Amid ongoing discussions about what’s next for the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park, many communal leaders and residents have expressed concern about its future role as an anchor for the Jewish community along Old York Road.
In a recent interview, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s interim CEO sought to reassure concerned community members that the Federation, which owns the 27-acre site, will maintain it as a Jewish campus for the forseeable future.
“Federation has no intention of subdividing or selling the campus,” said Alex Stroker. “We have no short-term plans to make any changes to any of Federation’s real estate holdings.”
The property was first purchased by Federation back in 1985 following an effort by local leaders and philanthropists to develop a community campus in the northern suburbs.
The Mandell campus, which was dedicated in 1987, is currently home to Gratz College; Perelman Jewish Day School’s Forman Center; Federation Early Learning Services’ Mary Bert Gutman Early Learning Center; the Jewish Learning Venture; a satellite office of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service; and, during the summer, Ramah Day Camp. All these organizations lease their properties from Federation at the rate of $1 per year. (Ramah has a separate lease aggrement with Perelman.)
The campus has long been considered a linchpin for a community with plenty of historic Jewish infrastructure. The Old York Road corridor boasts seven synagogues, most of which relocated from Philadelphia and erected their current buildings in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Although there’s little hard data, nearly everyone agrees that the Jewish population in Melrose Park, Elkins Park and the surrounding towns has decreased in recent years — and that has raised questions about the viability of the campus.
The speculation about the future of the campus grew louder late last year when Perelman and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy agreed to merge their two middle schools at Barrack, located on the Federation-owned Schwartz campus in Bryn Mawr. Federation played a big role in brokering that deal.
The departure of Saligman led to a vacancy that still exists in the portion of the building the school rented from Gratz. The college, meanwhile, has shifted much of its course work to an online format and there are plenty of unanswered questions about its own future.
Around the time news of the school merger broke, the Old York Road Community Organization — formed by local synagogues to look at ways to revitalize the area and attract new families — formed a subcommittee to examine the campus.
Rabbi David-Glanzberg Krainin, religious leader of Beth Sholom Congregation, is serving as the chair of the subcommittee. He said the group is brainstorming about ways to open the campus to more Jewish activity.
Glanzberg-Krainin also said that he and other members of the subcommittee have met with Federation’s real estate group, and that he’s convinced Federation is committed to the long-term health of the campus.
“There is a definite awareness that Federation is very committed to strengthening the campus,” he said. “They want to work with the community that is in the area and maintain the viability of existing organizations.”
Stroker said he’s heard the rumors and complaints that Federation has been neglecting the property and is considering selling it, but there is no truth to them. He said that Federation is spending $250,000 a year for upkeep on the campus’ common grounds. Earlier this year, the agency spent $50,000 to repair the numerous parking lots throughout the campus.
And, within the last decade, Federation has spent in excess of $400,000 to demolish two unused structures on the property, he said. “A campus doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of a community asset,” said Stroker. “Everybody is looking for ideas on how to handle the evolution of our community.”
Federation owns a number of other properties: The Jewish Community Services Building in Center City; the Schwartz Campus in Bryn Mawr; the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Campus in Northeast Philadelphia, which houses the Klein JCC; and the Robert Saligman Campus in Wynnewood, which is home to the Kaiserman JCC and Perelman’s Stern Center.
In the long term, Stroker said, Federation needs to look at all of these properties and determine if they are being used in the best interests of the community.
“There is a lot of property and a lot of land,” he said.
Several officials of organizations on the Mandell campus said they were heartened by Federation’s commitment to the property and that it would be a disastrous blow for the Old York Road community if the Mandell campus were ever to be sold.
Maddy Malis, president and CEO of Federation Early Learning Services, which has run the Gutman center since the 1980s, said virtually all communal leaders in the area recognize the importance of the campus as part of the neighborhood fabric.
“I can say the lay leaders of the synagogues and the organizations on the campus and the professional staffs are very committed to the campus and the future of the Jewish community in the area,” she said. Although the FELS day care site is slightly below capacity, with about 100 kids enrolled, the center is thriving because “parents need to work — I don’t think that is going to change. So far as I am concerned, we are here to stay.”