New Players on the Jewish Educational Landscape

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There's a new Orthodox boys' high school in town and another Orthodox grade school in the works. But can the community support these additions?

When Torah Academy Boys High School closed in 2002, the problem was a shortage of students: There were only about 30 students in the entire school.
 
Now, 12 years later, the Orthodox community on the Main Line is giving it another shot with the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia — an all-boys institution that opened this school year with 10 freshmen and five sophomores.
 
Meanwhile, philanthropist David Magerman and his Kohelet Foundation have plans to open a new Modern Orthodox school, starting with kindergarten next fall and eventually extending through eighth grade. This comes after Magerman took an active role two years ago in trying to broker a merger between Saligman Middle School and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy — two non-Orthodox schools — in response to Jewish leaders’ concerns that both could not remain viable apart from one another. 
 
If a previous iteration of a boys’ Orthodox high school closed for lack of enrollment and two non-Orthodox schools needed to merge in order to stay open, can the Jewish community support two more day schools?
 
Some advocates say the additional schools provide more choice, will create healthy competition and also make the community more attractive to Jewish families considering relocating to Phila­delphia. They also note that the Orthodox community on the Main Line already has grown considerably in recent years, suggesting that more Jews can support more schools and other institutions. 
 
But others express concern that there is not enough demand to support four high schools on the Main Line — Mesivta, Barrack, Kohelet Yeshiva High School and Kosloff Torah Academy Girls High School — or four primary and middle schools — Barrack, Torah Academy, Perelman Jewish Day School and Magerman’s forthcoming Yeshiva Lab School. Two other schools, Politz Hebrew Academy in the Northeast and Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, also serve the Greater Philadelphia area.
 
Altogether, some 1,690 students are enrolled in Jewish day schools in the area, according to data compiled in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning. That’s only slightly down from five years ago, when there were fewer schools.
 
“In today’s market, you need 75 to 100 students to have an economically viable school and even with that, you have limited flexibility because if you don’t have a couple hundred students you can’t afford the programs that many parents want,” said Gilad Gevaryahu, an accountant who sent three of his four sons to the Torah Academy high school, which closed while the youngest of the three was there. He and another son then attended Stern Hebrew High School, which moved to the Main Line and became Kohelet after he graduated. 
 
Overall, the enrollment numbers are increasing at most of the Philadelphia-area Orthodox schools and heading in the opposite direction in non-Orthodox schools — which mirrors national trends. In 2010, 752 students were enrolled at local Orthodox schools and 952 at non-Orthodox schools, according to the figures provided by Barbara Hirsh, the director of Federation’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning. This year, there are 863 students at Orthodox schools and 827 at other day schools. 
 
The future of all these day schools has implications not only for the students and their parents, but also for the wider Jewish community. 
 
Jewish education is seen as a major priority: Studies show that children who attend day schools have a greater likelihood of being engaged in Jewish life as they grow older.
 
The Philadelphia Federation, along with foundations and private donors, has invested considerable money in day schools. The Federation, based on a per capita formula, allocated more than $1.1 million for students at eight area day schools in 2014-2015, making day schools the top beneficiary of all Jewish education and identity-building programs.
 
The leaders of the new Mesivta school and planned Yeshiva Lab emphasized the specific needs each fills and downplayed the notion that there might be competition.
 
“Each one has its calling and place,” said Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, Mesivta principal and leader of Young Israel of the Main Line. “We didn’t open this to duplicate anyone’s efforts and, frankly, I wouldn’t have done it if that was what we were after.”
 
David Stein, president of Mesivta, concurred. “There is recognition that there is a need for this school in our community,” he said.
 
That puzzle fits together, Stein and others said, because of the various niches the schools fill. In the same way that there are variances from modern to haredi within the Orthodox world, parents also look for differing degrees of secular education and also whether schools are coed or single-sex.
 
“There’s degrees of priority-setting,” said Stein, a physician who belongs to Lower Merion Synagogue. “Some people think single-gender boys education is re-ally important, and those people wouldn’t send their kids to Kohelet. At Kohelet, I know they value art and music, so there is less time allocated for Gemara.”
 
Magerman, too, said that more choice is a good thing. “There’s actually a Jewish tradition that there’s no such thing as competition when it comes to Torah education.” 
 
He talked about plans for his foundation’s Lab School in terms of his larger goals of supporting Jewish education, describing it as “an open experiment” to create a new school “with more kids and fewer teachers” that’s “more affordable and more sustainable.”
 
He noted that the Kohelet Foundation continues to support all day schools in the greater Philadelphia area. Indeed, Magerman has poured millions of dollars into day school education in the area over the past seven years. In 2013, for example, the foundation granted $2 million for a 10-classroom addition at Politz, an Orthodox kindergarten through eighth grade school in Northeast Philadelphia. The year before that, it invested $1 million to purchase iPads for day school students to use in the classroom. 
 
The Lab School, which has not yet secured a location, is expected to open next fall in Lower Merion with a kindergarten and then build one grade at a time, according to organizers. It will “not be the traditional model that we’re accustomed to with the teachers in the front of the class and the kids sitting at desks,” said Holly Cohen, the foundation’s executive director.
 
To that end, the school hired an educational and developmental psychologist from the Weill Cornell Medical College to help develop curriculum. They’re also modeling some of their practices after The Philadelphia School, a secular elite K-8 private school “known in the city as a progressive school that utilizes different methods of pedagogy,” Cohen said. 
 
“There aren’t really any Jewish day schools that are progressive in this fashion,” Cohen added.
 
Though few will say it publicly, there is concern that the new Lab School could potentially compete for students with nearby schools such as Perelman, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, or Torah Academy, which is Orthodox. 
 
“Regarding the opening of a new school some see as competitive, it was not the result of a communal planning process but rather the decision of a private funder,” said Hirsh, of the Federation. “People will be watching to see what the impact will be.”
 
 If there are communal worries about Mesivta squeezing out other schools, they were not obvious at a fundraising dinner for the school last month. Leaders of all the Jewish day schools — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — were among the more than 300 attendees at Lower Merion Synagogue.
 
In addition, the schools are eager to work together on a number of issues — from security to board development, according to Hirsh, who convened the heads of all the area day schools at a meeting at Federation this week.
 
Despite the goodwill that exists among the schools, enrollment numbers will likely be a key factor in their survival. And this in turn, could depend on the continued growth of the Orthodox community.  
 
Since the time that Gevaryahu had to transfer one of his sons when the Torah Academy boys’ high school closed more than a decade ago, the Orthodox community on the Main Line has grown considerably. He pointed to Lower Merion Synagogue — which had 87 member families when he joined some three decades ago and now has more than 400 — as an example. Of course, he said, “it takes years before that translates to kids in high school.”
 
It’s not just other schools that Mesivta leaders must think about competing with, he and others said. “If you put all the money into a new school,” then other “endeavors in the community will have less funds,” said Gevaryahu, a former president of Lower Merion Synagogue. “This community would like to have a new mikvah. They will have difficulty raising funds for the mikvah if the school is also raising funds.”
 
Rabbi Yonah Gross, the leader of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Hamedrosh and an eighth-grade teacher at Torah Academy, said he sees evidence of growth in the Orthodox community not only in membership at synagogues but also in the number of kosher restaurants. More than in the past, he said, he meets young families who decide to make Philadelphia home after graduate school rather than move elsewhere. He said the new schools will only help further that trend.
 
Dismissing potential conflict, he said he rarely meets with Torah Academy parents who are conflicted between sending their children to the Kohelet high school or all-boys schools in New York or Baltimore.
 
“My sense is that there is a pretty defined order” between Kohelet and Mesivta, with little overlap, said Gross.
 
“I think it’s probably still too early to tell” whether the schools could fill specific niches or butt up against one another, said Rabbi Gil Perl, who started as Kohelet’s head of school earlier this year. “There certainly is potential to meet different needs within the community. I think we have different missions. Schools take some time to find their niche and to really hone in on what their mission is.”
 
But there could be more students like Binny Fiederer, a sophomore at Mesivta, who attended Kohelet last year but transferred because “he felt a strong comfort level with Rabbi Steinberg and what he’s trying to accomplish.”
 
“I wanted something where I was going to be able to get not only a very good religious studies but I want to be prepared for the real world,” said Fiederer, adding that he’s interested in working in business or law.
 
Shaia Erlbaum, a fellow Mesivta sophomore, last year attended a religious cyber school. His grandfather, Gary Erlbaum, donated the money to purchase the building for Mesivta, a converted church in Bala Cynwyd. If not for Mesivta, Erlbaum said, other students his age also either would have enrolled in a similar cyber school or attended an all-boys yeshiva boarding school.
 
“There was a gap in the community,” he said. “Parents were either forced to send their kids away or do things they didn’t want to do.”
 
Whatever their disparate visions may be, some point to donors like Erlbaum or Magerman as primary reasons why these new schools could succeed where others have failed.
 
“People that are willing to contribute from their own fortune toward community growth are very much appreciated and inspires the confidence and generosity of others,” said Gross. “They know that these institutions are here to stay and that they are supported.”
 

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