Stern Hebrew High School's efforts to take up residence in the old Akiba Hebrew Academy facility in Merion Station took a small step forward on Nov. 19 at a Lower Merion Township zoning hearing.
The Modern Orthodox day school, along with the Kohelet Foundation, is seeking the zoning board's approval to alter the facilities on the premises. Chief among the proposed changes will be the construction of a bet midrash -- a worship and study space unique to Orthodox schools -- with a capacity of about 200 people.
Further proposed modifications include installing additional parking spaces and performing some overall refurbishment of the building.
Kohelet and Stern representatives say they will be using the property under its previously approved educational use.
The applicants encountered no major opposition during the hourlong hearing. Much of the board's questioning centered on items like the percentage of the building being converted from classrooms to administrative space, the details of the Kohelet Foundation's efforts to acquire title to the property from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia (which currently owns the facility, thanks to a $4 million gift from Kohelet), and the school's history and proposed enrollment figures.
Among those testifying before the board were Kohelet Foundation president David Magerman and Scott Seligsohn, president of Stern's board of directors.
The school, established in 2000, is currently located in Northeast Philadelphia and has an enrollment of 95.
Those speaking for the school said that planned enrollment for the new building would start in the low 100s, and that administrators had an understanding with neighbors to eventually cap enrollment at 250 -- still well below that of Akiba when it left the space.
Because of time constraints, the hearing was left unfinished and adjourned until Dec. 3.
Once the matter has been fully presented, the board may take up to 45 days to render a decision.
Representatives from Stern and Kohelet seemed optimistic that their requests would be approved.
They Gobbled Up Those Vouchers
Gene Epstein took part in a personal tradition on Nov. 23, when the Bucks County philanthropist gave away vouchers for some 250 Thanksgiving turkeys and side dishes to low-income families.
The event, which Epstein has sponsored nearly annually since 1983, took place at Temple Shalom in Levittown. It was open to families receiving welfare, Social Security, disability or unemployment benefits.
Many of those who took part were non-Jews, but that's a good thing, as far as Epstein's concerned: "Non-Jews are going to a synagogue and getting their food, so subliminally, they see that this meal is on their table for them and their family because of Jews."
In a twist this year, the meals were also made available to the families of armed service members stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Epstein saluted the work of those service members, and said that whether or not people agreed with those global conflicts, Americans have a "moral obligation" to take care of those in the service.
Additionally, military family members also received checks for $200 from the Gene and Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund.
With the festive atmosphere inside the shul, said Epstein, "it looked like a Bar Mitzvah!"
Despite the number of people who turned out, Epstein still had leftovers: These vouchers went to local shelters, churches, synagogues and the Red Cross, among others.
"At any given time, that could be one of us," Epstein said of those in less fortunate straits, "and that's some of the mitzvah that everybody got out of being there."