Federation looks to help families find new schools for their children.
Known as “a small school with a big neshama,” The Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School has prided itself on cultivating character, inspiring the mind, and nurturing the soul of each student. But now, after 36 years of educating children from smaller Jewish communities, the board of GBDS has made the decision to close its doors amid increasing costs and declining enrollment.
“The board was faced with the decision of declining enrollment and increasing expenses and whether or not it was sustainable in the long term. And the decision was made that it was not sustainable,” explained Beth Wechsler, who is currently the interim president of the board at The Academies at GBDS.
Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey said: “It’s unfortunate that after many many years of educating and nurturing our community’s children the school will need to cease operations. Sadly, it has been a challenge running a school with a small study body, so heavily dependent on external support like philanthropy. Ultimately, the economics of operating the school in this environment made its continuation unfeasible.”
The Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School first opened its doors in Wayne in 1985. Originally called the Solomon Schechter Day School of North Jersey, the school started with 13 kindergarteners and four first graders in the basement of the Pompton Lakes Synagogue. Eventually the school added more grades and moved to its current location in Oakland in 1994 where it was renamed The Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School in memory of its benefactor. The school proudly held its first eighth-grade graduation in 2001.
The school has served many neighborhoods with smaller Jewish populations including Fair Lawn, Western Bergen County and Northern Passaic County. Wechsler explained that although the school had always “struggled to become huge and robust … that part of its charm was that it stayed a very small school with a lot of personalized attention and a lot of love.”
However, GBDS continued to struggle financially as costs kept going up and more and more fundraising was needed.
“The warmth and the love and the feeling that you got when you walked into that building made it a very special place. A very special, small place that just wasn’t sustainable anymore,” Wechsler added.
This past school year there were a total of 114 students enrolled from nursery to eighth grade with a graduating class of six kids. In the spring, when it was time for families to re-enroll, that number dropped to 93 students for the fall.
Shames said that the decision not to continue in the next academic year “was not taken lightly” and cited insurmountable economic pressures for a private Jewish day school of its size.
The Federation offered its support to help GBDS navigate the various issues accompanying the school’s closure. It reached out to other day schools in the area to help ensure that families who wanted to continue with a day school education would find a place for their children, and also to help those schools easily absorb the new students and meet their needs. GBDS held open houses for schools and has been diligently working with them to try and match financial aid packages. Some of those schools include the Leffell School in Hartsdale, New York, Golda Och Academy in West Orange and Gottesman RTW in Randolph.
However, because many of these schools are much farther from GBDS’s current location, a number of families may opt to send their children to public schools.
“It was a very small community but served a community that now doesn’t have anyplace else. It was a decision that we really grappled with because we knew that it meant there are going to be families who now would not have a Jewish day school education for their children,” Wechsler said.
“Many of the children have become better human beings as a result of the caring nature of the school and its educators,” said Shames. “Should greater demand emerge for a formal Jewish day school in the northern and western part of Bergen County, Federation, along with GBDS leadership, will be willing and eager partners.”
By Ronit Mershon