Akiba Hebrew Academy celebrates its 60th anniversary this coming Sunday, at which time the Akiba board of directors will announce that Akiba has accepted a gift of $5 million from the Barrack Foundation headed by Leonard and Lynne Barrack. The Akiba board will also announce that it has agreed to change the name of the school to the “Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy,” in memory of Jack Barrack, the brother of Philadelphia Federation of Jewish Agencies President Leonard Barrack (Class of Akiba 1960).
This is Leonard Barrack’s way to honor the cherished memory of Jack Barrack, who was incinerated in a horrific plane crash.
Replacing names of Jewish educational institutions in Philadelphia with names of donors is not a new phenomenon. The Moses Dropsie College was renamed for Walter Annenberg, while the Solomon Schechter school has been renamed the Raymond and Ruth Perelman.
Dropsie and Schechter earned their reputation in their respective careers as great Jewish educators around in the early 1900’s.
Rabbi Akiba represents another story altogether. It could be said that Rabbi Akiba is the most renowned rabbi whose teachings resonate throughout every tractate of the Talmud, whose adage, “Love They Neighbor as Thyself,” remained the command that Rabbi Akiba asked every Jew to recite before every morning prayer.
Rabbi Akiba’s legacy transcends rabbinical teachings, since it was Rabbi Akiba who was one of those who sparked and inspired the rebellion against the Roman occupation of the land of Israel, along with the hated Roman decrees which forbade the teaching of the Torah, the observance of the Sabbath and the performance of the rite of circumcision.
Indeed, after Rabbi Akiba was incarcerated by the Romans, they gave him the chance to remain alive, if he would cease teaching Torah. To paraphrase Rabbi Akiba’s response to the offer to spare his life, Rabbi Akiba explained that just as fish cannot live on a beach, out of the water, Jews cannot survive without the opportunity to learn Torah. And after the Romans caught Rabbi Akiba teaching Torah through the cubbyhole of his prison cell, they wrapped him in the Torah scrolls and incinerated Rabbi Akiba, together with the Torah, while uttering the holy prayer of the Shema, “Hear oh Israel The Lord our God The Lord is one.”
Hence, a Jewish school is named for Rabbi Akiba – the same Rabbi Akiba whose name the board of directors of Akiba proposes to remove this coming Sunday.
Writing as a 1968 graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy, the most powerful notion that has stayed with me and with so many Akiba graduates remains an uncompromising commitment to the values that we learned at that school. Akiba was a school where dress codes did not exist, where no teacher ever had to sign a loyalty oath left over from the McCarthy era, where independent thinking and inquiry represented the highest of values, and where the school fought judgmental attitudes on every level.
We were always challenged by values clarification tests, always designed to make us into better human beings.
And, indeed, Akiba was one of the first Jewish Day schools in the U.S. where every Jewish child, no matter what the income, could get a scholarship to learn.
While 90 percent of the gift offered to Akiba school from the Barrack family will be earmarked for scholarships so that Akiba can once again resume its recruitment of students from all economic levels of Jewish society, the question remains, does a generous gratuity justify the removal of Rabbi Akiba’s name from the school?
Two recollections come to mind. When we were in eighth or ninth grade, some neighbors offered money to Akiba if the school would remove the sign in front of the school which said AKIBA HEBREW ACADEMY and replace it with the name AKIBA SCHOOL. These neighbors, albeit of the Jewish faith, were not comfortable with the word “Hebrew” anywhere near their homes. The response of our principal, the late Dr. Diane Reisman, was “No. we will not trade principal (Your offer of funds) for principle (The name of our school).
And in 11th grade, I was offered the chance to represent Akiba on a weekly Friday night talk show for high school students on WPEN Radio, then a popular news commentary radio station in Philadelphia. Dr. Reisman said to me that this was not possible, even if it were to advance the ambitions of my young career, because this show aired on the Jewish Sabbath, and even though I was not then religious, Akiba Hebrew Academy could not allow itself to be associated with a program that publicly violated the Jewish Sabbath. The principle was important, she explained.
Now Akiba Hebrew Academy faces the ultimate values clarification situation.
Should the school be renamed for the memory of the brother of the head of the Jewish Federation?
While both Rabbi Akiba and Jack Barrack were both incinerated, their respected legacies cannot be compared. Perhaps the school will reconsider another name change, and call it “AKIBA HEBREW ACADEMY, dedicated in 2007 to the beloved memory of Jack Barrack.”
To do otherwise would trade “principle for principal,” and would violate the values of what generations of students imbibed at Akiba Hebrew Academy, since 1947.
David Bedein can be reached at Media@actcom.co.il. His Web site is www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com
©The Bulletin 2007