By Mayer Fertig
Issue of June 19, 2009 /27 Sivan 5769
Bnot Shulamith of Long Island has won zoning approval to convert three buildings on Prospect Street in Inwood into a campus to house the entire school. Currently the preschool, elementary and middle schools are housed in three separate locations in the Five Towns. The June 4 decision [read it here] by the Town of Hempstead set the clock ticking on a contractual agreement to proceed to closing within 60 days. Failure to do so could mean the loss of a $2.5 million down payment.
The purchase will require the sale of the Brooklyn campus that is currently home to Shulamith School for Girls; that sale faces a legal challenge from a group of parents. The battle would appear to be lost however, a necessary price for saving the Brooklyn school itself.
Jacob Abilevitz, the longtime president of a Brooklyn boys’ yeshiva, Derech HaTorah, which is considered the philosophical sibling to Shulamith, has agreed to take personal responsibility for the Brooklyn school when it formally separates from Bnot Shulamith on Sept. 1.
He told a small group of parents Monday night that a lawyer for the school, Israel Vider, called him last week to say that the Brooklyn school’s reopening in September depends on the timely completion of the Inwood deal.
“If they lose the $2.5 million, Shulamith Brooklyn will not be able to open and I will not be able to do anything about it,” Abilevitz warned.
Did he consider it a threat, Abilevitz was asked? “They never told me that, but I’m smart enough to understand what they’re trying to do.” Vider did not return several message left at his office before the paper’s press deadline.
Complicating the transaction is the fact that some or all of the down payment the school received last year from the prospective buyer of the Brooklyn campus, Joshua Guttman, who has also served on the school’s board, is gone. As The Jewish Star reported last September, escrow funds were released with his approval after the board voted to use the money –– some $1.5 million –– to cover payroll taxes in arrears.
The understanding to separate the two schools has all of the proceeds of the Brooklyn sale going toward the Inwood purchase. That is a bitter outcome for parents who questioned why as much as $20 million should be transferred from Brooklyn to the Five Towns, but Abilevitz said, “I asked parents if they wanted a school or if they wanted a building. Most said they wanted a school. My priority is the school.”
Therefore, he plans to suggest that parents who are party to the lawsuit over the Brooklyn campus sign a letter directing that their names be removed from the suit. “Ten percent will never sign it,” he predicted, but he believes that 90 percent will. That “will send a message,” he said. If the majority of the parents of the Brooklyn school agree to have the sale take place “they can’t have any [complaints] to us that we prevented them” from buying the building in Inwood.
Parents “should use their common sense,” he urged. “If you want the school to continue –– I know you’re losing a tremendous amount of money –– but you take your chances,” continuing a legal battle.
He urged parents to trust him that letting the money go would pay off in the end. Abilevitz, who owns a pharmacy on Kings Highway in Flatbush and has a daughter in the school, has been reviewing Shulamith’s financial records and said he believes that despite steep losses –– one million dollars this year, he said –– the Brooklyn school can be turned around. The red ink is due mostly to inefficiencies and poor tuition collection, he believes –– “you can’t run a school like that” –– but he has an agreement with Guttman for the school to remain in the building, rent free, for three years, and for Shulamith to have the ability to “generate income by renting the shul, pool and auditorium.”
Abilevitz is willing to pour hundreds of thousands of his own dollars into the Brooklyn school during the turnaround, he told the dozen or so parents at the meeting. All monies that had been paid in advance toward next year’s tuition in the Brooklyn School would become the property of the Brooklyn school, as would the fundraising lists, the school name, accreditation and, perhaps most important of all, its reputation earned over 80 years since it became the first yeshiva for Orthodox girls in the United States. “All the positives will stay,” he said.
This article has been slightly edited to reflect the following clarification which appeared in the June 26th 2009 issue:
Tuition payments for the 2009-10 school year made in advance for
students at Bnot Shulamith of Long Island will be applied to that
school, and tuition payments for students who attend Shulamith School
for Girls in Brooklyn will belong to that school, if and when the two
become separate institutions on Sept. 1 as scheduled. There was room
for misunderstanding of that point in an article in the June 19, 2009
issue (Bnot Shulamith wins zoning for Inwood campus). It made
reference to an understanding between the current Shulamith board and
Jacob Abilevitz, the president of a boys’ yeshiva in Brooklyn who has
volunteered to also take on responsibility for Shulamith in Brooklyn
when the executive director, Rabbi Moshe Zwick, moves to the school in
the Five Towns, as he is scheduled to do.