Scott Eckstein, director of admissions and financial aid at Solebury School, a college-preparatory boarding and day school in New Hope, is thinking a lot about form and function these days, as the school recently purchased new property, including two houses that will be turned into a girl’s dorm. Eckstein and other administrators will begin reviewing blueprints for the new dorm next week.
It’s all part of an extensive, rapid effort by Solebury to accommodate an expected 10 to 15 transfer boarding students from the recently closed American Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school formerly located in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“We coincidentally bought an adjacent property a few months ago that we can convert into a girl’s dorm, housing 10 students and a dorm parent,” Eckstein said. “We are creating a pathway, about 300 yards, connecting the dorm to campus.” He estimates the renovations will cost about $200,000 dollars, and a new dorm may incur additional costs in terms of faculty supervision.
About 20% of existing Solebury students identify as Jewish, and about 40% are boarders. Four or five of the AHA transfer students are from Brazil and Mexico, and the rest are from the U.S., said Eckstein.
“All options are on the table for Judaic studies classes — we may have former AHA faculty come onboard, we may find teachers from other local Jewish day schools or shuls, or we may add an elective taught by current faculty,” explained Eckstein, who is Jewish. “The goal is to give students as close to the experience they had at AHA as we can.”
The dining hall offers vegetarian options, and kosher needs will be accommodated, said Eckstein. Solebury is also exploring options to hire a Hebrew teacher.
Bruce and Linda Mildwurf, from Raleigh, North Carolina, said their daughter, Sawyer Mildwurf, 15, will likely attend Solebury this fall as a boarding student.
“Solebury is outside of our geographic zone, but when we heard so many kids from AHA were applying there, we began to explore the school,” said Bruce Mildwurf. Studying Hebrew is important to Sawyer and Solebury immediately offered to provide classes, he said.
Solebury has offered to make arrangements for students to attend religious services.
“I would prefer to go to Chabad nearby for service on Saturday morning,” said Sawyer, a prospective junior. Her family rabbi in Raleigh has reached out to the Chabad congregation in Bucks County on her behalf.
“Solebury seems to be as close to AHA as we can find,” said Bruce Mildwurf, “with similar class sizes and a close-knit community.”
“I am excited about the diversity Solebury has to offer, and different ethnicities at the school,” said Sawyer.
Solebury’s rolling 90-acre campus is located in Bucks County, which is home to a handful of small shuls, such as The Little Shul by the River, a Reconstructionist synagogue in New Hope.
Ziggy and Michele Rivkin-Fish from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said their daughter Sophie Rivkin-Fish, 16, will start her junior year at Solebury this fall as a boarding student.
“It was the closest we could find to having the same supportive, nurturing, but also relaxed atmosphere that was present at AHA,” said Ziggy Rivkin-Fish. “And the New Hope area is attractive due the large Jewish community in Bucks County.”
Sophie Rivkin-Fish was attracted to Solebury because of its strong music and theater program. A singer and actor, she is thinking about pursuing a career in the field.
“I am looking for a diverse environment, a place that is warm and nurturing with a real community feeling,” said Sophie Rivkin-Fish, who also wanted a school where teachers and students greet each other by their first names, which is common at Solebury.
“Diversity is one of Solebury’s core values, in all forms, including race, religion, LGBTQ and socioeconomic status,” said Eckstein, “and the new students will in many ways diversify our community and create opportunities to learn from each other’s shared values.”
Solebury is taking all of the AHA transfer students at a discounted rate, about 35% less than regular tuition, since Solebury tuition is higher than AHA.
“We are hopeful that Solebury will receive donations from others that value keeping the AHA community together, to help shoulder the significant costs,” he said.
Other former AHA students are considering the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish day school for students in grades six through 12. AHA was the only pluralistic Jewish boarding school in the U.S.
“We have had conversations with several families, and we are working to try and help them determine if Barack is the right place for them,” said Jennifer Groen, director of strategic initiatives and enrollment management at Barack.
Groen said that many families want their children to continue with their Judaic studies and to remain in a Jewish community that allows for them to participate fully without worrying about how Shabbat and holiday observance may affect their activities.