Can The Shalhevet School Be Saved?


5-towns-jewish-timesBy Larry Gordon
Discussion and debate intensified over the last week about the HAFTR board of directors’ decision to discontinue funding of the Shalhevet High School for Girls in Cedarhurst, which just completed its first year. The board handed down the decision over a week ago as a cost-saving measure, as yeshivas around the community-and indeed around the country-have been forced to take a hard second look at where costs can be curtailed in the coming school year. This move comes about as growing numbers of parents seek relief from high tuition expenses, contributions are being reduced, and applications for full or partial scholarships are on the rise.Still, the Shalhevet school-the brainchild of Rabbi Zev Friedman and Rabbi Yotav Eliach of Rambam Mesivta and Machon HaTorah (the umbrella organization that heretofore encompassed HAFTR, Rambam, and Shalhevet) is refusing to quietly or uneventfully disband and relinquish their students to other yeshivas that are gladly willing to accept them.

In a statement issued earlier this week by Rabbi Friedman, he indicated that he has spoken with the principals of other leading girls’ high schools on Long Island and in Queens and said that he is receiving extraordinary cooperation from the schools, who have assured the rabbi that there will be place for the Shalhevet students in their respective schools.

But Rabbi Friedman has asked the schools to give him several weeks so that he can ascertain whether the possibility exists for him to salvage Shalhevet. Yakov Gross, the president of Rambam Mesivta, said on Monday that he thought the chances were very good that Shalhevet will be able to stay open and continue to develop into a premier yeshiva high school for girls.

To that end, he said that the Shalhevet leadership has already identified a new neighborhood location for the school should it be determined that the school will remain open. A meeting was held on Wednesday night with parents of Shalhevet students at the Rambam building in Lawrence. At the same time, Mr. Gross took exception to a point in last week’s coverage of the HAFTR-Machon rift, saying he did not believe that Rabbi Friedman and Rabbi Eliach were brought on board three years ago to retool the hashkafic aspect of HAFTR. He said that bringing the two educational leaders on board and integrating them into HAFTR was done primarily to upgrade the educational quality of the institution as well as to enhance discipline in the school.

Indeed, a number of comments on the Five Towns Jewish Times website ( reflected a similar sentiment, along with rather varied opinions about what the impact on the merger of the schools three years ago, and the changes implemented, had on all involved.

Up until last week, the offices and classrooms of Shalhevet were located at Temple Beth El on Broadway in Cedarhurst. Once the announcement was released indicating that HAFTR would no longer be funding Shalhevet, employees of Shalhevet were asked to vacate their offices without taking any of the school records, according to one observer involved in the process. At present, the disposition of the various schools has still not been definitively established, so as of press time Shalhevet employees have still not been allowed into the offices.

Mr. Gross, an attorney who resides in Cedarhurst, said that from his perspective he does not see any possibility for rapprochement, although at some point this summer there will have to be meetings between the various personalities involved in the separation process to make it happen with prudence and good sense.

A parent of a Shalhevet student told the 5TJT this week that even though the status of the various schools involved are still unclear to many-especially parents of students-HAFTR High School personnel have been calling the parents and actively recruiting them to attend HAFTR in the fall.

The extensive chatter on the 5TJT website this week was mostly from people making their comments shielded by the option of remaining anonymous via the Internet. The comments focused primarily on whether or not it was a mistake to form Machon HaTorah in the first place and bring Rabbis Friedman and Eliach into the HAFTR educational mix. Some of those commenting said they felt that the two were brought in surreptitiously and without notice to the school’s parents. Others felt that their approach to students was too tough, while others said they thought they did a good job bringing better discipline to HAFTR.

Clearly it’s not unexpected that in any school of this size, with the number of students that HAFTR educates, there will be some dissent and disagreement on school policy. In an online statement, Richard Altabe, the principal of Magen David Yeshiva in Brooklyn, appealed to the HAFTR board to allow Shalhevet to function for at least one more year to lessen the potential trauma on the students.

At the Shalhevet parent meeting at Rambam on Wednesday afternoon, Rabbi Zev Friedman told the parents of many of the students that he admired their spirit and that if Shalhevet manages to put together the resources to stay open for the coming school year it will be due to their perseverance and determination.

Rabbi Friedman told the 5TJT that he was somewhat taken aback by the HAFTR decision to end the funding of the school. Rabbi Friedman felt that it was understood that the deficit for the 2009-2010 school year was going to be $350,000. Apparently the HAFTR board felt that in these challenging economic times and with the significant increase in the number of Shalhevet students, the deficit might in fact be greater than that.

Rabbi Friedman said that the rental of space at Beth El was a significant portion of the school’s expenses for the next year, and that the new location that has been found will in fact save a large sum of money. No conclusions were reached at Wednesday’s meeting, and parents did not want to discuss their plans or ideas with the press. Rabbi Friedman said he believes that important decisions will be made in the coming week or two.

{Five Towns Jewish Times/ Newscenter}