Schechter closing called an ‘emotional, terrible blow’
As students ‘scatter,’ supporters mull future of local day school movement
The closing of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick has left students “scattering” to other area day and public schools, and has created dilemmas for the larger Jewish community.
The 31-year-old K-8 Conservative school made a final decision to close late Friday afternoon, Aug. 16, just weeks before the start of the school year and eight days after the school first announced it was in danger of closing.
Despite a last-minute outpouring of support, officials said they were unable to entice enough students to return.
As of mid-July the school had 99 students, said board president Sam Kamens. Officials hoped 40-60 students would return.
“We never got to a final count, but it was clear the numbers weren’t there,” said Kamens. “Every time that we…tried to contact parents, they changed their minds. When they were pushed to make a final commitment and we could see the numbers — it wasn’t that we never got to a final count as much as realized the numbers weren’t coming in like they needed to.”
Kamens praised the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County in Marlboro and Golda Och Academy, the Schechter school in West Orange, which are extending enrollment deadlines and offering transportation to transferring students.
However, said Kamens, other students are “scattering all over the place” among public schools as well as the Orthodox Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva and Netivot Montessori Yeshiva, both in Edison, among others.
For the East Brunswick Jewish Center, which housed Raritan Valley Schechter, the closure will mean losing $100,000 in annual rent. In the school’s final week, EBJC offered to cut the rent in half for the coming year.
“We are looking into other tenants for rental and cutting corners,” said congregation copresident Elissa Smith. “We now have a deficit to patch, but our hearts go out to them. It’s an emotional, terrible blow to the community. It’s very hard to deal with.”
This past year the synagogue began a pilot “post-day school” program, designed for former Schechter students who are generally more advanced than their counterparts. Smith said that the program, for grades five-seven, may be expanded if there is an uptick in former Schechter students going to public school. It also anticipated starting a class that will offer advanced studies for former Schechter students in the lower grades.
‘A sad day’
The closing of the school sent ripples of concern and sadness throughout the region. Rabbi Adam Feldman of The Jewish Center in Princeton attended community meetings seeking a rescue plan for Schechter, and his synagogue was among those that provided extra money in the hope of saving it.
“This is a sad day for this community,” he said. “This community has always been a strong Schechter community committed to the day school option, and I’m sorry one of those options is not here anymore. I was hoping that Schechter would thrive so that more families would move into the community who were committed to a Schechter education.”
Feldman said he believes the entire central Jersey community is diminished by the loss of the school. “Any time a community institution suffers I think the Jewish community as a whole suffers,” he said. “When a local Jewish institution thrives, we all thrive.”
Some Princeton-area students will be going to Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pa., the closest day school.
Gerrie Bamira, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, said her organization “is proud of its longstanding partnership of over 30 years with Schechter.” The organization allocated $85,180 to the school in the last fiscal year.
“It has been our privilege to work with the school’s dedicated staff and lay leaders since the school’s inception,” she said. The value of the school, “with its mission of providing a top-quality general education, accompanied by the instillation of Jewish culture, values, and language to thousands of children in our community, and its positive impact will live on for many, many years.”
Debby Waldman of Monroe, who taught art and gifted and talented classes since the school’s second year, said its closing was “more than just a sadness. It’s like a limb sort of being taken off. But what can you do but look at it as a problem that has to be solved. I’m out looking for a new job and hopefully will be rewarded for all my hard work at Schechter by getting a job.”
Despite her sadness, said Waldman, “I’ve always been a hopeful person so I’m looking forward to new adventures.”
She also expressed thanks to the community, federation, school, and rabbinic leaders on behalf “of those of us who have given our careers to Solomon Schechter,” for their unwavering support throughout the years and during the crisis. “I think I speak for the entire staff in not being able to say enough about all their good deeds,” Waldman said. She said she has offered her services to any committee formed to deal with the day school crisis or revive the school.
“It’s like the spokes of a wheel with the wheel being the Jewish community,” said Waldman. “If one spoke breaks the wheel suffers in total.”
Debra Fisher said when she and her husband, Daniel, came from London four years ago, the “only reason” they moved to East Brunswick was so their three children could attend Raritan Valley Schechter.
“It’s the end of an era,” she said. “It’s devastating for us as a family, for the other families, and for the wider community.”
Fisher said she preferred not to say where her children would be enrolled in September.
Because so many children from Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth attended Schechter, it does not have a religious school; instead, it has an agreement with Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen through which the remaining youngsters attend its religious school.
HPCT is now discussing adding a supplemental class, said Rabbi Eliot Malomet, although it appeared there were not enough students switching to public school to warrant starting up a full religious school.
“We want to create a one-room schoolhouse model for our kids,” Malomet said. “We may have interest in creating other educational ventures down the line. We’re also looking to collaborate with other interested parties. It’s very clear a conversation has to be started and…we have to meet the needs of our day school population.”
Such a conversation should address the proposition that “Jewish education is not sustainable in small communities without heavy community philanthropy and benefactors,” Malomet said.
Over the last 15 years, the Schechter network has been hit by 20 school closures or mergers. In the last decade, as enrollment at non-Orthodox day schools fell, Schechter schools were hit hardest, with a drop of 25 percent enrollment between 2003 and 2008.
Malomet said this trend stemmed from complex and diverse causes and needed to be solved by the community using new models.
“There were so many factors here: competing with other schools, the economy, history of the Conservative movement, demographics; there was no one single tipping point,” said Malomet.
Two years ago Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River, an Orthodox day school, was forced to close for budgetary reasons. Orthodox Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville narrowly avoided the same fate after filing for bankruptcy.
Malomet said one of the options that could be discussed in the coming months was forming a community campus for schools of all denominations to share resources and facilities.
“We could have two separate streams of study, one Orthodox and one Conservative — and wouldn’t that be amazing,” said Malomet. “We could cut costs by a third. I don’t know if it’s feasible here, but I think we need to start that conversation.”
Schechter staff were told of the school’s challenges Aug. 7, when head of school Rabbi Stuart Saposh told staff that a decision to close the school had been made by its board the night before. School supporters met the next day, hoping to create a rescue plan.
Following a community meeting on Aug. 15, officials announced Friday morning, Aug. 16, that the school would reopen thanks to an infusion of pledges, “significant” pay cuts by staff, and support from the community.
However, after surveying parents that day, its leadership decided the reenrollment numbers were too low. In an e-mail sent just before Shabbat that evening, former Schechter president Mickey Kaufman said, “It saddens me to have to share with you that after over three decades of educating our children, SSDSRV will not be opening its doors in the fall.
“This, despite the heroic efforts of many this past week and the outpouring of interest and support from the rabbis in Middlesex and Mercer counties, community leaders, parents, grandparents, former parents, alumni and friends,” he wrote. “We sincerely appreciate that energy and the extraordinary support that materialized…. Jewish education will continue and the Jewish people will survive and strive, but this phase of Jewish education in our community has come to a sudden and unfortunate end.”
Kamens blamed the school’s closing on a “perfect storm” of factors, including demographics, a poor economy causing more students to ask for tuition assistance as fund-raising efforts faltered, and competition from other day schools and the Hatikvah International Academy Hebrew-language charter school in East Brunswick.
During that tumultuous final week heroic efforts to save the school came in from many quarters, said Saposh, who had agreed to cut his own salary in half.
“We have received a tremendous amount of support from our community and the larger community,” he said. “We got donations from people who had nothing to do with our school, but who stepped up to help. We were moved by their commitment.”