In Miami, a new selective Jewish school hopes to attract the best students

JTA – A brand new $50 million campus. One month in Israel every year. And a program to help students turn their social service ideas into full-fledged nonprofits.

These are just a few of the perks offered by the Jewish Leadership Academy, a new Jewish day school in Miami that aims to fuse traditional Jewish learning with the trappings of the nation’s most elite private schools.

The new school plans to open in 2023 with middle and high school classes of up to 45 students each, and will initially accept applications for 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th graders. Unusually for a Jewish day school, these students will be hand-picked based on their standardized test scores and other measures of their academic ability — part of the school’s effort to combat what its founders label a “brain drain” in local Jewish education.

“Too many Miami-area Jewish families with academically highly capable, academically ambitious children have retreated from the world of Jewish day schools for elite private schools,” the director of the school said. JLA school, Rabbi Gil Perl, to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The school is the brainchild of Daniel Ades, a partner at the capital management firm Kawa, and his wife Gisela Ades, an immigration lawyer. The couple, Brazilian Jews who met at Boston University, currently fund the school’s operations.

On the new school’s website, they explain that they considered funding teacher training, performance pay, and scholarships at existing Jewish day schools before determining that what Miami needs is a school that caters to “those who want [to]or can, do more » than Jewish schools in the community offer.

South Florida’s recent boom in young Jewish families would appear to help the school, but Perl said the project’s roots actually began before the pandemic. Some Jewish families already in Miami were given a choice, Perl said, between “getting the academic experience they wanted for their children, or having them in a pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist environment. How do I remove this choice from the table? »

Miami is home to several Jewish middle and high schools that offer college-preparatory academics, Judaic studies, and trips to Israel for their students. Davie’s Posnack School welcomes students from a variety of Jewish backgrounds; Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, one of the largest Jewish schools in the country, has an Orthodox approach and offers merit scholarships at its high school. In Miami Beach, Hebrew Academy Miami is a Modern Orthodox school in the process of building a new $15 million middle and high school.

The Scheck Hillel Community Day School Stadium. (Courtesy of Scheck Hillel/JTA)

Requests for comment from headteachers at the three institutions were not returned.

But Paul Bernstein, the CEO of Prizmah, a nonprofit that supports Jewish day schools and yeshivas in North America, said JLA’s launch shouldn’t be seen as a threat to other schools, but as a “strengthening the strength of our community,” in part because of the growing demand for Jewish education in Miami.

He said Prizmah expects other schools in the area to expand and new ones may be established as the Jewish population grows. (Enrollment in North American Jewish day schools increased 3.7% between 2019 and 2021, according to the group.)

Bernstein told JTA that his group “applauds the creation of the Jewish Leadership Academy,” saying it would add to “the tremendous diversity of approaches” among Jewish day schools nationwide.

“Jewish day schools generally do not approach education as a competition with schools, public or private, Jewish or not,” he said. “They seize the opportunity to teach and nurture the whole child, and they provide a learning community, both Jewish and secular, that allows students to thrive.”

An interpretation of the beit midrash at the future Miami, Florida, Jewish Leadership Academy. (Courtesy of Jewish Leadership Academy/JTA)

JLA hopes to distinguish itself from other schools by primarily catering to the highest performing students.

“We are very clear that we will only teach at a specialist level or above,” Perl said. “That’s what our school is here to do. And in that way, it’s quite unique. I don’t know if there is another Jewish school that has done this.

Many cities, including Miami, have selective public high schools; many recent studies found that attending selective schools can cause long-term harm to students. But Perl and JLA see their vision as the next logical step for Jewish education, having spent “the last 20, 30 years” investing in “that struggling student body… academically, socially, emotionally.”

“I don’t think our large Jewish communities have yet invested in students who are on the other side of the spectrum, who have the potential to really go beyond what a community school could possibly offer,” said Perl.

Tuition fees, meanwhile, will be “need-blind,” meaning students will be admitted regardless of their need for financial aid; what they pay will be determined by what their families can afford. (The cost of full annual tuition is $42,000, about $10,000 more than other day schools in the region.) Perl says it’s essential that students have the opportunity to interact with Jews from various socio-economic backgrounds. The foundation will cover the cost of blind tuition for approximately the first decade of JLA’s existence, by which time the organization hopes to have established an endowment.

Initially, Perl — a longtime Jewish education researcher who was previously principal of the Kohelet Yeshiva school in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion Station, Pennsylvania — was hired only as a consultant to the company. . But the possibilities of the new school excited him so much that he agreed to join JLA full-time.

He is now the founding principal of the school, as well as the CEO of the Ades Family Foundation, which manages money for the school and other related initiatives, including a continuing education fund for Jewish educators in the Miami area and a plan to create affordable housing. support for “Jewish community professionals”.

Although its guiding principle is Modern Orthodoxy, JLA is not a yeshiva—only about a quarter of its curriculum will be religious, compared to the 50/50 split that students encounter at most Orthodox schools.

Although its guiding principle is Modern Orthodoxy, JLA is not a yeshiva—only about a quarter of its curriculum will be religious, compared to the 50/50 split students encounter at most Orthodox schools. But by having all eighth-graders begin their school year in Israel with nearly a month of teaching focused on Jews and Israel just before the major holidays, the school also offers an immersive Jewish component. .

This experience in Israel will be covered as part of tuition and will be done in partnership with Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod Hasharon that typically offers study abroad programs to Jewish students from across the Diaspora. Perl anticipates that the annual trip will allow returning students to further their education in Israel each year in unique ways.

The Alexander Muss High School on Israel’s Hod HaSharon campus. (Courtesy of AMHSI)

“Very often a trip to Israel is a one-hit wonder” for Jewish schools, he said, referring to programs such as semesters abroad or summer trips. If money weren’t an issue, he said, the ideal education in Israel would involve multiple return visits to the region.

“Obviously it’s a logistical challenge — it’s a financial challenge for most schools,” Perl said. “But if we can work out the logistics and we can work out the finances, then there’s no doubt that we think this is our best shot at getting the educational results we’re looking for.”

JLA’s multimillion-dollar campus, funded entirely by the Ades, will include a music recording studio, a “Fabrication Lab” with 3D printers, and an athletic facility with three full basketball courts. It is currently under construction in Miami’s Pinewood neighborhood, the location chosen because it is equidistant from major Jewish population centers in the metropolitan area.

Jewish day schools have sought to innovate on their core model for years, not always successfully; an attempt over the past decade to operate a pluralistic Jewish boarding school in North Carolina called the American Hebrew Academy ended with the abrupt closure of the school in 2019 lack of funding.

But Perl says any comparison with the American Hebrew Academy falls short, both because JLA focuses on local students rather than convincing them to board from elsewhere, and because his school hasn’t had to get into debt to get started.

The Greensboro, North Carolina campus of the American Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school. (American Hebrew Academy website)

Families in the area have expressed “extreme enthusiasm” about the program, but some have reservations, Perl said.

“We have families for whom it’s, ‘Why [are] there are only two judaic periods [per day]? Can’t you do more? And there are others who wonder, ‘Well, why is this Modern Orthodox? Will I be comfortable in a Modern Orthodox setting? “‘Overall, though,’ he said, ‘we think we’ve reached a sweet spot.’

One thing Perl claims to be sure of: a Jewish school that tries to attract all students from its Jewish community is a losing strategy. “I firmly believe that the desire, the need to be everything for everyone is ultimately what creates mediocrity.”

Norma A. Roth