The Hebrew Academy of Nassau County-Plainview is only a half-hour’s drive from Long Island’s Five Towns, one of the world’s largest hubs of Orthodox life.
But Rabbi Kalman Fogel, who has been HANC-Plainview’s principal for six years, doesn’t think his centrist Orthodox school, a satellite of the large West Hempstead institution, has much in common with the many yeshivas and day schools that dot the Five Towns and other inner-ring New York suburbs.
“This is more like out-of-town day schools than New York day schools,” he says as he drives a visitor from the Long Island Rail Road station past Plainview’s carefully tended subdivisions of Cape Cods, split-levels and ranch houses (one of which houses a mikveh) to his sprawling two-story elementary school, housed in a former public school.
While many Orthodox schools have largely frum student bodies, HANC-Plainview is only 60-70 percent Orthodox, and outreach to the many unaffiliated Jews of eastern Nassau and western Suffolk is a major focus of the school.
“Our competition is not HAFTR or North Shore,” Rabbi Fogel says, referring to the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns-Rockaway and Great Neck’s North Shore Hebrew Academy. “It’s public school.”
With a recent cash infusion of $1 million (over four years) from an anonymous donor who has pledged an additional $250,000 if the school is able to raise matching funds, the 189-student school, which runs through sixth grade, is now poised to expand, with the goal of growing by 5 to10 percent a year.
The school’s anonymous benefactor has also pledged $500,000 to the 180-household Young Israel of Plainview, for interest-free loans and other financial incentives for young families who move to the area and join the synagogue.
But HANC-Plainview is not relying solely on the new Orthodox families of Young Israel; instead, it is aggressively promoting the secular half of its curriculum along with its Judaic studies, offering tuition incentives for new students and stepping up its presence in the wider Jewish community. It is partnering on various programs with the Mid-Island Y and area synagogues; hosting a community-wide “safety fair”; organizing a community food drive and other charitable activities; and introducing classes, Mommy and Me groups and other social opportunities for different Jewish affinity groups, like young couples.
A full-service day care center that would open in September 2011 and take children as young as six weeks old is under discussion and would be open to the entire community, not just HANC families.
“We’re building a foundation as an anchor of the Jewish community here,” says Lisa Fogelson, HANC-Plainview’s director of school advancement.
The school’s stepped-up investment comes as many neighboring Jewish institutions are struggling with the twin challenges of recession and an aging Jewish population. (The Jewish Association of Services for the Aging has Naturally Occurring Retirement Community programs in both Plainview and nearby Syosset.)
“We’re struggling on Long Island,” says Susan Tregerman, assistant executive director of the Mid-Island Y, which has partnered on several programs with HANC-Plainview this year and brought in Rabbi Fogel to speak at its annual meeting. “The economy has hit us. Membership is difficult for young families especially if they want to send their children to Jewish day schools and support the Jewish community.”
Just two years ago, the Solomon Schechter School of Suffolk, 13 miles to the east in Commack, L.I., closed, and last year, a Chabad school in Port Washington closed mid-year, with several of its students transferring to HANC-Plainview.
The Solomon Schechter School of Nassau, whose 200-student elementary division is less than 10 miles to the west of HANC-Plainview, is also struggling, with enrollment down “a bit” this year, according to Rabbi Lev Herrnson, head of school. Although the percentage of students receiving financial aid has increased from 40 percent to 60 percent in the past few years, the Conservative school has been unable “despite the school’s best efforts” to keep some recession-battered families from transferring to public schools.
Rabbi Herrnson remains cautiously optimistic however and notes that not only is fundraising revenue up, but that his school is investing in new technology and teacher training.
Asked if he is concerned by potential competition from HANC-Plainview as the Orthodox school expands, Rabbi Herrnson said, “We really service very different clientele, and I think it’s rare that a student coming to us will say they are also entertaining candidacy at HANC. We’re different portions of the Jewish world.”
“In large measure they still attract a clientele that identifies as Orthodox,” Rabbi Herrnson added. “Our community is one that largely self-affiliates as Conservative Jews.”
Nonetheless, the atmosphere at HANC-Plainview is not dramatically different than at many Schechter schools.
While the school observes Orthodox practice and students must be halachically Jewish (or in the process of converting), administrators and teachers take a relatively laid back and nonjudgmental attitude toward less observant students, some of whom come from interfaith families.
“In general we don’t tell families how they have to live their lives,” Rabbi Fogel says. “We’re not here to proselytize; we’re here to educate and help everyone grow.”
Non-Orthodox families say they have been comfortable with the environment.
Felecia Rozansky switched her daughter Isabelle, now going into fifth grade, from public school to HANC-Plainview a few years ago because she was looking for a more academically challenging environment.
“I contacted several private schools, secular and religious, and was most impressed with HANC,” said Rozansky, adding that “they really differentiate their instruction and teach to the whole child.”
Although Rozansky, whose family continues to belong to a Reform temple in North Bellmore, was initially unsure whether Isabelle would be comfortable in an Orthodox school, she said, “Their philosophy is ‘We teach what we believe.’ They never ask the children what they do in their homes. I’ve experienced no people looking at me differently or treating me differently.”
The HANC-Plainview community, Rozansky said, is “nothing but welcoming. I don’t feel pressured in any way. We’re respectful of their beliefs, they’re respectful of ours.”
An added plus is that Isabelle has “totally embraced Judaism, and we’ve all learned through her experience, it’s made us feel closer to Judaism.”