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Our Davis Story: Jan Epstein & Carol Nemo


Dear Davis Friends,
This is our story. A story that began over 30 years ago with a vision for a new Reform Jewish day school in Atlanta. It’s our story as founders, and it’s our collective story of The Davis Academy, first housed in the basement of a small building in Sandy Springs, and now one of the most highly regarded and the largest Reform Jewish day school in the United States. It began, as with all things, as an idea.
In the 1980’s, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple, started to feel a change in the air, taking his cue from the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, who during his tenure made Jewish learning a major priority, both for children and adults. “The Reform Movement has started to radically change,” said Rabbi Sugarman. “People are looking for deeper engagement and more knowledge, and the time has arrived for the idea of a much more in-depth Jewish education for the Reform community.” With Atlanta’s other Reform Rabbis on board with Sugarman, we were encouraged to “take the pulse of the community” and explore the possibility of a new school. For several years, we were met with hesitation and skepticism. We got reactions like, “What’s a Reform Day School? I’ve never heard of such a thing!  What do we need that in Atlanta for?”

A school couldn’t very well get off the ground without interested community members and parents, yet the rabbi’s spirits weren’t dampened by the initially cool reactions. Sugarman took the news in stride, as he summed it up matter-of-factly: “You know, if you invented a radio before there was electricity, there’s not much you can do with it.”
We envisioned something truly unique - an independent school, focused on academic excellence, unaffiliated with any one congregation and supported by the Reform philosophy, that of Informed Choice - where Jewish practices, customs, mitzvot, and traditions are studied and then, based on acquired knowledge, choices around one’s personal Jewish practice are made which reflect the sensibilities of the individual making the choices. (Informed Choice means one chooses how he/she practices Judaism based on the study and pursuit of knowledge, rather than based on choices made by others, accident or by default).

So, we remained patient, in the meantime, working to drum up support from local rabbis of all other denominations as well as leaders of fellow Jewish day schools in the area. And while initial talks about this concept at the national level (Union of Reform Judaism) were met with a lack of excitement, eventually, at its National Biennial in 1985, delegates voted YES to formally supporting the concept of Reform Day Schools in North America. 
From there, our process picked up speed. Over the next few years there was positive feedback from many across Atlanta’s diverse Jewish community. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, then Senior Rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue (Beth Jacob) said “Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot do it. It is all about educating Jewish children, and I fully support your project.”  Well, that was music to our ears, and we jumped into creating a school with all our passion and enthusiasm. That was when the real work began.
We went to congregations and other day schools throughout Atlanta for advice and seeking individuals to serve on an interim board to develop the school’s philosophy, mission statement, Bylaws, etc. With each Reform congregation in Atlanta sending a representative to serve on our interim board, we had “buy-in” and support from each of the temples and their rabbinic leaders.
As we began to transition from vision to reality, we acknowledged that neither of us really knew anything about starting or operating a school, so we turned to Cheryl Finkel, the longtime head of the Epstein School, who readily offered her advice, despite her position. One day we asked Cheryl: “Don’t you see us as competition at all?” She said, “Absolutely not. The more Jewish tushies we get in seats, the more children will be educated Jewishly, and that’s the bottom line. I applaud what you are doing.” Cheryl set a tone for a cooperative attitude in our day school community.
Although so many in the Atlanta community were supportive with their time, skills and spiritual guidance, we also needed funds to take vision to reality. William Breman, of blessed memory, gave our first major gift to jumpstart the project, so that we could search for and hire the right person to lead our school, at that time officially known as “Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School.” With funds in hand, our Search Committee was able to hire just the person we needed to serve as our first Head of School. Mollie Aczel, from Houston, was a strong educator who was up for a new challenge and ready to move on with her life as she had tragically lost her husband a couple of years before. She used to say that we saved her life by bringing her to Atlanta. The feeling was definitely mutual.
Mollie was like the “Pied Piper”. Not only was she smart and skilled in both education and Judaism, she was also “parent smart.” She engaged parents from their first meeting and exuded the warmth and the trust that parents needed to jump into such a new and untried endeavor.   She’d be invited to someone’s house to meet them, and within minutes, the children would be sitting in her lap on the floor!
So, in 1991, with a major gift and a first Head of School, a location was selected, in the basement of a Jr. Achievement building on Abernathy Road in Sandy Springs. Yet we were quickly running out of money! Like “manna from heaven”, Ann and Jay Davis and Dulcy (Jay’s sister) and Jerry Rosenberg were interested in naming the school after their parents, and in the beginning of 1992, they decided to endow our school with the name, The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy. What a blessing!
And so, the journey began.
In our first year, 1992-1993, the school began with 19 students—10 in kindergarten, 9 in First Grade. The second year, we had 56 students and in the third year enrollment grew to 90! The fast growth shocked us all and we quickly needed more space, so we took over some additional classrooms upstairs at Jr Achievement. We then found a great piece of property on Roberts Drive and built a wonderful new building. We grew so fast, adding one grade each year, that we soon realized we needed even more space! The building at 8105 Roberts Drive was expanded in multiple phases with multiple capital campaigns over the years, and eventually another site was purchased (formerly a church) down the street at the corner of Spalding and Roberts, which now houses our Middle School.
In recent years our school’s leadership team has taken our school to new heights and The Davis Academy continues to stay in the forefront because of our Head of School and outstanding faculty and staff. We are so proud of what we see today and thirty years later, we remain involved and supportive as the story unfolds.
While The Davis Academy has evolved tremendously over the years, the school’s initial purpose and values remain unchanged. We give credit to so many people for their invaluable assistance as the school was newly established and over the years that have followed, without whom we could never have succeeded. We profoundly thank the Atlanta community, our incredible Presidents and Boards of Trustees, our administration and faculty and staff including our Head of School Amy Shafron, and of course the many parents who entrust their children to The Davis Academy.
Jan Epstein and Carol Nemo
Co -Founders/Co-Presidents 1992

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