Yeshiva University is considering closing its 80-year-old Modern Orthodox boys high school in Washington Heights, once the primary feeder for its undergraduate college for men with which it shares a campus.
Faced with a choice between financial pragmatism and a proud tradition of Torah education, Dr. Norman Lamm, Y.U.’s president, will have to decide later this year whether or not to phase out the school over several years.
School officials cite declining enrollment at the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, known informally as MTA, and a need for more space at the college, which is growing rapidly.
One option being pursued is for MTA to be incorporated into the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a boys yeshiva in Teaneck, N.J., about five miles away. Another possibility is for MTA to remain affiliated academically with Yeshiva University but financially independent.
A spokesman for the university, David Rosen, said Lamm had not determined which option to choose. He said the rabbi met with the high school’s 15-member board of trustees Monday night and with area rabbis and communal leaders on Tuesday to get their input. He has also spoken with several parents in the high school but has not reached out to the entire school, said Rosen.
A decision on which way to proceed was postponed Wednesday, and the school will admit a new class of ninth-graders in the fall.
At a two-hour meeting on Tuesday, Rabbi Lamm heard from a number of rabbis who argued passionately on behalf of Yeshiva University maintaining the high school and restoring its commitment to excellence. But Sheldon Socol, the vice president of Y.U. in charge of financial matters, discussed the practical reasons why the high school has become a drain, according to a rabbi in attendance.
Rabbi Lamm was non-committal, according to the source, saying the three options remained open: merger with another school, keeping the status quo, or keeping the high school on the college campus but allowing the high school board to operate the school, financially and academically.
The leadership of the high school is resistant to merging with another school and hopes to raise enough funds to keep the school independent.
Elliot Gibber, chairman of the high school’s board of trustees, who is known to be upset with Y.U.’s plans, said he is hopeful the board can guarantee a "financial commitment from the people involved," and that the university "will work out a deal that is fair for everybody." He said commitments of "a few million dollars" were needed and that he hoped to have them by the end of the month.
"If we are to be independent, we have to be sure we can cover our debt," said Gibber. "Many schools try to open and without proper funding, they sink."
A number of parents, though, are skeptical about whether sufficient funds can be raised to operate the high school, particularly when Rabbi Lamm has said that for all the funds he raises for Y.U. institutions, finding donors for the high school has been the most difficult.
Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County, said officials from Y.U. initiated merger discussions with his school about six weeks ago.
"We expressed interest in pursuing it further," he said.
Rabbi Adler, who received ordination from Yeshiva University, said his school has increased in enrollment from 69 students when he arrived six years ago to 205 today. TABC, as his school is known, may be interested in increasing its enrollment if it had more space, and it is believed that the negotiations are focusing on Y.U. providing the financial opportunity for that to happen.
By contrast, MTA has seen a sharp decline in recent years. Since 1992, enrollment plunged 35 percent from 520 students to 340. At the same time, enrollment at the undergraduate college jumped from 788 to a record 1,150 students: a 45-percent increase. With the addition of a new honors program and other initiatives, the university expects undergraduate enrollment to continue to climb.
The undergraduate growth has meant a crunch for space on the Yeshiva campus, where both high school and college students share the same buildings. Rosen acknowledged that there was a strain on classrooms, dormitories, offices and other facilities. An independent high school would not solve the overcrowding problem, but Rosen said there is space on the campus to build another building.
What does all this mean about the state of Modern Orthodoxy?
Some say that MTA has declined not only in numbers but in the quality of its education in recent years, except for its highest shiur, or Judaic class. Competition from a growing number of yeshivas and day schools across the metropolitan area (particularly Long Island and northern New Jersey) is one factor. Others say its educational goals are unclear.
"The high school is suffering from the same ideological confusion as its parent institution," one Y.U. board member said. "Is it haredi? Is it Modern Orthodox, or something else?" He noted with irony that "Rabbi Adler reflects the Torah U’Maddah (Torah and secular studies) philosophy of Yeshiva University more" than the educational directors of MTA.
There is also resentment of Socol, Y.U.’s top financial officer, among Orthodox rabbinical and lay leaders. They say he wields too much clout and lacks empathy for communal issues, making decisions based more on dollars than ideological conviction.
Some former graduates of the high school, and other Orthodox leaders, said it would be sad if MTA closed after eight decades. The school is affiliated with the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and is housed on the same campus at 2540 Amsterdam Ave. at 186th Street. For many years the high school (along with its sister Yeshiva University Wang High School for Girls in Queens) were the only Modern Orthodox high schools with a Torah U’Madda philosophy of education, Rosen noted.
The girls school has also seen a declining enrollment but is said to have improved academically in recent years. Its fate is not under discussion at the moment but remains a question, particularly if Y.U. determines that it wants "to get out of the high school business," as one board member noted.
Ruth Mazurek of Yonkers, the parent of a ninth grader at MTA, said she would be "very disappointed" if the school closed and merged with Torah Academy. She said her son, Menashe, is thriving. "He has wonderful friends and teachers and the influence of actually being in the college is very nice. He sees the learning going on and every Thursday a visiting rabbi from Yeshiva College comes and gives a class in Gemorah."
She said she had considered sending Menashe to Torah Academy but chose MTA because of its "convenience and connection to the college."
Rosen said a decision to merge would mean a phase-out of the high school over a three-year period. All present students would be able to complete their studies at the school, but there would be no ninth grade next year.
About half of MTAís students live in the same neighborhoods as Torah Academyís primary feeder areas: Bergen County (N.J.), Monsey, Manhattan and the Bronx. Less than 10 percent of MTA students live in Manhattan.