As representatives of two non-Orthodox day schools in the area continue to deliberate behind closed doors on a potential collaboration, Main Line parents and students connected with both schools recently sounded a unified message: They want a merger, with just one middle school serving their geographic region.
They hope to merge the Saligman Middle School, which is run by the Conservative movement’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, with the middle school operated by the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic school.
This was the resounding theme expressed at a Nov. 8 meeting at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, convened by the synagogue’s Rabbi Neil Cooper in response to angst over the issue exhibited by many day school parents in his congregation and the larger community.
For the most part, the dozen parents and handful of students who got up to speak at the off-the-record meeting didn’t focus on whether such a school should be Conservative or pluralistic, or whether it should be located at Perelman’s Stern center in Wynnewood or at Barrack’s Bryn Mawr campus. Instead, the speakers, most of them from the Main Line, insisted that students would be better served socially and educationally by a unified school.
“Our young adult Jewish community is divided,” said Maya Sherwood, a seventh grader at Barrack. “Why have two grades of 20 when you can have one of 40?”
Though the meeting was off the record, Maya’s mother, Michal Elovitz, later emailed the text of her daughter’s speech to the Jewish Exponent.
Two months ago, the Perelman Jewish Day School announced a $3 million plan to move its 11-year-old middle school in Melrose Park to the third floor of its elementary school building in Wynnewood. School leaders have said that Saligman operates at a substantial deficit and that such a move is critical for its financial survival.
The plan came nearly four years after the Perelman board was set to merge Saligman with Barrack in response to declining enrollment and a growing deficit. But the move was averted after an uproar from parents from the northern suburbs, who said that the school was abandoning the Elkins Park community.
This time, some families in the northern suburbs once again aren’t happy about the prospect of the school moving across the river. Though that population didn’t appear to be represented at the meeting last week in Wynnewood, at a meeting held earlier in the fall in Melrose Park, many parents also said such a move would further intensify the already stiff competition between Saligman and Barrack by bringing the middle schools into closer proximity. Other Saligman parents have said they would prefer that their middle school remain part of Perelman.
In late September, each school appointed three people to a joint committee to discuss a potential merger and other collaborative options. Perelman’s board is expected to vote on its relocation plan soon, but an exact date has not been announced.
The so-called “committee of six” is expected to write up its deliberations in the next few weeks.
The group is made up of Perelman board members Elliot Norry, Nancy Blank and Tracey Specter and Barrack board members Cecilly Carel, Robin Batoff and George Gordon.
In a letter to community members prior to the Nov. 8 meeting, Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El said he didn’t have a particular agenda but was concerned by the rancor the issue was causing.
Cooper told the roughly 90 people who had assembled in the sanctuary that “the degree of tension — and even some argumentation — which seemed to be engendered by this situation is something that is of concern to me as a rabbi.”
“The last thing I would want to have happen is to see this situation have a negative impact on our community,” he said.
In a follow-up letter to day school parents, Cooper lamented that more Saligman parents weren’t in attendance but said that overall the meeting was constructive.
“Looking ahead, it is clear that there is still much work to be done. A number of people left our meeting feeling as if we had established appropriate guidelines, not only for the discussion which took place, but for future discussions as well,” he wrote.
Members of the joint committee were present at the meeting but were not invited to speak. Instead, a prepared statement was read aloud.
“We are at a sensitive juncture in our discussions,” the statement read. “Since there are many moving parts and details, it is inappropriate for us to comment further at this time. We continue to be mindful that time is of the essence, and we are committed to finalizing this process no later than the end of November.”
After the meeting, Barrack and Perelman parent David Loren said the issue had been the subject of many Friday night dinner conversations in the community.
“This is truly the overwhelming sentiment of the community, that they need to be together,” he said, wondering whether the Perelman board and the joint committee will listen to public opinion. “We’ll see what they have to say.”