"I got my first mild concussion over there," Yehuda Pollack said with a sentimental chuckle, pointing to the new auditorium window at Emek Hebrew Academy.
Recounting his ninth-grade days and the perils of tackle football, the 33-year-old former student looks around the new facility in awe, as other alumni, parents, administrators and students mingle and gaze as well, during a Sunday brunch at the Dec. 8 dedication for Emek's Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks.
Emek's expansion includes a $1 million state-of-the-art gymnasium, auditorium-lunchroom, science and music labs and classroom wing.
Emek is the oldest and largest Jewish day school in the Valley, with 700 students currently enrolled. The Sherman Oaks school began with a small group of Orthodox families in 1959 and was originally located on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, currently the site of the Emek nursery school.
Beginning with a class of six children, the school grew steadily over the years to 250, at which point the Chandler building was filled to capacity. In 1973, Emek found a new home on a 5.5-acre parcel on Magnolia Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. As the student population continued to increase, the faculty decided almost two years ago to expand the main building to accommodate the growing enrollment.
Sol Teichman, Emek's school board chairman for 25 years, donated $1 million to the project. Emek also received donations from parents and friends of the school.
With the funds, Emek embarked on the year-and-a-half project to add facilities for its 700 students. During the construction, many students spent their days in temporary trailer classrooms. Finally in mid-November, Emek students moved into their new home.
During the building dedication brunch, school board member Gary Finder announced that he was donating $250,000 to improve the school library.
At the dedication, 13-year-old Eliana Blinder, the Student Council vice president, expressed her appreciation. "Although I was never consulted," joked the eighth-grader, "[the new building] turned out beautifully." Blinder thanked school administrators and donors and talked about davening in the new auditorium and playing basketball in the gym for the very first time.
Besides the physical changes, Emek has also undergone a change in demographics. In the past, the school drew most of its students from the large Orthodox community in North Hollywood. Today, about half the students come from Tarzana, Encino and beyond.
"Emek was designed to accommodate kids from any background, not just an Orthodox background," said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, the school's director of development for 18 years. "Great pains have been taken to not exclude and not differentiate over the years. By the blending of the different communities, it's been a very successful thing."
Eidlitz said he has also noticed changes in the level of dedication and commitment in the student body. "The caliber of the kids has matched or surpassed the beauty of the new building," the rabbi said. "It's become a high-class institution."
There will be other changes at Emek in the future. One is on the administration side, where Rabbi Yochanan Stepen, the school's educational director, who has been at Emek for 31 years, will be retiring.
As the mezuzot were ceremoniously placed in the new doorways, students gossiped about their favorite addition at the school, which for most was the indoor gym. However, the teachers and parents were quick to point out the school's most important things.
"Every part of this school is a part of Rabbi Stepen and Rabbi Eidlitz," said Gary Bregman, a North Hollywood attorney whose four children attend Emek. "They carry on a tradition of 3,000 [years], and they'll make it last another 3,000 years. They give us hope and this school is a beacon of light."