A Jewish community school in Margate, N.J., is alleging that it is being systematically and purposefully destroyed by what at first glance seems an unlikely candidate: the local Jewish federation.
What began as a dispute over Trocki Hebrew Academy’s financial management has escalated into an all-out community war, with a defamation lawsuit by the school’s principal pending against the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties and five other individuals.
The real problem, according to Trocki officials, isn’t financial management, but rather the federation’s plan to open a competing local school in the fall. In a small community that has struggled to support even one school, the academy is claiming that a Jewish federation charged with the duty of supporting the community is instead dividing it.
“This is probably the most divisive [occurrence] in our community’s history,” said Larry Rosenberg, president of Trocki, which is in its 45th year of operation.
In past decades there has been a longstanding financial relationship between the school and the federation, which, in 2002-2003, donated roughly $60,000 to the school, according to Rosenberg. This year, the federation cut the school from its budget. It announced last week that it was considering the purchase of a nearby 5.34-acre campus to house its new school.
Trocki leaders have said the school will remain open for the coming year. But with the new competition and loss of funding — both from the federation and the related bad publicity — its future remains murky.
“At the present time we’re planning on staying open next year,” said Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, principal of Trocki. “[However,] essentially if things continue this way there won’t be any Jewish education in this area.”
The dispute took root last summer when Rosenberg won the presidency from then-board president Ronald Lewkowitz, who was friendly to the federation. Federation insiders point to financial woes on the part of the school, and say that it was unwilling to undertake measures that Lewkowitz had advocated to rectify the problems. An internal audit of the school in 2002, for example, revealed that the school had neglected to pay payroll taxes for a period of time.
Lewkowitz “really tried to turn the academy around, and all of the sudden they had a special meeting and people were brought in that hadn’t been on the board for ages and Lewkowitz is voted out,” said Don Berkman, a local businessman involved with the federation.
Rosenberg admitted to some financial woes “in terms of the way we handle money and book certain expenses,” as well as to late payments on payroll taxes. Trocki has a yearly budget of approximately $2 million and is at least $400,000 in deficit, according to Rosenberg. It recently put together an investment group to buy out the school’s mortgage and liquidate some of its land, after a mortgage loan matured in March and the bank refused to renegotiate.
Nonetheless, Trocki leaders insist that the federation blew the issue out of proportion and turned it into a personal gripe against the school’s governing body and specifically the principal, Weiss.
Weiss’s lawsuit, filed in March, alleges that Lewkowitz called him “unethical” and “immoral” and a “thief.”
David Nussbaum, executive director of the federation for the past two years, and Lewkowitz, both defendants in the suit, said they were unable to comment because of the pending litigation. The defendants have responded to the lawsuit and denied the allegations.
Weiss, 58, has been Trocki’s principal for 31 years and volunteers as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Margate; he is the brother of activist Rabbi Avi Weiss. He claims the federation has ruined his name and livelihood, in addition to conducting a smear campaign against the school in an attempt to win away its students. The school, which currently has an enrollment of 200 students from kindergarten through high school, lost roughly 50 students last year when Lewkowitz departed from the board.
Denise Salamone, who sat on the school board in the past and has a daughter in the seventh grade, said that she likes the nurturing environment in the school and the care “Rabbi Weiss personally gives to each child,” yet is “very up in the air about what to do because of what is going on.”
Trocki leaders also charge that the federation sought to rid the school of its Orthodox orientation. “They [the federation] felt they had the confidence that Ron Lewkowitz would change the religious orientation of the school,” said Rosenberg.
Nussbaum and Lewkowitz vehemently denied these claims and said that the new school will have a similar religious outlook.
The new Jewish Community Day School of Atlantic and Cape May Counties is scheduled to open in September with students from kindergarten through third grade, and to add a grade each year, according to Nussbaum. The school is currently engaged in a search process for a principal and staff and will make a decision on the purchase of the campus by the beginning of July.
The Jewish population in the area, which includes Atlantic City, is approximately 20,000.
Nussbaum said that the new school was founded “based on an overwhelming urging by parents.” When asked about the fact that Margate already has a school to service the community, he responded, “No, we have Trocki Hebrew Academy. That’s for you to decide.”
Since Weiss filed his lawsuit in March, official communication with the federation has ceased.
Rosenberg told the Forward that he had hoped the larger United Jewish Communities, the nationwide umbrella group for local federations, would put a stop to the dispute. Glenn Rosenkrantz, a UJC spokesperson, said the UJC doesn’t make “comments on issues of this sort.”
Nussbaum said that talks aimed at resolving the dispute could not take place until Weiss dismissed “the lawsuit with prejudice,” which means he is barred from bringing another action on the same claim.