Pictured above: The student body from 1983, the “first generation” of Tucson Hebrew Academy students at its present location.
When Jon Ben-Asher was a student at Tucson Hebrew Academy, he never envisioned he would one day be the head of school. After 30 years in education, he jokes, “I have encountered two kids that have said they wanted to be principal.”
THA is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. The K-8 school was originally housed inside Congregation Anshei Israel (the location where Jon attended school) and has been on the Jewish Community Campus for the last 25 years.
When Jon became head of school five years ago, there was already a strategic plan in place to rebrand THA. “They hired a firm that conducted an extensive study in the community and came up with findings and recommendations,” he says. “For me, it was really clear that this is the work we need to do.”
Upon evaluation of the study, THA reevaluated and rewrote their mission statement, and that is what Jon tries to communicate and share often. “We have a new mission vision and values,” he says. “We have six core values (children, commitment to excellence, community, living Judaism, supporting Israel and tikkun olam), and I call that ‘the boss.’ It’s the driver of what we do.”
Jon admits one of his biggest challenges these days is enrollment. Tucson, like the Valley, offers parents many school choices. Within a mile or so from THA there are public, charter, private, Montessori and Waldorf schools and a second-chance program.
“It’s tough because I believe our community needs Jewish day schools more than ever,” says Jon. “And yet American culture trends away from faith and away from faith-based organizations and schools. What is the value of a religious school in today’s learning environment? We need to make that case in the community and get that well understood.”
THA is the only Jewish day school in Tucson. Tucson has no Jewish high schools, nor any current plans for one.
“There are some excellent high schools, so at the moment it’s not anything that we are seriously working on,” he says. “I think that there’s a dream in many people’s hearts and minds – of one day having a Jewish high school in Tucson.”
Kids graduating from THA go on to one of the public or charter high schools in the area. They often find high school easy, coming from the strong academic environment of THA.
The school has a strong secular program as well as a powerful Judaic studies program.
“We have an amazing spiritual leader, Rabbi Billy (Lewkowicz), and he really gets kids and understands how to inspire them and motivate them,” says Jon. “And he inspires us adults, too.”
The eighth-graders school year culminates with a trip to Israel. “In all my years in the field I have never seen its equal in terms of a learning experience the kids have there,” he says.
THA also works within the community forming partnerships and collaborations with both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. THA also works with scientists in the community and the University of Arizona science department.
In April, THA hosts the largest STEM Festival for school-aged children in Tucson. The festival is open to the public and gives families the opportunity to engage in science, technology, engineering and math activities. Last year more than 1,500 people attended.
THA also works with the Jewish Education Tax Credit Organization, Arizona Leadership Foundation, Institute for Better Education and other scholarship tuition organizations in addition to endowment money set aside by philanthropists through the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona for assistance with scholarships.
“THA is affordable to any kid,” says Jon. “One of our mantras is we never let tuition or money be a barrier for a Jewish day school education.”
Jon credits his Jewish day school education with his position today, “It turned me into an educator because I loved so many of my teachers and I loved the environment. The Jewish day school really helped me to know myself through my heritage, my traditions and values.”
He says that these qualities are instilled in the children at THA, “They graduate with a strong sense of self and a moral compass which points them in the direction of empathy, and making the world a better place.”
For more information about Tucson Hebrew Academy, contact 520-529-3888 or visit thaaz.org.