Increased Competition Shakes Up N.J. Schools


The mood at the Moriah School this spring could be described as more somber than hopeful.

A few days before the two-week Pesach break, the Englewood, N.J., school — one of the oldest and largest Jewish day schools in Bergen County — is said to have laid off 22 faculty members, many of them believed to be longtime employees who are in their 60s, The Jewish Week has learned. That figure represents nearly 20 percent of the school’s roughly 115 teachers.

Administration officials declined to confirm the precise number of teachers and staff whose contracts have not been renewed for 2013-14. Board President Evan Sohn said in an e-mail to The Jewish Week that “the actual number is still not confirmed as discussions with the head of school are still in process.”

Sohn, along with Principal Elliot Prager and Chairman Jay Goldberg, sent out a letter to parents on Monday saying “there has been a significant degree of speculation relating to faculty and staff changes in the year ahead” and that “most of the information circulating is not correct — specifically relating to faculty terminations.” That letter notes that more information will be provided at “town hall” sessions for the “Moriah community” on April 23 and April 25.

Regardless of the precise number of layoffs, there is no question Moriah is in the midst of scaling back financially as the Modern Orthodox nursery through eighth-grade school contends with sharp enrollment declines.

A March 19 letter to parents from Prager, Sohn and Goldberg noted that the school’s newly adopted budget makes “several strategic changes designed to create efficiencies,” including “[r]e-calibration of faculty compensation packages.”

The letter, which also said that tuition will not change in the coming year and that more school days will be added to the calendar, does not specify enrollment numbers, but explains that the budget cuts are driven by “the school’s changing demographics and census numbers.”

While sources close to the school told The Jewish Week that enrollment there has dropped from approximately 1,000 a few years ago to 780 this year to about 700 projected for next year, Sohn, in an e-mail to The Jewish Week, said that enrollment is currently over 800, and that the early childhood program is increasing 15 percent for next year. He declined to say exactly when employment decisions for next year will be finalized or to answer questions about severance packages.

While the sluggish economy and a growing resistance to tuition increases may be a factor in Moriah’s shrinking student population, several other area Modern/centrist Orthodox schools — including Ben Porat Yosef and Yeshivat Noam, both established in 2001 — are enjoying stable or growing enrollment.

Indeed, several parents and teachers interviewed suggest that the 49-year-old Moriah — once so full it turned away nearby Teaneck students and gave preferential admissions to Englewood families — is struggling to adapt to a climate of increased competition. New options include not just Ben Porat Yosef and Noam, both in Paramus, but also a Chabad school in Tenafly and Yeshivat He’Atid, a school touting lower tuition and “blended“ learning that opened this fall in Bergenfield. Moriah may also be hurting, observers speculate, because while the Orthodox population is growing in Teaneck and Bergenfield, Englewood’s Orthodox community is not increasing; in addition, younger families are believed to tilt to the right ideologically, whereas Moriah, where all classes are co-ed, is on the left wing of Orthodoxy.

With tuition and fees over $17,000 for the higher grades, the Englewood school is comparable to Ben Porat Yosef, Noam and Yavneh Academy — another large and long-established Modern Orthodox school in Bergen County — but is considerably higher than Lubavitch on the Palisades and Yeshivat He’Atid. In addition, until this year Moriah continued to raise tuition, even as other schools were holding tuition flat or even lowering it.

It is not clear if all Moriah’s laid-off teachers will receive severance packages and if the packages are being determined according to a uniform system.

The layoffs come after several years of austerity. One laid-off teacher told The Jewish Week that there have been no raises since 2008 and that the school no longer matches employee contributions to retirement plans.

In addition, a tuition discount for teachers has been decreased. “Morale is definitely low, and it’s been low,” said this teacher. While “at the end of the day, it’s a business and it’s in the red and not sustainable,” this teacher said the budget cuts give faculty “a sense of not being protected or cared for; everyone is walking on eggshells.”

Some of the laid-off teachers are in their 30s or younger, but it is believed that at least 11 are in their 50s and 60s, and many have been at Moriah more than 20 years, according to one source close to the situation.

“Moriah stuck to their old ways too long, and parents who’ve left are just looking for something else,” one mother said, adding that most disgruntled Moriah parents she knows who have pulled children from the school have opted for Ben Porat Yosef or Noam instead.

Asked his opinion about the situation, “Yeshiva Dad,” an anonymous blogger and Yeshivat He’Atid parent who writes about Bergen County yeshivas and day schools on his “Yeshiva Sanity” blog, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview that the layoffs were “inevitable given the reduced enrollment at Moriah and the demand for lower tuition.

“I think Moriah made a big mistake 10 years ago when they gave preference to Englewood students over Teaneck students, causing Teaneck parents to start up other schools, like BPY, Noam and now He’atid,” he added. “The Orthodox population in Teaneck has exploded while Englewood hasn’t changed much and the word in Teaneck is that Moriah is primarily an Englewood school so they mostly aren’t sending there.”

Ruth Roth, Ben Porat Yosef’s admissions director, declined to comment about Moriah, but confirmed that her school is growing.

Enrollment is currently 330, and is expected to be 380 next year. Last year the school had approximately 270 students.

Although founded by a group of Sephardic families frustrated by the Ashkenazi-centric curricula at other Orthodox day schools, Ben Porat Yosef, which teaches customs from both traditions, now has a predominantly Ashkenazi student body.

Roth attributes her school’s success to its “progressive” pedagogy and its relatively intimate environment.

“Our philosophy is to be a small school; we will never grow beyond three classes a grade,” she said, adding, “nobody’s anonymous here.”

However, she emphasized that enrollment trends “are often very cyclical — there’s a trend toward one, then another becomes golden.”

Rabbi Chaim Hagler, Yeshivat Noam’s principal, did not return a Jewish Week e-mail and voice message requesting comment. However, the school is widely believed to be booming, despite the sluggish economy.

Noam’s enrollment this year is 802; in 2010-11 it was 715.

“We never anticipated the school growing at the pace it did,” Rabbi Hagler said in a 2010 interview with The Jewish Week. “By the second year there was a waitlist for the pre-K class.”; @julie_wiener