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The Promising Land from a Gleam in Founder’s Eye, Boarding School Has Flourished

January 24, 2003
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Take truckloads of cream-colored Jerusalem stone, insert gleaming high-tech classrooms, fold in the many strands of pluralistic Judaism and arrange on a thick bed of cash.

That’s the recipe for the American Hebrew Academy, North America’s only coed Jewish boarding high school.

The academy opened here last year with 70 students in grades nine and 10. This year, it has 70 students in grades nine through 11.

But founder Maurice “Chico” Sabbah and his board of directors are dreaming big. Construction continues on a 100-acre campus designed by architect Aaron Green, a Frank Lloyd Wright protege, to serve 800 students. Recruitment efforts will intensify within North America and expand to South America, Sabbah says.

Some skeptics predicted that the academy would attract primarily troubled teens, and indeed, several first-year students were prohibited from returning this year.

But the academy’s director of admissions, Alina Gerlovin Spaulding, says her challenge isn’t keeping out troublemakers but convincing non-Orthodox parents to send their teens to boarding school.

“I was just on the phone with a mom who said, ‘If you can say anything that will convince me to part with my 14- year-old, say it now,’ ” Spaulding remarks.

Academy students may be Jewish by matrilineal or patrilineal descent or by conversion. Students take four secular classes, one Hebrew class and two Jewish studies classes each trimester. Each student receives a laptop computer that connects with a wireless network anywhere on campus.

Classrooms feature a specially designed, droplet-shaped learning table that allows all 14 occupants to see one another. The table flanks a Smart board, a computerized writing surface that can display the contents of the instructor’s computer screen, convert handwriting to text, save notes and drawings and download them to students’ computers.

The faculty is drawn from Greensboro’s top high schools and from elsewhere in the United States and Israel.

Morning worship is optional, while afternoon prayer and Friday and Saturday services are mandatory. Students may attend a Greensboro congregation on Shabbat.

All academy services are egalitarian, and each session offers the option of a Reform musical service or a more traditional Conservative service. As a pluralistic school, the students pray with their choice of a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox prayer book.

Administrators say the diversity of students’ backgrounds is enriching.

“Those students with strong Jewish backgrounds have the opportunity to model or have a conversation about Jewish practice,” says educator Dov Goldberg, the academy’s dean of Jewish life. “At the same time, those students for whom everything about Judaism is new and fresh bring a certain wonder and excitement that others can see and feel. Sometimes they ask the most penetrating questions.”

The pluralism is not lost on the students. The president of the student government, Erin Knopf, says the academy demonstrates “that it’s possible, no matter what sort of Judaism you come from, to find a level ground.”

Knopf, 16, of Warren, N.J., explains that she doesn’t keep the Sabbath strictly, but her roommate does.

“You learn to have respect for each other and courtesy,” Knopf says. For instance, she waits until Shabbat ends on Saturday evening before going out, so her roommate can join her.

The student with the most Jewish adjustments to make may well be freshman Joe Paulson of Norfolk, Va.

The only pupil with tzitzit, or ritual fringes, Paulson skips egalitarian worship and avoids hearing a woman sing.

A graduate of a Chabad day school, Paulson sits quietly by himself in Shabbat services, and davens by himself in his room.

“My mom found AHA on the Internet,” he explains. “We were looking for a good school with a secular education that would prepare me for college.”

He hopes to attend an Ivy League university and become a doctor, scientist or businessman.

The academy doesn’t cover Talmud as intensively as Paulson might like, but the school provides him a different sort of Jewish education.

“I get to see how people think, different views,” he says.

And his parents trust him not to stray from Orthodoxy.

“They know that I know what I’m supposed to do,” he says.

Sabbah says the new school will bolster Jewish continuity.

“I’m convinced that if I teach the children their heritage and help them understand what they are, they will be proud of their heritage,” he says. “I’m teaching the future leaders of the Jewish community across the United States and elsewhere.”

The idea for the academy originated in 1996, when Sabbah decided to build a Jewish high school for Greensboro’s youth.

Yet even with the local B’nai Shalom Day School graduating 15 students per year, the population was too small, and Sabbah decided on a boarding school.

His original $20 million idea grew to $50 million and, by now, beyond $100 million, funds which Sabbah has provided himself. The self-effacing insurance magnate is, by all accounts, an intensely private man who rarely speaks to the media and was unknown outside of the local Jewish community when the academy opened.

Sabbah spends most mornings at the school and often eats lunch with the students.

“My greatest pleasure is to interact with the kids. They’re all my grandchildren,” he declares. “I have to admit they spoil me, but I enjoy it.”

Sabbah might have maintained his quiet, satisfying life if not for the Sept. 11 attacks. Sabbah co-owns Fortress Re, a reinsurance company that pooled the funds of several insurance companies to share the risks of insuring airplanes. In other words, if a plane insured by one of the companies were lost or damaged, each company would contribute to the pay-out.

All four planes that crashed on 9/11 were insured by the Fortress Re pool. The companies faced claims of $2.5 billion, and the Fortress Re funds fell far short.

One of the companies, Sompo Japan Insurance, has filed a lawsuit claiming that Sabbah and his partner “amassed personal fortunes” by skimming money off the top from Sompo’s funds.

Sabbah’s attorney, Glenn Drew, denies any wrongdoing by Fortress Re.

Still, with the school so dependent on Sabbah, some Greensboro Jews wonder privately about the academy’s financial security.

But Sabbah also contends that the school is safe. The academy doesn’t have an endowment fund, but Sabbah says he has “enough money in the academy’s name and in charitable foundations’ names to cover operation of the school for at least 10 years, and for construction for the next few years.”

Plaintiffs “will never be able to pierce the non-profit veils,” his lawyers have assured him.

“I have the best lawyers in the country defending me,” he says. “I think we will prevail. So everything is secure.”

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