Success Stories

Reflections from the Heilicher Graduating Class of 2021

Each year at graduation time, Heilicher 8th graders reflect on their academic, spiritual, and social journey. Here are a few excerpts from the 2021 graduating class. We wish them all well in high school and beyond. L’hitraot! Until we see you again!

Heilicher Graduating Class of 2022

“I felt connected to my history, and community, in a way I had never felt before. [Then] I realized that so many aspects of Judaism would no longer be a part of my school life, and this made me start to be more appreciative of what I have now: an amazing Jewish education that I love and that has made me extremely proud of my Jewish identity.

—Phoenix F.

“Every single teacher has encouraged questions, and every single one has made me feel comfortable asking questions.”

—Avital K.

“Through the years Heilicher has pushed me in math and reading and helped me become the best student I could be.”

—Ben R.

“I had my first ever 94%. I was so proud of myself, and finally I could say, ‘I understand math and I AM good at it.’”

—Sarah B.

“I believe I have succeeded through the loving hand of Heilicher and I will miss this place I call home.”

—Edison M.


Read about the difference our amazing alumni are making in the world.

  • Alumni Story
Everything Clicks for Adam Ward

Heilicher alumnus Adam Ward has taken his passion for art and learning to new levels with LEGO® bricks and a new book. 

Kids everywhere love to play with LEGO® bricks, as they are among the most popular and enduring toys. Adam Ward, who attended Heilicher in the early 1990s through fifth grade, has made a whole career out of LEGO, inspiring a new generation of youth and adults to build, create, and explore.

Adam first became interested in LEGO at the age of two, and the interlocking building blocks continued to be a passion for him throughout childhood. After mostly taking a break from LEGO during high school and college, Adam reconnected with it in his mid-20s while living as an actor and writer in Los Angeles and seeking to decorate his apartment. He used his childhood LEGO to build practical items for his home, including bedside tables, coasters, and lamps. Adam quickly realized that LEGO bricks were not only useful but a great outlet for his tremendous energy and creativity.

Adam began posting his creations online, and, fueled by a Kickstarter campaign, he soon launched an online business, Adam Builds (now called Peace + Bricks). Through his business, Adam customized and built special-order household items from LEGO. In 2015, Adam launched a video series, “Brick x Brick,” with how-to instructions for building a wide variety of practical, creative, and decorative LEGO items. This highly popular show ran for four years and confirmed what Adam knew to be true—LEGO can be a great outlet for people of all ages.

In December 2020, Adam released his first book, Brick x Brick: How to Build Amazing Things with 100-ish Bricks or Fewer (Penguin Randomhouse). This book gives children and adults instructions for fun LEGO builds and crafts, along with trivia, micro-challenges, and advice to boost people’s creative confidence. Adam also continues to create and sell larger structures and artwork out of LEGO bricks and works with the LEGO company on a variety of content and promotions, including for the show “LEGO Masters,” where teams compete to build the best LEGO projects.

Reflecting on his Heilicher experience, Adam said that he felt very special there and has particularly fond memories of Helen Siegel (who retired as Associate Head of School in 2017), and Elly Becker (a long-time faculty member who retired in 2018). Not surprisingly, he also recalls having fun in the art room—and always making a mess!

One of Adam’s core beliefs is that whatever we need, we have around us. Growing up, there was no such thing as a LEGO Ninja Turtle, so Adam had to create one! “Creative people do not believe in object fixedness,” said Adam. “Instead, creative people will see many different uses for an object. LEGO allows us to see items as possibilities. The past 1.5 years has taught us that pivoting and ‘making magic’ with what we have is the best way to maintain sanity, and LEGO is the perfect vehicle for doing that.”

Adam and his wife, Stacey, live in Los Angeles with their two rad daughters, Plum and Storey. To see more of Adam’s work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @peaceandbricks.

Brick x Brick by Adam Ward book cover

  • Alumni Story
  • Jewish Life
Heilicher Alum Manufactures PPE for Local Distribution

Heilicher alumnus Ronen Pink is making a difference by manufacturing face shields for local health care organizations, nursing homes, and other non profits.

Spring 2021

When Ronen Pink, Heilicher class of ‘2013 (and now a senior at the University of Miami), learned last spring of organizations’ pressing needs for personal protective equipment (PPE), he jumped in to make a difference. 

Temporarily home in Minneapolis when his university moved online, Ronen discovered that local hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes were short on PPE. Using a 3D printer and an instructional file from the National Institutes of Health, Ronen began to manufacture face shields. He first reached out to Sholom Home and sent over face shields to meet their emerging needs. He expanded his network throughout the summer providing face shields to the University of Minnesota Physicians and distributing them through other nonprofit organizations, including the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

Now back at college, Ronen reflected on how his Heilicher education influenced his decision to become involved. “Heilicher taught me that we are all responsible for making the world a better place,” he says. “If you have the ability to do good in the world, you need to reach out to help others.”

  • Alumni Story
  • Israel
  • Jewish Life
Cultivating a Lifelong Love of Israel Q & A with Julia Birnberg

Heilicher alumna Julia Birnberg has found multipe ways to merge her passion for Israel activism with her interests in business and entrepreneurship. 

Fall 2019

Heilicher alumna Julia Birnberg (Heilicher ‘12) is no stranger to Jewish community leadership. A rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has already distinguished herself as a pro-Israel student activist and campus leader. We had the opportunity to interview Julia this summer about her activism and how Heilicher assisted in shaping her Jewish identity. 


I grew up in a welcoming and supportive Jewish home. We had Shabbat dinners every week, attended synagogue regularly, and celebrated holidays with my extended family. Growing up, both of my parents were heavily involved in the Jewish community and are still very active. It was important to them to raise children with strong Jewish values and identities. Attending Heilicher helped me truly understand what it means to be a Jewish American in my generation. Even as a little girl, I always had solid core values which guided me throughout my time at Heilicher and afterwards. I enjoyed having Jewish Studies and Hebrew every day. These classes really helped me develop a strong identity which carried on throughout high school and college. 


I cannot thank the school enough for creating such a welcoming and inclusive environment. The school was a really amazing place to explore my Jewish identity and also create friendships with people who believe different things. The teachers supported every student’s individual needs and encouraged us to get involved in our broader community. Some of my most memorable experiences were the intimate conversations I was able to have with my classmates and teachers. I was able to connect with my teachers on a personal level and learn their stories. In particular, I loved how Heilicher was able to weave in Jewish values and learning in all courses. Specifically, I remember connecting the Jewish core values with a variety of songs in music class. 


My initial connection to Israel was through my Jewish identity and family. The first time I visited Israel was during middle school with my family, and I immediately felt a strong connection to this vibrant and innovative country. After visiting, I knew that I wanted to do my part in ensuring Israel’s right to exist. A high school USY Eastern Europe Pilgrimage trip to Israel strengthened my connection and introduced me to students from across the country, some of whom I am still close with today. This trip changed my perspective on Israel activism because I was able to engage with students who shared my passion and wanted to do something about it.

During high school, I decided that it was my duty to ensure and continue to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. I realized that as an American, I could impact Israel’s security and safety. When I arrived on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I knew I wanted to get involved with the pro-Israel groups on campus. I immediately joined Badgers for Israel, the AIPAC-affiliated student organization, where I learned the importance of building relationships with members of Congress and influential student leaders. I attended multiple AIPAC Policy Conferences in Washington D.C., participated in AIPAC student training conferences, and interned last summer as an AIPAC Diamond Summer Intern. I also had the opportunity to speak as a student activist at various AIPAC Annual Events across the country.

During my freshman year, I also got involved with the student organization called TAMID, which connects college students with Israeli startup companies to offer advising and consulting services. I have remained highly involved with the organization throughout college and even interned during the summers for the two startup companies I found through TAMID. 

I was really grateful for the impactful experiences I had at Heilicher and through my trips to Israel and wanted to give other students the opportunity to strengthen their connections to Judaism and Israel. This past winter, I led a Birthright trip with students from UWMadison and across the country. During my junior year abroad at Tel Aviv University, I participated in their Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Business program, where I had the opportunity to personally engage with and learn from successful Israeli startup companies. Overall, I have found ways to merge my passions for Israel activism with my interests in business and entrepreneurship. 


I would tell current students at Heilicher that it is important to figure out what you’re most passionate about and run with it. Find a cause or issue that ignites your fire and motivates you to want to make changes in our world. I can tell you from firsthand experience that it isn’t always going to be easy to fight for what you believe in, but it’ll definitely be worthwhile and fulfilling.

I also think it’s important to listen and be open minded to other people’s beliefs and values. You can learn so much from just engaging with other individuals with differing perspectives and upbringings. Heilicher gave me so much confidence in who I am and what I believe, and helped me develop the skills that now underpin my Israel advocacy.

Julia Birnberg

Julia Birnberg


  • Alumni Story
  • Jewish Life
Living Jewishly Into Their Best Selves: Q & A with Zachariah and Emmanuelle Sippy

Zachariah and Emmanuelle Sippy are Heilicher alumni living Jewishly and making a difference in their community.

Fall 2018

Zachariah Sippy graduated from Heilicher in 2014 and is heading to Princeton University this fall. His sister and current high school student Emmanuelle attended Heilicher through sixth grade, after which their family moved to Lexington, Kentucky. It was a delight to learn how they are involved in Jewish life in Kentucky and how their Jewish education at Heilicher shaped their current path.


Zachariah: Our dad is Rabbi David Wirtschafter, now the rabbi at Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky. He was the Rabbi-in-Residence at HMJDS when we first came to Minneapolis in 2008, and we were jointly affiliated with Beth El Synagogue and Temple Israel. Being a rabbi’s kid definitely helped shape my Judaism.

Emmanuelle: Although I love songs sung in services and making challah every week, the emphasis on pursuing justice has influenced me the most. 


E: One of my happiest memories is making peanut butter sandwiches on VOICE night every year. Those sticky gloves and dirty t-shirts were the foundation of my activism interests. Every Heilicher teacher is committed to their students, whether nurturing, comedic, or serious—they are all transformative.

Z: The Heilicher teachers that affected me the most were Lynn Slobodien (5/6 Language Arts teacher) and Robert Portnoe (Rabbinic Studies). Mr. Portnoe’s eighth-grade Judaics class still remains one of the best (and most challenging) courses that I have ever taken. The small discussion-style nature forced us to improve as readers, writers, and thinkers. In fifth grade, my friend Isaac Wert and I established a school newspaper, the HMJDS Roar. This foray into writing, editing, management, and journalism has proven to be influential. 


E: Currently, I am the Social Action Vice President of my NFTY chapter and attend regional events along with services. Weekly, I help fourth and fifth graders prepare for their B’nei Mitzvah and will be in Confirmation class next year. I wrote two articles this year, which center around the Jewish values I learned at HMJDS and came to fruition because of Jewish outlets. “We Too” was published in the American Jewish World, Women of Reform Judaism Blog, and Jgirls magazine. “We Remain Slaves: A Free People Beholden to Righteousness” was published on the Reform Judaism Blog and in our local Federation magazine.

Z: I have published articles and worked with media groups like The Atlantic, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lexington Herald-Leader, and others. I have served as the President of my temple’s NFTY group and on the general board of NFTY Ohio-Valley, in addition to actively raising my voice regarding anti-semitism in Kentucky. 


E: As a sophomore at Henry Clay High School, I am on the leadership of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, which seeks to improve Kentucky Schools and amplify the narratives of students who are all too often unheard. I partner with Unlearn Fear + Hate, an organization that uses art to foster community. I help them plan interfaith events as well as translating into Hebrew. These projects are communal efforts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that also fulfill me personally.

Z: I will attend Princeton University in the fall, likely studying religion or history. I spent much of my high school career as a debater, and as a member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, where I have worked to involve students in both the worlds of education policy and practice in Kentucky. Q. 


Z: Heilicher teachers challenged me to be my best self while remaining true to my values and character. I am grateful for the small classes, peers, devoted teachers, and hardworking administration.

E: The HMJDS community of parents, peers, and teachers taught me the merits of hard work and to love learning. Heilicher did not set a trajectory for what I would do, but rather why I would choose to do it.

Emmanuelle Sippy (Zachariah Sippy pictured at top)


  • Alumni Story
  • Holocaust Education
Carly Joseph

Meet Carly Joseph (Heilicher '17), who co-wrote and produced a play about a Holocaust survivor.

Spring 2020

Alumna Carly Joseph (Heilicher ‘17) is on a mission to educate people about what happened in the Holocaust. Her mission is born from years of solid Jewish education at Heilicher, experience in theater performance, and a deeply held belief that “Never Again” should mean “Never Again.” 

While a junior at St. Louis Park High School, Carly and her friend Abby Anderson co-wrote and co-directed a play based on Abby’s great-grandmother’s life story. The new play, entitled The Only Star I Remember, chronicles the life of Esther (Reicher) Begam, who was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. Esther is currently 92 years old and resides in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

As freshmen, Carly and Abby participated in the Witness Theater Project that brought Jewish teens together with Holocaust survivors to create a new play based on personal stories of the Shoah.

“Witness Theater was an incredible experience that put me in awe of these brave survivors,” Carly explained. “This made me want to hear as many stories as possible, especially as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles.”

The Only Star I Remember became a year-long labor of love that involved many new and daunting tasks. Carly and Abby spearheaded all aspects of the production, including writing the script, casting the show, securing funding, and pitching their idea to the Board of Directors of Blue Water Theatre, a Wayzata youth theater company where Carly has often performed. The play received rave reviews for late-January performances at Blue Water Theatre. 

Carly felt an urgency to get the word out about the lessons of the Holocaust. “Holocaust education is so important, especially now that anti-semitism is becoming more prevalent,” she said. In order to provide Holocaust education for the cast and crew, Carly enlisted the help of former Heilicher Associate Head of School Helen Siegel to coordinate a speaker series leading up to the production.

“Carly has always been a natural leader,” recalled Helen, who retired after 27 years at Heilicher. “She is a self-advocate with a positive and lively personality. She gets things done.” Helen, herself a child of Holocaust survivors, was delighted to help bring Carly and Abby’s vision to fruition through four two-hour Holocaust education sessions for the cast, crew, and extended Blue Water Theatre community. 

Carly credits her K-8 education at Heilicher as significant to shaping her into the person she is today. She looks back fondly on her years in the seventh- and eighth-grade plays, which were some of her most memorable theater experiences. She also enjoyed the small class sizes that allowed her to know her teachers well.

“I loved how we could delve into topics we were curious about and learn as much as possible,” she recalled. She remembers how Hebrew teacher BatSheva Berman made language learning fun and accessible.

“My Hebrew language skills and knowledge about Israel came into play in a big way when I went on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel summer program,” Carly noted. Heilicher’s Holocaust education also had a profound impact on Carly. As for core values, Carly believes they were so important for her Jewishly and as a guidepost for how to live life in general. In the future, Carly hopes to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree and perhaps live in New York City someday. She hopes to be able to produce her play in other venues in the future as well. 

When asked what she hopes theatergoers will take away from the experience of her play, Carly offered: “My hope is that audiences will gain a respect for the gravity of what happened. Even more importantly, I want them to leave the theater understanding that even small acts of kindness can make a big difference.”

  • Alumni Story
Fashion Designer Lily Harris ('02)

Heilicher alumna Lily Harris talks about her day school experience and how it positively influenced her outlook and current career in fashion design.

Q. Tell us a bit about your own Jewish background, upbringing, and involvement. How did it influence your current path?

A. I was raised in a Jewish family who gathered together for Shabbat dinner every Friday night and synagogue on Saturday mornings. I attended Heilicher (then known as MJDS), along with my brother Josef, and mostly it taught me a closeness of family and values that have carried through.

Q. Tell us about your current endeavors and your journey from Heilicher to now.

A. I currently work in fashion design in New York, both as a full-time job and as a hobby. At Heilicher, I always enjoyed art class, and that education directed me towards a further pursuit of creativity. After high school, I attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for apparel design.

Q.What kind of science or exploratory learning were you exposed to at Heilicher? What influence did that have on your current career?

A. At the day school, there was always a nice mix of math, nature, and art. I’ve never been an extreme lover of science class specifically, but I found stronger appreciation for a mix of these three aforementioned disciplines. I remember watching tadpoles develop, and I remember liking math class because Mr. Portnoe was one of my favorite teachers. I was partial to art class because that is the time of day where I could do what I wanted to do. I liked all of the periods with quiet, focused thinking.

Q. What is special to you about Heilicher and your Jewish day school experience? Is there an experience (a class, assignment, activity, teacher) from your time at Heilicher that was particularly meaningful and valuable for you and your future?

A. I definitely looked forward to The Learning Fair every year. One year my mom helped me create my “dream dress” as a home sewing project. It looked exactly like the crazy sketch that I drew, turning out to look a lot like Toddlers and Tiaras meets Dolly Parton. Apparently gold fringe was my dream come true.

Another year I took a more scientific and holistic approach to learn the uses and healing properties of capsaicin from peppers. I clearly felt comfortable and curious within Heilicher to explore different things.

Q. How did Heilicher influence your path to being a “maker”?

A. I learned a strong work ethic from Heilicher. I was always pushed to challenge myself and appreciated that. I did feel like Heilicher, for me, was a positive space to learn. Having creative interests or multiple different hobbies was encouraged and gave me confidence for going to public school afterward.


Q. What message would you like to give to other alumni or Heilicher families?

A. I can’t believe some of the cool opportunities that Heilicher has now that I would’ve killed for, so take advantage of it. It will pay off to take a graphic design class, a photography class, or a yearbook class by the time you get to high school! You will be ahead of the game.

Lily Harris with brother Josef
Lily with her brother Josef during her Heilicher days.

  • Alumni Story
  • Jewish Life
Work Hard, Have Fun: Daniel Vinitsky Learned the Right Balance at HMJDS

Heilicher alumnus Daniel Vinitsky returned to his alma mater to assist with the Grade 7/8 play.

Walking onto campus brought back a flood of memories for HMJDS alumnus Daniel Vinitsky. Daniel graduated from eighth grade at HMJDS in 2005 but has since spent many hours on campus assisting with the HMJDS play as well as acting in local community performances. He now makes a living performing in plays throughout the Twin Cities area and working for the National Theater for Children, helping to schedule tours of educational shows.

Many people at HMJDS helped shaped the man he has become, Daniel said. A smile appeared on his face as reflected on a particular teacher who had a lasting impact on him as a person.

“Mr. Adler was my science teacher in seventh and eighth grade at HMJDS,” Daniel explained. “He was always very passionate about [the] subject he taught, and he set the bar high. But he was also very friendly and open. He was able to create a friendship with his students and helped me see that you can be very serious about your work but also have fun with it.”

Daniel didn’t find his passion for theater right away. He attended the University of Minnesota for theater but shifted focus to accounting and economics. The passion, however, just wasn’t there for him. Remembering what he learned from Mr. Adler, that success should be based on hard work and having fun, Daniel made the big decision to transfer to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin to pursue his passion.

Daniel offered this for advice for current HMJDS students: “Students should remember to work hard at whatever they decide to do. No matter what it is that you choose, put focused time and effort into it. Whether it is sports, arts, schoolwork, friendships, etc., always dedicate yourself 110 percent.”

Vinitsky is proud of his HMJDS education and hopes that all students will find their passion, work hard, and have fun while pursuing it.

  • Alumni Story
  • Jewish Life
What I Learned at the Day School

Matan Appelbaum shares his fondest memories of Heilicher.

by Matan Appelbaum

When I graduated college, for the first time in many years, I had no immediate obligations, projects, or work of any kind. Reflecting back on all of the experiences leading up to graduation from Princeton, there were a few parts of my time at HMJDS (then known as MJDS) that proved critical in my growth as a student, leader, and community member.

One of my fondest memories from the day school was a semi-regular occurrence in Mr. Portnoe’s math and Judaica classes, where the structured part of a lesson would end and we would have an open question-and-answer session. Students chose the questions. We might ask to review a difficult concept or inquire about a new, advanced topic. This gave us practice in coming up with the right questions, not just the right answers. Years later, as a mathematics major, I would often work on problems where progress was best made by challenging the questions, or looking to see how far I could push the concepts I learned in class.

The teachers at HMJDS were all extremely supportive of me as a student and encouraged me to engage deeply in what I was learning. They also encouraged me to study the subjects that interested me most, which at the time were math and sciences. My decision to major in mathematics and minor in computer science came partially from the confidence I received from my teachers that I would be successful.

Between day school and Princeton I attended St. Louis Park High School. I went in with a group of friends from HMJDS and remained connected to the HMJDS community and the Jewish community as a whole. The support and connections I had at HMJDS taught me the value of finding a strong community and being an engaged member. At Princeton I sought out communities of value and took on leadership roles in the communities I joined. The volunteer involvement at HMJDS taught me how to connect my volunteer and leadership activities to the needs of the community.

I recently started working as a software engineer at Facebook. I quickly learned my new surroundings and selected a team to join. I am certain the experiences and lessons learned from HMJDS will help guide me as I go forward.

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