Striving for the Modern Orthodox middle

Parents hope to start new school to replace Yeshivat Rambam

May 18, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

The parents who started Yeshivat Rambam 20 years ago knew what they wanted for their children: a Modern Orthodox day school philosophically in the middle of the Jewish spectrum. Many of them were newcomers to Baltimore; several were doctors who had taken jobs here and who had decided to settle in Park Heights or Pikesville and raise families there. When they looked around for Jewish schools, they saw extremes — on the one hand, Orthodox institutions that made it difficult to combine aspects of secular and religious life, and on the other hand, non-Orthodox schools that provided a good education but presented too many conflicts (such as birthday parties on the Sabbath) for their Orthodox children.

Several young parents felt this way in the late 1980s. They liked the growing Orthodox community in Northwest Baltimore but wanted a school that reflected Torah U'madda, the "Torah and Science" philosophy associated with Yeshiva University and a strand of Orthodoxy that tries to integrate strict, Sabbath-observing religious life and the secular world. They wanted their children to study the Torah, of course, and to learn, read and speak Hebrew. They wanted balance between Judaic studies and a general curriculum, and they wanted a full embrace of Israel as part of the school's mission.

They wanted their children to have what many of them had had — the Yeshiva day-school experience.

So these parents found each other, organized, held meeting after meeting, eventually garnered the support of rabbis, and gave birth to Yeshivat Rambam, with kindergarten to third grade, in 1991.

Yeshivat Rambam grew over the years, adding several grades, outgrowing its original location on Pimlico Road and purchasing the old Har Sinai property on Park Heights Avenue when that Reform congregation moved to Owings Mills. Eventually, Yeshivat Rambam added a middle school and high school, and it built enrollment to about 400 students. Its first high school class graduated in 2001.

But Yeshivat Rambam ran into financial difficulties, having accumulated significant debt, and those problems sparked annual rumors about its doors closing.

Some parents, tired of the year-to-year instability, pulled their children out of the school. Donations dropped off during the Great Recession. Another factor in the school's struggles might have stemmed from its success in promoting Israel; about 60 Rambam families had moved to the Jewish state since the school was founded in 1991, eroding its base in Park Heights.

Enrollment dropped by about 50 students during the past year.

On May 8, the executive board announced that Yeshivat Rambam would close in June, at the end of the academic year.

But that doesn't mean the end of Torah U'madda in Baltimore. Some of the parents of the youngest children at Yeshivat Rambam are starting over again; they're hoping to open a new school, called Ohr Chadash ("New Light") Academy, in September, and they've made considerable progress toward that goal in just 10 days.

There's still a demand for this kind of nuanced education among certain Orthodox Jewish families. "The schools to the right are very different than Ramban," says Shayna Levine-Hefetz, who, with three children, is one of the lead organizers of the new school. "The ultra Orthodox and what we call [non-Orthodox] community schools offer very different philosophies. Rambam was in the middle, a Modern Orthodox school."

She said Ohr Chadash will pick up where Rambam left off, at least for kindergarten through sixth grade. There have been a couple of robust meetings of parents already; 35 of them showed up at Mrs. Levine-Hefetz's house, and more attended an informational meeting Sunday night.

Not everyone has jumped at the opportunity. Several Rambam families already switched to other Baltimore schools, including Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, and Mrs. Levine-Hefetz knows of at least two families that plan to move to Montgomery County so their children can attend a Yeshiva day school. "Some other parents had been working on Plan B options all along because of the instability at Rambam," she said. "And some parents feel burned and don't want to sign on for something new."

But the effort to restart as Ohr Chadash is under way, with a goal of 75 students at an annual tuition of $7,500.

At least four rabbis have publicly stated support for Ohr Chadash. There are two principals already in place — one for Judaic and one for general studies. Mrs. Levine-Hefetz's children raided their piggy banks the other night to donate $10 to their new school. And as of Wednesday, 50 students had been registered online for the fall.

That's an impressive rebound by parents who know what they want for their children.

Listen to Dan Rodricks on Midday, weekdays on WYPR, noon to 2 p.m. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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