UPDATE (NOV. 4): The Jewish Week has learned that, at an emergency meeting on Saturday night, a group of parents and organizations pledged to keep the Yeshiva of Belle Harbor operating, from a new location in Brooklyn. The school will no longer merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva, but will be an independent school. Leaders plan to secure a location and open school there in the next few days. More details to follow on Monday.
Mazel means “luck” in Hebrew, and until this week, the luck at Brooklyn’s Mazel Day School — where enrollment recently jumped from 100 to 140, despite a substantial tuition increase — was mostly the good kind.
Same for the 49-year-old Yeshiva of Belle Harbor in Far Rockaway, Queens, which, in the midst of a modest rebirth, this June celebrated its first eighth-grade graduation in 30 years.
That luck ran out this week, in cruel fashion. Amid the victims of Hurricane Sandy’s monumental devastation are many Jewish day schools.
Scores of Jewish schools on Long Island, New Jersey and Westchester and, to a lesser extent Brooklyn and Queens, lost electricity and heat, and, like the public schools, had to shut down operations for the entire week. As of Friday, many Jewish schools were still without power and were seeking temporary locations in hopes of resuming classes in the coming week.
A handful — in addition to Belle Harbor and Mazel, the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach’s beachfront campus and several institutions in Brooklyn’s Sea Gate neighborhood — experienced serious flooding.
Currently, several Jewish organizations — including UJA-Federation of New York and the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) — are pulling together a comprehensive inventory of schools in need of help, and are also seeking to coordinate assistance from individuals and schools that are able to offer space, supplies and other forms of help.
Mazel, a 10-year-old Jewish day school, founded by first-generation Russian Jewish parents, saw its enrollment jump from 100 to 140 and even had a wait list of 70 this school year, even as it has raised its tuition by 20 percent — a remarkable feat considering that throughout the country most day schools have been struggling to hang on to their students as the weak economy makes parents ever more price-sensitive. Plus, the Brighton Beach school is in the same district as a Hebrew charter school, which offers free tuition.
At Mazel — where children study Russian as well as Hebrew — classrooms were recently renovated, new furniture and supplies brought in, and a capital campaign was gearing up to raise money to build a new five-floor facility. School leaders prided themselves on the small class sizes, the high academic standards and the nonjudgmental atmosphere of the community.
But earlier this week, seawater poured into the school’s basement and first floor, damaging furniture, books, Smartboards — even Torah scrolls that had been in a supposedly waterproof safe — and leaving the building uninhabitable for the near future. School officials are looking for a temporary location where they can resume classes.
“Our main concern today is how can we start the school,” said Dimitriy Goloborodskiy, a parent and board member who, himself, has been temporarily displaced from his Manhattan Beach home by the storm. “It comes down to space. We have the kids and we have the teachers — we just need space.”
Sandy’s wrath was even fiercer in Rockaway, where it completely destroyed the 120-student Yeshiva of Belle Harbor. As of Friday, board and administrators of the k-8 school — flooded beyond the ceilings of the first-floor classrooms — had decided to merge with the Crown Heights Yeshiva, in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin.
“We’ve taken a tremendous financial beating because of this,” said Rabbi Boaz Tomsky, principal of the almost 50-year-old school, noting that the building’s electrical system has been severely damaged and all furniture, computers and books destroyed. “We have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of assets and don’t have the financial wherewithal to pick up, rent another facility and continue.”
Asked if the school has insurance, Rabbi Tomsky said, “Of course we do, but all these things will take not days but months until we see any money, and one thing we don’t have is time. We have children who need to be educated, who need to be transitioned to an environment that’s going to be safe and give them a sense of normalcy.”
While the yeshiva is urging its students — many of whom live in Brooklyn — to come to Mill Basin and hopes to “find positions for some of the faculty,” Rabbi Tomsky said many of his teachers will be left jobless. He is seeking donations for a fund to assist them.
“I have rabbis that work in my school, and families that weren’t even making it before this storm,” Rabbi Tomsky said. “I can’t imagine what they are going to do now.”
“Fifty years of history were destroyed in a matter of minutes,” he said, noting that, until Sandy, the school had been expanding, with June 2012 boasting the first eighth-grade graduating class in over 30 years.
The Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, whose elementary school building is on the boardwalk, also experienced major damage. However, Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky, director of HALB’s DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys, which is in Woodmere, told The Jewish Week the devastation in Long Beach — by far the worst of HALB’s campuses — is not insurmountable.
The entire city of Long Beach “has problems with sewage and water” right now, and at the school there is a lot of debris and flooding but “no structural damage to the building.”
“Shortly after Long Beach gets water, power and sewage back, we should be able to clean it up,” he said.
Like several other Five Towns schools, HALB is looking for alternate locations for classes and is recruiting its out-of-school teens to help community members clear out damaged items from their basements.
Several individuals whose homes have power — including Rabbi Kaminetsky — are hosting displaced families.
“There’s been a tremendous outpouring of chesed in the neighborhood,” he said.
Offers Of Help
After PEJE requested that schools post to its blog detailing whether they need help or can offer help, more than 60 offers of help — from day schools all over the country — have come in, a number from schools, like the Community Day School in New Orleans, that experienced their own natural disasters in the not-so-distant past.
Rabbi Josef Fradkin, of the Chabad Hebrew Academy in San Diego pledged his school’s support, noting, “We are most grateful to our fellow Jewish Day Schools who reached out to us with love after our school campus burned down in the Cedar Fires of 2003.”
Rabbi Ari Segal, of Los Angeles’ Shalhevet, posted, “Unfortunately we lived through Rita when I was the Head of School [at Robert Beren Academy] in Houston, and the help we got from other schools was truly incredible.”
“We are happy to do online courses if needed, send supplies, other?” he offered in his post. “I wish we could offer our facility, but it is a bit far…”
Some schools in Sandy’s path fortunate enough to keep their power, or at least have it restored, have been able to offer a haven of sort for families.
In an e-mail interview, Cindy Dolgin, the head of Solomon Schechter of Long Island, said the school resumed classes on Friday at its Jericho campus. (Its other campus, in Williston Park, was still without power as of Friday.) Even before classes resumed, the Jericho building was “flooded with parents and children looking for a place to play, read e-mails, re-charge their devices, have a snack and a cup of coffee, not to mention, a shoulder to cry on,” Dolgin said.
With students from all over Long Island, as well as some from Brooklyn and Queens, many of Schechter’s families are reporting major losses, she said.
“We have families who have lost all their cars, totaled from storm damage,” Dolgin said. “We have families whose basements are completely flooded, homes that will surely be condemned. One grandfather died in his sleep during the storm, another grandfather had a stroke as the house was flooding. Worst of all, there are many families we have not yet heard from.”
Like Schechter of Long Island, Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, N.J., was an oasis of power and heat in a sea of misfortune. BPY, according to an anonymous parent who runs Bergen County’s “Yeshiva Sanity” “really exerted themselves trying to help everyone out.”
Not only did the school open on Thursday, it invited parents to avail themselves of the heat, WiFi and electricity, and are inviting parents to stay in the building for Shabbat.