DAY SCHOOL DRAMA
In its 70th year, it remains one of this country's premier Jewish day schools. But increased competition now has Brookline's Maimonides in the fight of its life for money, students, and the support of some parents and teachers who wonder about the direction of their beloved school.
Evelyn Berman is not quite sure what to do with herself. For the past 17 years, early fall was consumed by the start of the school year: Stocking up on supplies at Staples, putting together welcome kits for the kids, complete with erasers, Hershey's Kisses, and stickers ("so we can stick together," an accompanying poem read). Then, last winter, Berman was informed that she and eight other teachers would no longer have jobs to return to at Maimonides School, New England's oldest and largest Orthodox Jewish day school, located in Brookline. Together, the teachers had more than 90 years' experience at the school.
Berman, a small-framed woman with silver hair and green eyes, is still looking for another job. At 64, she's all but given up on finding work in the public school system. On her coffee table is a sheaf of letters from parents expressing dismay at her dismissal, including one that calls what happened "a monumental injustice to any and all future first-graders." For sure, this has also been a period of major transition for Berman's former employer. The staff cuts were part of a comprehensive restructuring plan aimed at staunching recurring budget deficits - in early January, the school was projecting that it would be $1.7 million in the red for the year, according to a letter school officials sent parents. But along with its financial woes, Maimonides officials have had other, perhaps even more troubling, issues.
Berman has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination [MCAD], charging bias on the basis of age and sex. And she is not the only one to have done so. A teacher who was cut from the staff in 2004 is suing the school on similar grounds. And this year, the school found itself on the docket of the Supreme Judicial Court, in a case challenging the school's exemption from the state unemployment tax.
All of this comes at a time when the Jewish day school movement around the country, and in the region, is surging. Parents who once saw Maimonides as the be-all-end-all option for their children now have a number of other choices. To those who support the school, its detractors are a small, bitter lot. But it's hard not to wonder how such a venerable religious school, whose stated mission is based on the principles of "kindness and compassion," came to find itself on the receiving end of so many subpoenas and so much vitriol.
FOUNDED IN 1937 BY THE REVERED Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Maimonides was meant to serve as a bridge between devotion to Judaism and full engagement - and success - in modern American life. The school went from the back room of a synagogue in Roxbury to a modern campus in Brookline; with buildings of brick, glass, and steel, its only concession to antiquity is its graceful archways and vaulted roofs. Over the years, an aura of prestige gathered around the school, and it drew on the largesse and leadership of prominent businessmen, from Samuel Feuerstein, the son of the Malden Mills founder, to insurance magnate Maurice Saval, to Timberland shoes CEO Jeffrey Swartz, who took over as chairman of the school's board of directors amid the recent turmoil.
While in earlier days the Jewish community, eager to assimilate into mainstream American society, generally looked askance at a full-time religious school, it's safe to say that it has come around. Jewish day school enrollment nationwide has more than doubled since 1960. The growth coincides with an 18 percent increase in enrollment in private schools nationwide between 1988 and 2001. And in many ways, the epicenter for the Jewish day school movement is Greater Boston, which now counts schools, allowing parents who once schlepped their kids from the suburbs to Maimonides to find a school closer to home. Two years ago, Combined Jewish Philanthropies assembled one of the largest gifts to Jewish day schools in history, $45 million, with the three largest Boston area schools - Maimonides, and the Rashi School and Solomon Schuster Day School of Greater Boston, both in Newton - receiving up to $10 million each.
And yet, so far, Maimonides has not reaped the benefits of this surging interest and investment. Enrollment has steadily declined from 670 a decade ago to fewer than 600 today, no doubt in part because of the increased competition and gradual shift of the Jewish community away from Newton, Brookline, and Wellesley and out toward more affordable western suburbs. As school officials noted in a letter to parents outlining the staff and program cutbacks, the school is no longer the "only show in town."
Maimonides also houses grades kindergarten through 12, unlike some competitors that are only K-8. Having fewer grades may explain why the Rashi School and Solomon Schechter have already submitted their strategic plans to Combined Jewish Philanthropies to have their $10 million released, while Maimonides has not. Gil Preuss, a vice president at CJP, says that Maimonides officials have "presented their ideas and direction to us, and we are comfortable with how things are proceeding."
WE WOULD LIKE TO BETTER UNDERSTAND why it seems that there was other solution than to dismiss a longtime beloved teacher who has dedicated so much of her professional life and personal time to Maimonides students," a group of parents wrote to the school committee shortly after learning of Evelyn Berman's dismissal. Many remaining teachers also wanted answers. In light of the cutbacks, "it's clear that we have no job security and that neither seniority nor job performance offer any protection when layoff decisions are made," some teachers lamented in a letter to the administration. They raised the possibility of forming a union.
The school explained that the cutbacks were a result of the school's financial troubles, but kept the reasons why specific faculty members were dismissed confidential. The dismissed teachers contend that the administration wouldn't even go into specifics with them; evaluations couldn't be cited, since the teachers claimed they hadn't been evaluated in more than five years, if at all.
Of those dismissed, Berman's complaint contends, all but one are female and all but one are older than 40. And then there is her bizarre accusation - religious bias. All of the dismissed teachers were Jewish, where as nearly half of the faculty were not.
This summer, in its response to the MCAD complaint, school officials did provide an explanation for why Berman was let go: She lacked special education experience, she didn't have a master's degree, and replacing her with two part-time teachers would save the school more than $3,000. As to Berman's allegation of religious discrimination, the school, in its MCAD response, wrote: "It is not credible that an Orthodox Jewish school would discriminate against a faculty member because she is Jewish."
To Berman's accusations against Maimonides, David Solomont has two words: "Sour grapes." He served on the school's board of directors for three decades, until 2002, and is an alumnus and the parent of three former students and one current student. "There are 10 times as many instances when the school went above and beyond its requirements to take care of its employees," he says. "But it has done so quietly."
"Maimonides," he adds, "has answered to a higher authority."
For all the talk of a "financial crisis," Solomont, an investor who splits his time between Boston and New York, says that from what he knows, the school is "rock-solid financially."
In fact, since the January letter went out warning parents of the anticipated $1.7 million hole, that hole has apparently been closed. No doubt scared by the ominous forecast, a combination of parents, board members, and others stepped up and donated $3 million by June - a million more than the fund-raising goal for the school year. Next year, the school hopes to have its first balanced budget in five years. "We have been working like sons of guns to raise money," one prominent school official says.
While that letter shed light on the school's financial condition and how it does business, many questions remain, in part because, as a tax-exempt religious institution, Maimonides is not required to file public financial information. Documents at the Norfolk and Middlesex registries of deeds explain at least where some of the school's money is going. Maimonides has provided a number of mortgage loans, at no or unspecied interest, to some faculty and administrators. A recent loan, made in June 2005 for $150,000, went to a first-year teacher who is the son-in-law of the school's vice president, Harvey Gertel, who himself is the son-in-law of the school's president, Abraham Levovitz. Odd as it may seem, the school has been handing out loans, at no interest (in keeping with traditional Jewish law), for 30 years to help recruit instructors and principals in Judaic studies who typically see New York City as the more attractive place to land.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER LEON BLEICH was informed in October 2002 that Maimonides was letting him go, at the age of 72, he received another jolt: letter informing him that he would not be receiving unemployment pay. The state had no money to give him, because, according to the Division of Unemployment Assistance, Maimonides was exempt from paying into unemployment. "I would think that in the US most people who are laid off would get unemployment," Bleich, who had worked as a tuition administrator at the school for 14 years, recalls thinking. "Maimonides can't keep itself above the law." Thus began the case of Bleich v. Maimonides, which would ultimately make its way to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
The General Laws of Massachusetts state that any "organization which is operated primarily for religious purposes and which is operated, supervised, controlled or principally supported by a church" or group of churches - such as most Catholic schools - is entitled to the same exemption from unemployment tax as churches. But what about independent religious schools that had no official affiliation with a church or synagogue? Bleich's lawyer, Michael Magerer, had argued that because Maimonides had no such connection to a synagogue and was supported almost entirely by tuition, it was therefore not entitled to the exemption.
The high court didn't see it that way, and neither did the attorney general's office, which submitted a brief supporting Maimonides's exemption. The court's opinion, which came down earlier this summer, noted that "the school is grounded in the Jewish religion and derives substantial support from area synagogues and other Jewish organizations," even if this support extends beyond financial.
(Not all religious organizations avail themselves of the exemption. Some pay into the state fund; others take the same approach to unemployment as secular nonprofits: They are self-insured to pay claims on a case-by- case basis.)
Magerer is still weighing whether to appeal the ruling, but any attempt to curtail religious exemptions would likely face formidable resistance. Earlier this year, a bill that would have required religious entities to make the same financial disclosures as other nonprofits was defeated on Beacon Hill, largely because of lobbying by religious groups, including the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, which called the bill an "egregious violation of the separation of church and state."
Opponents of the disclosure bill had argued that concerns over how a religious institution is run or spends its money are best left to a flock and its leadership. Should patrons or parishioners not have their concerns met, the argument goes, they can vote with their feet. So far, it seems in Maimonides's case, donors as well as parents have, by and large, kept faith in the school. "It's a serious, well-respected yeshiva [religious school] that is well respected for secular studies," says Lori Kipnes, the mother of a 10th-grader. "Kids coming out are going to the best colleges and doing well."
For modern Orthodox families, the school may have competitors, but as a coeducational school that genuinely serves the dual role of yeshiva and prep school, it has no peers.
In 2002, Worth magazine ranked nearly 32,000 public and private high schools nationwide for the percentage of students attending Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Maimonides ranked 25th. And compared with other area day schools, the high school, with its $17,000 tuition, is still relatively affordable and is known for being generous with scholarship money.
The discontent stirred up by the recent staff cuts, in the end, did not spark a revolt. Some parents have said they support the school's decisions because they respect the heavy responsibility that school leaders carry in preserving the legacy of the founder.
Other parents, however, suggest there's a limit to how much dissent the school will brook. "I've always felt that the school wants parents who are harmony with them," says Jerry Baronofsky, whose daughter last year was the last of his four children to graduate from the school. If push came to shove, school leaders were known to say, "If you don't like it, leave," recalls Baronofsky, a past president of Young Israel of Brookline, the largest Orthodox congregation in New England. But nowadays, as he points out, "there are alternatives."
IN ANNOUNCING ITS OVERHAULED governance structure in March of this year, newly appointed board chairman Jeffrey Swartz of Timberland vowed in a letter to the school community that Maimonides would strive for improved "accountability and transparency" and adopt "proven best-practice in place at leading day schools across the country."
Implicit in the declaration was an acknowledgment that Maimonides, so long the standard-bearer for the Jewish day school, could learn something from the new generation of day schools. Maimonides, long separated from the pack for its excellence and pedigree, now has some more dubious distinctions.
Notably, it is the only major Jewish day school in the Boston area that is not accredited, a process which requires schools to have a yearly CPA-certified audit, affirm that board members do not have conflicting business interests, and have clear standards and procedures for evaluating faculty. Back when it had so little competition for students, Maimonides felt no pressure to go through the expensive and lengthy accreditation process, but that attitude seems to be changing. "If every other day school is accredited and we're not, either we have a really good idea or we're behind," one school official says.
The appointment of Swartz, whose company is often ranked one of the country's best corporate citizens, is a signal that the school is moving in a new direction. In selecting Swartz, "the school was going to someone whose business skills could not be second-guessed," says Jonathan Sarna, a leading Jewish scholar and professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, as well as a Maimonides parent.
In one of his first acts as board chairman, Swartz met with his distressed teachers. Then later, in a letter to them, he wrote of a new era dawning. "You can count on us, and hold us to account. And we are counting on you."
Ted Siefer is a freelance writer in Boston. Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org.