It’s not often that a 30-year-old institution decides to change its structure, rewrite its bylaws, find a new board and hire a new chief executive officer — but that is exactly what Community Day School did in 2002. With Dr. Lois Weinstein at the helm, the leaders of the Jewish private school decided it was time to leave its partnership with the Jewish Education Institute (JEI) and return to its roots as an independent entity. The separation was completed on June 23, 2004.
That decision launched a new era for CDS, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022.
“It was important educationally, it was important from a financial standpoint, for the health of the school to break it apart,” Weinstein said. “The school needed to be totally independent. We needed to control our own finances and destiny. It had outgrown being a mom-and-pop type school.”
Weinstein said the break was necessary so parents would think about CDS the same way they did other respected private institutions in town, including Shady Side Academy and Winchester Thurston School.
Founded in 1972 as a non-denominational private Jewish day school for students in kindergarten through third grade, the school added one grade level each year for the next five years until it capped out at eighth grade.
In 1988, CDS had an enrollment of 77 students. It added nearly half as many when it merged with the South Hills Solomon Schechter School, swelling the number of students enrolled to 107. Three years later, the school became part of the JEI.
Ronna Harris Askin was board chair of Solomon Schechter, housed at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. She said that before the merger, both schools were struggling.
When the two schools decided to combine, she explained, they reached out to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to see if they could form a committee to help hammer out the details of the merger.
The newly configured CDS was located on the corner of Forbes and Denniston avenues in Squirrel Hill. Students from the South Hills were transported to the school on a bus donated by a family.
In 1991, CDS became part of the JEI, a citywide umbrella agency for Jewish education. During that time, the student body grew to close to 400 students.
The school moved to its current location on Forward Avenue in Squirrel Hill in 1996. Two years later, Frank Smizik was brought on as principal. He is credited with adding an interscholastic sports program and other extracurricular activities.
When Smizik retired in 2004, Avi Baran Munro was hired as head of school, a move Harris Askin said was pivotal.
“She was the guiding force,” Harris Askin said. “Her leadership, I think, is what caused the school to rise to the ranks that it has. She’s very astute. She’s an educator in her heart and soul and she’s the kind of leader that, if she doesn’t know, she knows how to find out.”
Munro first worked as the school’s curriculum coordinator and lower school head. She left the school after the birth of her fourth child when she needed a more flexible schedule.
The path back to CDS began when Munro was asked to serve on the school’s search committee for a new principal after Smizik’s retirement. She remembers being impressed with the board’s vision for the position and the school.
Several friends suggested Munro apply for the position herself, but her lack of administration, fundraising and governance experience caused her to question whether she would be qualified for the role.
“I didn’t really think about running a school,” Munro said. “I am an educator. I am passionate about education.”
After seeking guidance from several people, she resigned from her position on the search committee and applied for the job.
Munro credits the support she has received from the school’s board and staff for the success of the CDS, which, she said, is widely considered to be a valued community asset. She pointed to the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture as an example. The sculpture, in the shape of a Star of David, is constructed of glass blocks filled with 6 million soda tabs collected and counted by CDS students over 18 years, representing the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“To accomplish something that big and have it seen as a community treasure, it was very meaningful for all of us to accomplish that for the community,” Munro said.
Rachel Albert graduated from CDS in 1995, and her two children now both attend the school.
She said CDS gave her a foundation of education and Jewish values that she has carried through her life — and it is something she is happy to pass along to her children.
In fact, Albert had initially enrolled her son, Jonah, at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, but the insecurity created by COVID-19 motivated her to enroll both of her children at her alma mater.
“The uncertainty of the pandemic and what was going on at the time made us feel like it was time to make a change,” she said. “Both my kids are thriving — socially, emotionally and academically. And when I say academically, I mean from both a secular and religious perspective.”
Joshua Breslau, chair of the school’s 50th anniversary committee, said there will be a series of events taking place to celebrate CDS, including a party on Jan. 29.
The anniversary, he said, “is being used as an opportunity to connect to alumni, who have graduated over the last 50 years. As you can imagine, they are all over the world. And it’s about recognizing past presidents and building a website that allows people to share their photos and memories and reconnect to each other.”
He said the anniversary will also allow the school to fundraise and establish resources to put CDS on stronger ground moving forward.
Weinstein said CDS has evolved to offer outstanding educational opportunities, a focus on Jewish values and the ability to cultivate students.
“That’s what has most impressed me over the years about the school,” she said. “It’s very nurturing. You want your kids to learn as much as they can, but to be nurtured. That’s where the school has gone and I’m very proud to be a part of its history.”
Munro, too, is proud of the school, saying it offers a “progressive, pluralistic education” with “a vision of a distinctively excellent, private school for Jewish families.”
For now, she’s thrilled with the success of the school and the work of its educators, especially during COVID, when teachers had to adapt to the changing scenarios caused by the pandemic.
“I have a lot of optimism for the future of our school and the future of this kind of Jewish community that really embraces all and doesn’t try to water down or diminish the Jewish substance or depth out of what we teach,” she said. “We take it really seriously, and people appreciate the learning.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.