By Alanna Berman
The early history of Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School sounds a lot like the early years of Israel. Run by a few very dedicated individuals with no permanent place to call home, the school and its supporters moved to a different location every year between its founding in 1963 and 1971. Even the rabbis seemed to come and go, but this fall, the school’s 50th, students and teachers look back on what still makes Soille great.
“Those first years in Israel, people lived in tents and life was so difficult, but those are the people who have such a depth of appreciation for the country,” says Rabbi Simcha Weiser, who has been head of school since 1981. “It’s the same way when I talk to the kids about the history of the school… there wasn’t a lot of stability there, but miraculously, [we] planted really deep roots, even at that time.”
At their current — and permanent — location off of Aero Drive in the Kearny Mesa area since 1994, Rabbi Weiser says the school is the largest it’s ever been, with 365 students in preschool through eighth grade, though the founding principles remain the same.
“[We began with] the idea of giving kids an outstanding education in terms of general studies and preparing them to go to great high schools and universities while at the same time really giving them an in-depth Torah education,” he says. “[While] some people see the religious and the secular worlds as clashing, the important bridge here between those worlds is character. … I think with that in mind, the more a person is steeped in Torah values, the more a person is capable of mastering math and science and other subjects, so we really are giving kids every possible opportunity to live satisfying lives. It’s what Hebrew Day stands for, and it’s the reason we continue to grow.”
The most remarkable aspect of Soille’s growth, says the rabbi, is the influx of enrollment of second-generation students whose parents attended the school in its early years. Of the 180 families that make up the school, Rabbi Weiser estimates about 25 to 30 to be second-generation families, like the Podolsky family. Mother Ilana attended Soille from preschool through fourth grade before her family moved to Mexico City. In San Diego for the last two years, Podolsky has all three of her children enrolled in the school.
“When I moved back to San Diego two years ago, I never really considered another school,” she says. “When I walked back in to Soille, it felt like home.”
It’s a popular sentiment, according to Rabbi Weiser, who says the school strives for that welcoming, comfortable environment while keeping traditional values in mind.
“[This is a place where we can] raise our Jewish children to be committed Jewish adults,” he says. “We make no bones about it. We are an Orthodox Jewish day school. We teach the kids here a depth of appreciation for what being a Jew is all about, and they do great things [because of it].”
For Podolsky, the lessons learned at Soille were the most formative of her life, and something she hopes her children will take away from their time there as well.
“For me, my kids can get the same secular education everywhere, but it’s really about giving them the Jewish values that will make them into better human beings,” she says. “When they grow up, that will stick with them.”
Fifty years after its beginning, those values remain with Soille’s original founding members, and with community members who remember its humble beginnings.
“I think the school 50 years ago was a really rough cut, or a vision of what could be, and I thank God that nearly 50 years later we have a highly sophisticated, successful school that is really impacting all the students we have each and every year,” Rabbi Weiser says. “The student body is growing, and our job now is to make sure that when the school celebrates its 100th anniversary, it does so being able to say that even the second 50 years were dynamic, and that the kids continue to be leaders.”
• A gala event will be held June 2, 2013, at the end of Soille’s 50th academic year, honoring the accomplishments of those first San Diegans who set out to create the school. The evening will emphasize reconnecting alumni and bringing the community together; alumni are encouraged to call the school for ways to become involved in the celebration. For more information about Soille or its 50th anniversary, visit www.hebrewday.org.