Rockland Gets A New/Old Day School
Tue, 08/21/2012
Associate Editor
Rockland Jewish Academy teacher Melanie Garvey works with children as classrooms are being set up for new year. michael datikash
Rockland Jewish Academy teacher Melanie Garvey works with children as classrooms are being set up for new year. michael datikash

The day school is dead. Long live the day school.

That’s the situation for non-Orthodox families in Rockland County.

In January, the 40-year-old Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School — which was affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Schechter Network — announced that financial problems exacerbated by declining enrollment were forcing it to close.

But before any tears could dry, a group of volunteers announced that a new Jewish day school would rise up: the nondenominational Rockland Jewish Academy (RJA).

Housed in the Rockland JCC in West Nyack, the new school will open Sept. 4, with 65 students in nursery school through fifth grade. Gittelman, which ran from nursery through eighth grade, had 150 students.

But why, if Rockland County’s decreasing non-Orthodox population could no longer support Gittelman, should RJA — many of whose leaders are former Gittelman parents and lay leaders — be any more successful? Organizers are pointing to a number of key differences:

n RJA will be pluralistic, rather than Conservative, and thus appeal to a potentially wider base of families. While no one is expecting members of Rockland County’s burgeoning haredi population to consider the new day school, the hope is that Reform, unaffiliated and some Modern Orthodox families will be more comfortable in a nondenominational school than in a Schechter.

n The new school has contracted with Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, widely regarded as one of the most successful Conservative-affiliated schools in the country, for help with its administration, curriculum and hiring.

n RJA’s rental location in a formerly unused wing of the JCC provides access to various facilities and services, including after-school programming, while eliminating the burdens of mortgage and maintenance that Gittelman, with its own building, faced.

One factor to which organizers are not pointing, but which may be the most significant difference between the two schools: whereas Gittelman was one of the country’s few Jewish day schools whose teachers were unionized, RJA has no labor union, allowing the new school’s administration more flexibility in hiring and firing matters.

Although they are the norm in public schools, teachers’ unions are rare in private and parochial schools — and becoming rarer. Seven years ago the board of Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit ended recognition of its teachers’ union, following a Michigan appeals court ruling that denied teachers in a Catholic high school the right to unionize.

Pressed to explain why Gittelman had to close, rather than simply switch affiliations or downsize buildings, as many struggling Schechter schools have done, Bernie Gelb, a Gittelman board member and past president, reluctantly acknowledged that the teachers’ union was “one factor.” He also cited constrained school finances due to declining enrollment and a deficit.

However, he added: “The primary factor was the decline of Conservative families in Rockland County. Fortunately for RJA, it’s drawing Reform and nonaffiliated families and is starting smaller.”

Brenda Lender sent all five of her children to Gittelman, where she once served as president.

So when the Conservative day school’s board (Lender was not on the board at the time) announced it was closing, she was one of a “group of community members who got together” to do something.

“That’s how this came about,” Lender, RJA’s steering committee chair (the new school has not yet created a board), told The Jewish Week. “Sitting around a kitchen table and saying, ‘What can we do to maintain this type of Jewish education?’”

RJA, she noted, has a different business plan than RJA and is “looking to build from the bottom up.

“We’ve attracted a lot of families who’ve not been in day school before, and one of the most important pieces is having this be a community school,” she added, noting that local rabbis from all denominations will be leading prayers at the school on a rotating schedule.

Lender, whose youngest child will attend the new school, is not the only RJA parent — or leader — with Gittelman ties. Two-thirds of the students are either transferring from Gittelman, or have older siblings who attended Gittelman, and several steering committee members are onetime Gittelman parents. RJA’s faculty includes four Gittelman teachers; the school psychologist, office manager and admissions officer also come from Gittelman.

In addition, once Gittelman closes on the sale of its building, it will provide a “substantial amount of money” to RJA for its startup costs and to cover financial aid, said Gelb.

Gelb declined to specify the amount, noting that the building sale, to Rockland County’s only Modern Orthodox day school, is not complete and that Gittelman must pay off various debts, including severance payments to former teachers and other employees.

“Everyone on our board is committed to the success of RJA and want it to continue,” he said.

Andy Blau, an RJA steering committee member and former Gittelman parent, emphasized that the new school is running on a “completely different formula” than Gittelman and is a “new model.”

“What we’re striving to create is an exceptional school that caters to the entire community without losing what everyone at Gittelman can agree was a fabulous atmosphere,” he said.

Although RJA is not a Schechter school, it has established a unique partnership with the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.

Elliot Spiegel, Schechter Westchester’s longtime head, is overseeing RJA, which is incorporating many aspects of his school’s Judaic and general curriculum. Spiegel will serve as head of both schools this year, and other Westchester staff will also help out at RJA, he said. (Spiegel, who is 69, will be stepping down as Schechter’s head of school next year, but he told The Jewish Week he is “not using the R-word” and will be continuing fundraising and other work there.)

The RJA-Schechter Westchester partnership will last for at least three years, however, and this year, “almost every day someone from Westchester Schechter will be” at RJA, Spiegel said.

Explaining why the 900-student Schechter Westchester wants to work with a small new school on the other side of the Hudson, Spiegel said, the “future of the non-haredi Rockland Jewish community needs this.” And, he notes, “We’ve been a great beneficiary of Gittelman graduates over the years.” Because Gittelman ended at eighth grade, many of its students have continued on to the high school program at Schechter Westchester.

“We had been trying to work with Gittelman over the past three years to see if it could be saved,” Spiegel said. “When it was clear it couldn’t, we wanted to help make sure Rockland had a day school.”

Spiegel said he hoped this partnership would inspire other partnerships and alliances between neighboring Jewish day schools.

“For those of us who believe day schools must be a significant part of the community, we must ensure they remain healthy,” he said, adding that it makes sense even for competing schools to share some resources “to reduce costs for everyone.”

Parents at RJA say the Schechter Westchester connection allays any nervousness they might have about a brand-new school.

“When I heard Schechter Westchester was overseeing it, that was a homerun, it’s a proven entity” said Steve Dwek.

Dwek, who recently moved to Rockland from Bergen County, has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in the 3-year-olds class at RJA.

Orlee Krass, a Gittelman alum whose son will be in pre-K at RJA, said the Schechter oversight is “very promising.”

“They have a great reputation,” she said.

Krass, who coordinates Rockland County’s PJ Library — which provides free Jewish picture books to 350 young families and has a waiting list besides — said her experience with PJ makes her optimistic that there is a market for RJA.

“We’ve realized there’s a ton of non-haredi Jewish families living in Rockland,” she said. “It’s just a matter of engaging them.”