Back when he attended Tucson Hebrew Academy, Head of School Jon Ben-Asher was a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons geek.
Ben-Asher, one of nine students in THA’s 1982 graduating class, remembers “this whole life of connectedness,” which encompassed the school, Congregation Anshei Israel (where classes were held and his family were members), a Jewish Boy Scout troop with lots of THA kids, summers at Camp Ramah — and, in his later years at the school, playing Dungeons & Dragons with THA pals.
“The sense of inclusion and belonging … there’s an empowerment to the THA experience that I see today is still true,” he says, “that you have a sense of self and a sense of place. And there’s actual research behind why that’s a critical element of schools. For kids to feel that way about school is hugely valuable and important for their learning and their growth.”
The Ben-Ashers “weren’t right away a THA family — they worked on us a little bit,” he recalls, but once he got acclimated, the sense of community “was amazing.” He has a very distinct memory of an English teacher calling his mother one evening for “a little chitchat about my behavior that day.”
Looking back, his favorite teacher was Janice Lipartito, who taught him to write — teaching writing is very difficult, says Ben-Asher, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education and teaching from the University of Arizona, and a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. His career path includes teaching in the Tucson Unified School District and serving as principal at two TUSD schools, Lawrence and Henry elementary schools.
Finishing college, he had an internship at THA, helping with the upper school play. He also taught Hebrew school at Congregation Chaverim for 14 years, taught at Hebrew High School for a bit and served as a BBYO counselor — all experiences that helped him narrow his career focus.
Lipartito and other THA teachers like Rabbi Israel Becker “did a lot of the raising me into a mensch,” he says, admitting “I had a lot of growing up to do and there were times that I was a real pistol.”
Ben-Asher remembers learning about current events at THA — his class gathered at their math teacher’s home to watch the Carter vs. Reagan election results — as well as studying Greece and Rome and classic literature, from Shakespeare to formative books such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
THA students back then also learned computer BASIC — “cutting edge technology in its time,” he says.
Beyond the classroom, “we took these great trips,” with the sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes spending a week hiking in the Chiricahua Mountains, he says, which later “morphed into a much grander thing with the eighth grade trip to Israel.”
From the start, even when it was housed at Anshei Israel, THA was a pluralistic day school, not a Conservative one. Today, as part of the Jewish community campus, with a building designed “to wrap itself around us, like a big prayer shawl,” the sense of connectivity between THA and Tucson’s synagogues is “even broader,” Ben-Asher says. “One of the beautiful things is that as a community day school, every type of Jew is at THA.”