For those of you wondering why I didn’t offer any camps or workshops this summer… this is why! My new full-time plus job during the school year, as program manager of the new Brett and Alana Fine Cafe at Berman Hebrew Academy. Opening the cafe has been the hardest, scariest, most exciting challenge of my entire life. Life lessons from the Cafe could easily become my next book! On one hand, feeding the community is my dream. On the other hand, a coffee cafe/retail establishment is far from anything I have ever done before in the food realm. I’ve compared the learning curve to the amount of new information I learned before having my first child (and the planning and opening of the cafe can easily be compared to the stages of incubation and birth)!

I am beyond grateful for all the support I’ve received from everyone at Berman and in the community. I am thrilled I took a leap of faith (and the powers that be and the funders had faith in me). As Marie Forleo says, “Everything is figureoutable.”

Although I haven’t updated my work status properly online in years (#summergoal) pre-Covid I was the Middle School cooking teacher at Berman Hebrew Academy. The school even let me make the class 99% vegan! For two years while we couldn’t have cooking class I’d been doing everything to pitch in where I was needed, grateful my children were IN school from October of 2020. Former students still shout to me in the hallways about the salad they brought for lunch or the dinner they made for their family the night before.

I look at this dream job as my reward for (seemingly overnight) becoming tech specialist in math and science classes – helping students and teachers zooming in and assisting with whatever was needed to keep the doors open. I loved the teachers and students I worked with and I ended up helping with a student fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees, stewarding a wonderful homeroom for a year, teaching my own World Studies class for a semester, and becoming the school administrator for the Holocaust education program, Names Not Numbers. All good things. But I’m so happy to be back in my lane. Well, a different lane than I’m used to – but at least on the same highway!

Last summer I told my campers that they couldn’t expect to sign up for the following summer. I had already decided to do “mommy camp” (instead of children/teens) this summer because so many parents had asked me for it. Also, because my work schedule and my children’s camp schedule had changed so much since I started running my camps years ago, I thought workshops once a week would work better than the gap weeks I’d been doing.

But then my family decided to travel for much of the summer. Aside from the parents interested in camp, the entire winter I was getting requests by Facebook and at every community event… women were shouting across buffet lines, “That’s the woman with the cooking camps, talk to her!” No guilt! But there comes a time when we all have to put our families first. For me, that is now, this summer.

So if you haven’t yet read the article, here is more information about my labor of love and the great energy you’ll find there. Please come visit when we reopen when school starts. We are open when Berman Hebrew Academy is open.

Although the cafe didn’t open until after Pesach of this year, I’ve been working on the planning since November of 2021 when they first came to me at school and asked me if I’d be interested in this new project. In addition, I started working with my Sulam interns this past January. We were in weekly communication about the planning process and they even used some of the information to build on their classroom lessons. Before the cafe opened my two interns put together our Garlic Herb and Spicy Moroccan take-home Dinner in a Jar soups. We sold out of all 40 before the end of the school year!

My two special interns from this year graduated from the Shearim program but I am excited to work with two new high school Sulam interns this coming year and continue to develop the Sulam/Cafe partnership.

In addition to the direct link at the beginning of this post, I’ve also placed the text of the story below. One correction: The family in the story is Krisch, not Kirsch.

Berman Hebrew Academy Opens Café

By  Fran Kritz

May 18, 2023

Cafe program director Natasha Nadel. Photo by Fran Kritz

The school day was just about to start at the Berman Hebrew Academy in Aspen Hill, which is why the children in the Kirsch family — three students and one toddler — were quickly finishing an avocado on bagel breakfast with their dad.

Inside the sun-filled Brett and Alana Fine Café, Jonathan Kirsch said that his kids had been asking to come to the café since it opened in the Orthodox day school earlier in the month.

“We all like avocado, so it was a treat to bring them here on a school morning,” said Kirsch, who lives nearby, as he pointed his older kids toward their classrooms.

Over at the café counter, teachers and students perused the menu and grabbed coffees (and lattes and cappuccinos) as the day at the 700-plus student school got started. Café program director Natasha Nadel, a former Berman teacher as well as cookbook author and cooking instructor, said her dream has been to offer healthy food to the Jewish community and that is exactly what she is doing.

Why a cafe at a school? While not unheard of — the SAR Academy in Riverdale, N.Y., recently added a cafe to its campus as well — a coffee shop inside a Jewish day school is rare.

The cafe gives parents a destination after dropoff, before pickup and just to meet up. It offers training opportunities for students. And, while years ago a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts was a nearby treat for Berman parents and their kids, the closest kosher option near Berman today is a 15-minute drive away.

Now, salads, soups and fruit are mere steps away, as are school-baked muffins and cookies. The croissants and bagels are made off-site. Everything is kosher under the supervision of the Vaad of Greater Washington.

Soups in to-go jars, ready to make for supper, are prepared by trainees in a Sulam program called Shearim, which includes vocational training for high school students with special needs. The Shearim students also have other café responsibilities, and will have the opportunity to try out different roles in the café to help prepare them for employment in the service industry.

And did we mention coffee?

Photo by Fran Kritz

The Fine Café is next to the school’s new Dennis Lee Berman Welcome Center, said Sarah Sicherman, the school’s marketing director.

Brett Fine, who funded the café with his wife, Alana, said the idea came from head of school Rabbi Yossi Kastan. Sponsoring the café “was an opportunity to build a community gathering place, provide school pride for the students and a place for them to relax.”

During one morning at the café, chatting students and teachers dispersed with the start of classes, but a few community members lingered over coffee.

Seating space for the café is in the Cheryl Stern Lounge, named for a much beloved and active Berman parent and staff member who passed away several years ago.

“Over the years Cheryl spent thousands of hours at Berman — between her hours working in the library and the hours she spent in the gym watching her kids’ basketball games,” said Daphna Raskas, a former Berman parent and board president. “I don’t know if Cheryl missed a single one of her kids’ many home and away games. Cheryl would have loved having coffee at the cafe with her many friends.”

Kirsch family eats breakfast at the Fine Cafe. Photo by Fran Kritz

The café is open during school hours, but students’ access is limited. Lower school students must be accompanied by a parent. Middle school students may order before and after school. And high school students can add class breaks to their before and after school time slots at the café.

Students and parents pay by charging their café purchases to a student’s account (which lets parents check on what kids are ordering). Outside guests can use credit cards. They must check in at the school’s security desk. Other than the Fine Café, the school is locked to outsiders, Sicherman said.

Parents say the new café has a happy vibe. “The new space is beautiful,” said Berman parent Lisa Brookman. “The coffee was delicious. I’m already looking forward to going back.” ■

Correction, May 21, 2023: The story was corrected to say that Shearim is a Sulam program.