Orthodox school spans gap of cultures for local Israelis

In a world where head-count determines survival, the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School is learning to cope with a newer kind of Jewish immigration.

The Orthodox private school in Sunnyvale, with its intensive dual Hebrew- and English-language tracks, is the campus of choice for more Israeli families than American-born Jews.

But while Israelis comprise about 55 percent of the student body, they are also a population that fluctuates from year to year, a situation that keeps school administrators constantly off-balance.

Some of the Israelis have settled permanently in the area, but many more are short-timers who enroll their kids temporarily before returning to Israel, according to administrators at the school.

Most of the families have moved here in recent years for high-tech opportunities in Silicon Valley. Often, a multinational employer will open an office or plant in Israel or elsewhere, transferring many of the families. Other homesick families move back to Israel on their own.

After losing some 70 students in two years, the school lost about 5 percent of its expected income. As a result, the administrators have had to cut their operations budget.

Although no educational programs have been compromised, the tighter budget forced school officials to reduce staff and develop strict enrollment deadlines, according to David Fleishhacker, interim head of the school. For example, families seeking midyear enrollment are now more likely to be turned away if there are no available spaces. The school can no longer afford to keep extra staff on the payroll in the hope of taking on more students during the year.

While the unexpected coming and going has made future planning difficult, Fleishhacker says the tradeoff is a dynamic, multicultural community of students and families.

The school, with 322 students, is "small and intimate," he said. "It provides an excellent opportunity to learn in a special environment."

When the students are not in their respective language programs, both Israelis and Americans, secular and observant, share the same classrooms, playground and eating areas. Most of the children are bilingual by the time they graduate, thanks to the school's English immersion classes and two Hebrew-language programs, one for Israelis, the other for Americans.

The school board also is a mix of both Israeli and American parents. Sixty percent of the board is Orthodox, including parent Avi Kopelman.

When he moved here three years ago from Israel to work for a Santa Clara company, Kopelman was anxious to find a suitable school for his two young sons.

He and wife Michal found the public schools satisfactory in their Sunnyvale neighborhood. But the prospect of subjecting sons Gilad, 10, and Harel, 5, who didn't speak English, to a new education system was unsettling.

The couple wanted their children to be exposed to American culture. But that wasn't enough. "We also wanted to keep the Jewish part of them alive," Kopelman said. "I cannot provide that by myself just by maintaining the Jewish way of life. They must get some formal education."

After investigating a variety of non-Jewish private schools, synagogue religious schools and Jewish day schools, they decided the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School seemed to offer the best of all worlds — exposure to American culture, rigorous general and computer education, Judaic studies and a Hebrew program taughtby Israelis with textbooks from Israel.

However, with tuition ranging from $4,150 to $7,000 a year, the day school also is expensive.

"I asked myself, can I afford it? And I have two children. It's a lot and I still pay taxes into the public education system."

Apparently, Kopelman is one of many who several years after coming to the school still find the tuition worthwhile.

Moshe and Tamy Bulbil felt it was important for their three Israeli-born children to know another culture, albeit an American Jewish one.

Integrating the students "strengthens ties between Israelis and the diaspora," said Moshe Bulbil, who also is Orthodox. "We learn to love each other. I think it will be better in the future."

Yaron and Dafne Rotstein had already moved here from Israel before they had their children, third-grader Dana and her 4-year-old brother, Tomer, in the school's nursery school program.

The Rotsteins light candles on Shabbat and attend holiday services, but they are less observant than the school community, Yaron Rotstein said.

The Israeli noted that he is comfortable with the religious education at the school. The spiritual learning reinforces his kids' Hebrew and Jewish identity in a way that he cannot.

Still, he worries that son Tomer, though he is still young, may eventually receive much more Jewish education because he is male than his older sister now receives. He also noted that not all the secular parents are as tolerant of the school's religious observance.

Fleishhacker, whose administrative expertise was formed in public schools, understands the conflicts that secular families face in a religious institution.

"If you send your kids to school with non-kosher food, you can't have the kids share their lunch," something kids everywhere do.

"Food for celebrations is very strict, which excludes non-kosher families. They can't even send a bunch of cookies to the school."

To outsiders, that may seem a little crazy, he added.

Fleishhacker said he spends a fair amount of time putting out fires that spark up over mini-cultural wars and clashing expectations. "That's hard for any institution. The school is a small community. Any disruption can disrupt that fragile structure."

Nevertheless, he feels confident that the school has done a good job of making most students and parents happy. Hired just this summer, Fleishhacker said he plans to remodel the administration to function more like the public schools'. That model would give staff more autonomy from parents and board members, who like to have their say in matters of day-to-day operations.

His makeover, however, may not be long-lived as the board is looking for a rabbi to become the permanent head of the school. Until then, Fleishhacker said, he will concentrate on putting out the fires.by Israelis with textbooks from Israel.

However, with tuition ranging from $4,150 to $7,000 a year, the day school also is expensive.

"I asked myself, can I afford it? And I have two children. It's a lot and I still pay taxes into the public education system."

Apparently, Kopelman is one of many who several years after coming to the school still find the tuition worthwhile.

Moshe and Tamy Bulbil felt it was important for their three Israeli-born children to know another culture, albeit an American Jewish one.

Integrating the students "strengthens ties between Israelis and the diaspora," said Moshe Bulbil, who also is Orthodox. "We learn to love each other. I think it will be better in the future."

Yaron and Dafne Rotstein had already moved here from Israel before they had their children, third-grader Dana and her 4-year-old brother, Tomer, in the school's nursery school program.

The Rotsteins light candles on Shabbat and attend holiday services, but they are less observant than the school community, Yaron Rotstein said.

The Israeli noted that he is comfortable with the religious education at the school. The spiritual learning reinforces his kids' Hebrew and Jewish identity in a way that he cannot.

Still, he worries that son Tomer, though he is still young, may eventually receive much more Jewish education because he is male than his older sister now receives. He also noted that not all the secular parents are as tolerant of the school's religious observance.

Fleishhacker, whose administrative expertise was formed in public schools, understands the conflicts that secular families face in a religious institution.

"If you send your kids to school with non-kosher food, you can't have the kids share their lunch," something kids everywhere do.

"Food for celebrations is very strict, which excludes non-kosher families. They can't even send a bunch of cookies to the school."

To outsiders, that may seem a little crazy, he added.

Fleishhacker said he spends a fair amount of time putting out fires that spark up over mini-cultural wars and clashing expectations. "That's hard for any institution. The school is a small community. Any disruption can disrupt that fragile structure."

Nevertheless, he feels confident that the school has done a good job of making most students and parents happy. Hired just this summer, Fleishhacker said he plans to remodel the administration to function more like the public schools'. That model would give staff more autonomy from parents and board members, who like to have their say in matters of day-to-day operations.

His makeover, however, may not be long-lived as the board is looking for a rabbi to become the permanent head of the school. Until then, Fleishhacker said, he will concentrate on putting out the fires.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.