When the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester's boys’ soccer team made it into the quarterfinal and semifinal games, the challenge was more than athletic.
The game was scheduled on a Saturday — in Middletown, 50 miles west in Orange County. To accommodate the students’ needs, the school booked rooms at a hotel walking distance from the field, hired a kosher caterer to provide meals and snacks, and even sent a Torah scroll and prayer books to the hotel for Shabbat prayer services.
For Michael Kay, head of school for the past three years, providing an environment where students can do both these things — participate in competitive sports while maintaining their commitment to Jewish observance — underscores the need for a school like Schechter.
But it’s not easy being a Conservative day school. While most Orthodox parents view day school as a necessity, the majority of Conservative families send their kids to secular schools for academics and to Hebrew school, youth groups and summer camps for Jewish education. In recent years, several Solomon Schechter campuses have closed, including the Suffolk County Schechter in 2008 and four Schechter schools in New Jersey since 1998. Overall the Schechter network has declined from 63 schools in 1998 to 43 today.
But as it marks its 50th year in 2016, Schechter Westchester is bucking the trend.
The school was founded in 1966 by Rabbi Max Gelb, with Leah Gelb as the founding principal. The first year there were 22 students and two teachers. The classroom was in the basement of Temple Israel Center in White Plains.
Schechter’s enrollment for the 2014-2015 academic year was 787, reflecting the first time numbers have increased since 2007. Significantly, the entering kindergarten class this year increased nearly by half, up from 40 students to 59. Most notably, 84 percent of Schechter eighth graders stayed for high school.
Schechter Westchester draws from eight counties in three states (New York, Connecticut and New Jersey), with the biggest feeder coming from Northern New Jersey.
“It’s about understanding the values and priorities of parents,” said Kay, who had attended Schechter schools when he grew up in Albany and most recently served as principal at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. “We have to be viewed as responsive, not reactive.”
Among the 50th anniversary celebrations planned for 2016 are an upcoming Mitzvah Day on Jan. 31, an early-April Shabbat across Schechter, a May golf and tennis event, and a June 2 gala.
Academics and electives are important features of the program.
The school received a grant last fall to build an engineering lab in the elementary school. There is also a technology incubator at the upper school, where students design prototypes and then learn entrepreneurial skills to market them.
A rigorous academic program is especially critical for Westchester Schechter, located in an area that has some of the nation’s best public schools. “They expect a lot and they offer support,” said Giselle Weissman of Rye Neck, a trustee and who has three children in the school
Like the alumni of those schools, many of Schechter’s graduates go on to Ivy League universities and colleges.
“A non-Orthodox school has to be as good as a public school or private school, and serve Jewish content,” said Gabe Nechamkin of Harrison, vice-president of the board of trustees at Schechter, who had also been on the search committee for the new head of school at Schechter. “People have choices.”
Kay admits “it is a challenging climate. It’s a discretionary service we’re offering. The public schools are good and taxes are so high. We have to convince people that the value added is a worthwhile investment, that the education is sufficiently excellent to make them feel it’s the best investment they can make.”
Kay added, “The world of education is changing very rapidly. We have certain priorities. There’s a whole STEAM [science, technology, engineering, graphic arts and math] focus, and engineering in particular, with an innovation lab in the lower school. We want to have greater customizability within the program, and we’re looking to expand the arts program. … It’s a challenging process.”
Nechamkin is hopeful about the future. “Dr. Kay understands the reality that he has to sell the school every day. He’s stemmed the tide of losing numbers. We are financially more stable.”
There are other factors that contribute to Schechter’s strength.
“These are community-based schools that are like public schools,” said Weissman. “The kehilla [community] within the school makes it strong for both parents and students. The feeling at meetings is that we’re all in this together.”