By receiving the approval of the Lower Merion Township Zoning Board, Stern Hebrew High School has cleared perhaps the last major hurdle in its effort to relocate from its current facility in Northeast Philadelphia to a 4-acre campus on the Main Line.
If all goes according to plan, the institution will take over the building formerly occupied by Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion Station — and will match its new home with a new name.
The 10-year-old Modern Orthodox high school, which currently has 93 students, is set to be renamed the Kohelet Yeshiva High School. The Kohelet Foundation — founded by philanthropist David Magerman — owns the old Akiba site, and is spending roughly $ 2 million on renovations and new construction so Stern can operate there.
"This is a great opportunity for the school," said Scott Seligson, president of Stern's board.
The Harry Stern Foundation will continue to provide funding to the co-educational school, and the grounds will be renamed after Martha and Harry Stern, according to Seligson.
The relocation to the campus that Akiba left in 2008 would provide Stern with more classroom space, a full-sized gymnasium, multiple science labs and ample outdoor space.
Stern's current facility — the one-time home of a now-defunct Conservative congregation — lacks such amenities.
The move would also situate the school in the heart of a thriving Modern Orthodox community, directly across the street from Lower Merion Synagogue.
One-third of the student body hails from Lower Merion, according to Seligson, who acknowledged that the move will make the commute more difficult for students who live in the Northeast and in Bucks County.
While Akiba — which is now known as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and moved to Bryn Mawr two years ago — had a legal cap of 350 students, Stern had requested a cap of 180 students. That, noted Seligson, still represents a doubling of the current student body, and reaching that number remains a long ways off.
One major issue that did arise in three different zoning-board hearings was the school's plans to build a 3,836-square-foot Beit Midrash for study and prayer.
According to the board's written decision, one neighbor claimed in the hearings that the proposed construction would cause further water runoff and flooding on his property.
The neighbor, Bert Zauderer, had contested Akiba's proposed expansion plans for years.
In 2006, Zauderer, an engineer, lost a court case against the school, which later abandoned its expansion efforts.
The recent zoning decision stated that "the owner of this property has met its limited burden of proof on the storm water management issue and Dr. Zauderer, concomitantly, has not met his."
Zauderer said that he had not yet read the decision and wasn't sure if he would lodge an appeal.
His wife, Devorah Zauderer, said that the couple supports Jewish education, but doesn't want to be a "sacrificial lamb."
The school has expressed a willingness to help alleviate the flooding issues and wants to be a good neighbor, said Seligson.
The school will next have to go before the township's land-use committee in order to address the details of building the Beit Midrash. Seligson said that while he expects the school to physically move some time this summer, the Beit Midrash probably won't be finished until 2011.
Until then, he noted, services would most likely be held in the gym.