Education is in the cards at the Menorah Day School in Smithtown, L.I.: bingo cards, that is.
The school was forced to relocate its 50 students last week after the Suffolk County Department of Health Services said the youngsters, in kindergarten through sixth grade, could not be in a building in which smoking was permitted. Four nights a week the school runs bingo games that allow smoking.
"Bingo supports three-quarters of our budget," said Gittel Bausk, the school board's chair. "We had the most successful bingo in the county."
But faced with a "stiff warning" from the county, Bausk said the school at first barred smoking at bingo.
"Within three weeks, bingo revenue dropped 50 percent and two weeks later it was at the break-even level," she said, adding that it used to raise $500,000 for the school.
Bausk said the school decided to erect a wall between the gym, where bingo is played, and the rest of the building. But upon announcing that smoking would again be permitted at bingo once the wall was erected, the county called and threatened to impose a $2,500 fine should smoking resume.
"I heard this and said we have no time to explore legalities with the Health Department, we have to jump-start bingo immediately," said Bausk.
So smoking resumed in the school and the students were moved out.
Deborah Friedman, executive director of the Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services, the central Jewish educational agency in the county, said Bausk called her last week saying she needed a place for the kids for the remaining 32 weeks of school.
"We reached out to people and the community really responded," Friedman said. "Synagogues and other day schools offered them space. This was a communal problem, not just Menorah's.
"The name of the game in Suffolk is not only the survival but the renewal of Jewish education."
The students were divided by class and sent to three institutions. Bausk said Menorah Day School, formerly known as the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County, is looking for another building for next year.
Peter Price of Westhampton Beach, whose 6-year-old daughter is a first-grader at the school, said he finds it "very disturbing that [the children] don't have a home at the moment."
Asked what he thought about the children having to leave their classrooms to make way for bingo, Price replied: "Without bingo there is no school. ... Bingo is licensed to be in that building. Since you can't move the bingo, the kids are more flexible."
The school's lawyer, Mark Kurzmann, said he is researching the law and finds the school caught in an untenable situation.
"New York State law requires that only schools and similar charities may operate licensed bingo games," he said. "The school complies by hosting the games in its building. We tried to comply with Suffolk County by offering to erect a wall to contain the cigarette smoke, but we have been rebuffed. The school's financial viability is being caught in an unforgivable Catch 22."
Kurzmann said he was also concerned that the county might seek to revoke the school's bingo license on the grounds that the building is no longer used as a school.
Bausk said the building is still used, however, for adult education classes.
Lori Benincasa, director of Health Education for the Suffolk Department of Health Services, said that use still qualifies the building as a school.
Although school officials said smoking has been going on at bingo games since at least the beginning of the year, Benincasa said her department did not act until it received a complaint from a bingo player.
"Whenever we get a complaint, we enforce the law," she said, adding that she believes that all of the parochial schools that host bingo games are in compliance. And she said she was unaware of any complaints that those institutions had lost money when smoking was banned.
Asked if Menorah could build a free-standing building for bingo on its campus, Benincasa said the county law would not permit that.
Allan Binder, a member of the Suffolk County Legislature, questioned that interpretation.
"You can take this to a silly extreme," he said. "The idea of the law is to protect children going to school."
Binder said such an interpretation is "not protecting anyone."
"Why enforce something that is not protecting?" he asked.
Binder said that since bingo does not begin until the evening, when there are no children in the building, he questioned why the county was pursuing this issue.
"I don't know that short of kids licking the walls, [residual cigarette smoke has] any effect on children, particularly when there is no ventilation system recirculating the air," he said.
Binder said he would consider proposing a change to the county law to permit the Menorah students to return to their classrooms if there is no risk to them.
"What the law is now doing is closing down a religious school, and that is an untenable result," he said.
David Zwiebel, general counsel for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization to which the school turned for advice, said he also was hopeful of finding a solution to the problem.
"I am the last one to defend smoking and gambling," he said. "but it would be tragic if a well-intentioned law destroyed the only yeshiva of its kind in the neighborhood."
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