Hardest-Hit Schools Scrambling To Recover


Mazel means “luck” in Hebrew, and for Brooklyn’s Mazel Day School — along with many other Jewish schools damaged by Hurricane Sandy — the luck ran out last week.

This week, Mazel is trying to make some luck of its own.

Pre-Sandy, the Brighton Beach school was on a roll, its enrollment jumping by 40 percent and plans underway for a new building. Now, with its k-6 classrooms completely flooded and requiring months of cleanup and repairs, the 10-year-old school, which serves a mostly Russian Jewish student body, is looking for a temporary location. But it is quickly raising money (almost $100,000 so far) and collecting supplies from well-wishers all over the country, via a website it set up days after the storm.

Meanwhile, with its two floors completely flooded, destroying the electrical system and all books, furniture and supplies, the situation at Rockaway’s Yeshiva of Belle Harbor looked quite bleak by the end of last week. The 49-year-old co-ed Orthodox school was on the verge of going under completely, and Rabbi Boaz Tomsky, the 120-student school’s principal, told The Jewish Week the school would merge with the Yeshiva of Crown Heights, which is in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn. “Fifty years of history were destroyed in a matter of minutes,” he lamented.

But less than 48 hours later, the Rockaway school was pushing its way back up to the surface, resuscitated by a “monumental” Saturday-night meeting organized by a group of parents who pledged money to rent a new facility in Brooklyn.

Scores of Jewish schools on Long Island, New Jersey and Westchester and, to a lesser extent Brooklyn and Queens, lost electricity and heat in the storm and its aftermath, and, like the public schools, had to shut down operations for an entire week. A week after the hurricane, a number of schools in the Five Towns of Long Island were still without power; some were in temporary locations, while others were still scrambling to find facilities.

In addition to Belle Harbor and Mazel, schools facing serious damages include the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and several institutions in Brooklyn’s Sea Gate.

There are also reports of major damage to the Torah Academy for Girls in Far Rockaway (reached by cell phone, its principal declined to be interviewed) and the Manhattan Beach Yeshiva.

Currently, several Jewish organizations — including UJA-Federation of New York and the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education — are collaborating on a comprehensive inventory of schools in need of help, and are also seeking to coordinate assistance from individuals and schools able to offer space, supplies and other forms of help.

However, as of Monday they had only heard from 125 schools — about half — and acknowledged that the ones they have not yet heard from, due to power outages and phone problems, may be the hardest hit. Of the 125, seven have sustained physical damages, many had power outages and a number face “short-term aggravations,” said Rabbi Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Coalition on Jewish Identity and Renewal.

UJA-Federation has also set aside $10 million from its reserves for hurricane relief and is collecting additional funds; while Jewish day schools will likely be among the beneficiaries, it has not yet decided how to allocate the fund.

“With a lot of the schools, the problem is the faculty,” Rabbi Joselow said. “Where kids may live close to the school, often faculty and administrators can’t get there. And many people are dealing with loss to their personal property. The silver lining is that people are enormously generous and want to be helpful. We’re working on figuring out how to channel the good will in a way to be most helpful.”

The federation and its Jewish Education Project are also scrambling to help schools access government services and funds for which they may be eligible and, for those relocating, transfer existing services to new locations.

In the case of Yeshiva of Belle Harbor, that means moving to an entirely new borough. On Monday, the yeshiva’s leaders signed papers on a new location in Midwood; although more than eight miles from its former location, the new location will actually be more convenient for most of the Orthodox yeshiva’s students, 80 percent of whom live in Brooklyn. Students were expected to be back at school sometime this week.

“The school existed despite the fact that it was in Belle Harbor,” Rabbi Tomsky said. “The advantage of Belle Harbor was that it was under the roof of a synagogue that helped tremendously. But we had a lot of Brooklyn parents who wanted to send their kids to us and didn’t because it was too costly to transport them to Queens.”

Meanwhile, Mazel, founded by first-generation Russian Jewish parents, is still looking for temporary space, since seawater poured into the school’s basement and first floor, damaging furniture, books, Smartboards — even Torah scrolls that had been in a supposedly waterproof safe — and leaving most of the building uninhabitable for the near future. Two synagogues have offered space for the next two to three weeks, and officials are trying to locate a more appropriate space for the coming months. Until the storm, the school had relied on space provided rent-free by the FREE/Hebrew Alliance Synagogue.

“Our main concern today is how can we start the school,” said Dimitriy Golobodskiy, a parent and board member who was temporarily displaced from his Manhattan Beach home by the storm. “It comes down to space. We have the kids and we have the teachers — we just need space.”

Before the hurricane, Mazel’s enrollment this year jumped from 100 to 140, with a wait list of 70. That was in spite of raising its tuition by 20 percent.

As of Tuesday, the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach was still struggling to open at all. Although the Yeshiva of the South Shore housed some of the classes from HALB’s boys’ high school, efforts to re-open its girls’ high school were stymied by a broken generator and false rumors of a fire.

Reached by cell phone on Tuesday morning, HALB’s executive director, Richard Hagler, dispelled the rumors about the fire, but was otherwise reluctant to be interviewed, saying only, “All three HALB buildings were devastated. We have no power in any of our facilities.”

Even schools that have been blessed with power and spared physical damages are facing a number of challenges: faculty and students displaced (some just for the short term, others with serious property losses), along with transportation difficulties.

On Friday, Solomon Schechter of Long Island was one of the first Long Island schools to re-open, combining students from its two buildings into the one facility that had power.

“I won’t say it was a 100 percent learning day, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration that it was an 80 percent learning day,” said Cindy Dolgin, the head of school, in an e-mail interview Monday. The main challenge there was transportation; school bus service was not available and parents had to carpool, “a huge challenge with the gasoline crisis causing such panic,” she said.

In response, Schechter “worked very hard to get students who live in Suffolk, Queens and Brooklyn places to sleep so that parents would not need to drive them back and forth,” Dolgin said, adding that the board and parents filled up teachers’ cars with gas while the faculty was teaching.

A dozen of the schools’ families living on the South Shore have suffered “significant damage to their homes and property,” she said, citing cars that floated away, and basements that flooded with water and fuel oil.

While power has been restored in the Lower East Side, many of the high-rise apartment complexes there where many students and teachers live — such as Seward Park and Grand Street — still lack heat and plumbing, said Rabbi Yesocher Ginsberg, principal of Mesivta Tiferes Jerusalem (MTJ), an elementary and high school.

The Jacob Joseph Schools on Staten Island are inland and, despite power losses and “very minor flooding,” avoided much of the devastation facing the waterfront parts of the borough, said Marvin Schick, the schools’ longtime president.

However, Schick — also a consultant on day schools for the Avi Chai Foundation — said that many of the Russian Jewish families attending Jacob Joseph’s year-old Staten Island Hebrew Academy live in the shore area and “have lost their homes or their homes are not livable right now.”

Several parents, Schick said, have already told school leaders they may not be able to continue sending their children, whether because they are moving to Brooklyn to stay with family or because “what they’ve lost is so considerable that they don’t know whether they will be able to pay tuition.”

School recruitment and fundraising efforts, such as open houses and MTJ’s annual dinner scheduled for this Sunday night, are also being disrupted in the aftermath of the storm.

The dinner, which will nonetheless go on as planned, usually provides the school’s “major income for the year,” Rabbi Ginsberg said. Not surprisingly, it is hard to secure contributions at a time when people who haven’t been hurt by the storm are focusing their efforts on hurricane relief. “In the end, it all comes from God, but we still have to do our effort to call everybody and try to get a journal together.”

Since PEJE requested that schools post to its blog detailing whether they need help or can offer help, more than 60 offers of help — from day schools all over the country — have come in, a number from schools, like the Community Day School in New Orleans, that experienced their own natural disasters in the not-so-distant past.

Rabbi Josef Fradkin, of the Chabad Hebrew Academy in San Diego pledged his school’s support, noting, “We are most grateful to our fellow Jewish Day Schools who reached out to us with love after our school campus burned down in the Cedar Fires of 2003.”

Rabbi Ari Segal, of Los Angeles’ Shalhevet, posted, “Unfortunately we lived through Rita when I was the Head of School [at Robert Beren Academy] in Houston, and the help we got from other schools was truly incredible.”

“We are happy to do online courses if needed, send supplies, other?” he offered in his post. “I wish we could offer our facility, but it is a bit far…”

Some schools in Sandy’s path fortunate enough to keep their power, or at least have it restored, were able to offer a haven for families and, in some cases, the larger community.

Even before classes resumed, Schechter of Long Island’s Jericho building was “flooded with parents and children looking for a place to play, read emails, recharge their devices, have a snack and a cup of coffee, not to mention, a shoulder to cry on,” Dolgin said.

Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, N.J., was an oasis of power and heat in a sea of misfortune. BPY, according to an anonymous parent who runs Bergen County’s “Yeshiva Sanity” “really exerted themselves trying to help everyone out.”

Not only did the school open on Thursday, they invited parents to avail themselves of the heat, WiFi and electricity, and hosted families in the building for Shabbat.

On the Lower East Side, MTJ, though out of electricity and heat, shared its working bathrooms with the entire neighborhood, Rabbi Ginsberg said.