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A Place of Their Own

August 23, 2012 By:
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Cheryl Epstein (far left), Rabbi Baruch Lichtenstein and Phyllis Kosloff discuss the new space.
Fans whirred and radios blared as workers hauled interior doors and painted win­dow trim in a former Bala Cynwyd church-turned-synagogue that will re-open after Labor Day as an Orthodox day school for girls.

Cheryl Epstein, assistant principal of the newly named I.S. Kos­loff Torah Academy High School for Girls, surveyed the construction zone before her. At first, Epstein said, she was skeptical that a former church and accompanying rectory on the corner of Montgomery and Bala Cynwyd Avenues could ever work as a school.

"And then I saw it," she said.

Soon, about 70 teenagers will settle into the two-acre property, moving from shared space at Torah Academy grade school in Wynnewood.

"I pinch myself every day that this is finally coming to fruition," Epstein said.

Epstein has worked at the school for the better part of its existence, starting out as a history teacher 22 years ago. The school was founded four years before that, she said, to fill the gap left when Beth Jacob Schools in Elkins Park, which ran the only other high school exclusively for Orthodox girls in the area, closed in 1986.

Roughly 440 graduates have gone through the Torah Academy high, housed until now in a second-floor hallway of the Wynnewood grade school. The teens shared a gym and cafeteria with the elementary students.

Torah Academy took on the responsibility of creating the school, Epstein said, but "with the expectation and the hope that it would fly on its own" one day.

It took a quarter century to raise enough funding to do that.

Administrators credit Phyllis and Ted Kosloff, of Merion Station, for spearheading the drive to find an independent space. Their $4.5 million pledge plus $1.25 million from the Kohelet Foundation and an undisclosed gift from Allan and Sandy Jacob went toward acquiring, renovating and operating the building, officials said. The new school is named after Ted Kosloff's father, Irving S. Kosloff, a former owner of the 76ers basketball team.

Unlike many day school donors, the Kosloffs have no alumni connection to the girls high school, though they belong to the nearby Lower Merion Synagogue and their three grown children did attend other day schools. Phyllis Kosloff said friends on staff at the girls high first got her involved in the mid-'90s.

Increasingly impressed by the students and faculty, Kosloff said, three years ago she founded "Friends of Torah Academy Girls High School" to "awkwardly include myself" among parent supporters. The group raised money to help pay for extracurricular activities, such as inspirational speakers, clubs and Shabbaton outings, before beginning the campaign for a new building.

Last November, the school announced that it had entered into an agreement to purchase the home of Aish Ha Torah, with the understanding that the Orthodox outreach group would continue to hold programs there under a long-term lease.

Aish, an international organization founded in Israel in the early 1970s to bolster Jewish identity and observance, rented various spaces in Philadelphia before purchasing the historic, 17,500-square-foot former Presbyterian church in Bala Cynwyd in fall 2008.

In April 2012, the high school Friends organization officially purchased the main building from Aish for $1.6 million and the detached house next door from Aish Rabbi Eli Kopel for $800,000, according to county records.

With township zoning approvals secured, workers set about gutting both buildings over the summer. With the exception of revamped entryways and an enclosed lawn area, the renovations preserve Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer's original design.

The largest room in the main building will still be used for prayer, but the pulpit moved to the East wall to face Jeru­salem, with movable tables and chairs instead of pews. Part of the room will be partitioned off twice a week for dance, aerobics, weight training and other fitness programs.

On the other side of the building, another large room will become a dining hall with an attached library and kit­chen. Workers enclosed a small stage at the back of the hall to create a reading room.

Downstairs, the basement, jokingly called "the dungeon," is in the process of becoming a series of classrooms. Epstein pointed out the hallway where lockers will go and a room across from a kitchenette that will become a science lab.

The three-story house next door will hold more offices and classrooms, including a permanent art studio.

"I'm going from that width corridor," said Principal Rabbi Baruch Lichtenstein, indicating the distance with his hands, "to an expansion which will give students many more opportunities to figure out what they're good at."

In addition to more physical space, administrators said new equipment and state-of-the-art technology will allow the school to expand its physics program and other course offerings. A few classrooms will be wired for teleconferencing so that students can hear a lecture from a professor in Israel or perhaps enroll in an off-site course if there's not enough interest to merit offering it on campus. Administrators said they're also expecting to have enough computers for every student, which means teachers won't have to worry about scheduling the one computer lab and cart of laptops that they previously had.

"It's a whole new world," Epstein said.

One thing the new space doesn't have, however, is a gym, which means the basketball and soccer teams will have to practice off site, Epstein said. But, she said, that's a small trade-off for the chance to cultivate their own identity in the heart of the Lower Merion Orthodox community.

The new location also slightly shortens the commute for students coming from the Northeast, Elkins Park and South Jersey, Epstein noted.

"I am so excited to get the girls into a new space where they can grow," Kosloff said, adding that she hoped some of her 12 grandkids might enroll in the future, too.

"The world should see what a jewel this is."

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