Representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia did their best to alleviate concerns and assuage neighbors that the proposed conversion of part of the Mandell Education Campus to housing would be a benefit to the community.
What began as an open community forum on March 15 to discuss the future of the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park turned into three hours of many upset and confused residents questioning the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. With an estimated 175 people in attendance, representatives from Jewish Federation did their best to alleviate concerns and assuage neighbors that the proposed conversion of part of the campus to housing would be a benefit to the community. On March 24, the Jewish Federation will have a special board of directors meeting to further discuss the campus.
The 28-acre campus is home to the Perelman Jewish Day School, Wyncote Academy, the Jewish Learning Venture, the Gutman Early Learning Center, Gratz College, Kehillah Soccer League and Ramah Day Camp.
President of the Jewish Federation, Bud Newman, told the Jewish Exponent he appreciated the participation of the residents and their input is important.
“I anticipated that it would be a spirited discussion,” Newman said. “We need to continue to provide opportunities for the Old York Road corridor. I think the meeting was clearly emotional. There were a variety of people who had a lot to say about their feelings regarding the Jewish Federation’s relationship to the campus.”
He explained that the Jewish Federation would not rush to any decisions and needs to take its time in choosing its next steps.
“We have to step back and do a much more exhaustive and inclusive evaluation, and see what all the options are to make it a stronger, better campus,” he said.
During the past month and a half, word spread throughout the community that the Jewish Federation sold five acres of the property to Federation Housing, Inc. (FHI) to build affordable senior housing. Residents heard that FHI filed a zoning and land use application with Cheltenham Township and began calling and emailing officials at the Jewish Federation to get more information about what was to become of the parcel.
FHI, an independent nonprofit organization, was created in 1970 with the help of a grant from the Jewish Federation.
Jewish Federation CEO Naomi Adler said the organization wanted to address the misinformation that was out there and assured the audience nothing has been sold.
“The Jewish Federation never planned to sell the entire Mandell Campus,” she said. “We had no intention to do so.”
She explained that FHI asked the Jewish Federation board for permission to build homes on the parcel. Adler told the audience the board and the real estate committee had spoken with FHI on multiple occasions. With an initial offer of $250,000, the board granted FHI time to go through the legal process.
FHI presented its plan at a Cheltenham Township zoning hearing on Feb. 8, but the Jewish Federation has not seen it yet, according to officials. The plan calls for the construction of one four-story building with 122 one-bedroom units.
The two organizations have a history of working together. In 2012, FHI built affordable senior housing at the Samuel A. Green House at 1509 Ashbourne Road in Elkins Park.
In 2013, the Robert Saligman Middle School, which was formerly run by Perelman and located in Melrose Park, merged with the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, creating a vacancy on the campus. Since then, the only entity that has inquired about the space has been FHI. FHI could not be reached for comment.
“We are very open to listening to people,” Adler said. “We have pressed the ‘pause’ button. We heard the community and wanted to have a conversation. We need to make sure to do the best thing for the Jewish community.”
While some proposed putting a Jewish Community Center at the Mandel campus, many want the space kept as is, so children can continue to use it for recreation.
“I thought — and many of us thought — that this meeting would be some sort of global concept of what Federation is thinking about with this community, how it would work with the community, how it would work with Federation, not ‘Oh, this is happening, give us some questions,’ ” said Elkins Park resident Fred Milbert. “I thought there was going to be a lot more information provided to us or a lot more answers.
“You have no idea what you’re going to do at this point?” he continued. “So there is no vision at this point for the future?”
An emotional Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein addressed Adler directly. Ezekiel-Fishbein acknowledged that senior housing is important, but wanted to know why it was necessary to disrupt a vibrant, young community, referencing the fact that the community had already suffered the loss of the middle school at Perelman.
Instead of senior housing, she urged, the space and community would be better served by building a JCC.
“Are you planning on being our partners and sitting down across the table and saying, ‘Here’s our shared vision for this community,’ ” she said. “ ‘Let’s make this happen.’ ”
Leona Goldschaw, who has three children — one at Barrack and two at Perelman in Melrose Park — trembled as she spoke. Her kids participate in Kehillah Soccer and go to camp at Ramah.
“We chose this community because we thought the values of this community were more in sync with our values,” Goldschaw said. “I don’t think you or the Federation understands the way the space is used.”
This campus is meant for children, she explained. At Ramah, there is a special tree where the rabbi sings with the campers every Shabbat. But if senior housing is built, there would be no more tree or playing fields.
“That tree will be cut down and those memories will be gone!” she exclaimed. “If you do this, you will be turning away the future of the community and you will ensure that this will become only for the old-timers. Do you think people will come to Perelman if there are no fields?”
Rita Poley was outraged that anyone would consider selling the property for $250,000.
“I can’t believe that you would disrupt this community and you would destroy this campus for $250,000,” Poley said.
Susan Kassutto of Elkins Park told the Exponent the meeting was an important step in the right direction, but more information was needed.
“I don’t think we as a community understand,” Kassutto said. “I still don’t understand what the motivation is for selling part of the campus.
“If it’s only financial and they’re getting $250,000 and they’re disrupting a vital use of the campus for such a small amount of money that seems absurd. It’s about … the future of our Jewish community.”
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