Supporters aim to save Schechter school

Supporters aim to save Schechter school

On verge of closing, E. Brunswick institution hopes to turn the tide

Students celebrated Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley being named a blue ribbon school for academic excellence in 2009.
Students celebrated Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley being named a blue ribbon school for academic excellence in 2009.

Parents, board members, and administrators at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley hope to announce a plan this week that would keep the school doors open come September.

School supporters met Aug. 8 following an announcement that the 31-year-old, K-eighth grade Conservative school would close if it could not resolve its financial and enrollment challenges.

Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of East Brunswick Jewish Center, which houses the school, said supporters planned to work over the Aug. 9-11 weekend with the goal of releasing good news by Monday, Aug. 12, which is after NJJN’s press deadline.

“We hope that the final chapter hasn’t been written,” said Finkelstein, who as religious leader at EBJC serves as the school’s rabbi. “The school has seen crises before and come back, and we view this as an opportunity to put the school on viable footing where it can come back to be an even more vital learning institution.”

He said he was encouraged by the number of people willing to help put together a plan. Finkelstein also said EBJC may be able to do something to help the school but did not elaborate.

Staff were told of the school’s challenges during an Aug. 7 in-service training day in preparation for the start of the school year. Head of school Rabbi Stuart Saposh told staff that a decision to close the school had been made by its board the night before, according to president Sam Kamens of Highland Park.

“We started to have serious discussions about this about a month ago and particularly in the last two weeks,” said Kamens in an Aug. 7 phone conversation with NJJN.

“It was the three pillars problem: declining enrollment, the economic climate and the number of our families in need of tuition assistance, and less than desired fund-raising,” he said. “It was a combination of those three things all coming together at the same time.”

Kamens said he “couldn’t go into detail” about enrollment, but said the numbers were “less than what we had budgeted for, which obviously impacts our budget numbers.”

He said he had spoken to the presidents of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County in Marlboro and the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, who offered their schools’ cooperation in helping Raritan Valley students transfer if a solution could not be found.

The school, which had been designated a blue ribbon school by the federal Department of Education, last year honored its founders at a gala dinner celebrating its 30th anniversary. At the time, Saposh announced 75 to 80 students had reenrolled in grades kindergarten-four while kindergarten-two would be the largest grades in the coming year, boding well for the future.

Over the last 15 years, Schechter schools have been hit by 20 school closures or mergers. In the last decade, as enrollment at non-Orthodox day schools fell, Schechter schools were hardest hit, with a drop of 25 percent enrollment between 2003 and 2008. The economy is a large factor, along with affordability, day school researchers say.

Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County president Seth Gross said the school “has been a great educational facility, and a molder of children's character for three decades.” Federation leaders, he said, “applaud and appreciate the Solomon Schechter community for educating thousands of students to embrace Jewish life” and are joining together with community leaders “to explore options that would assist the school to continue its mission to educate Middlesex children and foster Jewish continuity.”

“I feel like I’m in mourning,” said teacher Linda Benish of Monroe, who is approaching her 30th year at the school, upon hearing Saposh’s announcement.

Benish has taught sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders English, history, and Torah reading and ran the school’s daily religious service. She has escorted students on their annual trips to Boston and Washington and coordinated the school’s annual Magnificent Monday, held in cooperation with and support of the Middlesex federation, since its inception 24 years ago. 

“No one knew,” she said. “It’s such a shock. No one was prepared. It’s like losing a part of your family.”

Kamens’s son, Noah, is a Schechter sixth-grader; his daughter, Aviva, is a 2013 graduate who will attend GOA next month.

Should a rescue plan not materialize, Kamens said, no decision has been made about when the staff will be terminated, or its contractual obligations to EBJC.

“We haven’t yet gone through the legal process and what it all means,” said Kamens. Closing the school, he said, would be a “loss of a critical part of this community.”

In an e-mail containing separate messages from both Kamens and Saposh sent the morning of Aug. 8 to parents and colleagues, Saposh wrote, “This has been a very trying time….”

Saposh, who came to the school three years ago, thanked the community for its support, adding, “It is a privilege to serve this community.”

The school was founded in the wake of the closure of the Hebrew Academy of Central New Jersey in Perth Amboy, an Orthodox day school whose students were largely Conservative. To fill the void, the founders established a school affiliated with the Conservative movement’s then fledgling Schechter schools.

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