BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / AJT //
As of 2013, Davis celebrates 20 years as an institution – a journey that has taken the school from small beginnings housed in a basement to its current status as one of the most highly-regarded day schools in the country. It began, as with all things, as an idea.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple had started to feel a change in the air. He took the cue from the second President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism), Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, who during his tenure made Jewish learning – both in the form of religious schools and adult education – a major priority.
The Reform population had begun to revisit tradition and just what their faith meant to them.
“It was the realization that the Reform movement had started to radically change,” said Rabbi Sugarman. “People were looking for a deeper engagement, and I felt that the idea of a wonderful, much more in-depth Jewish education for the Reform community…you know, it sounds cliché, but the time for the idea had arrived.”
Of course, Rabbi Sugarman couldn’t put this idea into practice without some help. First, he spoke with Carol Nemo, a former confirmation classmate. Quickly, the notion of a Reform day school started to take shape, but before jumping into things too hastily, a team of three was assigned to gauge the community’s receptiveness to the idea of a Reform day school.
For years, Nemo, Jan Epstein and Jack Greene took annual surveys, and year after year, they were met with hesitance and skepticism.
“The first few years, when we went out into the community, nobody was interested,” remembered Nemo. “We got reactions like, ‘What’s a Reform day school? I’ve never heard of such a thing! What do we need that in Atlanta for?’”
A school couldn’t very well get off the ground without interested parents, yet the rabbi’s spirits weren’t dampened by the initially cool reactions. Sugarman took the news in stride, as he summed it up matter-of-factly:
“You know, if you invented a radio before there was electricity, there’s nothing you can do with it.”
Boots on the Ground
In the meantime, Epstein and Nemo drummed up support from local rabbis as well as fellow day schools in the area. They envisioned an independent school, unaffiliated with any congregation and supported by the Reform philosophy.
They held talks with the National Reform Movement but got no overwhelmingly positive results. Eventually, though – in 1985, at the Reform Movement’s national Biennial – delegates voted yes to formally supporting their efforts.
“We weren’t asking for money,” said Epstein. “We were asking for that big word: support.”
From there, the process picked up speed. As Epstein and Nemo became more and more involved, Greene decided that the two no longer needed his assistance. He encouraged them to continue, confident that the day would come when Jewish Atlanta welcomed the endeavor.
And it did.
“Finally, around 1989 or 1988, we got positive feedback from people!” said Nemo. “They said, ‘Yes, I think we need such a school.’”
That was when the real work began. Nemo and Epstein went to congregations and other day schools around the city for individuals to serve on an interim board. Then a long string of meetings intended to work out the finer details – such as the school’s philosophy and future faculty – followed.
“Jan and I didn’t really know anything about starting a school,” Nemo laughed. “So I turned to Cheryl [Finkle].”
Finkle, the longtime head of the Epstein School with whom Epstein and Nemo were acquainted through other community work, began to work with the pair. If they had a problem, according to Nemo, they would call Finkle, who readily offered advice despite her position.
“One day, I said, ‘Cheryl, don’t you see us as competition at all?’” Nemo recalled. “She said, ‘Absolutely not. The more Jewish children entering Jewish day schools, the more Jewish children will be educated Jewishly, [and] that’s the bottom line.’
“Cheryl was the one that set the tone for the cooperative attitude, and it’s still going on to this day.”
Getting Over the Hump
Although the Atlanta community supported the school spiritually and with their time, Nemo and Epstein still needed funds. Nemo’s late father – William Breman, the very man for whom the Museum and Home are named – gave a generous gift to jumpstart the project, but the effort was far from over.
“Now, I am not a good fundraiser,” said Epstein with a laugh. “I can talk about emotion and spirit and all that, but I am not a good fundraiser. Carol is. If you get on her train, just watch out, because you’re gonna be unstoppable. If you get in front of her train, watch out or get on it.”
It was Nemo who found Ann and Jay Davis. The pair had recently become involved in the Wexner Leadership Program – a two-year intensive study of Judaism with a faculty of professors, rabbis, Jewish communal professionals and thinkers.
During their time, a great deal of focus had been placed on Jewish continuity, specifically through camping or the day school movement.
“She [Ann] came home one night and was talking about the possibility of founding this Jewish Reform day school,” said Jay Davis. “I went to sleep that night and the next morning I got up and said ‘I’ve been thinking about this during the middle of the night – what do you think about us naming the school after my parents?”
Jay’s father Alfred was about to turn 80, and his mother Adele had passed away. Thus, Jay wanted to do something to recognize them in the community. Ann was at first caught off-guard by her husband’s idea, but she eventually agreed. The couple then went to Jay’s sister and her husband, Dulcy and Jerry Rosenberg, and together the foursome made the founding gift and also gave the school its name.
A Key Ingredient is Located
As things fell into place, Nemo and Epstein set out to find the right person to head Davis. In 1991, they discovered her in Mollie Aczel, who had previously served a Houston, Texas-area day school.
After the passing of her husband, Aczel felt it was time for a change. She was referred to Sugarman by her rabbi in Texas, and by October of that year, she was being interviewed for the position.
“She was just like the Pied Piper,” Epstein smiled. “Not only was she educationally smart and Jewishly smart, she was ‘parent-smart’ – she would engage parents and get their encouragement to go forth.”
“Mollie, she just exuded the trust and the warmth that people needed,” said Nemo. “I mean, she’d go into somebody’s house, and within minutes the children would be sitting on her lap on the floor. People learned to trust her, to know that we were serious and to know that this wasn’t going to be a frivolous school – it was going to be a real school.”
For the next eight years, Aczel shape Davis into the renowned day school that it is today. She was drawn to the Academy after seeing the enthusiasm evident in all those who were involved.
With four already established day schools in the area, she saw Davis as a way to potentially attract those in the Reform community who had previously been sending their children to other private secular schools.
“It was wonderful because everyone was very excited about the idea of a Reform Jewish day school,” said Aczel of coming into the Davis fold. “Everybody was also very protective of the organization they had set up to develop the school.
“I’ve worked in the Jewish day school world for multiple years, many more years than the 20 of Davis – and it’s one of the few communities where everyone’s so completely supportive of everyone else.”
Aczel worked to develop a non-profit board as well as a means for parent participation. She spent a great deal of time on the specific training and development of a group that could understand the non-profit world, and she dedicated herself to garnering as much confidence and parental involvement as possible.
A few months later, her hard work – not to mention that of the many, many others involved – Davis welcomed its first students that coming summer.
“I’ll never forget the day it opened,” Nemo said, taking a deep breath. “It was August 19, 1992; it was summer time. We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna open a school in the summer.’
“And it was hot, but it was so exciting.”
Nemo and Epstein were shocked what they originally planned for – two kindergarten classes – expanded into a first-grade class as well. Davis, using the basement of the Junior Achievement building on Abernathy Road, began its first school year with 19 young students.
By Leaps and Bounds
Before that first year was over, enrollment increased from 19 to 56 to nearly 90 students.
“We were totally shocked,” said Epstein, “just because we didn’t know that many parents would believe in this school, its probabilities and its possibilities.”
At first located on the ground floor of said facility, Davis grew to occupy the second as well. Soon enough, a middle school was developed, and an even bigger move was in order. A tract of land on Roberts Drive was purchased, and the school hired an architectural firm to design the new Davis, where students now attend either the Lower School or the Middle School.
Today, Davis boasts an enrollment of roughly 600, a far cry from the original handful. Jan Epstein and Carol Nemo became life-long friends as a result of their experience and continue to hold a special place in their hearts for the school for which they dedicated so much, along with countless others.
“This school has changed people’s lives. This school has changed lives of Jewish families,” Epstein said. “The future generations in the Davis Academy ensure that in this city and other communities and wherever they go, they’ll never forget this experience.
“It will be a base for their lives, for their Jewish lives, forever.”