Faced with a steadily declining enrollment and the inability to attract new students, the Solomon Schechter School of Suffolk County has decided to close its doors in June after 26 years of operation. The action leaves the Jewish Academy in East Northport, a school for children age 2 through the second grade, as the only Jewish day school in Suffolk.
“It’s a very sad thing for Suffolk County,” said Honey Pine, who taught Hebrew at the school for all 26 years. “It’s sort of like an end of an era.” She said the school, which was housed in the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, started with 50 students and in about 10 years had as many as 175 students. This year, it had 52 and was unable to attract new students despite a major recruitment drive by a professional director of admissions.
Laura Buechler, a former chairman of the board of education, said that over the years the school “turned out terrific young people. … It’s heartbreaking.”
Tuition is $12,000 and many families have two children in the school, she noted.
“It’s very difficult for families to spend that kind of money, particularly when hard economic times makes it even more difficult,” Buechler added. “And Suffolk has some very good school districts. You have to really be committed to send your kids here.”
The Suffolk Schechter closing comes a few months after the closing of the Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck, N.J. That school was formed two years ago after it and the Schechter High School in Manhattan merged.
Richard Krulik, the Suffolk Schechter school’s president, said the administration is “working closely with the Nassau Schechter to integrate our students” both in the elementary-middle school in Jericho and the high school in Glen Cove. Because the Jericho school is more expensive than the Suffolk school, which has grades K-8, UJA-Federation arranged for an anonymous donor to cover the tuition differential and provide the same financial aid parents had received in the Suffolk school, according to Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. “The leadership of the Suffolk school estimated that the financial aid will be about $120,000,” she said.
Rabbi Joselow stressed that the aid would be provided to Suffolk students who transfer to any Jewish day school. Representatives of both the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County and the Jewish Academy have also met with Suffolk’s parents.
“We are asking parents to sign up for a new school by April 14 so we can figure out the amount” of assistance, she said.
In addition, because many Suffolk students live too far from the Nassau schools to be eligible for busing by their public school districts, Rabbi Joselow said another anonymous donor has agreed to pay any additional costs for private busing.
“The idea is to make it as easy as possible for the families and the schools to transfer and absorb the new students,” she said. Lelah Fleischer, president of the Schechter school in Nassau, said she is aware that for some parents who live on the North Fork of Long Island the “logistics are horrible” because of the distance involved. She also emphasized the importance for Suffolk Schechter students to transfer to another Jewish day school. “We’ll support them no matter where they go,” she said. “Of the 52 children, families with 46 children have inquired about the schools. And we’re already processing applications from a lot of them.”
Fleischer noted that her school is about to begin environmental and traffic studies to examine the feasibility of moving its high school from Glen Cove to the grounds of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights. Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of the Jewish Academy, said his school has 80 students and could accommodate another 30 or 40. He said that if there is a demand, he would add a third grade next year.
“We consider it to be a community emergency and we want to do our part to help these families,” he said. “I feel a tremendous responsibility because we will be servicing 100,000 Jews in eastern Nassau and all of Suffolk.
“In Suffolk, the population is not really looking for a Jewish day school education and so we tried to establish our school to the finest in general studies with a strong Jewish component,” said Rabbi Teldon, whose school is under Orthodox supervision. “About 80 percent of our parents are unaffiliated. Hopefully we’ll be able to grow and serve as the day school of Suffolk.”
On March 20, a day after the decision was made to close the school, career counselors from FEGS, a UJA-Federation agency, arrived at the school to help the 22 full and part-time teachers prepare their resumes. “A lot of them have not been in the job market for quite a long time and they needed to learn how to market themselves,” Rabbi Joselow said. In addition, SAJES, the county’s central agency for Jewish education, has also worked with the teachers to help them prepare lesson plans and presentations that they will have to make when they interview for new positions, according to Deborah Friedman, SAJES’ executive director. “Our priority has been to ensure that the children, families and teachers make a seamless transition and stay within the system of Jewish education,” she said.
Rabbi Joselow emphasized that UJA-Federation has been working for several years with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education to try to help the Suffolk Schechter grow.
“We have been working with all of the non-Orthodox schools on Long Island to try to get them to work together” in terms of joint programming and efficiencies in management, the rabbi pointed out. “PEJE helped with financial resource development, marketing, governance and admissions,” she added.
“Everybody was going in the same direction to try to keep the school open for years, not just this year.”
Robert Abramson, director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, said the leadership of the school had done everything possible to grow the school.
“At some point I hope and pray there will be a place for a Schechter school in Suffolk,” he said. “But it’s not only about Schechter, it’s about other day schools out there too.”
He was referring to the fact that both the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County and the Torah Academy of Suffolk County both closed over the years because of a lack of students.
“People who moved out there are not looking for day schools,” Abramson said. “Everybody I talk to says this is a population we have to reach, but it’s not easy.”
Rabbi Joselow said UJA-Federation has commissioned a study by Insight Research of Manhattan to learn why Jewish parents on Long Island and Manhattan don’t send their children to Jewish day schools. “It started a few months ago,” she said. “We don’t know of any marketing study like this. They have finished the Long Island segment and are still doing Manhattan. We hope to have it out by mid-summer.” Friedman of SAJES said her organization plans to use it in determining how next to proceed.
“There seems to be a lack of awareness of the richness of a Jewish day school and perhaps in Suffolk County we will have to look at other Jewish day school models,” such as community day schools, she said. “Sometimes you have to say goodbye to something before you can begin anew,” she said. “We want to leave our options open for the future. We have a lot of smart leaders out here and a lot of people who care about Jewish education. Those are the people who will join us to help us figure it out.”