‘Nobody wanted to see this happen’

‘Nobody wanted to see this happen’

Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland to close

Staff and students gather at the Academies at Gerard Berman Day School in Oakland
Staff and students gather at the Academies at Gerard Berman Day School in Oakland

After 36 years of educating children at every level of observance, the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School will close this fall due to declining enrollment and increasing reliance on diminishing donations and grants.

GBDS of Oakland also struggled to thrive in an area lacking a high concentration of affiliated Jews with a strong demand for formal day school education.

“Sadly, it has been a challenge running a school with a small student body so heavily dependent on external support like philanthropy,” said Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “Ultimately the economics of operating the school in this environment made its continuation unfeasible.”

Parents and teachers were notified of the closure in mid-May.

The decision leaves Oakland and the surrounding communities without a full-time Jewish day school.

Ninety-three students were enrolled for next year and their families are now looking for less preferable options farther away, Beth Berman Wechsler of Fair Lawn said. She’s the president of the GBDS school board and has sat on that board for the last 16 years. She’s also the granddaughter of the school’s namesake, Gerrard Berman.

“We weren’t confident that we had enough financial resources to keep the school open,” Ms. Wechsler said. “We didn’t want to leave families and teachers in the lurch midway through the next school year if we didn’t have enough money. Over the past few years, there were significant increases in expenses and our enrollment has gone down. It was no longer sustainable.”

GBDS taught 170 students at its peak enrollment in 2001.

Donors helped offset the tuition that families paid. “More recently, for health reasons or someone passing away, we have been less successful with fundraising and covering that gap,” Ms. Wechsler said.

As “Pharaoh” stands behind them, GBDS students cross the Red Sea.

The 2021-2022 budget reflected an insurmountable gap between expenses and actual tuition received (after financial aid). The average cost per student was approximately $23,000. Tuition at GBDS is $16,700 but with financial aid and other discounts, families spent an average of approximately $9,500 for each child.

Nationally, small Jewish day schools are holding their own. Enrollment for schools under 200 students rose by 8 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2021, according to a survey by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

“The closure of a school is often the product of shifting community demographics rather than a reflection of a lack of quality of leadership or education,” Prizmah’s CEO, Paul Bernstein, said. GBDS was a member of the New York-based national networking organization.

The story of GBDS started in September 1986. The campus opened with 13 kindergarteners and four first graders in the basement of a now closed synagogue in Pompton Lakes. The Solomon Schechter Day School of North Jersey, as it was called, added a class a year, culminating in a fifth grade.

In May 1994, the elementary school moved to 45 Spruce St. in Oakland, where it remained. The name was changed to Gerrard Berman Day School, honoring a major benefactor who died in 1990. The community of families enlarged to include Fair Lawn, western Bergen County, and northern Passaic County. The school continued to add grades, topping off with an eighth-grade class that graduated in 2001 with six students.

In 2016, GBDS broke away from the Solomon Schechter Day School Networks, which had spun off as an organization newly independent of the Conservative movement. GBDS transitioned to a “community school,” thereby broadening the range of Jewish families that would consider enrolling their children.

“It did make it a little bit more attractive to some observant Orthodox families and the broader community, but not enough,” Ms. Wechsler said.

Affiliated families, for the most part, weren’t settling in the area. “The Jewish families moving towards Oakland and Wayne haven’t been seeking Jewish resources in the same way that they have in other parts of Passaic County,” she said.

Nevertheless, GBDS “provided a valuable resource to families without putting their kids on a bus to go to West Orange or Paramus.”

Small class sizes were a big plus, but also a financial strain. “There were pros and cons to our size,” Ms. Wechsler said. “We ran this warm, loving school, a small school with a big neshama,” a lot of soul. “We could do that because we had classes with four kids, six kids, eight kids, 12 kids with teachers and assistants.”

GBDS celebrates Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

The children benefitted from the personalized and individualized attention they got at school. “Kids who were accelerated thrived; kids who needed a bit more resources thrived,” Ms. Wechsler said. “On the downside, it costs the same amount in teachers and office staffing whether there were eight in the classroom or 28 in the classroom.”

News of the closing left students, parents, teachers, and staff heartbroken. “It really is a home, as any good school should feel like a home,” Ms. Wechsler said. “There are people who have had their kids in kindergarten who were planning to have their kids there through the eighth grade, and unfortunately that can’t happen anymore.

“You have seventh graders who are looking forward to their eighth-grade trip to Israel, and that may or may not happen.”

Teachers knew the school was in peril by April and delayed acceptances of new jobs until they learned for certain if GBDS was closing, Ms. Wechsler said. “Nobody wanted to see this happen.”

Devastated parents were ready to call around for donations to keep the school alive, she said.

Parent Jane Rosen was dismayed when she heard that GBDS would shut. She has twin 8-year-old boys, James and Brady, who transferred to GBDS from public school a year ago. Their 4-year-old daughter, Alexandra, entered the early childhood program at GBDS 18 months ago.

“It was a crush to the heart, really devastating,” Ms. Rosen, who works in healthcare, said. Her sons cried when they learned they wouldn’t return to their school. “We actually felt like we found our place — and then to hear that it’s closing….”

Ms. Rosen and her husband, Seth, a chef, decided to enroll their children in the Golda Och Academy in West Orange. It’s a 30-minute bus ride from their home in Wayne, compared to a 10-minute drive to GBDS.

“My daughter is only 4 and a half and she’s going to be on a bus. I know that a lot of people probably do that, but I’m not used to it,” said Ms. Rosen, who belongs to Chabad Center of Passaic County in Wayne.

She worries that affiliated Jewish families will be dissuaded from moving into a community without a full-time day school. “It’s a shame that now there’s nothing,” she said.

Mr. Shames hopes that won’t be the case forever. “Should greater demand emerge for a formal Jewish day school in the northern and western part of Bergen County, Federation, along with GBDS leadership, will be willing and eager partners,” he said.

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