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Stern Hebrew High School Set to Occupy Former Akiba Building

March 19, 2009 By:
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Stern Hebrew High School is looking to move to the building that housed Akiba for more than 60 years.

Plans are in the works to move the Stern Hebrew High School -- the only Modern Orthodox day school in the city -- from Northeast Philadelphia to Lower Merion Township in the western suburbs, an area with a vibrant and growing Orthodox population.

Officials have their eyes set on the fall of 2010 to begin classes in the new locale, although a final agreement has yet to be signed.

The relocation to the former home of the Akiba Hebrew Academy would provide the 92-student, co-educational high school more classroom space, a full-sized gym, multiple science labs and ample outdoor space. Stern's current facility -- the one-time home of a now-defunct Conservative congregation -- lacks such amenities.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia -- armed with a $4 million gift from philanthropist David Magerman -- purchased the building last summer from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (the name was changed from Akiba in 2007), which is located in Bryn Mawr. Under the agreement, Magerman and his Kohelet Foundation were to have ultimate control over who uses the space.

The Kohelet Foundation has pledged an additional $2 million to help renovate the structure, and plans to work with the school to raise even more funds, according to Magerman.

The foundation and the Stern school board are currently drawing up a long-term lease agreement. The board has voted in principle to support the process, but is slated to present the full plan to its community on March 23.

The Stern move would place the school in the heart of Lower Merion's Modern Orthodox community, which currently provides about a third of the school's students, as well as much of its lay leadership and financial support.

Several sources noted that a majority of the Northeast's Orthodox families do not consider themselves Modern Orthodox.

Still, one-third of the Stern student body does come from there, with the rest coming from Cherry Hill, N.J., and other areas, such as Bucks County, according to Scott Seligsohn, president of Stern's board of directors.

"Hopefully, because they are committed to the program, they will continue to come to the school," said Seligsohn, a Bala Cynwyd resident.

A Different Neighborhood

The move would place Stern directly across the street from Lower Merion Synagogue, a bastion of Modern Orthodoxy.

In addition, in the past few years, Congregation Beth Hamedrosh opened a new building in Wynnewood, Chabad Lubavitch moved into the former General Wayne Inn in Merion, and Aish Hatorah purchased a former Presbyterian church in Bala Cynwyd.

But the relocation also means the closing of yet another Jewish institution in Northeast Philadelphia, an area that has experienced a steady decline of its Jewish population, and has seen a decade of synagogue closures and mergers.

So far, the move has drawn mixed reactions from parents in the Northeast.

"It will be a loss for the Jewish community here, that's for sure," said Alison Greenberg, a Northeast Philadelphia resident and mother of a 10th-grader at Stern. "It's a loss to the Northeast, but it's not the end of the world. The school has to survive and grow."

Parent Donna Patkin said that she's worried that if the school isn't able to increase its enrollment at its new locale, administrators might have to drastically increase tuition, currently about $18,000 per year, to meet rising building costs.

Stern is the area's only co-educational, Modern Orthodox high school. Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia operates a girls high school, but it does not use the Modern Orthodox label. Its boys high school closed in 2002 due to a shortage of students.

Stern is centered on the notion that modernity and a Torah-observant life are compatible, and can be integrated. The school places considerable emphasis on the value of secular education, as well as Zionism and support for Israel.

At Stern, boys and girls learn in separate classrooms. In many Orthodox schools that are more staunchly religious, girls do not study Talmud; at Stern, it's required.

The school opened in 2000 with 15 students learning in basement classrooms at the JCC Klein branch in the Northeast. In September 2003, it moved to the building that had housed Adath Tikvah-Montefiore, a Conservative congregation that shut its doors in June of that year.

Seligsohn said that he thinks enrollment can grow from the current 92 to 125 within five years.

As for the building that had served Jewish purposes since 1946, many hoped that the historic mansion would remain within the community.

Initially, Magerman offered the site to Torah Academy in the hopes that it could either restart its boys high school or share the building with Stern. But in November, that offer was rejected.

According to several sources, the deal got nixed when Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky -- who heads the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and serves as a rabbinic adviser to Torah Academy -- voiced his opposition to the prospect of high school boys and girls learning in the same building, albeit in separate classrooms.

Top officials at the school, as well as Kamenetsky, did not return calls seeking comment.

Seligsohn said that while he sees plenty of growth potential on the Main Line, he does not believe that Stern will represent a serious threat to Torah Academy or Barrack in terms of attracting students.

"The ideologies are really very different," he said. "Most of the students are where they want to be."

Via e-mail, Steven M. Brown, Barrack's head of school, said that roughly 20 percent of its students are Orthodox.

He expected that many of these students would stay at Barrack, and he made a point of welcoming Stern to the western suburbs. 

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