The Ramaz School has a deeply rooted history dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. Torah, derech eretz and menschlichkeit are the ideals set forth by its founders, establishing the foundation that has supported the school across three generations.
The Ramaz School forms its name from the initials (RMZ) of the world renowned Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies (1851-1936).
The RaMaZ, the name by which Rabbi Margolies was known, was the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. During his ministry, he was the recognized dean of the American rabbinate.
These early roots reflect the profound spirit of the Ramaz School. Historical records show that in 1933, the RaMaZ addressed a mass rally at Madison Square Garden protesting the threat to Jews in Nazi Germany.
In the 1930's, the Upper East Side neighborhood known as Yorkville was an area where "Jewishness" was toned down; Jews of the area did not want to attract attention. In fact, in 1936, following the Depression and during the rise of Hitlerism, the pro-Nazi German-American Bund held street rallies up and down Third Avenue.
As the country struggled to regain its financial solvency and as the Nazi movement in Yorkville flourished, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein (1902-1979), following in the footsteps of his grandfather-in-law, the RaMaZ, sought to establish a Jewish day school.He first broached the subject to a circle of close friends at a July Fourth weekend in 1936.
He spoke of what he saw as a tremendous void in Jewish education. He shared his vision of a new type of day school with a different philosophy of education -- one that demonstrated a better understanding of a Jewish child growing up in the free and open society of the United States of America.
In the yeshivot of that time, there was a distinct separation between Jewish and secular learning. Jewish studies were taught in the morning; public school teachers would arrive for secular studies late in the afternoon. Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein was quoted as saying, "Tired teachers were expected to teach tired children." He told of his dream of a school with an integrated program of religious studies combined with general studies--a school in which the culture of America would blend with the heritage of Judaism. Rabbi Lookstein envisioned a yeshivah day school in which a child would not experience an intellectual or emotional clash between being a Jew and an American.
There were only fifteen Jewish day schools in New York, and most were located in poor neighborhoods. The Talmudic slogan of the day was, "Be concerned with the children of the poor, for through them will Torah thrive." Rabbi Lookstein dismissed this as a rationalization to explain the fact that the children of the affluent were not being given a yeshivah education. He was seriously concerned that an entire generation of young people would not attend the existing yeshivot. He saw this new school as a way to attract more children to day school education.
During the year 1937, on his way to making this dream a reality, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein was presented with a number of obstacles, one of which was objections to his educational objectives. In the 1930's many people in the neighborhood did not believe in a yeshivah education. Most observed kashrut, but very few understood the concept of a religious school. Prevailing sentiments were expressed with cultural discomfort: "I don't want my son to be a rabbi. I don't want him to be too religious."
Another impediment to realizing the dream was the challenge to find financing. Eventually, Max J. Etra, then Treasurer of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, stepped in and offered to underwrite the expected deficit for the first year. The congregation, following his lead, agreed to sponsor the formation of the Ramaz School as well
By the autumn of 1937 a new school was born. The Ramaz Academy first opened its doors to six children.
Among these students was Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein's son, Haskel Lookstein. Classes met in the vestry rooms of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun at 117 East 85th Street. There were altogether two teachers: one taught general studies, the other religious studies.
Students began to enroll. By the end of that first year there was a total of twenty students in grades one, two and three. Word of mouth, advertisements and, ultimately, the ability of the Ramaz School to confound the pessimists and sustain itself, brought increasing numbers of applicants.
As darkness fell upon European Jewry, the light of European children began to fill the halls of the Ramaz School. Jews from France, Belgium, Germany and Holland were flocking to the United States. Their children came from the Lycées of France, the Tachkemoni of Antwerp and a myriad of other schools.
The refugee population especially concerned Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein. It was apparent to him that if the Ramaz School did not exist, these children would have difficulty finding a suitable Jewish school. By 1938, in order to ensure adequate space for these students, the Ramaz School rented several rooms in the Central Jewish Institute building at 125 East 85th Street. Seventy-one boys and girls enrolled, creating the need to lease the entire building as the school's new quarters.
The Ramaz School was becoming widely recognized as an institution known for its academic excellence. The Teacher's Institute of Yeshiva University began sending student teachers to observe and fulfill their student-teaching requirements. In 1942, the school received its provisional charter from the Board of Regents of the State of New York. Enrollment by this time had risen to one hundred and twenty students.
The roots had taken well. In 1943, the Ramaz School graduated its first elementary school class, consisting of five students. Progress was rapid. By 1945, to accommodate the new high school population, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun purchased the building they had been leasing.
Enrollment continued to increase, and the new high school attracted a diverse group of students. In 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, the children of Israeli diplomats who were on special missions began enrolling at the Ramaz School.
Recognizing the academic excellence and integrity of the new school, the State Board of Regents awarded the Ramaz School an Absolute Charter in 1950. With the support of the community and of the Ramaz Parents Council, another building was acquired at 22 East 82nd Street, to be used exclusively for the high school.