A New Beginning for an Old School: A Model for Small Communities

Prizmah Thought Leadership

By Jonathan D. Epstein
Immediate past-president of Kadimah Academy, Buffalo, NY

It’s fall in Western New York, and Jewish day school students are in their dedicated Hebrew classroom, studying with their Israeli-born teachers. Earlier in the day, they gathered as usual for morning tefillah before classes began, reciting the Shema, the Amidah, and the other core elements of Shacharit.

In September, they heard the sound of the shofar echoing. They distributed apples and honey schoolwide, and talked about Rosh Hashanah. After Yom Kippur, a sukkah went up outside on the lawn for the entire school to see, and the school’s external advisory board got an impromptu lesson from the kids about the meaning of the lulav and etrog. And as Chanukah approaches, the flames of the menorah will burn brightly as we gather for a community party at school.
It sounds like the typical fall months in a Jewish day school anywhere in North America, where our students’ pride in their heritage is on full display.

Except that this isn’t a traditional day school.

Kadimah Scholars at Park
This is the Park School of Buffalo, a century-old, independent, progressive and non-religious private school in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, which has warmly embraced the former Kadimah Academy family as part of its community. In doing so, it’s revived those of us who have committed so much love and time to Kadimah and given us hope to expand our reach, at a time when we weren’t even dreaming of that.

Today, 20 students who were a part of Kadimah Academy last year continue to learn Hebrew and Judaic studies, while taking general studies classes and participating in sports and clubs alongside a diverse assortment of youth from throughout the region. In the process, their non-Jewish friends and teachers at Park are gaining exposure to Judaism in a non-threatening way, helping to promote understanding of each other and support for our differences. And Park, which has a long history of openness to many cultures, has a novel marketing feature that sets it apart not only locally but nationally among independent private schools.

Welcome to the Kadimah Scholars at Park program—a unique experiment with incredible potential well beyond the local campus. It’s an innovative partnership of Kadimah Academy, Park School and the Buffalo Jewish Federation that not only benefits all three organizations, but also represents one potential solution to the challenge facing Jewish day schools across the United States and Canada. To the best of our knowledge—and that of both Prizmah and the National Association of Independent Schools—this venture is the first of its kind in North America.

From threat to opportunity
A year ago, Kadimah faced imminent closure, after 60 years in operation. Like many day schools in smaller communities, we had struggled for years to stay open. But as our K-8 enrollment dipped to its lowest point in decades, our finances were simply not sustainable, and our support was wearing thin. We needed a real alternative, and after exploring a host of options, we found Park to be the only real option that would change the dynamic, by exciting the entire Buffalo community.
Let me be clear. This is not a merger or absorption, nor is it a complete loss of a pluralistic day school education in Buffalo, which is what we otherwise faced. And it was a choice we deliberately made, not one imposed by force. But it’s also not business as usual for Kadimah, which no longer runs its own school or completely controls its destiny. That was perhaps most difficult for us, to give up our independent identity.

Even so, it’s an incredible opportunity, when it looked like we were finished. First, it’s a means of maintaining what we need to accomplish for our community’s future. We can focus on what we do best—Jewish education—while letting Park handle the rest. But even more so, this has new potential. For the first time in our history, we have high school students among our ranks, with the opportunity to take Hebrew and Judaic studies through 12th grade, in a day school context.
Park is also very highly regarded among the more progressive segments of the Jewish community; there were already 27 Jewish students at Park. That gives us a chance to reach families that would never have considered Jewish day school in the past, but might take Hebrew or Judaic studies classes as part of a broader curriculum. Already, both Park and Kadimah leaders have heard such interest, and Park administrators are talking about opening up the program more broadly next year.

Collaboration of learning
Under the agreement that created this program, Park hired Hebrew and Judaic studies faculty from Kadimah, with financial support from Federation. Our board and our teachers worked to develop a revised curriculum, with oversight and support from Park as needed, such as for books and supplies, but without interference in what would be taught.
Meanwhile, our students applied and enrolled at Park as full Park students, with financial aid from both Park and Kadimah to cement the duality of the program. So our teachers are full Park faculty, and our students are full Park Pioneers. (That’s the Park School motto.)

Kadimah remains a separate nonprofit organization, focused on fundraising for Kadimah scholarships while also working with Park to advise, market, recruit and otherwise promote the program. As a condition of the Kadimah scholarship to attend Park, those students receiving aid from the Jewish community must participate in all Hebrew and Judaic classes, as well as related programs.

Park made room within its class schedule to allow our students to take Hebrew and Judaic studies during the school day, with supplemental time two days a week after school. So when Park’s other students are taking French or another language, ours are taking Hebrew. Similarly, Judaic studies is offered against other non-core Park classes, so that our students are not missing essential general learning. 

We have our own classroom for the middle and high schools, in one of the central buildings on the 35-acre campus, with a smaller room elsewhere for the lower school. The walls are adorned with Hebrew posters and other educational materials – even on the bathroom doors down the hall. Park also gave us time and space for morning prayer and even for bentsching at lunch – though the staggered lunch periods makes the latter more difficult to do as a group. Community members, rabbis and even the Federation CEO volunteer with our students.

We celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, and we’ve even taught our new friends. And there’s been talk of using Park’s wood shop to construct an ark, so that we can bring a Torah scroll to our new home.

What does this mean for you?
Now let’s be honest: I won’t pretend this is ideal. We no longer have a stand-alone Jewish day school or Jewish environment like we’ve had for 60 years. And we have much less time for our Hebrew and Judaic studies than the 40-50% that we used to allocate, because as generous as Park has been, we knew it couldn’t match that proportion.

All of that means we have to be much more creative and inventive in our teaching, and in providing as much Jewish atmosphere as we can. We don’t want to reduce our curriculum, so we must find new ways to educate our students, to maximize what we do in less time. We also don’t exercise full control over everything as before, and can’t guarantee admission to every Jewish student, particularly those with significant educational or physical special needs that Park is simply unable to serve. And, of course, there are predictable glitches or confusion that you would expect from any unprecedented venture, all of which we’ve overcome so far.

But that’s a lot better than the alternatives: no community Jewish day school at all, a merger with a reluctant or distant partner, or a very watered-down version designed to appeal to people who aren’t interested anyway. We could have defaulted to any of those. With Park, though, we’ve found eager and supportive partners who understand and sympathize with our dilemma and are working with us. And no one is asking us to change how we teach our own Kadimah Scholars.
So how did we get here, after 60 years? We were squeezed by many of the same factors affecting day schools everywhere: declining enrollment, the struggle to gain new students, rising expenses, more scholarships, insufficient donor support, and a feeling among potential families that day schools are just “too Jewish.” We announced plans to close 18 months ago, but remained open last year to find a solution for our families.

We explored mergers or affiliations with the local chasidic school and a sister day school in another city. We talked about converting to a Hebrew charter school, a STEM school, an afternoon-only school, or a “multi-cultural” school. We even reached out to the Catholic Diocese and a Protestant school about partnerships, just to ensure we looked at the full range. But either the other ideas didn’t pan out the way we hoped, or we concluded they would not work well for us in Western New York, where both the public and private schools are very strong. 

Perhaps most importantly, though, was the spirit of cooperation we felt with Park from the start. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and we’ve had that with Head of School Jeremy Besch and his team. To be sure, there’s still much to do. But we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, and we have tremendous hope for the future.

If you want to learn more, email me at jonathan.epstein@kadimah.org. Kadimah, Park and Buffalo Federation are happy to share.

Jonathan D. Epstein is the immediate past-president of Kadimah Academy in Buffalo, NY, having served from 2012-2019 with a one-year hiatus. He is the husband and father of Kadimah alumna, and has a child currently enrolled as a Kadimah Scholar at Park School of Buffalo. He is also a business reporter at The Buffalo News. Go Bills!