Parents ponder establishing new Jewish day school in Louisville

Jewish parents have met to discuss the feasibility of starting a new day school in Louisville. Some rabbis have joined the conversation. The meetings are expected to resume in January. (photo provided)

When Richard Sagman was offered the job of vice president of products for Twin Spires, a subsidiary of Churchill Downs, he simply couldn’t refuse.
“It was just a great opportunity as a job,” the 45-year-old gaming executive said, “so that’s what brought us here.”
That said, Sagman, his wife, Tamar, and their two kids, Benjamin, 13, and Gefen, 12, thought hard about the religious life they would find here.
A modern Orthodox family that had spent the last three years in Las Vegas, the fastest growing Jewish community in America, the Sagman’s were used to having whatever they wanted Jewishly.
Las Vegas has its own chapter of the Tzofim (Israeli Scouts), in which their kids were active. Benjamin studied in a chavruta – a study group – consisting of other boys his own age.
And of course, they went to a Jewish day school. (Las Vegas has four.)
Moving to Louisville meant sacrifices – no Tzofim, no chavruta, and no day school.
“We almost didn’t come because of that,” said Sagman, whose kids attend Kentucky Country Day School. “It was a real challenge coming here because it didn’t have what we’re used to.”
Sagman’s concerns resonate with other parents in the Jewish Louisville, particularly among the Orthodox
Anshei Sfard, the city’s only Orthodox congregation, has less than 35 families (mostly retirees) and is preparing to move into Shalom Towers. The synagogue, the congregation’s spiritual home since 1957, is for sale.
To revive the community, the Orthodox rabbinate here says two things are indispensable: a community mikvah and a day school. The mikvah already exists, although the Louisville Vaad HaKashruth, which runs it, will have to move the facility when the synagogue property is sold.
But the lack of a day school is a bigger problem.
“What younger [Orthodox] family is going to necessarily want to move here when there is no schooling option for their kid past kindergarten?” asked Rabbi Simcha Snaid of Anshei Sfard.
Snaid wasn’t just talking about a yeshiva-type school, but a comprehensive institution that teaches general studies – math, sciences, English, social studies – alongside halachic Judaism, and is committed to excellence all around.
Some parents and rabbis are again meeting and discussing the idea of starting a new school (Chabad already runs one), and some community leaders have endorsed the idea in principle.
How to do it, though – opening a school that meets the needs of Jews from all movements, including the unaffiliated – is something with which parents and religious leaders are grappling.
A small group of Louisville parents, from all streams of Judaism, recently took a small step toward that goal.
They met in a private home in Louisville the week of November 15 to gauge the interest in a new day school and what the next step should be.
Rabbis Zack Blaustein and Yitzy Mandel, of the Kentucky Institute for Torah Education, helped organize the session, which featured speaker Rabbi Bentzion Chait national director of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim-Rabbinical Seminary of America in New York.
In an email to Community, Chait described the meeting as “mostly positive” and “very well attended.”
“There was an animated lively discussion,” Chait wrote. “People from a wide range of Jewish experiences asked many excellent questions (a good sign). My take away: In spite of the hurdles we know of and those we have yet to fully consider, there is a lot of positive energy and a sincere desire to move forward. This was a very good first step.”
Community was not invited to the meeting, which drew apprximately 20 people by some counts, but some parents commented on the session afterwards.
Bekie Admony said no particular model was pushed at the meeting. “They (Chofetz Chaim) realize every community is different.
“Actually, [Chait] told us we had to start from zero, put in our own mission and vision, she added. “But they weren’t going to press on any kind of way we should do it.”
She said the parents, who expect to meet again in January, realize they will have to fundraise to support the project.
She said she is committed to starting a new school here, feeling “guilty” that her kids don’t get the same Jewish education she received while growing up in Israel.
Rabbi Michael Wolk of Keneseth Israel, who also attended the meeting, spoke cautiously about the project.
“A day school will only succeed in Louisville if it actively involves all the congregations as well as Jews not affiliated with a congregation,” Wolk said in an email to Community. “It should not be labeled or act as an arbiter between Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.”
Rabbi David Ariel-Joel of The Temple (Reform) also said the push for a new day school could be hobbled if all three movements aren’t fully integrated.
“I believe that the … synagogues will insist that leadership roles should be fully egalitarian and inclusive (i.e. women as rabbis and Cantors, LGBTQ as rabbis and Cantors, and so on),” he wrote in an emailed statement to Community. “Also the ‘who is a Jew’ question can become an issue, with children to Jewish fathers and the mutual acceptance of converts.
Louisville hasn’t had a widely attended Jewish day school since Eliahu Academy closed in 2008. The community’s experience with Eliahu demonstrates that practical challenges to running a day school must be addressed.
Eliahu opened in 1953 with 21 pupils. Within six years, enrollment had climbed to 86, 48 of whom came from Orthodox, the rest from Conservative and Reform households, according to Herman Landau’s history of the Jewish community, Adath Louisville.
While keeping the lights on at Eliahu was often a struggle, Landau wrote that the school had its successes, too. In a report to the trustees in 1974, then-Principal Rabbi Simon Murciano wrote, “The scholastic records of the Academy graduates are, on average, better than the scholastic records of public school children. Forty-four percent of our graduates ranked higher scholastically than children from public schools.”
For now, at least, a day school that caters to all streams, and the unaffiliated, appears to be the working model.
That’s the kind of school Snaid said he attended while growing up in Savannah, Georgia. His classes included girls as well as boys from Reform and Conservative synagogues.
“It 100 percent worked,” Snaid said, “and the teachers were 100 percent sensitive to that. No one ever said go home and tell your parents [they weren’t religious enough]. That never ever happened.”
“It was, if you want to call it, technically an Orthodox-run school, meaning that the approach – what was taught – was the authentic beliefs of what the Torah is, and what it has to offer. At the same time, there was never a push that this is what you need to be.”
He envisions the same kind of school here.
“I would say the potential is endless here. There’s a lot of young families who are interested in expanding their connection to Judaism, and that, G-d willing, is what I would like to try to create.”

Leave a Reply