Benjamin Shull, rabbi of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, said his fifth-grade son, who has attended Rockland County’s Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School for two years, was devastated by news of its closure.
“He started there when he was in third grade,” said Shull. “He had a wonderful experience.”
According to the rabbi, the school’s closing “came as a shock. We had heard rumors from a variety of sources, but we didn’t know what would be said at the meeting. To hear the words ‘we’re closing’ was difficult because the board didn’t make it clear months before that there was such a serious problem. The school gave us a fait accompli. The meeting was very emotional. Some parents were in tears.”
Shull said that while parents had been told about the serious drop in enrollment, they believed the school was working to enroll more families or merge with another Conservative day school.
“The timing is difficult,” he said. “We’re rushing to send our kids to other schools.”
Still, he noted, other local day schools have been “very generous” in extending their deadlines.
The situation has ramifications beyond the closure of one school, Shull said.
“It causes one to think about not just the specific dynamics in Rockland County, with its demographic changes, but about the [idea] that members of the Conservative Movement are not as interested in Jewish day schools for their children” as are members of Orthodox synagogues.
Shull said it is his impression that there is a “watering down” of commitment in the Conservative movement, although not in every congregation. He said he worries that, particularly in this economic climate, schools will not be able to help prospective students with financial assistance and will become the preserve of those with more money.
“Even those who have money may not choose” to send their children to day schools, he suggested, calling the decision “a combination of finances, commitment, and will.” Sadly, he said, “Those with the commitment may not have the finances.”
“There needs to be thoughtful conversation in the Conservative Movement about the future of day schools in our area,” he said. “There’s not a real sense of collective discussions about how we’re working together.”
Stacy Lang, Shull’s wife, echoed his praise for Gittelman, saying her son found it “warm and welcoming, nothing but positive. The kids and parents were nice, the teachers absolutely wonderful. It was a blessing in our lives,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking that this is no longer an option.”
Lang said that while she did not know the school planned to close, “Apparently others in the community knew beforehand,” including a friend whose child attended a Schechter school in Bergen County.
Right now, she said, she is looking at several Schechter schools, including the Gerrard Berman school in Oakland and the Solomon Schechter School in Westchester, “good options but very different. We’re trying to involve our son in the decision.”
While some Gittelman parents are angry – and some so frustrated that they will now choose a public school – “There’s a whole lot sadness, on a lot of levels,” said Lang. For example, it is sad “when a community the size of Rockland cannot support a Jewish day school due to shifting population. It harkens back to the closure of the Schechter high school in Bergen County. We’ll end up with just the very large schools.”
“It’s a sad day for the Jewish community, Jewish education, Schechter, and the Conservative Movement,” she said. “The overwhelming feeling is one of sadness.”