Only pluralistic Jewish boarding school in U.S. abruptly closes

Only pluralistic Jewish boarding school in U.S. abruptly closes

N.J. students scramble to find new high schools

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ben Heifetz on move-in day in 2018 at the now-shuttered American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C.  Photo courtesy Irene Heifetz
Ben Heifetz on move-in day in 2018 at the now-shuttered American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C. Photo courtesy Irene Heifetz

Ben Heifetz, a rising senior from New Jersey attending the American Hebrew Academy (AHA), a pluralistic Jewish boarding school in Greensboro, N.C., planned to spend much of the summer focusing on where he wants to go to college. Instead, Ben will have to figure out where to go to high school in the fall.

On June 11 — a mere two weeks after hosting commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2019 — AHA announced it would be closing its doors forever. The abrupt closing of the school that was beloved by its families has turned the start of summer vacation into a mad scramble to find a new school. For teachers, the shuttering of AHA means they need to find a new place of employment, and a new home, as many lived on campus year-round.

“[I]t is a dream that now, unfortunately, must come to an end,” wrote executive director Glenn Drew in an email sent to parents and staff last Tuesday. The letter cited “insufficient growth in enrollment” and an “inability to secure adequate funding” for the board’s decision to close.

“To say we were blindsided is an understatement,” said Irene Heifetz, Ben’s mother, formerly of Short Hills and Livingston, who recently moved to Houston. (Ben’s father lives in New Providence.) “And as awful as I feel for my son, who called me in tears and spent the whole day crying, I feel worse for the teachers and the staff there because that was their home,” she told NJJN in a phone interview.

Asher Strell, a rising sophomore from Hoboken, was going over the summer reading list he received June 11 from his English teacher when a classmate from Israel called with the news of the school’s closing. “I’m still sort of in shock and really sad that I can’t go back next year,” he told NJJN in a June 16 phone interview. 

American Hebrew Academy was founded in 2001 by Chico Sabbah, a reinsurance company owner born in Brooklyn and transplanted to North Carolina. He invested $150 million of his own fortune to create his idea of an elite Jewish high school for students from around the world.

Sabbah hired his nephew Drew, an attorney, to run the school. He had promised to provide the school with an endowment that would secure its future, but the plan was scuttled on Sept. 11, 2001, one day after the school opened: His reinsurance company had secured all four of the planes that went down that day, and he settled the resulting claims for $400 million, according to a report in Tablet.

Whatever financial difficulties the school has had over the years, the closing came suddenly and without warning. Parents described recent discussions at the school about starting an international baccalaureate program, or bringing in non-Jewish international students to help fill the 350 beds. Now, the 100 or so families left in the lurch are hoping for miracles.

Hannah Pritzker of Scotch Plains is flanked by siblings, from left, Abraham, 19, and Ben, 14, at the American Hebrew Academy’s 2019 commencement ceremony. Photo courtesy Lucy Pritzker

School was ‘gift’ to Jewish families

Parents wax poetic about the facilities, the campus, the staff, and the teachers. They extol the quality of the academics and the immersion into Jewish life.

Lucy Pritzker of Scotch Plains is an educational consultant whose daughter, Hannah, graduated from AHA on May 27. Lucy said she feels like her Jewish community is AHA as much as it is her N.J. synagogue, Chabad of Union County in Scotch Plains, even though she was only at AHA for family events.

Asher Strell’s father, Robert, raved about Shabbat services during family weekends. “There’s three or four hundred people having Friday night services together and singing and being together from all over the world, people from Russia and Ethiopia … And it’s just, it’s incredible,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”

Pritzker credits AHA with providing the kind of immersion in Jewish life that has made Hannah an ardent Zionist. Hannah was selected to deliver a Hebrew commencement address and is making aliyah in August, when she will join the Israel Defense Forces.

The Strells — who belong to United Synagogue of Hoboken, keep a kosher home, and always have Shabbat dinner — credit AHA for their older son Coby’s decision to keep kosher and a modicum of Shabbat at Denison University, where he is a rising junior and Shabbat coordinator at Hillel. They also said the international flavor of AHA is unique.

To help preserve Asher’s international experience, they have invited his AHA roommate, who lives in Guadalajara, Mexico, to live with them and attend high school in New Jersey. His parents are considering the offer.

Irene Heifetz, whose older daughter graduated in 2017 with Coby Strell, called AHA “the Garden of Eden,” and “the biggest gift.” She added, “This has been an incredible institution. We don’t understand why it ended.” She described Ben as having “found the place where he was happy — emotionally, academically, and spiritually.”

Finances tell their own story

Hannah Pritzker, a 2019 graduate of the American Hebrew Academy from Scotch Plains, plans to make aliyah in August and join the Israel Defense Forces. Photo courtesy Lucy Pritzker

AHA was operating with a multi-million- dollar deficit every year — the school was slowly eating away at its assets, making eventual closure inevitable absent financial rescue by a generous benefactor. AHA’s board members included philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Jehuda Reinharz, a past president of Brandeis University.

But parents say there was little fund-raising at the school, no marketing, and recruitment focused more on international students than those living state-side. The number of students, parents said, dropped from year to year.

The only fund-raisers Pamela Strell — Asher’s and Coby’s mother — could recall were held during family weekends and were run by students with the money raised donated to outside charities. “If they’d asked any parents, ‘Can you please help?,’ we all would have said yes. But that piece wasn’t organized,” she said. “I was surprised that there wasn’t [something] like an annual fund-raising event like all the other private schools.”

Drew’s salary in 2016 was $465,000, according to the school’s 2017 tax returns, the last year for which figures are available. That number is more than twice the current median salary for the equivalent job at boarding schools around the country, according to figures from National Association of Independent Schools. But that figure is not necessarily so far out of line for top professionals at desirable Jewish day schools.

Rabbi Maccabee Avishur, senior director of leadership development at Prizmah, the Center for Jewish Day Schools, said there’s no real comparable information because AHA was the only Jewish boarding school, and he said that pay at Jewish day schools for similar positions varies widely — from $75,000 to $400,000 — so a comparison is “meaningless.” He added that Drew “did try to make decisions that would shift the school toward financial sustainability, but it seems those efforts were not successful quickly enough to help.”

Drew did not respond to NJJN’s request for an interview.

‘Our kids will forge on’

Lucy Pritzker is among those who have stepped in to try to help parents find placements for their kids. She’s put out the word to various boarding-school networks and as of June 16, she had compiled a list of 95 schools that will accept the students.

Two major obstacles remain: AHA was the only pluralistic Jewish boarding school in the country, so other options are not ideal for these families. The second issue is tuition. Full tuition at AHA was $42,000; most boarding schools charge in the $60,000-$70,000 range, according to Pritzker. Moreover, many families at AHA had contracted a lower fee with the school, making the bump up in tuition even less manageable. 

Prizmah is gathering names of Jewish day schools in North America prepared to take in new high school students and sharing the list with AHA parents (some are offering prospective students home-stay options with local families).  Prizmah is also assisting faculty in their job search and working with local federations to coordinate efforts, according to Paul Bernstein, Prizmah CEO.

“Once the news went out people really stepped up and have been incredibly generous on the job-side and the student-side,” he said.

For the Strells, the educational options are limited. Asher will most likely be heading to Hoboken High School, but they worry that it does not offer the high level of college prep academics he had received at AHA. (According to the NJ Department of Education, 62 percent of graduates of Hoboken High School enroll in four-year institutions, and it is regularly among the lower-performing high schools on the Department of Education rankings.) They hadn’t necessarily planned to send Coby to a boarding school when they began their search for a high school, but they fell in love with AHA and thought all three of their children would attend. Now, they don’t see other alternatives for Asher, nor for their daughter Sylvie, a rising fifth grader.

The Heifetz family was negotiating with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, where AHA students traditionally spent part of their junior year, to set up something for the senior class to finish together, but those plans fell through. Still, Irene tried to be optimistic. “It is the death of a dream, but somehow our kids will forge on.”

Robert Strell has written to a handful of major Jewish philanthropists, with the thought that maybe they’ll swoop in to save the school. “I am still hoping that there’s going to be some miracle somewhere that’s going to bring the school back, maybe after a year’s hiatus,” he said.

Pamela Strell added, “We’re looking for superheroes with a big Star of David on the cape, with flags from all the countries that our kids were from.” 

And in the meantime, they’re looking for a new school for Asher.

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