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Akiba Moves to the West

July 5, 2007 By:
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The future Bryn Mawr home of Akiba Hebrew Academy

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has purchased a 35-acre campus, worth roughly $30 million, located in Delaware County's Radnor Township -- a move officials there hope will lead to the creation of a communal and educational hub for the Main Line, one modeled partly on the more than 20-year-old Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park.

Akiba Hebrew Academy will serve as Federation's anchor tenant on the grounds that were formerly owned by the American College, a financial-services educational institution.

Starting in the 2008-09 academic year, the 61-year-old, pluralistic day school, which includes grades 6-12, is scheduled to be renamed the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy this September -- will be housed in what is currently known as the Gregg Conference Center, a five-floor, 86,500-square-foot facility built in 1981.

The scenic, wooded campus, which currently has six buildings and room for more significant expansion, is situated in Bryn Mawr, about six miles and a 20-minute drive west of Akiba's current site in Merion Station.

"When you talk about real estate being location, location, location, for the next 100 years nobody is going to be questioning the location. This is prime real estate," said Beryl D. Simonson, chair of Federation's board. "Federation has really made a major step in buying a significant property for the benefit of the Jewish community."

The agreement of sale for the new property was signed on June 29.

While he did not disclose specific financial details due to a confidentiality agreement, Ira M. Schwartz, president and CEO of Federation, explained that the purchase would not affect Federation's programming or operations budget.

Both the American College and Villanova University, which has offices on the grounds, will remain as tenants for at least eight years, helping to offset the costs of the purchase, according to Schwartz.

No other Jewish institutions have yet agreed to lease space on the property, although Schwartz added that the development of a full-fledged Jewish community campus will entail a lengthy process. He said that in the next few months, Federation will create a Campus Authority Board to oversee the strategic planning for the site.

"Our hope is that this will be an important anchor and hub of Jewish community on the Main Line," said Schwartz.

He also said that the move will ensure that Akiba -- the area's only nondenominational day school -- remains a top-notch institution that can develop to its full potential.

Akiba's board of directors formerly approved the move on June 28, the day before the sale. The decision comes at a time of change for the school; in March, it announced a $5 million gift, facilitated by Federation, from the Barrack Foundation.

The school is set to be renamed for Jack M. Barrack, who died in 1960 in a plane crash. He was the younger brother of Leonard Barrack, a Center City attorney who has been nominated to succeed Simonson as Federation chair.

Roughly 90 percent of those funds are earmarked for scholarships, which should make the school a more feasible option for a larger number of families and in theory, increase enrollment at the school.

"Our efforts to support high-quality Jewish day-school education are really paying off," said Barrack in a press release. "Akiba now has resources to offer additional scholarships to more children in our community. And now this great educational institution will be showcased in a state-of-the-art facility."

The problem is that in its current facility -- one that lacks basic amenities such as air-conditioning -- enrollment is capped at roughly 350 students.

For several years now, Akiba had been planning to revamp its current facilities and expand that building from 45,000 square feet to 60,000 square feet. That process had been slowed somewhat because of an ongoing zoning dispute.

According to Rabbi Philip D. Field, head of school at Akiba, its new home will have a total of 145,000 square feet since, in addition to the Gregg conference center, it's also taking over nearby Mitchell Hall. Field did not put a cap on capacity in the new building, saying only that the school hopes to substantially increase its student body.

In addition, Field said that the Gregg center also has 50 hotel rooms. While no one's sure what they'll be used for yet, ideas have ranged from community Shabbatons -- weekend prayer and study sessions -- to offering a boarding option at Akiba.

"We run a top-of-the-line international institution, but we are living in a facility that has outlived its usefulness," admitted Field, who had planned to leave his post at the end of this academic year, but has agreed to stay on another year to oversee the transition.

The administrator added that the educational institution's lack of grounds and ball fields had hampered its play. In the course of one year, Akiba spends roughly $20,000 to transport students to sporting events. He expected new fields to be built on the campus.

"The new facility is magnificent. It's put us in a whole other league -- way above most of the private schools in the area. The possibilities are endless," said Field.

Events are scheduled at the conference center through the end of the year. Starting in early 2008, Akiba plans to begin interior remodeling so that students can arrive that fall.

The school also plans to sell its Merion Station property.

"From my perspective, this whole transaction is really a great day for Jewish day-school education," said Jay Dorsch, president of Akiba's board. "I just think day-school education is so critical to the long-term survival of the Jewish community."

Still, moving the school significantly westward will make the trip to school more inconvenient for students coming from places like Elkins Park or Cherry Hill, N.J.

In fact, a number of Akiba students currently entitled to free bussing will no longer have that service because they'll fall outside of a 10-mile radius surrounding Akiba.

Dorsch said that the board is working on transportation for all of Akiba's students, and pledged that a plan will be in place by the start of classes in 2008.

"The reality is that no location is going to be ideal for everybody," noted Schwartz. "But this is just such a tremendous opportunity and boost for Akiba."

On the flip side, those families on the Upper Main Line might now have added incentive to send their children to the school. 

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