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Jewish day schools are 'closing by the day.' How did Buffalo manage to save one?

Kadimah Scholars at Park
Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Michal Shmuel-Lewis teaches a Hebrew lesson in the new Kadimah classroom at The Park School of Buffalo.

A first-of-its-kind partnership to save a Jewish day school in Buffalo has cities like Chicago and Los Angeles taking notice.

After enrollment at Kadimah Academy dropped to just 32 students last year, the private pre-K-8 Jewish day school made the difficult decision to close. But much like the City of Buffalo, Kadimah is reinventing itself—by partnering with the secular Park School of Buffalo.

“When Kadimah was closed, we were very sad that we didn’t have a school anymore, and we were anxious. We didn’t know what to expect,” said Michal Shmuel-Lewis, the Hebrew instructor at Kadimah. “We started negotiating with Park, and the more time that went by, the more we found out how people were nice to us and supporting and welcoming. Coming here is really a blessing.”

Shmuel-Lewis spoke to WBFO from her new classroom in the middle school wing at The Park School’s Amherst campus, where posters of the Hebrew alphabet, maps of Israel and photos of Jerusalem and the beach in Tel Aviv cover the walls. Park has also welcomed the addition of Hebrew signage outside the classroom.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
A student-drawn map of Israel hangs on the classroom wall.

“Everywhere you go you can see the signs in Hebrew—on the bathroom door [and] the bulletin boards—and people are walking by and they say, ‘Oh, what is that? Can you explain about this?’ And the [Kadimah] kids are walking around and they really feel at home,” Shmuel-Lewis said.

The new partnership is not a merger. Kadimah closed as an independent school, and the majority of its former students who migrated along with some of their teachers are now fully-enrolled Park pupils. But the remaining nonprofit organization Kadimah will continue providing Judaic Studies and Hebrew instruction within The Park School. Hebrew has been built into Park’s world languages department and Judaic Studies is distributed throughout the school day and some after-school curriculum.

“Kadimah needed some help and they asked us if we could do that. Our responsibility made it an easy yes,” said Jeremy Besch, Head of School at Park.

“What we're really hoping is that this can be a model not just for secular and Jewish schools but for organizations across the country who might take opportunities to work together in terms of celebrating and promoting difference rather than, what I think, has become sort of a national, cultural tendency to stay separate.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
A Kadimah student follows along during morning prayers.

Kadimah Board President Hallie Keren said the organization’s school, which was founded in 1959, was far from the only center of Jewish learing struggling to stay open.

“It really is an issue that not only Jewish day schools but any private school that’s potentially religiously affiliated or not is facing,” she said. The costs of providing private education continually rise, which means tuition goes up and enrollment often declines—especially if the institution is competing with high-quality public school districts.

Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools like Kadimah, which provide both religious instruction and comprehensive secular studies, have also faced greater financial challenges than Orthodox schools, or yeshivas, which emphasize religious learning. That’s because the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish population is growing at a much faster rate than non-Orthodox communities and because most American Jews still don’t send their children to Jewish schools, according to the most recent census of Jewish day schools in the U.S.

So, Keren said, “[non-Orthodox] Jewish day schools around the country are closing by the day.”

The country’s only non-Orthodox Jewish boarding school, the American Jewish Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, also unexpectedly closed for the 2019-2020 school year “due to insufficient growth in enrollment and our inability to secure adequate funding to cover future expenses.” However, the school announced in September it will reopen for at least three grades in 2020.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Rabbi Ori Bergman blows the Shofar, an ancient horn used during the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In order to make the Kadimah Scholars at Park program accessible to all Jewish families who wish to take advantage of it—regardless of whether their children were previously enrolled—Kadimah will provide scholarships to help cover the gap between the former tuition and that of Park’s, which ranges from around $14,000 to $22,000 per year depending on the age of the learner.

Besch said few Park families pay full tuition as a result of generous financial aid packages, and he added that Kadimah’s commitment to provide scholarships confirmed that the schools share common values, if not a religion.

“Despite [Park] being secular and [Kadimah] religious, our two organizations shared very similar missions in terms of things like honesty and kindness and responsibility to others,” Besch said.

Besch and Keren also acknowledged concerns about compromising their identities as secular and religious institutions.

“Do we lose the Jewish aspect? Does the program get watered down? These were concerns that were raised not only by board members but by the community at large and parents,” Keren said. “I think with the partnership we’ve managed not only to maintain the strength the Judaic aspect has, we were able to combine the secular education and make it a very strong program.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Talula, Nancy Enis's daughter, eats Challah bread after a Friday Kiddush, the ceremony that welcomes the weekly Sabbath.

“It also not only introduces a Jewish day school in a secular school, it introduces Judaism to the broader community and creates dialogue and understanding and respect.”

Besch said The Park School is committed to supporting children in becoming their fullest selves, which includes their belief systems.

“We are secular and we’re giving our community members who do have religious beliefs the time and space to be themselves, and why wouldn’t we?”

Besch said Park also has a history of welcoming students from area Catholic schools that have closed, and that the school has made accommodations for Christian and Muslim students to meet and pray.

Nancy Enis’ children Ozzy and Talula have attended Kadimah since early elementary school. She said she was very concerned about the potential loss of one of Buffalo’s few options for Jewish education.

“In Judaism, the idea of conducting oneself properly, meaning conducting oneself in such a way so that the individual contributes positively to society through their actions is extraordinarily important. Community is paramount,” Enis told WBFO. “So, many schools—probably most schools—pay lip service to the idea of building the character of their students, but I think very few schools are able to create a culture which actually accomplishes this in a deep and meaningful way.”

Now that Ozzy and Talula are at Park, they can continue their Hebrew and Jewish education through high school, and Enis said they are all thrilled.

“I feel like we’ve won big,” she said. “They’re teaching these little people to grow up to be wonderful big people who are going to be repairing our world and making our world a better place.”

The Buffalo Jewish Federation helped facilitate the partnership and is a significant funder of Kadimah. Executive Director Rob Goldberg said extending Jewish education through high school could help attract more Jewish families to the area.

“Whether it’s a new physician coming to town or someone studying at the university and doing their graduate work or a new rabbi that a synagogue is trying to attract, we need certain key things to make it possible for them to thrive in Buffalo,” Goldberg said. “One of those is Jewish day school alternatives.”

The only other Jewish school in Buffalo is Ohr Temimim, a small Orthodox elementary school that offers a more religious curriculum than Kadimah.

Paul Bernstein is CEO of Prizmah, the network for all Jewish day schools across North America. He said Jewish day schools sit within the heart of Jewish communities, and that he always encourages struggling day schools to seek innovative solutions to continue operating.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Sophia, far right, and Shaina, second from right, are Kadimah's first two high school students.

“I know that there are communities in other parts of North America who are looking to Kadimah, to Park, to Buffalo for learning and the ability to follow the great example that everyone is setting,” Bernstein said.

Park and Kadimah leaders said they’ve already heard from Jewish day schools in Chicago, L.A. and other cities who want to learn more about the partnership. And with the school year in full swing, Kadimah’s first two high school students, Sophia and Shaina, are enjoying continuing their studies at Park.

“I came to Kadimah at fifth grade and I kept going and it's just like a part of me now,” Sophia said after a Friday Kiddush, the ceremony that welcomes the weekly Sabbath.

Shaina said she instantly felt more connected to her peers at Kadimah than she did at the public school she used to attend.

“At Kadimah, you have more heart because they're your family. They aren't just your friends. They're literally your family.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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