Mazel’s New High-Water Mark
Wed, 01/15/2014
Staff Writer
Torah scrolls are laid out to dry after Sandy in synagogue that houses Mazel’s preschool. Photo courtesy Mazel Day School
Torah scrolls are laid out to dry after Sandy in synagogue that houses Mazel’s preschool. Photo courtesy Mazel Day School

When Hurricane Sandy swept into New York in the fall of 2012, Mazel Day School in Brighton Beach was hit hard. The recently renovated first floor, which held most of the classrooms, was filled with more than five feet of water. Everything — from textbooks and computers to the very floors and walls — was ruined.

The next morning, parents, students and teachers were stunned at the extent of the damage. “We were all standing there with our mouths hanging open,” said Gennady Favel, a board member whose 4-year-old daughter attends the school.

But just over a year later, the school seems to be thriving, with a second location, shiny new classrooms, and an increase in students.

With more than 30,000 New York-area residents still displaced by the storm, Mazel is one of the region’s success stories.

“When you’re in that moment, you think this is going to devastate the school for years, but the next year you couldn’t even tell anything had happened,” said the school’s educational director, Chani Okonov.

Founded 11 years ago, Mazel was created by parents in Brighton Beach’s Russian community who were looking for a Jewish education for their children, but wanted something more secular than a traditional yeshiva.

The non-denominational school includes students of all Jewish backgrounds — from secular to Modern Orthodox, and everyone truly feels comfortable, Favel said. The curriculum includes a strong secular component, reading and writing in Hebrew, English and Russian, and an emphasis on Jewish values and communal responsibility. The tuition — this year $10,530 for all grades above preschool — is about half of what most day schools cost.

The school’s growth has been swift, with enrollment jumping about 20 percent a year. In 2002 the school was comprised of a single preschool class. Now it extends to eighth grade and has 175 students.

The parents named the school Mazel, meaning “luck,” but the school’s swift recovery from Sandy has more to do with the generosity of hundreds of donors, from near and far. And a lot of hard work.

The morning after the storm, dozens of parents and staff gathered to help salvage what they could from the school and the synagogue next door. There, six Torah scrolls, a Babylonian Talmud printed in the 1800s, and the shul’s entire library was soaked. 

“Everything was wet,” said Rabbi Dovid Okonov a staff member at F.R.E.E. of Brighton Beach, a Community Center for Russian Jews that houses Mazel’s preschool and the synagogue. “We’ve already had to bury 115 garbage bags of Jewish books — prayer books.”

To reach the Torahs, Okonov “practically had to swim” over to the safe where they were kept, and then had to work the combination lock under water. When he got the supposedly watertight safe open, the scrolls were already wet, and the shul dried out the hundreds of feet of drenched parchment by spreading them over the pews in the main sanctuary.

Meanwhile, a parent retrieved a pump from his Pennsylvania summer home, and by the afternoon following the storm, the building was drained. Over the next few days, electricity and heat were restored, the mold treated and necessary permits secured. Within two weeks, Mazel had reopened.

The preschool crowded into the school’s undamaged second floor.  The elementary school was split into two synagogue basements, one in the neighborhood, the other in Crown Heights. The temporary digs were less than ideal: crowded, colorless, and for the students in the Crown Heights location, a 30-minute bus trip.

Fortunately, school officials quickly found a new location, and six weeks after the storm, Mazel’s elementary school had renovated and moved into a permanent home. The school’s new spacious classrooms are on the third and fourth floors of Manhattan Beach Jewish Center (the third floor has been renovated).

During a recent visit, few signs of the storm remained at the preschool. Inside Mazel’s original, Sandy-damaged brick building, two blocks from Brighton Beach’s bustling main strip, 4-year-olds munched on bananas while chatting in Russian. Around them, their classroom glows with newness: The yellow walls are freshly painted, the floors unscuffed and the reading corner rug still vibrant with color.

At the elementary school, half a mile east on Manhattan Beach’s West End Avenue, kindergarteners work on math skills using flash cards and dominos, while one floor up, sixth graders discuss the daily lives of slaves in the antebellum South.

After the class, student Lauren Berman said she’s inspired by her school’s experience of destruction and renewal.

“I think it’s much better, there’s more room here,” she said of the new location. “We started from the bottom and here we are standing back at the top again.” 

But getting back to normal took a lot of work — and money.

So far the school has spent about $300,000 on renovating the two locations. The funds came from parents, foundations and day schools across the country.

Even families dealing with flood damage in their own homes gave what they could, said Favel. “Everyone suffered their own monetary losses, but the community really pitched in.”

Many replacements for the ruined furniture, computer equipment and supplies were paid for by individuals who bought them directly through an Amazon wish list that includes everything from a $5 stamp pad to a $400 desk.

Social media did its part to spread the word: A parent-made YouTube video documenting the damage helped publicize the cause and the Amazon wish list was shared on Facebook and e-mail by day school students across the country.

“It went viral. It’s amazing how all these other teachers and children pitched in,” said Okonov.

One Chicago day school held a coin drive that raised more than $1,000. A school in California sent 20 boxes of books. Scholastic replaced the ruined textbooks for free.

The students, who lost everything they kept at the school — notebooks, supplies, half-finished projects — were cheered by each donation.

“Someone would donate a notebook and the kids would say, ‘Yay! We have a notebook!’” Okonov said.

These emotional boosters were especially appreciated because the students were deeply affected by the storm.

“You definitely saw an impact on the children — they just kept talking about it,” said Okonov.

Usually when children face upheaval at home, such as damage from a hurricane, they can depend on their school to provide stability. But for most of the student body, both home and school were in upheaval, said Okonov.

“Even kids not affected at home were very affected by the loss of the school,” she said.

A year later, the effects of Sandy continue. At the elementary school, only one of the two floors has been renovated, with the upper-level students and staff in accommodations that haven’t been updated for decades. The parents are still raising the $100,000 needed to refurbish it. Both the preschool and upper grades are still short of equipment and supplies, and, because so many of the families were hit by storm damage to their homes, there’s been a noticeable increase in families requesting financial aid.

But with all the damage caused by the storm, some parents also see an upside: it forced the school to find the additional space it desperately needed. 

“The school was at capacity,” said Favel. “In the end it probably pushed us to where we needed to go.” 

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