The name might sound unfamiliar, but the Jersey Shore Jewish Academy in Howell is a well-established presence in the community; until this year, it was known as the Solomon Schechter Academy of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. The new name was introduced on Jan. 1.
By changing the name — and by necessity disaffiliating from the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School Association — school officials said they are trying to widen the school’s appeal to Reform, Modern Orthodox, and unaffiliated families, in addition to Conservative ones.
The school, which is supported in part by the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County and the Jewish Federation of Ocean County, has only about 45 students enrolled at present, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Board of trustees president Herbert Birman said that it could accommodate twice that number with the existing staff and in the present premises.
“There are about 900 Conservative families in the region, but only about 10 of them are sending their children to the school,” he said. “We had to do what we can to survive.”
He mentioned that there are many Israeli families who have settled in the area and who might choose to send their children to a Jewish school — but not one with a specifically Conservative affiliation.
The school is also hoping to attract Orthodox students from the Lakewood community. Birman said, “There are students who are not going to go to the yeshivas but [whose parents] would rather send them to a Jewish school than a public school.”
With that possibility in mind, he said, Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, a leading figure in Lakewood’s haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community, checked out the school. After working with the faculty on some minor adjustments to its curriculum, he has given it his endorsement for some Orthodox families, Birman said. The changes were such that they shouldn’t present a problem for the families currently attending the school, Birman said.
The school’s principal, Ricki Budelman, told NJ Jewish News the academy “is a beautiful school, and it should be filled with children.”
She said she had great respect for the Solomon Schechter system and that her own children got a great education at a Schechter school. “But the economy and our demographic have changed,” she said. “We’ve always welcomed children from all backgrounds, but we hope that the name change will open things up and make more people take a closer look at what we offer.”
Budelman said that to help the students they hope will transfer from other schools, the academy has a mechina program to bring them up to par with their peers in Jewish studies and Hebrew language. It also offers a preschool program and support for children with disabilities.
The cost is $5,500 for kindergarten and $10,000 a year after that, or $6,000 for the first year for new students. “We have never ever turned someone away because they couldn’t pay,” said Birman.
He added that larger enrollment would ease the current financial stress and make it easier to provide assistance.
Dr. Elaine Cohen, executive director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, said that while the school had not yet made its break official, SSDA was aware that it had been under discussion.
“It’s a tiny school, and the demographics in the area are such that they had to do something to survive,” she said.