Three founders of an Orthodox yeshiva in Smithtown, L.I., upset over the school’s closing last fall, have announced plans to start another Orthodox yeshiva in Suffolk County next year.
But their plan to open in the same building they helped erect 40 years ago (the Hebrew Academy of Suffolk County) has been complicated by the group that closed the elementary school after 20 years of operation.
"The school was given to them with an underlying mortgage," said Anita Kaufman, one of the founders who now lives in Florida. "They also had a mission and a responsibility to the community [to operate an Orthodox day school]. Morally speaking, they have an obligation to return [the building] to the community."
Kaufman was referring to Chofetz Chaim, a New York-based yeshiva that acquired the school at 525 Veterans Highway in 1981 when enrollment dropped and the founders had difficulty paying the bills.
Rabbi Berish Ganz, who served as dean of the school for the next 20 years, denies the school was given to Chofetz Chaim.
"What they did was agree that we should take over the school," he said. "They had a lot of debt that they couldn’t handle and resolved" by filing for economic reorganization under the federal bankruptcy laws.
Under the reorganization plan approved by the court, the building was sold to Chofetz Chaim and the proceeds of the sale were used to pay the school’s creditors.
Jack Kulka, who in 1960 worked for the contractor who built the yeshiva and donated to it, is now a member of the committee seeking to reopen it. Kulka also believes Chofetz Chaim should relinquish its claim to the building.
"The building was donated to Chofetz Chaim and we looked upon it as a trusteeship," he argued. "They failed in their attempt to provide quality Jewish and secular education. Now they are trying to sell for a profit what we believe is a building that belongs to the community."
But Rabbi Ganz insisted the "building doesn’t belong to them."
"It is not a publicly owned building," he said. "It was bought by a private yeshiva when their enrollment was down to nothing, and now they are coming along and saying they want the building for free."
Rabbi Ganz said that when Chofetz Chaim bought the building, it could have "kicked them out. But we acted as gentlemen and went in with permission of the board and paid the deans" who had been owed money.
The yeshiva, known in its last year of operation as the Menorah Day School, did not reopen last fall. County officials, acting on a complaint, in the spring of 2002 said the Suffolk law forbade the school from hosting evening bingo games where smoking was permitted.
When the school banned smoking, bingo attendance plummeted. So smoking was reinstated at bingo, which raised three-fourths of the school budget, and the academy’s two dozen students were moved to area synagogues for the final few weeks of the term.
Chofetz Chaim now has the building on the market for $2.25 million, a price Kulka said is too high given the $400,000 in maintenance work that must be done.
"It’s now in a state of outrageous disrepair," he said.
Kulka said he met with officials from Chofetz Chaim and told them "their priorities should be about Jewish education in Suffolk County as opposed to maximizing the remuneration" of Rabbi Ganz.
He said the price of the building includes a $550,000 payment to Rabbi Ganz for back pay and severance, back taxes and outstanding bills to vendors.
Rabbi Ganz said that after Chofetz Chaim acquired the building, he was left to operate it on his own.
"They left me with no support," he said. "They havenít helped me for 20 years. They abandoned the school."
In fact, Rabbi Ganz said, in the first years after he began operating the school, a Solomon Schechter opened in Suffolk and Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, the head of Lubavitch on Long Island, opened another Orthodox day school in Lake Grove "to undercut" him.
Rabbi Ganz added that proceeds from the sale of the building would be used for Jewish education, but not necessarily in Suffolk County.
Kaufman is troubled by the affair.
"There are a group of us who have been following the demise of the institution," she said of the yeshiva. "I feel that Suffolk suffers because it is so spread out and there is no cohesiveness. We have to bring [Orthodox day school education] back" to Smithtown.
She said the new school, to be called the Suffolk Community Jewish Academy, would be Modern Orthodox, so that "no one would be excluded."
Hy Horowitz, another founder and former president of the school, said he believes that "any child is entitled to a Jewish education."
"My charity is Jewish education because I donít want the next generation to lose its identity," he said. "This is my way of continuing Jewish education" in Suffolk.
Horowitz was perplexed as well by the attitude of Chofetz Chaim.
"We turned over the building to Chofetz Chaim, and all of a sudden they own the school," he said. "The bingo money has not been accounted for and they are trying to sell the building for a profit. That to me is very, very wrong. And I can’t imagine the Chofetz Chaim community not wanting to push Yiddishkeit.
"We gave it to them like a baton, to carry on the Jewish mission. It’s bad enough they were not successful, but we want to take it over" and they refuse.
The founders have asked Rabbi Teldon to help spearhead the effort to open a new Orthodox day school. He said he had a copy of the agreement in which Chofetz Chaim took over the building and that it clearly states the building would be used for an Orthodox day school.
Efforts to reach a settlement with Rabbi Ganz last month failed, Rabbi Teldon said.
"We offered to assume the school’s debts, including the money owed to Rabbi Ganz, in return for taking back the building," Rabbi Teldon said. "But Rabbi Ganz insisted the Chofetz Chaim wanted to make a profit on the building as well. … We’re now consulting with our people to decide the next step in order to be able to keep the building for the community."
Rabbi Teldon said a lawyer has been contacted and that they planned to ask the state attorney generalís office if it would intercede.
"The building was bought [by Chofetz Chaim] with the clear understanding that it would be a community school," he said. "People gave hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to maintain that building. For Chofetz Chaim to now take equity out of that building and transfer it from our community is morally unacceptable."
Added Horowitz: "I can’t imagine how they can take a charitable mission and convert it for profit."