On June 16 at Kohelet Yeshiva’s 22nd annual gala on its Merion Station campus, school benefactors announced a generous gift: $12 million for future expansion plans.
Longtime Kohelet donors David Magerman and Scott Seligsohn teamed up to provide $8 million and $4 million, respectively, according to school officials. They made the donation because the Main Line institution continues to grow and will need more classrooms to keep growing.
The school that started in 2000 in the basement of a JCC with 15 students, per its website, now has an entire campus, a K-12 operation and more than 300 students. Its combination of Torah study and secular education appeals to modern Orthodox families who want their children to build a strong Jewish foundation that can help them succeed in the secular world.
“Each division is attracting students far and wide,” said Lori Salkin, the secretary of the school’s board of directors and the chair of its development committee. “Having a facility to house all that is an incredible dream that we’ll now be able to perform.”
Perhaps no one believes in the Jewish-secular mission of the school more than Magerman himself. The Merion Station resident, who runs a venture capital fund called Differential Ventures and belongs to the Shtiebel of Lower Merion, sent all four of his kids to Kohelet Yeshiva. The older two graduated, but the younger two remain students there.
It was his belief in the school that drove Magerman to help transform it into what it is today. In 2016, he made a $30 million donation that paved the way for Kohelet to become more than just a high school.
That same year, Kohelet Yeshiva High School merged with the Yeshiva Lab School to add an elementary operation to its program. Then in 2017, the community opened Kohelet Yeshiva Middle School to create “a seamless K-12 highway of innovative Jewish education,” as the school’s website describes it.
Finally, in September of 2019, Magerman paid for a 30,000-square-foot K-8 building, on top of his previous $30 million donation.
“We built this school, and if you build it they will come,” said Salkin, who by next year will have four of her own kids in the Kohelet system. “I have neighbors who moved from California to come to bring their kids to Kohelet.”
Magerman, though, was not always this invested in Jewish education, or Judaism in general. About 15 years ago, he experienced a sort of midlife crisis. He realized that his growing children would soon start to ask him about the meaning of life, and that he wouldn’t have a good answer.
“What answer am I going to give besides whoever gets the most toys wins?” he said.
So, he started reading Torah, studying Talmud and observing the Sabbath. Over his first 5-7 years, he increased his learning to a few hours a week. Then he tried to start applying his Jewish principles as he lived his life.
By 2014, he was ready to move from Gladwyne to Merion Station so he could walk to his synagogue. He also completed his transition to a full observance of the Sabbath.
Magerman may not have figured out the meaning of life, exactly. But he could at least tell his kids where to look.
“I found truth in what I learned,” he said. “The things I do on a moment by moment basis are because I’m doing mitzvahs that God commanded.”
The philanthropist adopted education as a cause because he wanted to help other young people figure out where to look, too. He referred to Torah as “medicine for the soul.” He believes children need to grow up with it so they can live “Torah-informed lives.”
This is essential even in a secular society, according to Magerman. He thinks that the two pillars of education are strong secular schooling and deep Torah study. Combining those is the best way to “achieve God’s purpose for us,” he said.
“It’s like, why do we breathe? This is what I believe we’re put here for,” Magerman added. “To learn Torah and to follow the mitzvot, and to be a light in society.”
School officials do not yet have a specific plan for how they will use Magerman’s and Seligsohn’s recent gift. They just know that more classrooms will be part of the plan.
The next step, as Salkin explained, is talking to the hundreds of Kohelet families about what they might like to see. After that, school officials will have to present their plans to Lower Merion Township for approval.
On one early July day alone, Salkin got four new emails from prospective school families.
“We have dreams of extreme growth,” she said. JE