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What Went Wrong at the American Hebrew Academy?

As a celebrated Jewish boarding school unexpectedly shut down last week, one former faculty member looks back at its inspired life and unsettling demise

Phil M. Cohen
June 17, 2019
Photo: American Hebrew Academy/Flickr
Photo: American Hebrew Academy/Flickr
Photo: American Hebrew Academy/Flickr
Photo: American Hebrew Academy/Flickr

On Tuesday morning, June 10, Glenn Drew and Leor Sabbah—the CEO and chair of the board, respectively, of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina—sent an email to the school’s faculty and staff, some 80 souls.

It began:

In 1996, Chico Sabbah, z”l, founder of the American Hebrew Academy, dreamed of creating an elite international Jewish boarding school for teenagers the world over. He committed his personal fortune to bring his vision to fruition and in 2001 the gates to the Academy were finally opened revealing a spectacular school the likes of which the world of Jewish education had never seen before.

The American Hebrew Academy began as a dream, it has been a dream fulfilled for 18 years, and it is a dream that must, unfortunately, now come to an end.

Thus did every employee of the school find himself or herself, in short order, without a job, without a salary, and without health insurance. Faculty living on campus have until mid-September to find new housing.

The academy opened its doors, mortgage-free, on Sept. 10, 2001, a gift from Maurice (Chico) Sabbah, who in addition to financing the physical plant expected to make a significant contribution toward an endowment. That was not to be. Chico ran a small reinsurance business in Burlington, North Carolina, called Fortress Re. It happened that he’d reinsured every plane involved in the 9/11 attacks via three Japanese insurance companies. The settlement Sabbah’s company had to pay, $400 million, eliminated any hope of an endowment from him. That was strike one, the hope of beginning with a significant endowment. This financial debacle for Sabbah hurt the school’s financial future.

Still, a cohort of 77 students who had been offered free tuition were there when the gates opened. With much of the campus yet to be constructed, these kids were the objects of the attention of an eager and excited faculty.

A significant percentage of the American Orthodox community avails itself of boarding schools that exist around the country. But the academy was unique, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school and an institution committed to struggling with the notion that high school students of all Jewish streams could thrive Jewishly within the confines of a 100 acre campus surrounded by a green fence. With its pristine campus boasting state-of-the-art classrooms, an enormous athletic facility, small classes, and an excellent faculty, the academy offered students a quality secular education along with an excellent Jewish education, and a campus life filled with friendships and support from teachers and counselors. Students, we faculty members hoped, would graduate enriched intellectually, culturally, athletically, emotionally, and Jewishly, and go off to a quality college or university, carrying that experience with them forever. And, ideally, we hoped, many of them would go on to become the future leaders of the American Jewish community.

Chico Sabbah’s original vision entailed that leaders would rise from all corners of the country, not only from New York or Los Angeles or the other big hubs of American Jewish life. He imagined the academy as a place for Jewish high schoolers from the smaller towns of America where a Jewish high school education was lacking. But a tidal wave from small Jewish communities never developed, and enrollment remained a bedeviling problem throughout the school’s history. The school was built with 350 beds, and space for more dormitories that would double the population. But throughout its life, enrollment never exceeded the 160s. Persuading non-Orthodox American Jewish parents to send their teens to a boarding school down South for four years was no easy sell.

Slowly, it dawned on the administration that to increase enrollment, recruiting beyond the U.S. was necessary. America’s only pluralist Jewish boarding school as a brand came to include “international.” A significant cohort of Jews from Mexico City began filling beds and classroom seats. Students came from Israel and the former Soviet Union, from Hungary, from Moldova. Had the school remained open, students from China would have been celebrating Shabbat with the rest of the school this coming academic year. Glenn Drew traveled the world in the hope of uncovering pockets of Jewish parents interested in sending their sons and daughters to Greensboro to receive a private school education and learn English. But he only met with modest success.

The failure to fill anywhere close to those 350 beds is clearly strike two.

The school’s monthly bulletin, “HaGesher” (The Bridge), typically contained a long list of donors, but the amount received never came close to the school’s fundraising needs. The school borrowed a significant amount of money with the paid-off property as collateral in the hope that its fundraising and enrollment issues would have been resolved by the time that money had been spent. Insufficient fundraising is clearly strike three.

In his email to the faculty, Glenn Drew appeared to blame strikes two and three on the times. Enrollment in Jewish day schools has been in steady decline, he argued; as for fundraising, “Declining interest and philanthropic support,” he wrote, “has made sustaining the Academy near impossible. The same has been true for many Jewish schools worldwide.” In other words: It’s the times, not us.

Some of us fortunate enough to be associated with the academy, however, see a more complicated picture. The American Hebrew Academy might have been an insurrection in American Jewish education. A pluralist Jewish boarding school tasked with creating a new paradigm, outrageous as that might appear, might have arisen. With the right human chemistry, the school might have succeeded in creating new models of Jewish thought and life that over time could have infiltrated the Jewish world. But for that to have happened, this terrific campus required broad collaboration with faculty, with the academy’s advisory board, and with leaders in Jewish education. The Jewish educational world would have had to be impressed into service. Someone would have had to passionately seek partnership with the North American day school world. Intellectual and emotional energy would be expended to create curricular materials that would burn with Jewishness, creating an Academy Method that could be exported. Academy faculty would travel the continent, helping to transform Jewish education as they inspired parents to send their teenage children to come, of all places, to Greensboro, North Carolina, to study at the source.

What the American Hebrew Academy needed, in short, was not a CEO but a leader, a remarkable visionary steeped in Jewish learning and passion who, like the remarkable campus over which he or she presided, could reshape Judaism in a time of crisis.

And who knows? If such a person were at the helm these past 18 years, it’s conceivable—although, of course, by no means certain—that the money and the students might have come. Just building a beautiful campus and stocking it with first-rate faculty evidently wasn’t enough. But a leader who could communicate with eloquence and urgency the mission of the school might have filled those 350 beds. And Glenn Drew, for whatever other virtue he may have, was not that leader.

Efforts to reach Glenn Drew for comment have, as of this writing, proven fruitless. But anyone seeking a silver lining in this sad story could find it by looking at the response of the organized Jewish community of Greensboro, which has sprung into action to aid both the academy’s staff and students. For students who need the help, efforts have been made to assure the smoothest transition possible to another high school. Funds are being raised to provide financial assistance. Rabbi Fred Guttman, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel, called a community meeting Thursday evening for academy folks to process the event. Guilford County Schools has organized a job fair to help faculty. Prizmah, the national Jewish education agency, has offered to help circulate resumes. Alumni are all over Facebook expressing anger and offering support, and are helping to raise money.

Treating the academy’s closing like a natural disaster, Jewish Family Services—which, full disclosure, is directed by my wife, Betsy Gamburg—has sprung into action, providing information and material help and proving that the community is ready to spring into action when the occasion calls.

At the moment, one of the Reform movement’s Six Points camps, this one a sports camp, is in operation on campus. By summer’s end, however, the 100 acre pristine campus that once bustled with teenagers and their teachers will be empty. No students, no staff, no faculty. The future of all of those buildings—if they have a future, perhaps as a school for some other group, perhaps as the site of soon-to-be-built luxury condos—remains to be seen. Certainly all of the students will have a school to attend come fall. I hope most faculty will find placement, and pray that the hourly workers and support staff will be fortunate as well.

But the story of the American Hebrew Academy should concern more than just those of us who taught or studied here. When matters have settled, when documents are released, when extensive interviews have been conducted, we may have a clearer picture of what went right and what went wrong, and a lesson learned, perhaps, on what must be done to translate a bold Jewish vision into sustainable action.


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Phil Cohen is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Albany, Georgia, and the author of Nick Bones Underground, due out in October.