Parents jammed the auditorium of the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School for a special meeting called by the school’s administration on Tuesday night. They heard something they did not want to – the Conservative Jewish day school was closing its doors after classes end in June. Board President Virginia Feldman delivered the depressing news that dropping enrollment left the school in financial straits.
“There are simply not enough students for to remain financially sustainable,” she said. “These are difficult times for Jewish day schools.”
Enrollment fell from its high of 350 students in 2002 to 250 students two years ago and then to an enrollment of 150 girls and boys for the 2011-2012 school year. The school experienced a 20 percent attrition rate for each of the past three years. The dropping enrollment at is not unique, as other Hebrew day schools across the country have shut their doors.
Feldman told the parents the board explored every possible option to keep the school operating – downsizing, merging, fundraising.
“We looked at merging. We looked at loans. We looked at renting half the building,” she said. “Ending 40 years of Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School was nothing any of us wanted to do.”
She said the board hopes to sell the building and with the proceeds, pay off debt and use any remaining funds to assist students who want to continue their Jewish education at other schools.
Emotions ran high during the meeting and more than a few parents wiped away tears and choked up as they took turns speaking and asking questions.
One woman said she attended the New City school and had planned to enroll her child.
“It really makes me sad,” she said. “I really love this school.”
Other parents said they felt let down and that the board should have advised them more openly of the dire circumstances and tapped them as resources for new ideas for fundraising, enrollment, donations and endowments. Feldman said there were meetings up to the very end and the board tried its best with capital and enrollment campaigns.
“There was no stone unturned, “said Feldman of Orange County. “There really wasn’t.”
Another parent said of the school, “It bred very special people. It was a very nurturing environment. “
The audience applauded when one speaker said, “Forgive the board everybody. It’s the community. This education wasn’t a priority anymore.”
Irit Pinkus has one child who graduated from the school and another in second grade. She felt the education her children received was well worth the trip from her Orange County home.
“(I’m) very sad, I feel like I’m at a funeral,” said Pinkus. “This school focuses not only on education, the education is superb, but on being part of the community. I think it’s a loss not only for us but for the community. It will be very hard to find a school with the spirit this school had.”
She went along with many of the parents to the school’s multipurpose room to learn about a “new entity.” Andrea Sherman introduced the Rockland Jewish Academy, proposed for pre-k through fifth grade students under the supervision of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester and its headmaster, Dr. Elliott Spiegel.
The school would be housed in available unused space at the Jewish Community Campus in West Nyack.
Sherman and Spiegel presented an overview of the school and encouraged parents to attend “informational parlor meetings” next week. On Tuesday, Jan. 17 a parlor meeting for parents of students grade two through four will be held in Montebello and a similar session on Wednesday, Jan. 18 for parents with students in pre-k (three and four year olds) through first grade will take place in Suffern.
Spiegel said they need to determine how much commitment there is to retaining a Jewish day school in Rockland and asked parents to complete an indication of interest form by February 1. He said an anticipated enrollment of approximately 100 students would help make the school a reality.
“It’s very important for the Rockland Jewish community to have a non-Orthodox day school,” he said. “The Rockland Jewish Academy will continue in the tradition of outstanding general studies.”
He went on to say the school would teach the whole child and include Judaic and general studies, physical play and athletics, which he viewed as a 21st century skill that teaches kids to work together.
When asked why the academy could succeed where Gittelman had not, Spiegel said he believes it is possible for a new school to grow.
“It’s a dream location (JCC) for another school,” he said. “I have the experience and knowledge to make it work.”
Older students in sixth through 12th will have the option of being bused to the middle school campus of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.
Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School was founded in 1971 as the Solomon Schechter School of Rockland County. It began in the JCC of Spring Valley, a Conservative congregation located on Route 45 that has since closed. The school outgrew its location in 1992 and moved into the current building on New Hempstead Road. It was renamed after Reuben Gittelman, the father of Irving and Milton Gittelman, to honor his ongoing love of learning. Milton Gittelman still serves on the board of trustees.