In the mid-1970s, Eric Albert, a teenager from a Jewish family in Waterbury, Conneticut
was a day school student at the Taft School, a college preparatory school in Watertown.
Bekka Ross Russell in front of her school
"It was a wonderful education and it presented opportunities I probably wouldn't have gotten
anywhere else," said Albert who praised the school's small classes, rigorous curriculum and
Today, Albert, president of his family's business Albert Brothers, and president of the Jewish
Federation: Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut in Southbury, is the parent of a Taft
student n his daughter Lindsay is a sophomore there.
"I do believe, along with my wife, that of all the gifts you can give your children, the best
education is certainly one of them, if not the most important thing," Albert said.
Increasing numbers of Jewish families are sending their children to private New England
college prep schools that were for many years centers of WASP privilege. They cite the academic
excellence and social advantages that these schools offer for doing so. Most of these prep schools provide
their students with an intensive liberal arts education, small classes, and top notch educators,
as well as an emphasis on extracurricular activities like sports and the arts.
According to The Curriculum Initiative, a non-profit organization that brings Jewish
programming to Jewish prep school students, there are 50,000 Jewish students at non-Jewish
private schools around the country.
"I think Jewish parents care very much about education," said Rachel Bashevkin, assistant
director of studies at Westover School, an all-girl institution in Middlebury. "All parents care
about education, but Jewish parents in particular see a quality education for their children as
important and are willing to pay for it."
As the number of Jewish students at prep schools around Connecticut grows, these schools,
often with the guidance of Jewish student associations and Jewish faculty advisors, are
attempting to provide more Jewish programming.
Two prep schools in Connecticut even have Jewish chaplains: Rabbi Eric Polokoff at Taft
School in Watertown and Rabbi Reena Judd at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, who as
a teenager attended Kimball Union Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire.
"Part of the reason I wanted to do this was because I went to a boarding school," Judd
explained. "When I went I was the only Jew and I had to go to Dartmouth College Hillel to
get any Judaic influence."
Judd had to travel 30 minutes twice a month to participate in Jewish programming with
Dartmouth's Jewish students and its rabbi.
"That was so pivotal to my self-identification," she said. "It is hard being in the tenth grade and
away from home and doing what is right by our culture and faith I'm there to be a Jewish
presence for the kids who might be searching out Jewish role models."
BEING MORE RESPONSIVE
Besides her academic role at Westover, Rachel Bashevkin also serves as the faculty advisor
to Westover's Jewish Student Association.
Bashevkin, who has been on the staff at Westover since 1981, said the school "is more
responsive to Jewish students' needs now than we were then. Part of that is that the number of
Jewish students has grown."
Back in the early 1980s, the school did not run specifically Jewish programs for the entire
school, nor was there much organized socializing between Jewish students.
"Now there is an annual Holocaust Chapel and the Chanukah party, attended by the whole
school, is a major event of the year," Bashevkin said.
Making sure that this kind of Jewish programming is offered at local prep schools is important,
Bashevkin said, especially for boarding students.
"Most of them are away from home, synagogue and youth groups away from Friday night
candle lighting, away from programs like Yachad and MAKOM Hebrew High School," she
Robin Papper, 17, a senior at Westover, and president of the school's Jewish Student
Association, said that being a part of the group is a "cool opportunity to meet other Jewish
Besides being president of the Jewish Student Association, Robin is head of the social
committee, the prom committee, the cooking club and is one of seven heads of the school
(comparable to student council). She also is on the tennis team.
"I wanted a private school education and this was a good environment," she explained. "It is
challenging and gets you more prepared for college life."
PROVIDING 'PROGRESSIVE' JEWS WITH ROLE MODELS
Fifteen-year-old Bekka Ross Russell of Wallingford attended a public middle school in her
"Academically, I wasn't being challenged at all at the schools in my town. I was doing
independent stuff in almost every one of my classes. It wasn't enough, I was getting bored,"
she said. "I knew I wasn't going to go to another public school."
After looking around at all of the options n nearby day schools and other prep schools in the
area, she and her parents decided that Miss Porter's in Farmington was the best choice for
Bekka is now a junior at Miss Porter's. She leaves her dorm room for classes at 7 a.m. in the
morning and doesn't return until 7 p.m. at night, then spends three to four hours on homework.
Bekka is also taking eight classes a semester, more than the six required.
"Academically, I have never been challenged like this before," she said. "It is an amazing
school. You can take really interesting classes and the teachers are incredible. Academically,
there is nothing like it."
Bekka's mother, Dorothy Goldberg, the cantor at Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, Conn. added
that besides the academics, "we felt it would be good for her not to have the distraction of
"The all-girl school thing is helpful," Russell agreed. "It makes such a huge difference there
are none of the social classes and social castes of other places."
Bekka's family is Reform and belongs to Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn. but when
she was young, they were "not involved Jewishly," Goldberg said. Bekka's father just
converted to Judaism three years ago.
But while some might be concerned that Jewish students will stray from Judaism at a
non-Jewish private school, Bekka has embraced Judaism, becoming one of the most active
students in the Jewish Student Union. She holds two board positions on her local National
Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) chapter, and next summer will participate in a semester
of study in Israel, for which she will receive credit at Miss Porter's. She also has started a
Hebrew class that meets at the school one night a week.
"It is possible [to be Jewishly active] but it is hard work," Bekka admitted. "I have to get a lot
of special permissions and I have to get a lot of stuff done, but our school is really good about
it. Once they know that this if for real and you are really doing religious stuff and getting
involved in the leadership of youth groups, they are very supportive."
Jessica Lemoine, a messianic Jew, who belongs to Congregation Shuvah
Yisrael in Simsbury, Conn., which is affiliated with the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, has been the faculty advisor for the student-run Jewish Student Union at Miss
Porter's School for the past six years.
Once a month Lemoine and the 20 or so students involved in the group have a Shabbat
dinner. The group also tries to have monthly guest speakers who will do Torah or Talmud
study, and once a month, the group has an outing, does a community service project or
celebrates a Jewish holiday if one falls around that time.
"It seems to me that before we actively began the Jewish Student Union, the kids had to fend
for themselves during the holidays," Lemoine said. "Since I've been there, if the kids can't get
home for the holidays, we can find them a family or a local synagogue."
"It is easier for students at boarding schools if there is an active faculty advisor," she added. "If
I weren't here, I don't know how much they would do, not that the school wouldn't try. But if
there is a faculty member who can take it on, it will be more encouraging to the students."
Lemoine "is such an amazing person," says Bekka. "The Jewish Student Union probably
wouldn't exist without her help."
Bekka said that she attended a service once at Lemoine's messianic congregation--after Sept.
11 occurred because she was seeking comfort at that difficult time and "couldn't get to my
"She offers her temple as a last resort," Bekka added.
"When I first found out I was very worried," admitted Dorothy Goldberg, Bekka's mother.
Goldberg said she spoke with Lemoine when she learned she was messianic, shared her
concerns, and now accepts Lemoine as the leader of her daughter's Jewish student group.
"She is totally non-proselytizing," Goldberg said. "As a progressive Jew, I feel it is important
to be open and it is important to learn as you go along. This is an experience I have learned
At Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, around half of the 75 members of the Jewish Student
Union are not even Jewish they just enjoy activities like the four annual Sabbath dinners and
the JSU's yearly kickball game against the Christian Fellowship.
"I think they want to be a part of it because it is cool," said senior Jesse Oppenheim, president
of the Jewish Student Union.
Oppenheim, a boarding student from New York City, said he chose Loomis Chaffee because
"it allows me to have a better education and because I get to choose what I want to learn
here" n classes like The American Presidency, and English course called "Myths and
Legends," French, Calculus and Advanced Acting.
Oppenheim said that he hasn't dealt with any anti-Semitism at Loomis, but is often asked
questions like "What is Yom Kippur?"
The High Holidays have at times been difficult for Oppenheim and other Jewish students.
"Before, I haven't been able to get home and didn't have Yom Kippur off. In between services
I would run to class."
As a senior and as president of the JSU, Oppenheim this year "made a stink" and the school
did not hold classes on Yom Kippur. But Oppenheim said that probably won't happen every
year. "It helped that we were organized and that it was a long weekend."
"Jews are certainly not the majority, but they are very comfortable here," said Phyllis
Greenspan, faculty advisor of the JSU. "There is a tremendous emphasis on acceptance and
Rabbi Eric Polokoff of B'nai Israel in Southbury has been assistant chaplain of Jewish students
at the Taft School for the past three years.
Approximately seven percent of the school's 575 students are Jewish.
"The organized Jewish community here is smaller than larger n Jews are a minority at Taft, but
the sense of the community, from the headmaster, down through the chaplain, through the
parents is one of trying to be responsive and helpful to maintaining Jewish identity."
The Taft community is so accepting that in June, a Torah scroll was dedicated at Taft's
Walker Hall, a former church that was recently purchased by the school to be used as a an
interfaith community space.
Once a month Polokoff leads a Shabbat service, the school holds a Chanukah celebration,
and last spring, the students organized their own Passover seder. Polokoff's congregation
welcomes all Jewish boarding students who cannot travel home for Jewish holidays to attend
services there n all things that help to foster ties with Judaism.
"This is a very formative time in their lives and it is a time to engage them Jewishly," Polokoff
said. "Also, these tend to be strong students and future opinion makers and it behooves the
Jewish community to reach out to them."