Nearly 20 years ago, Rabbi Berish Ganz turned to bingo to keep his struggling Orthodox day school in Smithtown, L.I., afloat. Over the years the bingo games, held in the gym and frequented by heavy smokers lured by the large prizes, reaped more than $500,000 annually. Despite the cash, enrollment in the elementary school never grew to more than 130 students.
But with a declining student enrollment at the Menorah Day School and a county health code that now forbids classes in buildings with smokers, school administrators chose to close Suffolk Countyís oldest Jewish day school on the eve of the new school year rather than give up bingo. They argue that they had little choice because the school, formerly known as the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County, would not have survived financially without it.
"I think it’s a travesty," said Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of Lubavitch operations in Suffolk, whose organization now offers the county’s only Orthodox elementary school. "That building was built for the purpose of the community having an Orthodox day school, and now it stands empty."
The schoolís 23 students have been scattered. Some have gone to the two other elementary Jewish day schools in Suffolk, others to day schools in Nassau and Queens. Some may be lost to Jewish day school education altogether, having opted to attend their local public schools.
Eric Sackler of Patchogue has sent his two youngest children to the Menorah Day School for the past two years. Sackler said his schedule and that of his wife, Jill, make it impossible for the children to attend another day school.
"My children are back in public school for now and my wife is heartbroken," he said. "My kids learned more in two years at that school than I learned in five years at an afternoon Hebrew school."
The demise of the Menorah Day School is emblematic of the difficulty Jewish day schools face in this county of about 100,000 Jews.
The two remaining elementary day schools, the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School of Suffolk County in Commack and the Orthodox Maimonides Day School in Ronkonkoma, are struggling to attract students. Solomon Schechter has about 100 students, Maimonides about 60. The one middle school-high school in the county, Torah Academy of Suffolk County, is in a similar situation with about 60 students.
Despite the closing of the Menorah Day School, its board chairman, Gittel Bausk, is pushing to reopen the school as a community day school for students of all Jewish denominations.
"It would not be Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, just a Jewish school," she said. "They do that all over the country. Jewish parents are happy to have their children get a good Jewish and secular education."
Dalia Mahalli, a Menorah parent who is now sending her son David to the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in Plainview, said she would welcome such a school.
"I want to have a community here," she said. "If I live here, why should I send my son to Nassau or Queens or someplace else?"
But Rabbi Ganz said the Menorah building is owned by the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva in Queens and that it would not want to house a community day school.
"Orthodox people do not see the perpetuation of Judaism being furthered by a community school," he said.
Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Conservative Dix Hills Jewish Center said: "Everybody agrees with primacy day schools, but we first have to strengthen existing day schools that are already open and accessible to all Jews."
He noted that the Solomon Schechter has students from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues.
These developments come at a time when day school enrollment is up nationwide. A study by the Avi Chai Foundation reported in January 2000 found it had increased by 20,000 to 25,000 in the last decade.
The study found also that there were 76,414 day school students in the five boroughs of New York City, which represented more than 40 percent of all Jewish day school students.
In Nassau County, the Solomon Schechter Day School, from kindergarten to eighth grade, witnessed an enrollment growth from 450 to 600 in the last 10 years, according to principal Philip Dickstein. He said the Solomon Schechter school in Queens experienced similar growth.
But Shellie Dickstein, education coordinator at the Suffolk Association for Jewish Educational Services, said Suffolkís declining day school enrollment stems from the high cost of such schooling and a lack of community support.
"We need to do a lot more educating of the community about the options of day schools," she said. "I donít think people moving here are looking for a community that supports day school education. People move to this county to save money on a house, and the day schools cost between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the school."
Dickstein noted that SAJES runs a "Bagels, Blocks and Beyond" program for the mothers of preschoolers and that as part of the program, the mothers are told of the advantages of a Jewish day school education.
"A lot of people are interested but one of the biggest obstacles is the price," she said. "They always ask me about scholarship opportunities. … If we had [such money and] the dollars to promote the value of a day school education, we could have an impact on enrollment."
The executive director of SAJES, Deborah Friedman, said that one difficulty her organization has in attracting money to promote day school education is Suffolk’s close proximity to New York City.
"Funders believe that because we are part of the New York metropolitan area, funding comes easily to us," she said. "It doesn’t.
"We are competing with good public schools and committed families will not choose to come out here [for a day school education] when they have a plethora of choices just 50 miles away."
But Friedman said the community is ripe for growth because synagogue membership in Suffolk is on the rise and the countyís Jewish community is "younger and vibrant."
Bausk said that before it was decided to close the Menorah Day School, she contacted Conservative and Reform synagogues in the area asking to use their classrooms.
"They have plenty of classrooms that we could have used during the day, but they were not cooperative," Bausk said.
She said she did not know which synagogues were contacted, but Rabbi Buechler said he was never approached and did not know anyone who was.
"We are a close-knit Jewish community in Suffolk County, and anytime there is a crisis or an issue to resolve, the leadership gets together," he said. "Our congregants are interwoven into the network of Jewish organizations here, and this is one issue we have not been asked to become involved in."
Rabbi Raphael Wizman of Congregation Etz Chaim/Young Israel of Commack said he was puzzled by Bausk’s comments because he offered her the use of his building for this year. He noted that many of the students ended their studies last semester in his building, which is also home to the Torah Academy of Suffolk County.
But Rabbi Wizman said he offered the use of his building only as a stop-gap measure until a community day school could be created and moved into the Menorah building.
"That building was not built for bingo," he said. "The building was built with the community’s money; I paid the building fund for five years. Now it’s used just for bingo. That’s a disservice to the community."
Bausk said bingo was continuing four nights a week at the school building in order to raise the nearly $70,000 needed to erase debts accumulated last year.
And she said there is still debt from prior years that she also hoped to wipe out with proceeds from bingo, which she said raised about $450,000 for the school last year.
In the meantime, Bausk said a benefactor has promised $100,000 in seed money to get a community school off the ground. Bausk said she is looking for a site somewhere along the Long Island Expressway in eastern Suffolk that would be convenient.
"If those on their way to the Hamptons saw a magnificent building for Jewish education, it would be worth all the advertising you could pay for," she said.