Tuvia Teldon, the Chabad rabbi who is opening the first new day school in Suffolk County in more than a dozen years, had hoped that changing the name of his school would have placated critics who believe it will be a divisive force in the community.
Now, on the eve of the first day of classes next Wednesday, the barbs are still flying but Rabbi Teldon — who removed the word “Community” from the school’s name after stinging criticism that his school, in fact, is Lubavitch — believes they’re unjustified.
The Jewish Academy of Suffolk County is scheduled to open with a pre-kindergarten and first grade — not enough kindergarten-age children enrolled to make a class — in the former Cedar Road School in Commack.
Rabbi Teldon, the school’s director, said last week that 25 students had enrolled and that he hoped to have 35 by the time school started. Most of the students are preschoolers, he said, and there are six first-graders.
“We have children from intermarried families, the unaffiliated, Reform and Conservative [Jews], a good cross-section of the community,” he said, adding that an Orthodox woman from Westhampton would be teaching in the school and that her child would also attend.
Rabbi Teldon, director of Chabad on Long Island, stressed that this would be a school for all Jews in the community.
The school generated controversy from the outset when area rabbis and Jewish leaders objected to its original plan to call itself a community day school. Such a name concealed the fact that it would be an Orthodox institution, they argued, and would undermine the struggling Solomon Schechter School of Suffolk, housed about a mile away in the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack. School organizers agreed and changed the name.
But Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center said the promotional literature he has seen still does not forthrightly tell interested parents that the school is a Lubavitch institution.
“We simply ask that this new entity be honest in its advertising,” he said. “When a school coming out of nowhere gets $1 million, operates independently from the rest of the community, does not advertise that it is a Lubavitch day school and attempts to wean away people from existing schools, it is using deceptive practices.
“Suffolk is a close-knit Jewish community, and it saddens me as a rabbi to have to say that other people are not operating on a just and moral plane,” Rabbi Buechler said.
Rabbi Teldon denied that his school solicited the parents of Jewish day-school students and insisted that “the main pieces of literature we use to introduce people to the school say that it is under Orthodox supervision.”
He denied that the academy will be an Orthodox institution, however, explaining that “most people think of an Orthodox day school as being for Orthodox children. We are a day school for all Jewish children … and when questions of halacha [Jewish law] come up, they are decided with an Orthodox view of halacha.”
But Rabbi Buechler pointed out that the Orthodox rabbis in the area “had no input [in the school] and are not supporting it because it is Lubavitch. There is a world of difference between Orthodoxy and Lubavitch.”
Rabbi Raphael Wizman of the Orthodox Congregation Etz Chaim/Young Israel of Commack, said that not only had he had no input into the school but that he was planning to open his own day school next year.
“Lubavitch is not to everybody’s liking,” he said. “I’m hoping to open a K-6 grade Modern Orthodox school like the old Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County. We have plenty of room here for a school.”
The Torah Academy of Suffolk County was located in the Young Israel building before it moved a year ago to Syosset in the hope of attracting more students. TASC, a Modern Orthodox high school, was never able to attract more than 55 students in the 14 years it was in Suffolk.
Rabbi Teldon insisted, however, that his academy would “not be a Lubavitch school.”
“We made it very clear that in this school we want to represent all expressions within Orthodoxy and obviously Lubavitch is one of them,” he explained. “But there will be no effort to push any one particular agenda. Our goal is to teach Judaism as best we can and with the best teachers available.
“Any time a new school moves into an area, there is concern about how it will fit into the Jewish community landscape,” Rabbi Teldon added. “We are doing it in a way that is in the spirit of community and we are looking to work together with the community for many years in the future. Anyone who says this is a Lubavitch school has not visited or has not done any research.”
The academy leased the 48,000-square-foot school building and its 15 acres for three years from the Commack School District after plans to buy a building in the Hauppauge Industrial Park fell through in April.
“We’re very happy with this home,” Rabbi Teldon said. “It’s an ideal setting for us; we never could have bought 15 acres of land.”
He noted that the size of the facility makes it possible to use the building as a Jewish community center.
“We want to expose people of all ages to Jewish education,” Rabbi Teldon said. “This would be a great place to help Jewish children learn about their Jewish identity. We plan to have extracurricular activities after school, such as dance and Jewish programs, art and sports activities in the gym. They will all be open to the public. And starting Oct. 12 we will have a full Mommy and Me program for young mothers with children 6 months to 2 years old. One class would be in the morning and the other at 6 p.m. for working moms.”
With the relocation of the Torah Academy and the closing two years ago of the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County in Smithtown because of failing enrollment, Suffolk had only two Jewish day schools: Solomon Schechter, a K-8 grade school, and the Maimonides Day School in Lake Grove, a nursery through sixth grade school that closed in May. The Lubavitch operated Maimonides and about half of its 20 students were from Lubavitch homes.
Rabbi Teldon said the Lubavitch families would now operate their own school in Lake Grove and that the children of the other families have either moved or are sending their children to other Jewish day schools.
Solomon Schechter, which on Tuesday begins its 24th school year with 90 to 100 students, has proven to be one of the most successful Jewish day schools in Suffolk.
“Seventy percent of our teachers have master’s degrees and our graduates go on to the finest universities, colleges and careers,” said Harold Feldman, the school’s development director. “Every year children in our school win awards for different things. Just two years ago, our children won the Newsday School Scrabble Championship.”
Asked about the Jewish Academy of Suffolk County, he said, “Every school has its own unique qualities and brings something different. Families find what they like about a school; all schools have something special to offer.”
Feldman noted that Solomon Schechter is very happy to be housed in the Suffolk Y JCC, a $5 million state-of-the-art facility that is the second largest Jewish Y in the country.
“We get to take advantage of a lot of their resources, including hot lunches, security, their gym, their 600-seat auditorium and their outdoor facilities — their playground and ball fields.”
He added that students and their parents also make use of the Y’s after-school programs, including swimming and sports activities.