Abbie Hirsch had “never been the school type” when she began at the American Hebrew Academy during her sophomore year of high school in 2012.
She’d had a tough time the year before at the public high school she attended in Longport, New Jersey — the classes were too big, she didn’t feel like she could ask all the questions she wanted to and she found it hard to forge lasting friendships. She was looking for a change.
That change came in the form of AHA, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school in Greensboro, North Carolina, that was founded in 2001.
The 100-acre campus was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s associate architect, and featured a 22-acre lake, 32 buildings and a state-of-the-art athletic center. She’d already visited two schools during her search for a fresh start, but was unenthused by both. Then she stumbled on a Facebook ad for AHA, and a plan was set to tour the school. The students she met during her tour and overnight stay were enthralled with the school, its mission and its structure. Hirsch knew then it was the place for her.
“Everybody was so welcoming,” she said.
On June 11, AHA unexpectedly announced that the school would be closed for the 2019-2020 school year, and for the foreseeable future. Students were left without a school for the upcoming fall, and teachers and administrators found themselves out of work.
The Ben Gamla Preparatory Academy in Hollywood, Florida, offered admission to current AHA students, and the Greensboro Jewish Federation is working with Jewish Family Services to support laid-off staff, but the essential fact — that the only non-Orthodox boarding school in the country shut down, leaving alumni, parents, student, faculty and more in the lurch — remains unchanged.
“We imagined our kids going to this school together,” Hirsch said of her and her friends.
“The American Hebrew Academy began as a dream, it was a dream fulfilled for 18 years, and it is a dream that must, unfortunately, come to an end,” read an email sent to the faculty and staff on June 11.
According to the email, the closing was due to “insufficient growth in enrollment and our inability to secure adequate funding to cover future school expenses.”
“Declining interest in and philanthropic support for the Academy specifically and Jewish education generally, has made it impossible to sustain the Academy’s operations,” the email continued. “Unfortunately, this is true for many Jewish schools worldwide. These circumstances can no longer be overcome. It is unfortunate that we must now share this news with you. We are truly sorry. The Academy simply lacks the financial resources to continue as a viable concern given rising school costs and low enrollment growth.”
Responding to a request for comment, AHA CEO Glenn Drew wrote: “For now our responsibilities and priorities are to focus on and assist our former employees, students and families in their transition to other schools as expeditiously as possible.”
Enrollment never quite rose to the level that its founders envisioned. The vision for AHA when it was founded was that it would serve as proof that Jewish life and education could flourish outside of its traditional American hotbeds, and that Jewish leaders could be developed there, too. As enrollment never rose to full capacity, the school looked internationally, and recruited significant numbers of Jewish students from Mexico City and countries of the former Soviet Union. But it was not enough.
Alex Kay, a Ph.D. candidate in physical therapy from Forked River, New Jersey, graduated in 2015. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and prioritized Jewish education for their family, helping Kay’s parents send her to AHA (boarding school tuition: $42,000).
“There’s not a day or a week that goes by that I don’t have some encounter in my life that reminds me of AHA, or that I have AHA to thank for,” Kay said.
She believes that the school’s financial problems were more or less common knowledge, even if the extent was not.
“A lot of people were distraught, upset and feel like a whole part of their life was just ripped out from them,” she said of the closing.
As of now, the school’s website now leads to just one landing page. “The American Hebrew Academy will be closed for the 2019-2020 school year,” it reads.
The administrator of the school’s alumni Facebook page could not be reached for comment. All AHA social media accounts seem to have shut down as well.
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