The Story of the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School
Founded in 1984, the Minneapolis Jewish Day School (MJDS) was established by a steering committee, led by Herb Kohn, that envisioned the creation of a community Jewish day school for their children. There were 19 students in kindergarten and grade one. They sought an immersive educational experience that combined Hebrew language, Jewish learning and values, and excellent general studies academics into one school day. In its inaugural years, MJDS was, at its heart and soul, a volunteer-led organization, with Kohn serving as its first chairman of the board of directors. Parents would gather each night to prepare hot lunch for the following day and dream together, late into the night, about the growth and future of the small community school they had created.
MJDS' first home was as tenants in the Talmud Torah afternoon school in St. Louis Park, MN. MJDS received beneficiary status from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and, by the time MJDS moved to its new space at the Barry Family Campus in 1990, there were 112 students enrolled, K-6. The first graduate, of many to come, was honored at graduation in June of 1991.
The move to the Barry Family Campus created a powerful synergy between the institutions sharing space and programming. MJDS students and their families used the gym, pool, fitness center, dining room, art studio, art gallery, theater, and air-conditioned classrooms. The MJDS families' presence on the campus brought renewed vitality to the Jewish Community Center and wonderful opportunities for growth for both institutions.
The first professional leaders of the school were Rabbi Avram Ettedgui and Mary Jane Higley. Nechama Moskowitz, an accomplished Jewish educator with expertise in curriculum, was the next Head of School hired to bring the school to a new level of educational credibility both in general and Judaic studies. Audrey Goldfarb, formerly the Lower School Director at the Breck School became Head of School in 1993 and took MJDS into a new era of continued growth.
Dr. Ray Levi became our Head of School in 1999 and shepherded the school into the thoughtfully-designed new building on the Barry Family Campus and kept best practices in education in the forefront. He also oversaw an unprecedented period of enrollment growth for the school. For 10 years, MJDS partnered with the Talmud Torah of St. Paul operating the Twin Cities Jewish Middle School (TCJMS) for seventh and eighth graders. Building on the success of TCJMS, in the fall of 2007, MJDS opened its own seventh- and eighth-grade program. In 2008, the school received a significant gift from local businessman and philanthropist Amos Heilicher in memory of his beloved wife, Celia. The newly named Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School continued to focus on its core values of academic excellence and building a strong community.
Following Ray's departure, Yoni Binus served as Head of School from 2014-2021. Under his leadership, the school undertook a strategic planning process to set the course for continued success. Rebranded as "Heilicher" (HEYE-lih-cher), the school renewed its focus on inquiry-based education, with a significant investment in STEAM (including the opening of a new Makerspace or "tinkering lab"). In 2019, Heilicher launched "As They Planted for Me: An Endowment Campaign for Heilicher," co-chaired by Wendy Lovell-Smith and Colin Smith. This campaign aims to build the school's endowment to $8.5 million to help secure its long-term future.
In 2017, Heilicher alumni parents and philanthropists Lynne and Andrew Redleaf provided the school with a transformational, ten-year grant of $9 million for the purpose of making a Heilicher education financially accessible to more families. The Redleaf Affordability and Endowment Building Challenge Grant primarily supports tuition relief and established a tuition-reduction grant for children of professionals working at Jewish nonprofit organizations. A portion of the gift was designated as a "matching grant" toward the school's endowment campaign. In addition, Heilicher received a commitment of $2.5 million in 2019 from Rabbi Mitch Smith, in honor of his parents Mickey (z"l) and Harold Smith, focused on supporting the renamed Harold and Mickey Smith Judaic Studies Department.
In 2021 Maia Poling was named Acting Head of School, and Dr. Dan Ahlstrom became Head of School in July 2022. The school has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1984 while remaining true to its core mission.
Amos and Celia Heilicher's Story
Amos Heilicher's father, Menachem, began teaching at the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1914. His family has been involved in Jewish education ever since. In 2008, Amos Heilicher made a substantial gift to the Minneapolis Jewish Day School, in memory of his wife, Celia, who passed away in 2007. In their memory, the school was subsequently renamed the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School.
Born on the North Side, Amos Heilicher mastered the art of deal-making early. "When you grow up poor", he explained, "it tends to make you ambitious." In later years he confessed, "I've never had a real job in my whole life" but countered with "I'm never going to retire." He never did.
Amos and his brother Daniel were pioneers of the record industry. Their shared history stretches back to the 1930s, through their companies Heilicher Bros., Musicland, and Pickwick International, one of the major record wholesalers in the US. For his significant impact on the music business, Amos was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. Other business ventures included American Amusement Arcades, Piccadilly Circus, Circus Pizza, Korner Plaza, and Crossroads Deli. He was very involved in his earlier years with the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, and he continued philanthropy throughout his life, in support of Israel and countless other community causes including the Mt. Sinai Hospital Board of Governors and fundraising for the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. His passion for Jewish education was realized through the major gift he made to the Jewish day school.
The consummate hostess, Celia Heilicher for many years enjoyed entertaining with Amos on their boat on Lake Minnetonka and other momentous events. Affectionately remembered for her trademark red hair, idioms, and signature coffee cake, she relished family gatherings and deeply valued involvement in the Minneapolis Jewish community. Celia was a lifetime member of Sholom Auxiliary, Talmud Torah Auxiliary, and Hadassah.
Amos and Celia had two children — Elissa (Lisa) and Ira. Lisa remained significantly involved with Heilicher, including her proud role as grandma to several Heilicher students over the years. She was a Heilicher Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) award recipient, and a true pillar of the Minneapolis Jewish community. Sadly, Ira passed away in 2011, and Lisa passed away in 2018. Now stewarded by Amos and Celia's grandchildren along with the descendants of Amos' brother, Daniel, the Heilicher Foundation remains a major funder of the school, and we are deeply proud of the family's sustaining legacy.
Heilicher is honored to continue the tradition of commitment to Jewish education and community engagement modeled by Amos and Celia Heilicher, as well as their parents, children, and grandchildren.