Three years ago I was living in Western Canada, and my oldest boy was a kindergartener at a Jewish day school there. The school was fine — neither spectacular nor terrible. I sent my son there because, frankly, it was the only Jewish game in town. But in my mind, I was going to send my kids to a great Jewish day school one day, and, anticipating a move to the American Northeast, where Jews are far more numerous than in Canada’s oil country, I looked for an institution that matched all my needs — a Jewish day school that prioritized mench-iness, offered excellent academics and would provide peers from the Jewish gamut. Turns out, there was just such a place, in a prime location in Manhattan. I called it up.
“How old are your children?” I was asked. I told the head of school that my oldest son was 5 and a half; my middle son was 3 and a half; my youngest was irrelevant for the moment.
“I assume the oldest has taken his ERBs?”
“His huhs?” At that time I hadn’t heard of the Educational Records Bureau assessment test for independent school admission. It was like the moment at the interview when they ask you why you want to work at Apple, and you realize you are not sure if they make hardware or software or pie.
“It’s too late,” she said, “if he’s already 5 and a half. And we’re full.” A flat dismissal — before I even told her we were going to be a family of five living, at the time, on a pitiful academic salary and needed something in the ballpark of 100% tuition remission!
When we realized New York was not the panacea for our Jewish needs, we opted, ironically, for the WASPiest part of New Jersey: Princeton (as luck would have it, we both eventually got jobs at the university there). We found a lovely haimishe day school that was kind of far but wasn’t full and didn’t require academic testing. Instead, the school happily took us in — midyear at that — and gave us tuition assistance and sent a bus right to our door and made us a part of its little family. It was Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley.
Our school called itself Conservative, but we were pleased to see that it had a range of kids, from the tzitzit crowd to the heretic types (that was us). It’s where my oldest learned to read and write Hebrew fluently in the first month of first grade (before English!); where the kids in his class so loved the “Ariot” Hebrew curriculum that one hosted an “Ariot” birthday party (take that, Chuck E. Cheese!), and where everyone knew everyone’s name, from kindergarten through eighth grade. All was good.
Only all was not good.
The school was not competitive — could not demand ERBs or declare itself full — because, like many suburban Jewish day schools, it was low on students and high on debt. Behind closed doors, those same people who approved our tuition assistance were realizing that it was impossible to run a school on the revenue they had. At its peak, the school, which opened its doors in 1981, had more than 300 students. And perhaps most of them had paid in full. This was not the case in 2013. An email was sent out to the parents Tuesday, August 6, three weeks and two days before the first day of the 2013–14 school year announcing an emergency meeting.