As the Conservative movement is seeking to reenergize its ranks, a swath of its members is mourning the sudden loss of the New York City area’s only Conservative Jewish high school.
Less than two weeks before the Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck, N.J., was set to begin the academic year, the board announced to a shocked audience of parents, teachers and students that the school had not met its fundraising goals and would therefore be forced close its doors for good.
Metro Schechter, which merged last year with Manhattan’s Schechter high school in an effort to keep both institutions afloat, has long struggled with ongoing operating losses reaching into the millions of dollars. In May, the 140-student high school nearly went under but was saved after the board made an 11th-hour decision requiring the school to meet steep financial and enrollment benchmarks.
The move comes less than two weeks before the inauguration of Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Eisen has vowed to chart a new course for Conservative Judaism, but the demise of two Conservative high schools in the New York area in less than two years may signal that the incoming leader has an uphill battle ahead of him. Metro Schechter’s failure to meet its benchmarks, which included raising $500,000 from the community, underscores Conservative Judaism’s waning influence, some say.
“The movement is in nowhere land,” said Eve Yudelson, the parent of two Metro Schechter students and herself a Hebrew teacher at Temple Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Teaneck. “It didn’t come through for the kids. The fact that they can’t sustain a metropolitan high school presence is a problem.”
The school’s board president, Alan Tannenbaum, explained that the school had to close after they were informed, “late in the summer and on very short notice,” that a pledge of more than $600,000 was rescinded. He declined to name the donor, but a source close to the school, who asked to remain anonymous, said the donor saw his fortunes decline in recent months as the sub-prime mortgage market tanked. Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, also referred to the financial downturn — although he too did not name the donor.
“Up until the last moment, the school was considered financially viable,” Epstein wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “It is extremely unfortunate that the disastrous economic crisis in the past month made it necessary for a sizeable pledge to be reluctantly withdrawn.”
The announcement, made August 23, was met with dismay not only by parents and students, but also by the school’s 22 faculty members, who found themselves unexpectedly out of their jobs at what some say is the worst time to find alternative employment in schools.
Rebecca Lieberman, who had worked at the New Jersey school since its founding four years ago and was recently promoted to assistant principal for student affairs, said that she and many of her colleagues were facing severe financial hardship as a result of the decision. “We have faculty members who are three, four or five paychecks away from homelessness,” she said. As for her own situation, Lieberman said, she and her husband, a rabbi who taught Arabic part-time at Metro Schechter for the past two years, purchased a house in February and have a mortgage that requires both of their incomes. “The impact of this has far-reaching consequences,” she said.
Tannenbaum said that the school has reached out to local educational institutions, both Jewish and secular, to help teachers and staff find new jobs. He also said that Metro Schechter hoped to be in a position to offer severance packages but could not give specifics until he had “clarified the obligations of the school in this process.”
Epstein said that the United Synagogue is working with the school to make sure that students were placed in “appropriate educational settings.” Although he called the closing a “tragic turn of events,” Epstein said that it did not reflect a widespread problem.
“Although I am not in the office and do not have access to Schechter growth figures,” Epstein wrote in his e-mail, “I want to assure you that new schools are being formed and many extant schools report growing enrollment.”
But one parent, Steven Huberman, a former Jewish communal executive, pinned the blame for Metro Schechter’s demise on the community “in the broadest sense.” “I think this is a failure of partners,” he said. “For an institution to succeed, it has to partner with synagogues, national institutions and major donors. It has to have broad-based grassroots support.”
Huberman also summed up the sadness felt by the many parents, teachers and students who had a stake in the school. “It’s like having lost a parent and not having a place to say Kaddish,” he said.