The Atlanta school that raised its roof

A unique reward for Greenfield Hebrew Academy, which put its heart into a plea for Gilad Schalit, and selflessly promised to aid other schools.

December 8, 2010 23:52
Rabbi Lee Buckman with Noam Schalit.

Noam Schalit 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Most of the 330 students at Greenfield Hebrew Academy and many of their parents were present on November 11 for a rally at Atlanta’s Centennial Park calling for the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.

In October, the head of the school, Rabbi Lee Buckman, had traveled to Israel to deliver to Noam Schalit, Gilad’s father, cards of support handwritten by the school’s students. Buckman met Schalit at the tent near the Prime Minister’s Office, and he made clear that Jewish youth around the world are concerned about Gilad’s fate. Noam Schalit asked Buckman to carry back to the students the appreciation of his wife and himself for this deep concern about their son.

A month after Buckman’s return, the Atlanta rally hit the media throughout the southeast US.

The following day, the Friday oneg of the academy had a special flavor for Parshat Vayetze. In the portion Jacob becomes a wealthy man when he follows God’s instructions.

On that very Friday, a representative of the Bing Search Engine Corporation of Microsoft flew in from California to present a $100,000 award to the school for winning the national innovative educational competition in which schools across America participated. Greenfield triumphed with the slogan “raise its roof” – pointing out in word, song and dance that a new roof was required to halt the leaks and make sure the students were dry for their studies.

In its written application for the competition, Greenfield stressed that the roof of the current building, 23 years old, had kept the students dry for many years but “it is crying out to be replaced.”

To dramatize the problem, a clever presentation in prose was offered, beginning. “Whenever it rains outside, it drips and drizzles inside.”

Then the voice of the students was brought in: “We enter the building a few hours after sunrise for prayers and are greeted by morning dew on our linoleum tiles. We tiptoe around puddles of water in the hallways. We dodge large trash cans that our early-rising maintenance team mobilizes to catch the rain in the classrooms.

“We push our lunch boxes aside to avoid marinating our food with the natural waters of the heavens. A brave man comes to climb onto our roof to patch a hole here or there. But truthfully, the problem is over our head! Our roof needs to be retired and replaced.”

THE APPLICATION pointed out that the school’s “prime goals are fine academics and Jewish values.”

Yet with all this wetness, pragmatism was required. So the students studied the problem. First, the third graders checked out all the water damage throughout the building. Second, the science students examined the roof closely – using three custom- built boxes with different types and colors of roofing materials. They checked each of the materials needed to protect the roof and keep all the moisture outside and not inside.

When their study was completed, the school’s finance committee was asked to see how much the replacement roof would cost – $100,000 was the answer.

The school’s music teacher, Ori Salzberg, was asked to put together, with the students, a creative campaign which would compete for the Bing innovative educational award. Applications had to be submitted by October 24; a massive 700 schools participated.

The Greenfield students, led by Salzberg, did what so many students do today – they wrote a rap to express their feelings. The words, they said, just popped out of their heads:

“Summer’s gone and the rain is coming ’round. We got to fix the roof before it falls to the ground. With a new roof, we’ll be able to do well. Then next year, our grades will excel. We can’t focus on our work when the roof is a distraction. Let’s fix it now – got to take action.”

ONCE THE rap was ready, a group of students practiced to perfection. Then they performed it with all their hearts and souls as it was recorded and captured on a DVD. Then the written application, the DVD and other information about the project was sent to the Bing headquarters.

The Bing evaluators selected 30 finalists out of the 700 applications received, explained Sue Loubser, director of technology for Greenfield. By October 29, a shorter list of 15 were chosen and voting began.

Through November 9, anybody could vote by sending in a hit or multiple hits for the Greenfield entry or its rivals. Greenfield’s success may have stemmed from its final push, just before and then right after the shabbat of November 5-6.

Buckman composed a letter to the parents delivered on erev shabbat, placing everything in a Jewish perspective.

“Soon we’re going to be taking a brief time-out from the Bing competition,” he began. “As the sun sets and we light shabbat candles tonight, we will be disconnected from e-mail and technology. We will reconnect with friends, family and ourselves.”

Shabbat, he reminded the parents, “is a time to go from the busy-ness of the work week to the work of our inner souls.”

Buckman had an opportunity to offer a lesson and he did. “As much as we are racing to the top for this Bing prize, shabbat comes to remind us that at least one day a week we should focus not on what we can create in the world but on the creation of the world; and it is a time to develop our relationship with the creator of that world... in fact, more than the Jews kept the shabbat,shabbat has kept the Jews.

“The competing schools may surpass us on shabbat.

As three stars come out on Saturday night, they may falsely conclude that Greenfield has given up. But they will be surprised to find out Sunday morning that we were simply carving out an island of holiness for 25 hours. Once those three stars come out and we do havdala at home or in the synagogue at 7:30 p.m.,” he predicted, “our refreshed Greenfield voting teams will turn on their computers and put us back on top.”

Buckman was correct. The next few days, the final ones of the competition, saw the Greenfield Academy’s vote tally grow and reach a total of 24,000.

Members of the vote-soliciting squad from the school also had connections with Israelis: Greenfield alumni, former Atlantans and friends. They were all contacted; my wife and I received numerous requests that we should vote and we were proud to do so.

On November 9, the announcement was made that Greenfield had won. The victory story was featured in the local Atlanta newspapers, on the radio and TV. Two well-known TV announcers came to the school to interview the students, Buckman and his team.

Winning was not enough. Now Greenfield, which was founded in 1953 as the first Hebrew day school in Atlanta, will work hard to help three other schools it had selected and had pledged to aid whether or not it triumphed in the Bing. They are the James Singelton Charter School in New Orleans, which is in need of musical instruments for its students; the Jessie Beck Elementary School in Reno, Nevada, which the Greenfield Academy is assisting with a grant for the purchase of books; and the Bear River Charter School in Utah will be receiving aid to buy electronic scales, CD players and dictionaries.

The rabbi – who can be contacted with offers of assistance at – thanked devoted staff members and all his teachers. He focused on “the students who have been dancing and singing and raising the roof for the past few weeks with their ruah” and the Greenfield family who encouraged their friends to vote.

A triumph of ruah indeed, for a school that put its heart into a plea for Schalit, rapped to keep its students dry and help other schools too, and remembered the importance of maintaining that shabbat “island of holiness.”

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