The Jewish Boarding School Experiment

America's Deep South is home to a singular Jewish education experience. The American Hebrew Academy in North Carolina is a costly endeavor that strives to weld multiple denominations in one elite environment.

Shmuel Rosner
Shmuel Rosner

Ilana Cohen: Social life

The social life in Ilana Cohen's hometown, somewhere in Vermont, tended to peak on Friday night when all the young people went out. All except Cohen, that is. She is the daughter of the local rabbi and observes Shabbat. She is a slender girl whose smile is thin, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes ironic - at least when her father sits beside her, listening. For three years, she has lived without him at a distant boarding school, two flights away from her Vermont home. Suddenly now he, too, is here in Greensboro, North Carolina - Rabbi Howard A. Cohen, "the interim dean of Jewish life" and Judaism instructor. She was alone for three years and now she is living with him, in an untidy home adjacent to one of the dormitories.

She went to Greensboro for one simple reason: "I was tired of being one of two or three Jews." Her Judaism is very important to her, but she never thought to attend a boarding school until she watched a DVD sent by the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro. Still, says Cohen, she prefers the northeastern United States - Vermont, for example. But it is pretty here in the South at this time of year. The huge expanse of the Academy's campus is covered in colorful trees, and ducks swim in the small lake that is just a bit too cold for human activities.

Howard Cohen: Boarding school

This is a rural place where Rabbi Cohen feels quite comfortable. He has been the rabbi of a congregation in Vermont for 10 years but is also engaged in Burning Bush Adventures, the company he established to promote Jewish activity in the great outdoors.

Cohen is a rabbi in mountain boots. This is what he really loves to do. When he began searching for a new job, he decided his daughter's boarding school looked optimal. Naturally.

He was also put in charge of he climbing wall in the splendid exercise complex (a basketball hall, a swimming pool, a fitness room and so on). It is a bit hard for his daughter to digest the reunion with her family. But she is getting used to it.

Maurice "Chico" Sabbah - a very wealthy Jew, the legitimacy of whose businesses has often been questioned - has invested more than $100 million in the boarding school. A resident of Greensboro, Sabbah passed away several months ago at the age of 77. He never agreed to give interviews, on the grounds that "I really don't consider myself newsworthy." A suit that was filed against the academy, on the grounds that it received dubious funding, was settled in 2005 in a settlement whose details have not been disclosed. In any case, Sabbah's monumental contribution is evident at every turn - in the extravagant building designed by Aaron Green, a protege of architect Frank Lloyd Wright; the state-of-the-art laboratories; "green" heating system; the laptop per child; oval-shaped tables designed for the 12-student classrooms, and display screens that answer to the touch of a finger. Every electronic gadget that money can buy exists in this institution. You can plug your iPod into the wall of the exercise rooms. It is impossible not to be impressed by the investment in this place.

The tuition is high. Four years cost some $100,000 per student. In any case, nearly 70 percent of the students do not pay full tuition. How can the rabbi of a small congregation in Vermont afford to pay such a sum? "There is money in the world," says Cohen. If someone wants to attend, the appropriate scholarship will be found.

This is a unique residential school - an attempt to imitate the boarding-school format of America's social and economic nobility, but with an emphasis on Jewish education. The school also appeals to all streams of Judaism. Cohen comes from Reconstructionist movement. But his students are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. This requires quite a lot of flexibility. The school must, for example, hold more than one prayer service in the morning. Ilan Rosen, a student from Mexico City, attends the Orthodox service. He is not Sabbath-observant though he does observe kashrut. The non-denominational challenge stands before this innovative, costly endeavor: Will enough students attend? The school opened seven years ago; the number of students is growing but is still small. About 140 are currently attending, although the school can handle 500 and is ultimately meant to be able to absorb as many as 1,000. But are there 1,000 appropriate students? They must be good students, in order to maintain and develop the elitist image that a school like this requires. They must be interested enough in their Judaism to invest many hours of study in it. They must have the money to pay for the tuition and be willing to live far from home. The founders of the school assumed that those who came would be Jews from small towns and remote areas, where education is limited. This may still happen. But slowly.

Ruth Gavish: Hebrew

A few weeks ago, the students in Ruth Gavish's class decked themselves out in suits and ties, carefully styled their hair and came to class for a political debate.

One student played Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and another acted out the role of Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. The 2008 presidential race provided the teacher with an opportunity to combine study and play. This debate took place in Hebrew. That is what Gavish teaches. Gavish, originally from Petah Tikva, has been in America since the 1970s; she is one of the pioneers of the institution and her Hebrew is polished. Her students' Hebrew is impressive.

Ziva London, the Bible teacher, came here via Charlotte, New York, Omer and Be'er Sheva. She is not only a teacher but also a "housemother" at one of the dormitories. Her son is already in university. She is now responsible for a flock of adolescent girls, 16 of them. This is very exhausting work, with no set hours.

"Houseparents," as the teachers who live adjacent to the students are called, have small apartments in a corner of each of the dormitory buildings. A lot of thought was put into the apartment plans. Each of the apartments has two entrances: One through the front door and the other through the "study." This allows the teacher to receive students at home without the student ever entering his house - just the study. In any case, the problems that the teachers deal with here are similar to those at any boarding school. London, for example, has had an ongoing conflict with a number of girls in her care about the time laptops must be turned off.

"There are also issues of sex, as at every boarding school," says Rabbi Cohen. Students who want to talk with him can do this while working on a carpentry project at the institution: Cohen is currently building a kayak.

Zachary Melitz: Traditional

It is impossible to miss this student, with his big black stocking cap and long curled sidelocks framing his face - only the ritual fringes hanging out of his shirt are longer. Zachary Melitz comes from a small town in Indiana, and Greensboro was a compromise on which he agreed with his parents. The house where he grew up was not traditional - his family was active in the Jewish community but the two sons became newly observant, on their own. Melitz wanted to attend a yeshiva in New York.

His mother was against this. She wanted to make sure that he also got a decent general education. That is how he ended up at Greensboro. Next year in Jerusalem. At a yeshiva.

He loves the school. "A good education," he says and also respects his schoolmates whose observance of Judaism differs from his. But Melitz is a unique case. Orthodox families who desire a boarding school will usually send their children to Orthodox institutions, to yeshivas. More liberal families are usually put off by boarding schools and a strong emphasis on Jewish studies.

"The percentage of traditional [students] is relatively high, because these are the families that need a solution and are also prepared to make the effort," says Cohen. In any case, herein lies the difficulty in recruiting students. Its unique formula is so very unique that it is still not clear to whom it is suited - and how many such families there are in America, or the world. Daniela Berstein, who hails from Frankfurt, Germany, has come to Greensboro for only a year, to get acquainted with the U.S. while studying Judaism.

She wants an opportunity "to find out how people live in a Jewish environment," after which she will return to continue her studies at a regular high school in her homeland. Prior to Greensboro, her Jewish education amounted to Hebrew school once a week. When she came to the academy, she tried out all the prayer services until she decided to go back to the one most familiar to her, the Orthodox one. Her family belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in Germany, although Berstein says that at home "they didn't observe anything."

In the end, and according to an unofficial estimate, nearly half of the students at the school come from Conservative homes and the other half from other streams. Jewish studies, as well as Hebrew at a relatively high level, take up a considerable portion of the day.

This school develops tolerance, says Ilan Rosen. Ilana Cohen - a Reconstructionist whose Judaism plays quite a central role in her life - has a best friend who is Reform.

They used to be at odds over this difference, but they have since grown accustomed to it.



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