Teens Rave Over New School Digs, Relishing In the Sizable Space

A few minutes before gathering for morning prayers at the new Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station last week, a group of boys clustered near the gymnasium's half-court line, taking turns hurling a basketball toward the distant hoop. A few shots even touched the rim, although none went in.

Dalia Kirzner, a sophomore on the girls basketball squad, marveled at the sight, which at most schools would be considered rather routine.

"If you tried anything other than a lay-up, it would hit the ceiling every time," Kirzner said of her school's last home in Northeast Philadelphia.

That building, which the school occupied in 2003, had formerly served as a conservative synagogue and required the addition of a trailer — and even the use of a garage — to function.

This fall, the Modern Orthodox school has a new name — it is no longer called Stern Hebrew High School; a new leader — Rabbi Elchanan Jay Weinbach; and a new building.

The school's 41,000 square-foot new home sits on four acres and had formerly housed the more populous Akiba Hebrew Academy, which had outgrown the site and moved to Bryn Mawr two years ago. That school also underwent a name change, and is now called the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.

"I love it," Ilan Bagley, 17, said on Sept. 1, his second full day of school, adding that he didn't even mind that his bus commute from Cherry Hill, N.J., was now 20 minutes longer. "I love the size of the building; it's much more of a school than we had before."

Kohelet's leaders hope that by moving to a much improved facility and situating it in the heart of Lower Merion's Orthodox community, they can enlarge the student body of the 10-year-old institution. In the short-term, it seems to have worked: With 116 students, this year's enrollment is up about 25 percent over last year, said school officials.

Shortly after Akiba left the site, the Kohelet Foundation — funded by philanthropist David Magerman — purchased the building, and later oversaw a multimillion-dollar renovation. (Neither the foundation nor the school would disclose the exact amount.)

Work in Progress

Among numerous projects, workers completely gutted the two-floor classroom building — an extension to the original 1909 mansion — adding insulation, a new heating/cooling system, and energy-efficient windows.

But the grounds still have the look and feel of a work in progress. Library books remain, for the most part, in boxes; the same goes for art supplies. Weinbach's office is completely bare, save for the laptop on his desk.

Construction — to take at least six months — is set to begin on a 4,000-square-foot addition that will serve as a synagogue and beit midrash.

For the time being, davening takes place inside the gymnasium. That's where more than 170 people gathered on Sept. 2 for a ceremony that included a Torah procession — officially moving the scrolls into the new building — and a mezuzah dedication.

Addressing the students and faculty, Magerman spoke about the site's transformation — from empty school, to construction zone, to a place full of activity.

"This morning, somebody was saying to me: 'You built this beautiful school, how can you let teenagers run around in it?' " stated Magerman. "I can't wait until the end of the year, when everyone is moved in, settled in, broken the place in, and it's a home. That's when I'm going to feel like, OK, this is a school."

After the festivities, Weinbach, who recently moved from Los Angeles, said that he wants students to have a hand in deciding the tone and look of the school as much as possible. He has also asked students to come up with potential designs for a new sports logo.

The Long Island native noted that Kohelet has fewer than half the student body of his previous post, the Shalhevet School in Los Angeles, which should help him get to know students better. He said he wants to build on an existing track record of academic excellence in secular subjects.

He also said that he wants to prepare students to be leaders not only in the Orthodox community, but in the wider Jewish one as well.

"Thank God, everything has pulled together really well," said Weinbach, recalling that when he arrived in July, the entire contents of the school were stored in the gym. "At the end of the day, our challenge is to justify this incredible blessing."



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