Strangling A Jewish Day School

Education is probably the number one issue in the Jewish community today, and great emphasis is rightly being placed on the value of day schools. Federations and philanthropists are pumping millions of dollars into building and expanding days schools and yet the only Jewish day school in the nation’s capital is on the verge of being put out of business. It’s a shanda and should not be allowed to happen.

Most people may not be aware, but Washington, D.C. has a population of nearly 26,000 Jews. According to the American Jewish Yearbook, the Jewish proportion of the population is higher than anyplace except New York and New Jersey. Yet it was not until 1987 that a handful of Jewish families courageously decided a Jewish education was so important they would start a day school in the District. And the school has thrived. From one grade with a handful of students, the Jewish Primary Day School (JPDS) has grown to 180 students with classes from kindergarten to sixth grade and a reputation for excellence.

The school was set up in the conservative Adas Israel synagogue and run by the director and heavily involved parents. After about a decade, however, the relationship grew uneasy because the synagogue lay leaders and the rabbi wanted more control over what was going on under their roof. The tensions were exacerbated by the fact that the director of JPDS is an Orthodox woman, even though the school itself is not Orthodox. When the contract of the director was up for renewal, the synagogue essentially changed her job description so that she felt she no longer ran the school. From the perspective of JPDS parents, the school had prospered for a decade under her tutelage and now that it was big and successful the synagogue wanted to take it over.

Politics, personality and ideology all came into play and, in the end, both the synagogue board and the JPDS parents could not reconcile their differences over the governance and direction of the school. The parents could have accepted the synagogue’s terms, but they would have lost their director, someone they considered an invaluable educator and administrator, and lost much of their influence over their children’s education. The parents decided to leave the synagogue and make JPDS independent and the synagogue agreed to rent space to the school for two years while it found a new home.

Despite the turmoil, JPDS enrollment increased over the last two years while the parents have desperately sought an alternative location. Well, it turns out finding a place to house a school is not such an easy thing, never mind the cost involved in building or renting. After having no success, a Jewish family made a generous donation toward the purchase of land on which a new school could be built. Still, it would take several years to raise the money for construction and complete the project. In the meantime, the neighbors began a vocal campaign in the press opposing the school and promising a vigorous campaign to prevent changing the zoning to allow its construction.

Since it was clear a new school would not be ready before the synagogue required them to leave, the parents looked for a temporary solution. After many months, two synagogues a few miles from the present location agreed to house JPDS. The neighbors of these synagogues then mobilized against the idea.

Can you imagine what would happen if a white neighborhood tried to keep a school full of African-American students out? Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other activists would be protesting, boycotting, marching and fill the press with accusations. In typical Jewish fashion, however, the parents quietly tried to reassure neighbors and lobby politicians. The result was that the zoning board, which approved requests for 80 of 81 schools since 1980, granted JPDS only one year to use the synagogues rather than the three years it requested. This was a crippling blow, since the school would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the move, something that was feasible for a longer term, but potentially ruinous for such a short time.

The end of the school year is rapidly approaching. Time has run out for JPDS. A successful school, with an excellent reputation is in extremis. The strain and uncertainty has caused some parents to look for alternatives, but most parents remain so committed to JPDS that they are prepared to raise the money necessary to accept the one-year stopgap measure offered by the other synagogues. Adas Israel could have saved the day by allowing the school to stay longer, but the time for such a commonsense, moral, Jewish solution has nearly run out. JPDS must begin renovations in its temporary home. Unfortunately, this will not guarantee the school’s survival. It will still have to fight another zoning battle to construct its own building as well as raise millions for the project.

Nearly 200 children who were getting an excellent Jewish education may now be denied the opportunity. It should never have come to this, but now that it has, the Jewish community — not just locally, but nationally — cannot allow the capital’s only day school to die.