The Barrack community is made up of a large and wonderful assortment of staff members. Some of these staff members have been here a long time, longer than any of the current students have even been alive! The Chronicle thought it would be interesting to interview these pillars of the community to share their reflections of their time at Akiba/Barrack.
Mr. Barnett Kamen, Jewish Studies Teacher, 27 years
Mr. Kamen comments that in Barrack’s old building in Lower Merion, there was a limit on the number of students allowed into the school because of the small physical size of the facility. With the change in location and larger building, the school opened up to more students, expanding the Akiba/Barrack community.
Although the old building had its difficulties, being physically small and not having the greatest facilities, there was a feeling of kinship between the middle school and high school. The two sections of the student body were not as separate and there was more social interaction between grades. Mr. Kamen would love to see this return. Maybe we can set up buddy programs?
Mr. Kamen also notes that as the years go on, there seems to be more of a loss in Hebrew ability. Mr. Kamen used to teach many classes solely in Hebrew, but now most are only in English. He believes there is true value in studying these texts in their original form. The form takes precedence over the content. Hopefully, this too may return with the continuation of the Beit Midrash program.
There is a Confucious quote that used to hang in the old building: “Love where you work and never work a day in your life.” Mr. Kamen is thankful for twenty-seven years of never having to work.
Mrs. Ivy Kaplan, History Teacher, 26 years
Mrs. Kaplan has always loved being at Akiba/Barrack, witnessing its growth and modernization. She has maintained the classroom interactions between teacher and student, ensuring that students are thinking critically, while wisely integrating new technology into the lesson plan. She makes sure to utilize technology for research and final drafts, but values the old-school pen and paper approach for most else.
Mrs. Kaplan hopes to one day see the name Akiba return to the school. Rabbi Akiva, who lived 2,000 years ago, was such a great teacher, and to have the school associated with a famous educator and theologian in Jewish history meant a lot. This in no way indicates that she does not appreciate the contributions of the Barrack family. They have been vital to the student body and community.
One challenge for Mrs. Kaplan has been keeping up with the constant movement of living history. In the senior year curriculum, study of the twentieth century finished in the nineteen-seventies. However, history has moved on. Mrs. Kaplan and the rest of the History Department are always discussing how to incorporate the past forty-five years.
She views the school as a second family, her work home, and it has been a fabulous feeling to know that she was walking into a place as comfortable as her own house every day. Mrs. Kaplan loved coming into work.
Mrs. Rivka Markovitz, Hebrew Teacher, 29 years
When Morah Ricky first began at Akiba, the textbooks were old and the content was not relevant to the students. Since then, the curriculum has adapted with the times, including online activities and videos. She encourages conversational skills and the ability to fluently speak the language, rather than the former sole focus on reading and writing. Morah Ricky has also been able to discuss topics not included in the books, to go off the curriculum from time to time. She can talk about Israeli society and the diverse communities in Israel, all while solidifying students’ Hebrew.
Morah Ricky believes that the Muss study in Israel program should return to its half-year, full trimester, format. The longer program allowed students to have more of a chance to be immersed in Israeli society, the purpose of the Muss program. Additionally, she hopes that the school will bring back the weekly sing-alongs. Each grade would learn the same songs and then sing them together on holidays and other occasions, bringing an improved atmosphere and inter-grade connection. Morah Ricky used to teach Jewish Studies as well as Hebrew. By teaching these courses in Hebrew, not only was the study more enriching for the students, but their grasp of the language was strengthened.
Morah Ricky remembers arriving at the school decades ago for her interview and feeling as though she was coming home, a feeling that has not left.
Mr. Dewey Oriente, Drama Teacher, 34 years
As time has gone on, Akiba/Barrack has become a more diverse and accepting place. When Mr. Oriente started working here, he ran TASK (Teaching Acceptance Seeking Knowledge), the club that would later morph into GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance). At the time, however, the club could not use words such as gender, sexuality, or gay in its title. Now, the Akiba/Barrack community is far more open, and the fact that the new title, GSA, actually contains the words gender and sexuality is crucial.
In the past, the teachers had communal offices. Mr. Oriente’s office in the old Barrack building had teachers from the Core, Art, Health and Physical Education, and Jewish Studies departments. Everyone was on top of each other, in a nice way. It was impossible to not see anyone. Now he can go weeks without seeing certain faculty, albeit COVID has further contributed to this.
Originally, Mr. Oriente was only here part time in the spring to direct the upper school musical. When the music teacher at the time left, Mr. Oriente was asked to develop art electives to fill the missing spots. From there, he started teaching drama and cooking courses. Eventually, Mr. Oriente created the winter middle school musical and the autumn upper school play. By that point, he was at the school all year round and became a full-time teacher. As time has progressed, he has added bit by bit to the program. He never expected to be a full-time teacher but it has been a gift.
Mr. Oriente hopes to see the former camaraderie return. He is a department of one, with no one to bounce ideas off of. He recalls that when he first started at Barrack, his colleagues were a valuable source of advice on developing curricula and teaching the material to students in a way they could understand.
Mr. Naim Pollard, Maintenance, 30 years
Mr. Pollard acknowledges the great improvements that came with Barrack’s move to the new facility in Bryn Mawr. With a large campus, the students are able to stretch their legs, have more space to move, and can participate in community activities on the field. He remembers that these opportunities were not as readily available at the older building.
On the other hand, because of the large size, the community is more spread out, separated. Mr. Pollard used to see and talk to everyone, both student and teacher, in the hallways because everyone was so close together. Now, there is more of a disconnect, although COVID has played its part in this.
Mr. Pollard fondly remembers his time as the boys’ basketball coach, being able to spend time with the students in a way he normally would not. Through this time, he could appreciate just how similar students are to one another, no matter where they are from or what their identity is. Kids are kids. Mr. Pollard loves seeing everyone in the community on a daily basis. Just as the slogan says “love where you learn,” he “loves where he works.”
Mrs. Rita Schuman, English Teacher, 37 years
Mrs. Schuman notes that the school used to have a very narrow focus on what an Akiba/Barrack student should be. Over the years, however, more and more students of all different learning styles and approaches to their education have joined the community. This, in addition to the Resource program, allows students to flourish in many types of ways.
In the past, there was more communication between the administration, faculty, and students. There was a sense of a unified endeavor that everyone in the community was working towards. Because of the small size of the old building, students and teachers were also mingling and interacting. This sense of community was cherished and the school looks forward to a revitalization of this feeling.
Mrs. Schuman notes that the emphasis on critical reading and writing skills has never lessened. Akiba/Barrack has always taught multicultural literature, and her method of relating to and encouraging students has grown but also maintained the same foundation she started with upon her arrival at Akiba. She also feels that the faculty can now devote more time to each student and are able to individualize their teaching approach.
Ms. Laura Stern, Art Teacher, 25 years
When Ms. Stern first began teaching art, all middle school students had to take a quarter-year of art, but now it is an elective. As a result, only those who are truly interested in the subject invest their time, meaning that Ms. Stern can teach more focused classes concerning more advanced topics and processes. She is also able to bring in the techniques from her own professional career to give students usable skills.
In the old building the facilities were not up-to-par when compared to the current building. However, the former building had a lot of personality and a feeling of hominess, and was geographically closer to Ms. Stern’s home, which meant a shorter commute.
Ms. Stern has stayed at Akiba/Barrack for so long because the school has continually evolved. Art used to be after school, like sports or drama. Now, students who want to participate in a sport or a production, or live far away, can take art classes free of those conflicts. Art can be a break from the stress of the more academic coursework, as well as imbuing students with hands-on skills and basic art history. This year, Ms. Stern has three advanced senior students, all of whom take her portfolio elective and will minor in art in college. These students are given a large chunk of time to independently work on individual projects. Ms. Stern finds it very satisfying to witness their progress.
Mrs. Olga Voskoboynik, Controller and Human Resources Director, 25 years
Ms. Voskoboynik came from her job as a financial advisor to look for a Jewish day school for her daughter. She never thought she would work for a school as all her life she worked for public companies. However, the environment at Akiba/Barrack was so warm and welcoming that she has been here ever since. She believes it is very important to raise the next generation of Jews who are firm supporters of Israel, have a strong grasp on their identities, and can become the next generation of leaders. Ms. Voskoboynik is proud of the graduates who make her work worthwhile.
She does everything she can to make sure that any family who wants to send their child to Barrack can do it, no matter the financial barrier. Some families need financial aid, especially with COVID, so Ms. Voskoboynik’s role is to approach different foundations and ensure that the school is both economically stable today and also fifty years from today. A school cannot rely only on the academic component; the financial component of the school is also crucial. She is proud of the community.
Rabbi Michael Yondorf, Jewish Studies Teacher, 33
Rabbi Yondorf says that in the past, the students’ chances to study Talmud at Barrack were far more limited. Only a single semester was offered in addition to the option of Talmud during the seniors’ independent study periods. Today, the students who want to study Talmud can. The Beit Midrash program helps students to build critical thinking skills as everything in the Talmud is a challenge, and nothing is taken at face value.
There was more of a cozy and intimate feeling in the old building, Rabbi Yondorf comments. Students and staff could gather in the foyer, and there were coffee houses and pop-up drama performances. Hopefully this homey feeling can return. Also, Rabbi Yondorf highly values students’ opportunities to spend time together and with faculty outside of the confines of the building. (Before COVID, he used to invite students for Shabbat dinner.) He states, “It is important to see teachers outside of their role as teachers, and as people.” Over the years Rabbi Yondorf has been the designated male chaperone on many Akiba/Barrack trips, from Washington DC, to Boston, to Rome. He values this informal time with students outside of the classroom. He has also been a Student Association advisor for most of his years at the school, and has been involved in running, chaperoning and catering Shabbatonim. A fun fact is that when Rabbi Yondorf used to make soup for the Shabbatonim on Fridays, the seniors would form a line from the kitchen to snag a bowl (senior soup day).