Heschel West Day School in Agoura Hills is changing its name to honor Israel’s first astronaut.
During a Kabbalat Shabbat filled with song and dance on June 3, school leaders announced that the entity will be known as Ilan Ramon Day School beginning in September. As such, it becomes the first known school in the country to make its namesake the astronaut killed during the space shuttle Columbia’s fatal 2003 mission, according to Yuri Hronsky, head of school.
“He, as a person, is … both an Israeli and an American hero,” Hronsky said. “He embodied a lot of the values that we hold dear: family, community, discovery, love for learning, Judaism,” Hronsky added. “He believed in the seeking of the undiscovered potential of the world, which is what science is about, in the same way we sort of look on every child — that our job is to work toward the undiscovered potential of every child.”
The renaming comes as the school kicks off the celebration of its 18th anniversary. It also makes good on a promise the founders made to eventually change the name it took after school leaders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge helped them start the Conejo Valley school in 1994.
While the two schools were always independent, the Heschel board made its head of school available to get Heschel West off the ground and implement curriculum, Hronsky said.
“When we hit our 18th year this year, we sort of looked at it as a really opportune moment to step out with a new identity,” he said.
And if there was ever any confusion between the two schools in the past, there is no need to worry about that anymore.
“Each school really will have its own clear identity and will be able to move forward in very positive ways,” said Betty Winn, head of school at Heschel in Northridge, which is entering its 40th year. “I think that it’s a great time for both schools. … It’s just kind of a coming of age for everybody.”
Heschel West leaders created a committee late last year to begin the search for a new name. They conducted extensive interviews and surveys with past and present students, their families and community members to help divine how the school and its values were perceived and how that might be reflected in a name. In May, they decided on Ramon.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon was 48 when he lifted off into space as part of the crew of the Columbia, which broke apart over Texas during re-entry into the atmosphere. The Israel Air Force pilot was a payload specialist involved with numerous scientific experiments.
“I think the new name really stands for how we can move forward in new frontiers, new beginnings, uncharted territories, and still hold true to who we are,” said Bruce M. Friedman, president of the school’s board of directors and the father of one student and one alumnus.
“We’re educating children today for yet-to-be-defined careers, yet-to-be-defined industries, yet-to-be-defined challenges, and our new name symbolizes our core faith in ethics, morals, in values, but still speaks to how we will prepare our kids to meet the challenges of the future.”
Hronsky stressed that while the name of the National Blue Ribbon Award-winning school has changed, nothing else has altered.
“Same school. New name,” he said.
Heschel West has 150 students who range from 2-year-olds to fifth-graders. That’s an increase from 118 students last year, before it added a preschool, but below its 160 students in fall 2008.
“The school went through several years of struggling,” Hronsky said. “The parents at our school, a lot of them were in businesses that got really hammered, and it became financially harder for families and the school was financially challenged for a few years.”
Tuition ranges from around $4,000 for the youngest children to $19,000 for the oldest. Last year, the school gave up on longheld plans to build a new campus in Agoura Hills, which was opposed by some residents, because it was no longer in its strategic interests, Friedman said.
Now, leaders remain squarely focused on the future. Shelly Hiskey, who has two children at the school and is co-president of the parent organization, said she’s not only thrilled with the choice of the new name, but she’s particularly happy with the organic process from which it came. It raised good questions about the institution, she said.
“What does our school stand for? What are the points that we cherish? What are the things that we want our children to learn at school?”
Still, Hiskey admits that it’s hard to let go of the old name.
“Imagine changing your child’s name after 18 years,” she said. “People have been used to that name, and it served our school well.”