.
All the while, from its founding 29-member student body located in two classrooms in Detroit to its current student body of 585 students from the Early Childhood Center to grade 8 in a building wired for the future, Hillel has most of all maintained Jewish values, tradition, a love of Israel and menschkeit at its core.
At its May 6 celebration, Hillel will honor six longtime teachers with the Rabbi Jacob E. Segal (z”l) Award. Brian Hermelin, a Hillel alumnus, parent of Hillel alumni and a noted philanthropist, will receive the Dream Maker Award.
The transformation of the school to a 21st-century learning center began when Head of School Steve Freedman started his position 15 years ago during volatile upheavals in global economies.
Recognizing that the world would need workers and thinkers with very different skill sets by the time his students became adults, he knew Hillel could best serve them through modern teaching models that would prepare them for a rapidly changing world.
“When I came in 2003, it was the beginning of the huge disruption in the economy and global relations, and we took it as our challenge that a school that wasn’t preparing students for today’s world was doing them a disservice,” Freedman said.
“It’s up to us to purposefully change education, and we have become a more progressive school,” he said.
“Much of what was predicted at the end of the 20th century has come true: We’ve moved from an industrial society, where people were sorted into jobs, to one that is creative, design-based and ever-changing. It will only become more variable and disruptive in the years to come. Our children need to be prepared for this complex world.”
To this end, the school underwent extensive remodeling to include a greenhouse, a MakerSpace with 3D printers and an overall open collaborative modular learning environment. More than 100 educators from local school districts and from around the globe have visited the school to learn about its transformation.
“Whatever time you live in you believe is the most complicated,” Freedman said. “And you believe the time before you was a simpler time. There’s always the good old days. Our good old days were when the Cold War was over, and global conflicts were isolated.
“It was easier to embrace Israel, and it could do no wrong. It was easy to be a Zionist school in the ’70s and ’80s, when Israel was a newer country, facing existential threats.
“Because of the way the world works today, it’s harder to make sure Jews are committed to and love Israel. The liberal Jewish community, adherence to Jewish law and patterns of Jewish living are becoming challenging, as they are for all liberal religions, and we need to help people to understand that we can live together in a ‘universal community’ and maintain our distinctiveness at the same time — preserving what makes us unique.”
In 2006, Hillel initiated a trip to Israel for eighth-graders.
During its recent history, two moves in the late 2000s were initially seen as controversial but have ultimately strengthened the school, Freedman said.
In 2008, the board of trustees voted to end the school’s affiliation with the Conservative Schechter day school network and to cast a wide net for Detroit and became a community school for Jewish children across the religious spectrum.
And, in 2010, Hillel opened its Early Childhood Center, which coincided with declining enrollment at area congregational schools because public schools were opening preschools.
The ECC was an opportunity, Freedman explained, to provide early childhood education in a Jewish setting, and to stabilize and grow Hillel’s enrollment.
60 Years Of Hillel
1958: Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit founded with 29 students, three teachers and two classrooms in Detroit by Rabbi Jacob E. Segal and other local leaders.
1960: Hillel moves to Ten Mile Jewish Center with 51 students.
1963: 115 students at Congregation B’nai Moshe in grades K-6.
1967: 11 ninth-graders comprise the first graduating class, and school breaks ground on a new facility with 20 classrooms.
1970: Hillel moves to its current home on Middlebelt Road in Farmington Hills, with 270 students.
1976: Rabbi Robert Abramson begins his 13-year tenure as headmaster.
1979: Hillel affiliates with the Solomon Schechter Day School movement.
1986: The first renovation of the campus is complete with the endowment of the William, Ethan and Marla Davidson wing.
1988: Last ninth grade graduates.
1990: Dr. Mark Smiley begins his 13-year tenure as headmaster.
1992: Enrollment reaches 636 students, requiring the use of portable classrooms.
1996: Hillel dedicates a new middle school wing on the newly named Schostak Family Campus, including the 7-8 learning community on the second floor.
2003: Steve Freedman begins his tenure as head of school.
2006: Hillel institutes its eighth-grade Israel trip.
2008: Hillel board of trustees votes to become a community Jewish day school.
2010: The Early Childhood Center opens.
2014: The Davidson Tuition Grant making tuition stable and predictable went into effect.
2017: The state-of-the-art renovation of Hillel Day School is complete, housing the Audrey and William Farber IDEA Collaborative, the Nanci and David Farber K-2 Learning Community, the William Davidson 3-4 and 5-6 learning community, and the 7-8 learning community, also funded by the Farber family.
2018: Hillel celebrates its 60th anniversary with 585 students in Early Childhood Center-grade 8, and is a national model for modern learning.
Source: Hillel Day School
Honorees Share Hillel Moments
When the six teachers being honored started work at Hillel, there were no special “computer rooms,” no students had cell phones, and most teaching was conducted lecture-style from the front of the room.
Now, the internet is an integral teaching tool in every Hillel classroom with SmartBoards and personal student tablets everywhere. Long frontal lecturing has been replaced by teachers “launching” a topic, hypothesis or problem and then assisting students as they research, work on projects and solve problems collaboratively in groups.
General studies teacher Pam Smith began teaching at Hillel 28 years ago. She recalls the early days, but has certainly embraced the future.
“We have a mantra at Hillel that it is OK to ‘fail forward,’” Smith said. “We encourage students to keep trying, failing and to keep discovering. We have a wonderful Innovation Hub and MakerSpace where the multiple intelligences of our students have an opportunity to come to life. Some students are more gifted with their hands; others are more math-based learners. The bottom line is every student has an opportunity to find his passion and can drive his own instruction.”
Smith said in today’s digitally immersed society where children must navigate many different outside influences and misinformation on social media, more than ever it is imperative to provide Jewish children with a solid foundation of social, emotional, academic and leadership skills, all reinforced with a precise knowledge of Jewish history, text and connection to Israel.
As far as instilling long-lasting Jewish values and fostering leadership skills, Smith says she needs to look no further than to her three children, Alexandra, Amanda and Garrett, all Hillel alumni, as evidence. Whether at home or abroad, they are all staunch pro-Israel advocates who have countered anti-Israel protests, and they have all assumed Jewish leadership roles on their college campuses.
“For my kids and for many Hillel graduates, it is not enough for them just to be students when they reach college,” Smith said. “They are not afraid to express their Judaism and Zionism as active leaders on campus. Hillel gives them that confidence early on. They become high achievers.”
Since joining Hillel in 1992 as a Judaic Studies teacher, Clara Gaba, a native Israeli, has tried to touch students’ hearts “so that they see that Judaism will add meaning to their lives,” she says.
In 2000, Clara received the Jewish Theological Seminary award for Teacher of the Year. In 2007, she received the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Her three children, Ron, Ilana and Amira, are Hillel alumni, and Ilana and Amira have followed in her footsteps as teachers themselves. Three of her grandchildren currently attend Hillel.
“When I see the Hillel values reflected back years later, as I do in my own children,” she said, “it validates that there is no return on investment as great as the one parents receive when they invest in Jewish education.”
Adina Levin and her husband moved to town 25 years ago because of a job transfer and soon after she started her career at Hillel as a Judaic Studies teacher. The Levins did not have many friends or connections in town, so the staff, students and their families quickly became their family.
“Leaving Israel and being far away from my family was not easy,” Levin said. “I can say now with confidence that working as a Jewish educator became my mission in life. Knowing that my work impacts the lives of so many young Jewish kids, it gives me a sense of fulfillment. I know I am doing avodat kodesh (holy work). I love what I am doing and enjoy teaching my students. This is why I have remained in this profession for so many years.”
Levin said that in the face of increasing anti-Semitism and assimilation, attaining a strong Jewish education for today’s generation is critical for instilling an appreciation for the beauty and wisdom of the Jewish way of life.
“The support and reinforcement of an institution like Hillel encourages and ensures that our students will remain committed and grow into tomorrow’s Jewish leaders,” Levin said. “We must prepare our children to carry on the traditions of our ancient faith, especially in the world we live today that is surrounded by anti-Semitism.”
In her 42 years of teaching Hebrew and Judaic Studies at Hillel, Ayala Perlstein said Hillel’s mission has never been more important in the face of faster-paced lives, growing anti-Israel sentiments and assimilation. Perlstein joyously relishes visits by former students well into adulthood who are leading Jewish lives, which she says they attribute to her kindness and her teachings.
Over the years, Perlstein says she has noticed students are replacing academic competitiveness with kindness and collaboration, leading to a supportive learning community.
“The nature of teaching has changed,” she said. “No longer are kids encouraged to be bigshots and know-it-alls. Now, every child is taught that there are areas where they shine and areas where they may need more help and guidance. In the areas where they shine, they need to use their knowledge to help their peers to reach similar successes. In areas where they need help, they need to know it is OK to get help from others. As peers help each other, with the support of the teaching staff, all the individuals of Hillel become wrapped in a collaborative community of learners.”
Born in Netanya, Israel, Malka Littman followed her father, Menachem Glaser, a revered Hillel teacher, into the classroom in 1989, when she joined Hillel’s faculty as a Judaic Studies teacher. Since then, she has spoken exclusively in Hebrew to her students, who have emerged with language skills they use to this day.
What makes her happiest, she said, “is to hear a student has made aliyah or has studied in Israel. It makes me feel like ‘Aha! We got it done!’”
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Rivka Schuchman served in the IDF before moving to the United States. She joined Hillel Day School as a Judaic Studies teacher in 1989. Her two sons, Michael and Gabriel, are Hillel graduates, and her five grandchildren are current students.
“We are a very close family,” she said. This closeness extends to her students in whom she instills a love of Israel and Hebrew language. “This is my mission — to give kids tools they need to ensure Jewish continuity.”
Brian Hermelin — Dream Maker
“The years I spent learning at Hillel were some of the most formative of my life.”
— Brian Hermelin
Brian Hermelin fondly remembers his formative years at Hillel as he played in the first kindergarten class when the new Farmington Hills building opened in 1970.
His knowledge and appreciation of Judaism — from developing Hebrew skills that helped him feel comfortable in synagogue as a boy at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, to pursuing learning Hebrew further as a conversational language in college, all the way through his many philanthropic endeavors within and outside the Jewish community — stem from his earliest years of Jewish learning at Hillel Day School.
Hermelin and his wife, Jennifer, have three children, Max, Isabel and David, who all attended Hillel.
“The years I spent learning at Hillel were some of the most formative of my life,” said Hermelin, a member of Hillel’s Goldman-Hermelin Endowment Board. He says he is “humbled” by the recognition.
“What I learned there was the foundation of my Judaism, which evolved through boyhood to adulthood and in the raising of our own Jewish family. Hillel has grown since my schooldays with its extra-curricular clubs and activities and has so much to offer in a well-rounded education of a Jewish child. It is a diverse, dynamic place.”
How To Go
Hillel Day School’s 60th Anniversary Gala will be held at the Farmington Hills school Sunday, May 6, beginning with a strolling dinner and silent auction at 5:30 p.m. followed at 7:30 p.m. by a concert from Israeli musician Michael HarPaz, a 1987 Hillel graduate. During the evening, Distinguished Alumni Awards will be given to Rachel Lutz, class of 1994, and Mark Schostak, class of 1977. To register, go to hillelday.org/gala.