By Maayan Jaffe
It has been just over a week since the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew formally announced that it will shut its doors at the end of the 2012-2013 school year and that the Independent Jewish Academy of Baltimore will not open up in its stead.
An outpouring of emotions, accusations and acceptance has spiraled throughout the community, raising questions as to how the school was run, if there should have — could have — been a bailout, and whether or not the Day School, or a similarly pluralistic Jewish private school, is needed in Jewish Baltimore.
“Anytime an institution that engages our youth has to close, for whatever the circumstances, it is a sad day,” said Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
And that is true, according to all parties involved. Since 1991, hundreds of students have benefited from the Day School’s general education and atmosphere while being inspired by its Jewish studies and community. However, in recent years, hundreds have become dozens and even less. According to Day School board member Jerry Schnydman, approximately 50 students were enrolled in the school this calendar year. Only 36 had put down a deposit for the 2013-2014 school year. In the early 2000s, there were approximately 30 children per grade.
Day School parent Becky Mossing witnessed firsthand the struggle to maintain a sustainable student body. She told the JT that since her twin daughters, now 9, enrolled in the school four years ago, the Day School was always looking to increase enrollment.
“I became a parent ambassador, and we have been involved in meetings and increasing awareness of the school. It was always at the forefront, always something the administration wanted parents to push,” she said. “I am not a dumb person and my brain told me, ‘If we keep losing kids, we are not going to be able to stay open.’”
But Mossing said despite hosting parlor meetings and even giving friends tours of the Day School, “no one was interested in coming.”
Sometimes those parents would opt for public school. Other times they would choose a different Jewish day school.
“They wanted more,” Mossing said. “Not a Reform education.”
Lenore Meyers, whose son and daughter attended the school until 2008, said “this has been a failed school for years. They have been saying they are not, but they have been. When my son was in kindergarten, there were 30 kids per grade. After we left, there were five to six kids per grade. They would have graduations of two to three kids. That is a failing school.”
Mossing’s and Meyers’ observations are certainly in line with results from the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study. At the time of the questionnaire, only 6 percent of Reform families with children under 18 had students enrolled in a Jewish day school. And a question posed to members of the different Jewish sects with children under 4, found that only 2 percent of Reform families were considering sending their kids to a Jewish day school. There just wasn’t a market.
“It is obvious there is not a need for this school,” said Mossing.
Schnydman echoed Mossing’s sentiments.
“I think it is important to have a pluralistic school if there is interest in it. But I am a very pragmatic person. If there is interest, then we ought to have it. If there is no interest, then let’s move on to the next subject,” he said.
But others are not so quick to take that route. Allan T. Hirsch III, one of the Day School’s founders, told the JT, “I think it is very important the community have a school with that outlook and an opportunity [for Jewish schooling] for interfaith families, particularly those where there is patrilineal descent. … There is a definite need to have a pluralistic school in Baltimore. Unfortunately, the community is not supportive of one and hasn’t been.”
By support, Hirsch, who was slated to be board chair of the Independent Jewish Academy, said he meant financially. The dollars never came, he said, from the organized Jewish community or from private donors. He said that is because the need for a school like the Day School (or the new Independent Jewish Academy) is smaller than the need for more traditional Jewish schools.
“There was a lot of verbal support for it, but words can only do so much,” he said.
Schnydman poo-pooed the idea of a bailout. For example, he described The Associated’s role as “supportive” and said, “People say The Associated should bail out the school. The Associated can’t do that and should not be expected to do that. The Associated has been extremely helpful and kind, and having been on the inside, I think I am qualified to say that.”
The Associated provides per-capita grants to all area day schools for operating expenses and scholarships. Fewer students at Baltimore Hebrew meant less funds from The Associated.
Macks Center for Jewish Education Executive Vice President Larry Ziffer confirmed that the federation is assisting students and faculty to have a softer landing, especially given the late notice of the school’s closing. He told the JT the organizations have offered to facilitate meetings between Day School alum and other Jewish day schools if parents and students are interested in continuing with a full-time Jewish education.
“Current economic conditions have placed great strains on all forms of Jewish education,” said Ziffer. “The cost of maintaining a Jewish day school with a high-quality dual curriculum is a challenge, especially at a time when more families are experiencing financial stress. Sadly, some families feel that they need to choose among competing priorities, and day-school education falls lower on their priority list. The Associated and CJE are working with the leadership of the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew to assist them and the families who are affected so that there will be the smoothest possible transition for students into alternative Jewish educational settings. Other day schools have been extremely responsive, to the degree that their budgets and academic programs allow.”
Day School Head of School Gerri Chizeck expressed similar sentiments. She said the Jewish day schools, the CJE, The Associated and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation have “been helping us in any way they can, and we are grateful.”
But not all parents — or past parents — are willing to the tow the party line. Meyers, for example, said she trusted the school with her children, and “it betrayed us on so many levels.”
She noted that because of lack of students and funding, the Day School could not provide the extracurricular activities to make the education well rounded.
“They stopped doing plays because there were not enough kids. There were no sports teams when my kids were there because there were only 12 kids in one grade,” she said.
Another parent, who wanted to be named only as J.G., cited strained relations between Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the school.
Mossing admitted that as a parent she was aware of strained relations between the Day School and BHC but said she was not fazed by it.
“There had been parents who were concerned about the lack of support [from the congregation], and I think there was declining support,” she said. “But to me, it was the school trying to find its independence, to flourish on its own.”
In a statement, Rabbi Andrew Busch and BHC President Peggy K. Wolf noted that the Day School “is a nonprofit organization that operates independently of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation,” but the statement expressed sadness at the school’s closing and noted that the positive impact of the Day School will live on for many, many years.
“We pay respect and appreciation to the leaders, teachers, families and students for their creative and determined efforts on behalf of the Day School and Jewish education,” the statement read.
Chizeck said her mission now is to place the students and teachers in settings that will work for them both Jewishly and educationally.
“That will be my personal mission for the next month or two,” she said. “The school created so many graduates who are leaders in their communities, and we would love to know that our current students will follow in their footsteps and make us all proud.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor — email@example.com