The Rockland Jewish Academy opens for school year
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The Rockland Jewish Academy opens for school year

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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After: The classrooms are now ready for students. Inset, before: Brenda Lender oversees construction earlier this summer. Jeff Karg

The floors are in, the paint is dry, windows have been punched through to the outside, and teachers are beginning to do what teachers do in August – decorate bulletin boards, put books on the shelves, and prepare for that first morning bell.

In four short months, a corridor in the Rockland Jewish Community Campus has been transformed from undeveloped space, and JCC and Hadassah classrooms and offices have been turned into something completely new and separate. When the doors open on Sept. 4, the Rockland Jewish Academy, serving 65 students from pre-K through fifth-grade, will become the county’s first pluralistic day school.

Getting here has taken non-stop effort. The RJA held its first meetings exploring interest in January, just after the 40-year-old Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, the county’s only Conservative Jewish day school, announced it would not reopen this fall.

When Gittelman closed, parent sentiment toward the new entity ran the gamut, from enthusiastic to skeptical. If Gittelman couldn’t do it, why would the RJA succeed?

Organizers feel strongly that they have something very different to offer. Partnering with the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, they placed curriculum development under the supervision of that school’s headmaster, Dr. Eliot Spiegel. That very successful day school has attracted a thriving preschool through 12th-grade student body, despite tuition and fees that top out at $32,800 in the senior year.

“First of all, there is no assurance that it will succeed,” said Spiegel of the RJA. “It hasn’t been tested yet…. But I am confident that it will succeed.”

His confidence stems from a solid belief that a community day school will have broader buy-in than one that caters to only one stream of Judaism. A hand-chosen faculty without tenure or unions, and most critically, the partnership with Schechter, for curriculum and faculty development, will provide the RJA with enough of a difference to appeal to a generation of parents with outsized expectations of excellence and quality.

Nonetheless, many things about the school seem familiar to those with a Gittelman connection – from the office secretary, Lynda Tortorello, to the admissions director, Judy Klein, and lead teacher Rhonda Klein, to name a few.

“Just because Gittelman failed does not mean that there aren’t 250 kids out there who won’t go to a first-rate Jewish day school,” Spiegel said. “I am going on that assumption. We have a first-rate faculty and the kids going here will get a first-rate education.”

Classes are small – so small that there are two “bridge” classes, one combining second- and third-grades and the other combing fourth- and fifth-graders. Most of those students came from Gittelman. Their parents weighed their options – they also could stay local and head to the public schools, or travel to more established day schools in Bergen County, or even to the Schechter school in Westchester. (See related story on page 10.)

“I really wanted to keep my son local and not have a long commute, and to have a local social life and friends as well,” said Beth Wish, whose 9-year-old, Auriel, will attend the RJA, while her 11-year-old, Moriya, will go to the Schechter middle school in Westchester. Most of Auriel’s RGHDS classmates will be at RJA, and that has worked out “quite nicely,” she said.

So far, Wish is pleased with what she had seen. The Gittelman faculty who were hired she knows to be excellent, so she is confident that the teachers with whom she is unfamiliar will be so as well.

“I really believe the school is going to be terrific,” Wish said. “With good teachers and good supervision from the Westchester school, and a beautiful facility, there is a lot of potential there.”

Facing the challenges

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army of volunteers to build a school. At least that is what Brenda Lender, who eats, drinks, and sleeps RJA, insists. Through sheer determination, Lender has been the driving force behind the effort. When it became clear to her that Gittelman, from which her older children had graduated and where her youngest was enrolled, would close, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work building something new.

She is not alone, however. She rattles off a list of former Gittelman parents and new families who have contributed their share of sleepless nights and overextended days to creating the RJA.

“The first year is the toughest to get everything in place,” she said. “But there is such passion with the younger families.”

Both she and Spiegel cite the school’s location as a huge plus and selling point. The Rockland Jewish Community Campus is “the heart of the Jewish community’s space,” according to Spiegel. “It’s better than any school building can be. It has more possibilities.”

Organizers are looking to partner with organizations in the building. Programming with adults from the JCC’s senior center and working with the JCC’s program staff are ways to use the location wisely, Spiegel said. A kosher café to provide a lunch program and a huge gym and well-equipped playground are amenities that already are in place.

The educational program will include Singapore math, a high quality math curriculum developed in Singapore, and a balanced literacy approach, which focuses on specific language skills and study of authentic texts, in general studies. Hebrew language learning will be at the core of the Judaic curriculum. With a budget of $1.35 million, the school will be 21st-century ready, with smart boards and computers in the classrooms. Tuition ranges from $6,000 in the preschool grades to $14,500 in grades 2 through 5. This reflects a $1,500 discount for chalutzim, or pioneers, according to admissions director Klein.

Preschoolers will attend from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for other grades school runs from 8:30 a.m to 3:30 p.m., with an earlier dismissal on Fridays for Shabbat as the days get shorter. Early drop off programs begin at 7:30 a.m. and late pickup programs end at 6 p.m.

Tuition doesn’t cover the complete operations, however, according to Lender, and the school will have to come up with approximately $180,000 annually through fund-raising. A variety of funding has come through already, including $20,000 in startup and scholarship funding from the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. Another $15,000 from an endowment will fund the library.

Most of the money to kickstart the school has come from other sources with deeper pockets. The Avi Chai Foundation, a private foundation that focuses on increasing Jewish continuity, literacy, and tradition, has given it a no-interest $200,000 loan. Up to $150,000 in loans also will be forthcoming from UJA-Federation of New York, according to Lender.

But the largest outright grant likely will come from the defunct Gittelman School. Once the building on New Hempstead Road is sold to the Adolph Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland, the Gittelman Educational Foundation has agreed to give the RJA funding for both operations and scholarship. Gary Forman, who along with Milton Gittelman is president of the foundation, declined to state an amount, but said the funding will be significant.

“We’ve made no commitment yet, but without the Gittelman money they will be in trouble and we want the school to survive,” Forman said. “All of us associated with the Gittelman School hope and pray for the success of the RJA.”

It may well need those prayers. The challenges day schools face are numerous. Even in the Orthodox world, where day school is viewed as mandatory, there is increased talk of a tuition crisis and a system that is unsustainable. In the rest of the Jewish world day school is at best a luxury and at worst not even on parents’ radar.

A recent study by the Avi Chai Foundation showed that non-Orthodox schools are struggling. Schechter schools, in particular, have seen steep enrollment declines. In 1998, there were 63 Conservative Jewish day schools in the United States with 17,563 students; today there are 43, with enrollment at 11,338. The upside of that equation is that many of those students migrated to non-denominational schools like the RJA.

In 1998 there were 75 community day schools, with 14,849 students. Today there are 91 independent schools, with 19,417 students. Community schools welcome children from a variety of Jewish backgrounds, rather than one affiliation, and are often less stringent in their Jewish observance.

“Nationally the Schechters have been challenged by a greater enrollment decline than community schools,” according to Yossi Prager, executive director-North America for Avi Chai. “Some of that is because the Schechter schools have become community school and some is from decreased enrollment.”

Prager sees the RJA model as more nimble than that of its Conservative predecessor. “I don’t know the specifics of this school, but they have cut out the middle school, which is by far the more expensive piece, and they have reduced their capital expenses. Both are positives in terms of sustainability of a new school.”

Broadening support

When Ami and Loni Hersh were considering a move from the city, Rockland County came to mind. Hersh, a Conservative rabbi, has been assistant director at Camp Ramah in Nyack for the past six years. And they knew that Rockland County was home to Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School.

“That was very important, wherever we moved,” said Hersh, who grew up in Rhode Island and went to a small community day school much like the RJA. Although he was worried when Gittelman closed, he and Loni attended an early parlor meeting for the RJA. The couple was “excited by the energy in the room.

“Not all the questions were answered then, and not all have been answered now,” he said. “But the opportunity of being a family at the forefront was very exciting for us.”

Their oldest child, Micah, 3, is enrolled in the RJA’s pre-K for the fall.

Rabbi Brian and Shira Leiken are also weighing the day school decision for their own family. The Leikens are seriously considering sending their 7-year-old to the RJA.

“It’s very important having a day school,” said Leiken, who was recently hired as spiritual leader at the Reform Temple Beth Sholom in New City. “This really is a community day school, with all different kinds of populations, for kids to really experience Judaism.”

The Rockland County Board of Rabbis has been very involved in seeing the school off to a good start. There will be a rotation of rabbis conducting tefilah, or prayer, each day, for the second- through fifth-graders, so that there will be a constant and varied rabbinic presence that includes religious leaders from the Rockland County Board of Rabbis.

“The idea is to show the parents of the school that the rabbis of the community do support the school,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of the Conservative Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack. Abraham is the RJA’s rabbinic advisor. “We don’t want to continue mistakes that were maybe made in the past, and we want to show that we all support the school and are involved.”

He sees the rabbi rotation as just one more benefit of a community day school. Families will see different rabbis with different styles at work in the school. There is value for the rabbis as well, as they meet young, engaged families who might not yet be members of any congregation.

“The rabbis get to know people in the community,” Abraham said. “We each work within our own silo of our synagogue and this gets us to work with members of the community.”

Opening day

Rhonda Klein is ready for school. A former member of the Gittelman faculty, she will be the lead teacher at the RJA, an educational intermediary between the parents and staff in Rockland and the supervising team in Westchester.

The day will be split, with 50 percent for general studies and the other 50 percent for Jewish learning, but it will not be a strict divide, she said. There will be team teaching and a natural flow between the two areas.

“I’m looking forward to the opening,” she said. That members of the community wanted to create a school and worked so hard to do it after Gittelman closed is heartening to her.

“This is going to be a great school and a wonderful place,” she said.

The school’s startup was unusual, in that it started with a full range of grades. Usually, a new school begins with its lowest grades and builds, as children in kindergarten move into first-grade, then second and so on. While future recruitment efforts will focus on kindergarten, there was a sense that the school had to make a commitment to the Gittelman families who had students in other elementary school grades, Spiegel said.

Sandi Jacobs is one of those parents. Her daughter Emma will enter fifth-grade at the RJA this fall. Even though Emma won’t be able to attend a local day school for middle school and her commitment to the RJA will be only for one year, Jacobs was glad to have a local option, where Emma could maintain local friendships.

But there was another reason, as well.

“My husband and I both felt very strongly about having a community day school. I wanted to support it,” she said. Emma’s class of 19 at Gittelman has scattered, and there will be only five fifth-graders at RJA.

“It’s only one year and I’m taking a chance, but in my heart, I think it’s the right decision,” said Jacobs. “There is good buzz about the school, and God willing, it will grow.

“I’m sure Emma will have a great year.”

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