Day schools in Jersey meet the moment

Day schools in Jersey meet the moment

Room is created for Israeli kids whose parents are looking for stability and safety

Eighth-graders at the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford hold up Israeli flags.
Eighth-graders at the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford hold up Israeli flags.

“These kids have walked through our doors, and this school community has scooped them up into a warm hug.”

That’s how Steve Freedman, head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, describes the welcome given to 44 Israeli guest students whom the school in New Milford took in after the October 7 massacre that sparked a war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

The guest students, ranging from prekindergartners to eighth graders, add more than 10 percent to the school’s enrollment, which had been 419 before the attacks.

Many of them already were in the area visiting family for Sukkot. “They decided to stay, and they asked us if we can take their children,” Mr. Freedman said.

Then, “We got calls and emails from families in Israel asking if we would take their kids. And if so, they were getting on a plane.

“We have taken in everyone who has asked,” Mr. Freedman said. “We can still take more, but early childhood is full.”

Noting that Schechter Bergen already has many Hebrew-speaking students, “there was always a definite sense of Hebrew language in our halls, but now, we really hear it,” Mr. Freedman said.

“Israel is our home, too. We have always taught this to our children. And we are living it.”

One mother said she and her husband arrived in New Jersey with their two children, ages 9 and 13, on October 17, after she suffered what she described as a mental breakdown due to war-related anxiety.

“We will probably stay until the end of November,” she said.

“From the moment my kids entered Schechter, a healthy, safe, stable routine was created for them that allowed us adults to heal, get stronger, and connect to a community that surrounds us with love and support. The unity of my Jewish brothers and sisters within this community have given us hope and solace to stand together as one.”

Her children meet every day with their local friends and with other children from Israel, speaking Hebrew and English, sharing their feelings and feeling connected to their traditions, “learning, studying, playing, and singing, finding the simple joys of childhood. And the most important thing, my children are eager to go every morning to this wonderful experience.

Schechter Bergen students, dressed in blue and white, sing “Hatikvah” together.

“I will never forget what the Schechter school did for us and for our entire Jewish community during such a difficult time.”

Many other children are in New Jersey with one parent because the other is home in Israel serving in the army or with emergency response organizations. One child came alone and is staying with an aunt.

Each guest student was assigned a peer buddy, and the school psychologist is involved in making sure the Israel children are connecting with the other students. More than 50 Schechter parents signed up to volunteer with the children in any capacity needed.

“This is what community is all about,” Mr. Freedman said. “We are one people, whether we are in Tel Aviv or Bergen County.”

As for tuition, he described the arrangement as fluid, depending on the ability to pay. Remaining costs are covered by institutional and individual donors. Some families plan to remain for the duration of the school year; others plan to go back to Israel when life returns to normal.

“We pray for the day when they can go back,” Mr. Freedman said. “Until then we will give a rich, safe, and loving experience every day for their children.

“We feel privileged to have these students here at Schechter. When you feel so powerless in the face of what has been going on, to do something positive and helpful like this for people who have literally been displaced — it is our honor.”

Schechter Bergen may have the most Israeli guest students, but all day schools in the area have gotten requests from Israeli families and absorbed at least a few.

October saw almost 1,000 inquiries requesting enrollment for Israeli students at 114 North American Jewish schools surveyed, according to “Enrollment Trend Report: Israeli Transfers to Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivas during the War in Israel,” published by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

The Golda Och Academy in West Orange has 26 as of this writing. The Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston has 20. Both the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus re-accepted the children of families who made aliyah last summer and returned to New Jersey shortly after the war started.

Yeshiva He’Atid in Teaneck has a handful of Israeli children; the number fluctuates every few weeks as families arrive and then head back to Israel. Because the school has an “Ivrit B’Ivrit” (Hebrew in Hebrew) learning model, each visiting child can have a Hebrew-speaking teacher for Judaic studies each day and can interact with teachers and students in Hebrew.

JKHA hired a coordinator to work as a liaison with the newcomer families and create schedules that align with each Israeli child’s learning needs.

Preschoolers in the toddler class at Moriah School in Englewood bake challah with visiting Israeli students.

JKHA’s director of admissions and enrollment, Allison Lyons, explained, “The families who are coming have different backgrounds and facility with English language. Consistent with our overall educational approach, we are looking at each student’s needs and supporting them accordingly for the time they are with us.”

Ms. Lyons said the administration, teachers, and families have embraced the visiting students.

“Although we are heartbroken by the circumstances that have brought them to us, we are glad that we are able to welcome them into the school and provide them with a safe educational environment, while also teaching our own students that taking care of fellow Jews is a core value,” she said.

The head of school at the Yavneh Academy of Paramus, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, said his day school is not charging tuition to the four families of visiting Israeli students and that it waived its regular admissions process.

“Right now, the focus is fully on the social-emotional component, helping the children integrate and make friends,” he said.

“These children crave routine, and we are happy to provide it. I continue to be amazed at their resilience, how quickly they have acclimated. As a school, we feel this is one small way we can help our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

Rabbi Knapp sent a letter to faculty members in mid-October in which he referred to Yavneh as “an extended family, a strong school community with extraordinary and caring individuals.… “Fundamentally, I believe we are living in a historic time. [Israel] is in crisis, and it is incumbent on all of us to step up.… We have been given an opportunity to help in this crisis, and I feel blessed that we have the resources and capacity to do so.”

Renee Klyman, the director of admissions at the 470-student Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, said the school has absorbed seven Israeli students and may be getting more. Each family is paying by the month because they don’t know how long they will stay.

“The ones we have now are BPY families, and one prospective BPY family, who had made aliyah or were in Israel for the year and decided to come back,” she said. “They are all American, so they were absorbed into the school atmosphere without a problem.”

The Moriah School of Englewood had eight Israeli visiting students as of November 9; one additional student has already returned to Israel, the head of school, Rabbi Daniel Alter, said.

“One wants to go back home soon, and the others don’t know how long they’ll be staying,” he said. When asked about payment, he said, “Financially, we are committed to making it work for these families.”

The mother of three of these children grew up locally and went to Moriah. She married an Israeli and they live in Tel Aviv.

Israeli preschoolers discover autumn-related objects of nature at the Moriah School.

“We were home in Israel for the holidays,” she said. “When I heard the siren on Shabbat morning, I knew instinctively it was something different and unprecedented.

“Life shut down, and we were running to the shelter with our three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. They were scared and were asking me so many questions.”

They relocated to a hotel for a week and then flew to New Jersey.

“I am a committed Zionist, and it was hard for me to leave Israel, but ultimately we decided to fly out because it was not a manageable situation with my kids,” she said. “We came to my parents and were lucky enough to be able to get them into my alma mater, Moriah.

“I couldn’t think of a more warm, generous, welcoming atmosphere for my kids. I have no words for the professionalism they have shown.”

She added that her children “are doing well but they miss their environment in Israel. We have to watch the situation carefully. I think at least the next two months we’ll be here recuperating. When everything is stabilized, I would love to go back. Ideologically, we both feel we should be there, connected and helping, but I needed a breather.”

The mother of two children who were temporarily enrolled in Yeshivat He’Atid said they made a last-minute decision to book a flight out of Israel on October 19 and took off six hours later.

“We did not have a lot of time to plan or make arrangements. We came to my in-laws in Teaneck not knowing how long we would stay. We knew they’d have a wide variety of schools for our kids, who desperately needed a framework to give structure to their day and help them socialize and get energy out.”

They approached a few schools, and Yeshivat He’Atid responded quickly, saying it had room for both children immediately.

“Their experience there has been really good,” she continued. “The school has been great about absorbing them. They have both made friends. We are very grateful that they let us jump in on very little notice and allowed our kids to have some sort of normal routine.”

Nevertheless, she and her husband decided to go back to Israel on November 12, partly because she is starting a new job and partly because they felt that their first grader should be back with his friends and in his familiar academic setting.

“None of us have a crystal ball, but it seems things will just be this way for a while, and Israel is our home. We don’t want to spend months waiting for an improvement in the situation while we are not home.”

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