S.F. Orthodox leaders plan new school to replace Hebrew Academy

Jewish community leaders were coalescing this week around a plan to open a new school on the site of the recently closed Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy, though it was extremely unlikely any new school would be ready in time for the upcoming academic year.

Questions remain about the status of the 14th Avenue site, home since 1986 of San Francisco’s only Orthodox K-12 school. The building is owned by Jewish LearningWorks and was rented by the academy.

Orthodox community educators and rabbis met earlier this week with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish LearningWorks to chart a way forward for a new school, one that would welcome Jewish students of all denominations and most likely retain the name Hebrew Academy, according to Rabbi Joel Landau of Adath Israel congregation.

“We want to have a community day school that will be able to accommodate simultaneously the needs of Chabad, the Modern Orthodox and the secular community who are interested in having their children in a traditional environment,” said Landau, one of the San Francisco Orthodox leaders working to open a new school.

The Hebrew Academy, San Francisco’s only Orthodox K-12 school, closed its doors earlier this month. photo/audrey soffa

Jewish LearningWorks executive director David Waksberg said the closure of Hebrew Academy was “a sad day for the school, its students and the community,” adding that “we are exploring how to best serve community educational needs going forward, and that includes traditionally observant families and others who have been served by Hebrew Academy in the past. We hope to assist community leaders in developing or strengthening options with educational support and infrastructure support.”

Landau said organizers hope to model any new school after the Hebrew Academy of Huntington Beach, a Southern California Chabad-run institution that the rabbi sent his children to while living in that area from 1993 through 2005.

A pre-K-through-12 school, the Huntington Beach academy is open to Jewish students of every denomination, as well as unaffiliated secular families, and teaches a non-doctrinaire text-based Judaism that Landau said appeals to a wide variety of Jewish families.

Landau also said the Huntington Beach academy’s head of school, Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, had been consulted and may play a role in a future S.F. institution.

“All of us swear by the model to the degree we have contacted [Newman],” Landau added. “He’s a real educator. I have suggested that he will be the decisor of the curriculum for the school. He is well respected and he knows what he’s doing.”

Chabad of Noe Valley Rabbi Gedalia Potash and educator Chani Zarchi serve as co-directors of the Chabad-run Bais Menachem Day School in San Francisco. They, along with Chabad of SF Rabbi Yosef Langer and his wife, Hinda Langer (director of the Chabad-run Shalom School) are among those leading the effort to establish a new school on the site of Hebrew Academy.

“It’s our hope that we can put together an acceptable plan,” Rabbi Langer said. “Everyone will come to the table with what has to be done to be able to continue to serve the community with the Jewish education that’s needed for the children.”

 Landau added that though Chabad would run the proposed new school, it would not be a Chabad school.

“It is true Chabad will play a large part because they have a large student body [at Bais Menachem and Shalom School] and they want to make sure that their children receive an education that is consistent with their world views,” he said. “However, at the same time they realize that in order to have a school, it will have to appeal to a broader base.”

The 47-year-old Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy announced its closure in a July 6 email to students and their families, citing the poor health of founder and dean Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, as well as the loss of financial support.

In addition to Langer’s work, Landau and their colleagues, Hebrew Academy alumni launched an online petition addressed to Waksberg and Federation CEO Danny Grossman voicing support for keeping the school going and hoping “the Federation and Jewish LearningWorks can provide support to make that happen.” As of midweek, the petition had 538 signatures.

 “The Federation is committed to convening a conversation about next steps with the school community and stakeholders, and to working with families and Jewish educators to ensure that Hebrew Academy students can continue their Jewish education,” Federation spokesperson Ilan Kayatsky said in an email statement.

Robert Real, president of the board of the Hebrew Academy, said he approved of the effort to revive the school.

“We were delighted with the outpouring of support from the Orthodox community,” he said. “Hopefully it will come to fruition and the [community] will take over the school and continue the fine academic tradition of Hebrew Academy. The ball is in the court of the Federation and Jewish LearningWorks.”

The next steps will take time, however, leaving current Hebrew Academy students and parents in a bind. Existing area Jewish day schools, including the Jewish Community High School and the K-7 Bais Menachem, have extended a welcome to Hebrew Academy families.

Landau said he and his colleagues hope to cut a blue ribbon on a new Hebrew Academy by the opening of the 2017-18 school year and that he envisions “a community day school that is open to everyone, and committed to stellar academic and Judaic studies. We want kids who, if they want to go to a higher-level yeshiva, then great. If they want to go to Harvard, that’s great, too.”

Dan Pine

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