Thursday June 7, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- When students and staff at Sinai Academy of the Berkshires wrap up the school year next week, they will bid the school and building a final shalom.

After spending the past three years addressing declining enrollment and the economic downturn, the school’s board of directors came to the decision to close the Jewish day school, after nearly 18 years, and to sell the building.

"Two years ago, our enrollment was alarmingly low. We knew then that if things didn’t turn around, we were not going to be sustainable," said board President Robyn Rosen. Three of her children attended the school.

"It’s been a very hard decision, a very emotional decision to come to," said Rosen.

According to its website, Sinai Academy was founded in 1994 by a "passionate group of parents, grandparents, educators and community activists."

When the school held a gala in May 2005 to celebrate its 10th anniversary, it reported growth, from eight students to 65, and from a few rented rooms at Temple Anshe Amunim to its own facility at 199 South St. in Pittsfield.

Sinai Academy has previously offered a complete general education and Judaic studies curriculum from preschool to Grade 5. But this year, only about 18 children are enrolled and only for preschool, kindergarten and Grade 2.

Mara Davies has been sending her daughter, Halle, to Sinai Academy since preschool. Halle is now finishing second grade.

"She’s devastated," Davies said. "We’ve had a flawless experience there."

The mother said that having a Jewish day school in the Berkshires was an attraction for her family to move here from New York state. She said they’ve found a lot of Jewish families with children in the area. She also said that there are many alternatives to day school Jewish education, from after-school programs offered at local temples and congregations to Jewish summer camps.

"Most people, when taking finances into consideration, are happy with sending their children to public schools and then [Jewish] after-school programs," Davies said.

According to enrollment materials for the 2009-10 academic year, tuition was $8,240 per student enrolled in the transitional kindergarten program through Grade 5. The school also partnered with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation which provided a $2,500 tuition incentive credit for Jewish students attending the school. Other financial aid was also made available to families.

But Rosen, the Sinai board president, said that since 2008, funding became "more of an issue" for families and the donors on which the school was relying more and more.

Though the board entertained closing the school earlier, Rosen said it was the core values of the school and the staff which motivated them to open this year.

"Esther has done an unbelievable job," Rosen said of Sinai Academy’s current head of school. Esther Benari-Alt mann was appointed to the position in November 2010, and also serves as director for and instructor of Hebrew language and Judaic studies for the school.

Benari-Altmann could not be immediately reached for comment on the closing of the school.

"What Sinai gave my kids in their early years was such a love of learning and so much attention," said Rosen, noting small-size, multi-age classes.

"They instilled in our children a sense of chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam," said Davies. The Hebrew words translate into "kindness," "charity," and "repairing the world," respectively.

"We want to raise someone with good identity. These are the values that Sinai brought our kids up with since preschool," Davies said.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6239
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink