Closing of only S.F. Orthodox K-12 school leaves students exploring options

Gabriel Shpitalnik lost the only school he has ever known when the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy closed last week, and for now he doesn’t know where he will be enrolled next year.

“When it actually did close, that’s when it hit me,” the 16-year-old high school senior told J. “Oh God, we don’t have a school anymore. The only religious Jewish academy in San Francisco is closed, a home for so many kids. For my friends going into senior year, it was a tremendous shock.”

A July 6 email to parents, signed by school president Robert Real and vice president Jerry Katzovitz, announced the 47-year-old K-12 academy’s closing due to the poor health of founder and dean Rabbi Pinchas Lipner and a loss of financial support, especially from the school’s main benefactor, Stanley Kampner, who is battling cancer.

The Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy has been at its 14th Avenue location for 30 years. photo/audrey soffa

It was the only Orthodox high school in the Bay Area aside from Meira Academy in Palo Alto, which serves about two dozen girls.

 “Although we tried desperately to find a way to go on, leaving no stone unturned, we must now urge you to seek another school for your child(ren),” Real and Katzovitz wrote in the email. “We will do everything possible, including preparation of transcripts and other school records, to make the transition as easy as possible.”

Neither Lipner nor Real responded to J.’s phone requests for comment.

While the news left Hebrew Academy students scrambling, some community members haven’t given up on the school. Parents, educators and Orthodox community leaders are meeting behind the scenes, seeking to establish on the 14th Avenue site either a new school or a reimagined version of the Hebrew Academy.

“The closure of Hebrew Academy is something that has significantly impacted the Orthodox community, and the community as a whole is working together,” said Rabbi Joel Landau of San Francisco’s Adath Israel Congregation. “This situation has brought together people who have not worked together in the past, to come up with a way to address this problem.

 “The future of a viable Orthodox community hangs in the balance,” Landau added. “There’s no way that Orthodox people will seriously consider being in San Francisco unless there’s an Orthodox option for their children. If that doesn’t exist, then San Francisco will slowly but surely lose more of its Orthodox community. That’s why this has become a collective Orthodox mission to keep the Hebrew Academy afloat.”

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

Leading the charge were Chabad Rabbi Gedalia Potash and Chani Zarchi, who together run Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School, a K-8 Orthodox school in San Francisco.

Though no firm plan had been established as of midweek, Potash and Zarchi said their hope was to establish a school on the site of the Hebrew Academy, one that would adhere to the highest Orthodox standards yet also offer children from any Jewish home an excellent secular education.

 “There is an unbelievable overflow of excitement and optimism in many different circles between many organizations,” Potash said. “They are all rallying behind a positive outcome for the San Francisco community.”

Zarchi and her colleagues have reached out to some Hebrew Academy parents to offer immediate solutions for their schooling needs. Regarding efforts to revive the school, she said, “There are many details involved which need to be addressed. This is a very sensitive situation, but the message is that this is an incredible opportunity for the broader Jewish community to come together to support Jewish education.”

Rabbi Yosef Langer, head of Chabad of S.F., met this week with Danny Grossman, CEO of the S.F.-based Federation, and David Waksberg, executive director of Jewish LearningWorks, which owns the building where Hebrew Academy is located, to discuss the possibility of Chabad taking over the space.

Noting that 90 children are served now by Bais Menachem and the Shalom School preschool run by his wife, Hinda Langer, Rabbi Langer said, “We need room to grow.” He said the Chabad schools will stay open through the transition, saying, “We will continue our programs. Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to have a better place to serve the community.”

Gabriel Shpitalnik

Also trying to help was Rabbi Shimon Margolin, spiritual leader of the S.F.-based Congregation of Russian Jews. Many Hebrew Academy students over the years have come from the Russian émigré community. The day the closure was announced, Margolin wrote an open letter to Grossman and Waksberg.

“A group of parents as well as community leaders have reached out to the leadership of Hebrew Academy with the plea and the plan to keep the school in operation,” Margolin wrote. “The board of directors of Hebrew Academy have articulated their decision to close the school for very compelling reasons and in no way they could be blamed for it. But at this point there is still a lot of hope that the leadership will have the wisdom and courage to allow the community to step in and avert the closure of the school.”

The academy opened in 1969 as a pre-K-3 school, expanding to include a middle school and high school. In 1986, it moved to its present spot.

The school has struggled financially, and occasionally was embroiled in controversy. In 2002, Lipner filed a $10 million suit against former Federation president Richard Goldman, whom Lipner accused of defaming him in a 1992 interview. That suit was dismissed in 2004.

Lipner grappled with other funders such as the Koret Foundation, lamenting what he considered inadequate financial support.

“The overall sentiment from parents was the school always struggled financially,” said Vladimir Shpitalnik, father of Gabriel and another son who has attended Hebrew Academy since childhood and is now a sophomore. “The decision [to close] did get everybody by surprise, still. I personally thought it wouldn’t happen this year.”

Shpitalnik credited Lipner with giving students an excellent education, including those who couldn’t afford full tuition.

“Rabbi Lipner used to give a lot of scholarships,” he added. “Many kids went on to Ivy League schools and succeeded in life. There was a huge return on investment in terms of producing Jewish kids.”

Administrators from other Bay Area Jewish day schools were aware of the closing and offered to help.

Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, reached out to Hebrew Academy administrators and to educators and clergy in the Orthodox community “to let them know if Hebrew Academy is not going to continue then we want the high school students to know we will expedite their application process both for admission and for financial aid, if we’re the right fit for them.”

Gabriel Shpitalnik was contemplating options — including early graduation or taking courses at community colleges to complete high school requirements.

But he doubted that would replace what he gained as a student at the Hebrew Academy.

“Everyone at the school has the feeling they belong to something greater,” he said. “Aside from all the things we got Jewishly, our academic curriculum is absolutely amazing. All of our teachers are extremely dedicated. I can’t count the hours I spent after school getting tutoring or working with other teachers, learning something extra.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.