Despite dropping its affiliation with the Conservative movement and reducing tuition, the Jersey Shore Jewish Academy in Howell failed to attract enough students to continue operating and has closed its doors after 40 years.
The school was known as the Solomon Schechter Academy of Ocean and Monmouth Counties until this past January, when it left the Conservative movement’s education system. School officials hoped the move would help attract students from Lakewood’s adjacent Orthodox community.
With only a small staff remaining to take care of final business after the school year ended, its board secretary and liaison to the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, Stella Stanway, said the school could not continue with its enrollment dwindling to 37 students.
“We didn’t have enough assurances that those 37 would come back to sustain another year,” said Stanway, religious school director at Reform Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon and wife of its rabbi, Cy Stanway. She sent her own three children to the school and lamented that her youngest would not be able to finish her last year there.
She called the closing “a tragedy for the Jewish people” and said it was “excruciating” for the board to make the decision to shutter the school where much of the staff has spent their entire careers.
“I never met a warmer, more caring group of people,” said Stanway. “It’s as if those students were being taught by family members. It was like they were being taught by a bunch of tantes. It was that kind of love and dedication to the kids. Everyone who walked in that building felt it instantly, that sense of family. That has to be love for teachers to spend their entire career there, 20 or 30 years, making that kind of salary.”
Herbert Birman, president of the school’s board, did not return phone calls from NJJN about the closing.
In February, shortly after the name change, Birman told NJJN that the school, which then had 45 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, could accommodate twice that number with the existing staff in its current premises.
“There are about 900 Conservative families in the region, but only about 10 of them are sending their children to the school,” Birman said at the time. “We had to do what we can to survive.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, a leading figure in Lakewood’s haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community gave his endorsement to the school and had worked with faculty on curriculum changes that would accommodate some Orthodox students. However, the school kept its basic curriculum and stepped up outreach to Modern Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative students.
The measures were to no avail.
‘A sad day’
“It’s a sad day whenever any Jewish day school has to close and I hope parents of the children who attend seek other Jewish day schools in the community in which to educate their children,” said Howard Gases, executive director of the Monmouth federation, which allocated an annual cash grant to the school of less than $20,000. “We know that attending a Jewish day school is the number one way in which children grow up to have a strong Jewish identity.”
Although the recent economic decline may have been a contributing factor, Stanway said, the closure had more to do with the value the Jewish community places on a day school education.
“I’m upset as a Jewish professional who’s in this business to preserve Judaism,” she said. “We offered them a 40 percent discount in tuition, which was extremely competitive for a Jewish day school, and we still got no interest.”
Stanway said the area in which the school was located was generally financially stable.
“Many families in this community never would have to make that choice between food and tuition,” said Stanway. “It’s a sign of the times, but not a sign of the economic times. I don’t know of any school or synagogue that has ever turned any child away because of inability to pay.
“And sometimes sacrifices have to be made,” Stanway continued. “In my particular family, we don’t go on vacation, we don’t go out to dinner or go in to see Broadway shows three or four times a year. These are sacrifices we choose to make so we can send our children to a day school. If the Jewish community doesn’t choose to make sacrifices and support day schools and yeshivas, because this is a national problem, we as a community are in trouble.”