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‘Perfect storm’ forces closure of Orthodox school

‘Perfect storm’ forces closure of Orthodox school

Moshe Aaron Yeshiva victim of shrinking enrollment, big debt

The boys’ basketball team from Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School celebrates last year after winning the Cooper Yeshiva Invitational Tournament in Memphis. MAYHS will close its doors next month after 18 years. Photo courtesy Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High Sc
The boys’ basketball team from Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School celebrates last year after winning the Cooper Yeshiva Invitational Tournament in Memphis. MAYHS will close its doors next month after 18 years. Photo courtesy Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High Sc

Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River will close its doors after its last class graduates next month, a victim of “a perfect storm” of calamities, including dwindling enrollment and mounting debt.

The board of trustees at the Orthodox day school, which began 18 years ago as the all-female Yeshiva High School of Central New Jersey, sent a letter April 12 announcing “with great sadness” it could not afford to reopen next year.

“We owed it to our students and teachers to make a decision,” said trustee Binyomen Goldstein of Highland Park. “They needed to be able to make provisions for the following year.”

In the letter and in the phone interview with Goldstein, it was acknowledged the school had been operating with substantial debt for several years. In an effort to make the transition as smooth as possible for enrolled students, MAYHS hosted an open house for parents and students on May 4, inviting 10 other area Orthodox high schools to participate.

“It really weighed heavily on us, especially in regard to our juniors and seniors,” said Goldstein, who added the school tried to wait out the economic recession that contributed to its demise.

Despite the “perfect storm” of pressures that pointed to the decision to close, said Goldstein, “we continued because we are the only yeshiva high school in Middlesex County. It was definitely sad, but it was the responsible thing to do.”

A new school, Rambam Yeshiva of New Jersey, is expected to open locally next year in the wake of MAYHS’ closing (see related article).

The ultimate decision was based on the school’s projected operating budget, number of registrations for next year, and accumulated debt.

“MAYHS has been struggling month to month in uncertain economic times, hampered by cash flow deficiencies, preventing effective administration, reaching the point that the yeshiva cannot open for the 2011-2012 school year,” read the letter, which was obtained by NJJN. “Please be assured that the yeshiva exhausted every possibility of continuing before reaching this decision.”

‘Many success stories’

Contributing to the gloomy prospects was a continued enrollment decline, partially precipitated by the recession and the school’s inability to draw large numbers of students from the local community. While it once had in excess of 200 students, this year’s student body — male and female students, who attend class separately — stands at 105. Last year’s enrollment was 121, down from two years ago, when there were 142 students.

There are 30 students graduating this year, said Goldstein, “and we had only 12 students preregistered” for 2011-12. “Enrollment has definitely been trending downward.”

While Goldstein and others said community members’ reluctance to enroll youngsters at MAYHS was fueled by rumors about its future, the school’s failure to attract significant numbers of students from the local Orthodox enclaves of East Brunswick, Highland Park, and Edison also played a role. Many Orthodox students from those towns historically have gone to such high schools as the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.

Goldstein pointed out that only one eighth-grader graduating from Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison had preregistered at MAYS for 2011-12.

Additionally, the school formerly attracted a number of students from the Cherry Hill and Philadelphia areas. However, with the opening of Orthodox secondary schools there in recent years, those sources have all but dried up.

Moreover, some parents were behind on paying the $18,000 annual tuition, a situation that was allowed, said Goldstein, “under the mantra that nobody should be denied a yeshiva education.” The letter sent by the board stated unequivocally that all financial obligations must be paid in full or MAYHS would not release school records or transcripts or provide recommendations to other schools for current students.

“There will be no exceptions,” it said.

The once thriving institution began by holding classes at Rutgers Hillel before moving to the Highland Park Conservative Temple. It purchased the more than 100-year-old former Willett School for $350,000 at auction about 13 years ago from the South River Board of Education. In 2001, it dedicated a $600,000 gymnasium.

Goldstein noted among the school’s graduates are rabbis, alumni of Ivy League institutions, and “many success stories in all walks of life, and we are very proud of that.”

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