“In rural history, 100 years is not long, but in American Jewish history, it is an incredibly long time,” Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, executive director of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim — Talmudical Academy (TA), proclaimed proudly. “To have a Jewish day school around for 100 years is historic.”
Cohen cannot stop raving about the monumental anniversary that one of Baltimore’s staple schools for Torah learning is celebrating this year.
Talmudical Academy is marking its centennial with a much-needed expansion of its campus, which remains largely unchanged since it was first built. The buildings were meant to serve a population of 450 students. Today, however, that space and more than a dozen portable trailers house more than 1,000 students.
Although construction has started, the school will hold a groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 10:15 a.m. at its campus, 4445 Old Court Road.
Founded in 1917 by Rabbi Avraham Nachman Schwartz, Talmudical Academy was only the third Jewish day school in the United States and the first outside of New York City. The school has been located on Old Court Road since 1967 after a devastating 1964 fire eventually caused the school to move from its Cottage Avenue campus. One hundred years ago, Schwartz’s Hebrew Parochial School was housed in a Baltimore City apartment, and the school had just four students in that first year.
“We have a tremendous number of proud alumni,” said Cohen. “The legacy is what people are so proud of. We have over 50 students documented who are third-generation TA, some students who are fourth generation. That just doesn’t happen in other schools. You have families that are a part of the Baltimore community and just intricately woven into the history of TA, families that have watched us grow and flourish and have been a part of it.”
The expansion will grow the campus from 9½ acres to 11½ acres and will include new buildings for an early childhood center and a high school building, adding a total of 70,000 square feet of educational space. The expansion will provide the school with a total of 70 classrooms, doubling available learning space.
According to the school’s building campaign, the expanded space will feature state-of-the-art facilities including a beit midrash, a large cafeteria, multipurpose rooms, “technological aids in every classroom,” therapy and resource rooms, new playgrounds and fields and a new gymnasium.
Currently, preschoolers and kindergarteners share a building with the elementary school, while the middle and high schools share a separate space. The expansion will provide each division of the school with its own building.
“An alumnus told me the other day [that] normally when you make an addition to a building it is more of a luxury, something nice,” said Rabbi Yaakov Lefkovitz, TA’s director of development. “This is not a luxury. This is a necessity to build. We were cramped when we were here, and future generations shouldn’t have to be like that.”
The $22 million campaign has been in the works for about five years.
“I think it’s really cool,” said seventh-grader Eli Friedman. “A long time ago, they said they would do it, but everybody in the school wasn’t certain if it was going to happen. It’s going to look really good.”
The groundbreaking ceremony is primarily for the community, which has strongly supported TA since its move to the Scott’s Hill neighborhood.
“As we have been preparing [to expand], we have seen a demonstration of pure love and support for our school,” said Rabbi Yehuda Lefkovitz, who is celebrating his 30th year as president of TA. “People have not even begun to see the development, yet we have been successful in raising substantial dollars toward this campaign. The Scott’s Hill community at large, the neighbors that we have here are very supportive. We want to express our sincere appreciation. We really want this to be an opportunity where we can say, ‘Thank you.’”
In celebration of the expansion, the Krupp and Ray families are dedicating a new Torah scroll as a part of the project. The first word of the new scroll will be written at the groundbreaking.
The idea was proposed by Ari and Shoshana Krupp, Talmudical Academy parents and active members of the school community. Ari is a former chairman of the TA executive board, and Shoshana is a former co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association. The couple first had the idea of producing a new Torah scroll to celebrate the school’s milestone at the 99th anniversary dinner last year.
“We were excited to participate in the physical building of the next 100 years while also participating in the next 100 years of spiritual Torah learning for the yeshiva as well,” said Ari. “A Jewish education is the fundamental component of the future of the Jewish people. It is our responsibility to give our children the best education possible. It is something that we consider personally to be very meaningful. Ultimately, that is what the school does. We are teaching the Torah, and to participate in this way with the physical growth of the school is awesome.”
The Ray family, Shoshana’s parents, have taken part in the writing of several Torahs in the last decade, according to Ari. The new scroll for Talmudical will be written by a sofer, Rabbi Heshy Pincus.
“We are starting to write the new scroll with the construction of the building, and we will finish it and bring it in as the new building is completed,” said Cohen. “It’s the essence of what the whole school is about. It revolves around Torah study.”
“There is a beautiful connection,” affirmed Yehuda Lefkovitz. “We are building these buildings to celebrate our role in teaching Torah for 100 years in this community, so that linkage is wonderful.”
As an additional element of the centennial celebration, Rabbi Yechiel Spero, an eighth-grade teacher at TA, is authoring a book — to be presented at this year’s annual banquet — that will tell the history of the school and share stories from alumni.
“We would love for people to come back and tell their stories,” said Cohen. “There are alumni all over Baltimore who we don’t know about. Many of them are elderly. This is the year we need them back. We want them to meet our kids. Imagine if someone who was here in the 1930s or ’40s came and told their stories to these kids. We want to find these people.”
Rabbi Tali Strum, a parent of TA students and a member of the school’s executive board, explained that he can’t go a few weeks without bumping into someone with a connection to Talmudical Academy. He said that although TA primarily serves the Orthodox community, he runs into alumni in nearly all of his interactions, “be it academic, Jewish and local leadership, legal, medical, academia.”
“It is uncanny the reach of the school,” Strum added. “Understanding a little history and how much the world in general and Baltimore itself have changed, it is incredible to realize that this institution has managed to change and grow and stay crucial and relevant to these new generations.”
Strum says TA’s mission is “to produce boys who are not only motivated and driven, but equipped to exhibit and expect excellence from themselves in three areas: religious study and observance; secular studies and involvement in the professional and business world; and a commitment to personal growth and interpersonal relationships.”
Although for now, students learn in classes the size of closets, Strum says “the boys are still happy and smiling and learning, but it is not as comfortable as it should be.”
Students already are feeling the excitement.
“People are eager to see what is going on outside,” said eighth-grader Mordechai Michael, “but it hasn’t interrupted our daily schedules.”