North Bay yeshiva to close if no new funding emerges

Although the school run by the Lubavitcher Chassid movement enrolls close to 50 students in grades kindergarten through eight, it serves only 15 families — a number of them paying less than the listed $5,795-per-student tuition. Appeals for grants have been turned down.

Yeshiva parents are scrambling to keep the school running — in some form. Leading the effort is Craig Winchell.

An Orthodox (though not Chabad) father of five, Winchell enrolls his two school-age children in the yeshiva. His wife drives four hours each day — twice daily to and from their home in Sebastopol — to ensure the children receive a Torah-based education.

Recently Winchell placed an advertisement in the Jewish Bulletin seeking out other families looking to support a Torah school in the North Bay.

"The results were extremely disappointing," he said. "We had no responses.

"I thought we would find more families interested in giving their children an in-depth Jewish education. I was taken completely aback to find there were none in the North Bay."

Unlike typical Jewish day schools, which devote equal amounts of time to Jewish and secular studies, yeshivot tend to focus more heavily on Jewish text and philosophy.

Yeshiva of the Bay Area, which formed seven years ago in Berkeley and has almost doubled its number of students since first opening its doors, is the only school of its kind in the area.

However, some, like Rice, are not optimistic the yeshiva can be saved. At least, not right now.

"I stepped into this school. I didn't start it," Rice said, adding, "My hope was `Build it and [they] will come.' Maybe I just needed to wait a few more years. But both patience and financial resources ran out."

Rice, who will continue to run Chabad of Marin, acknowledges the yeshiva is "blessed with committed families." However, "In terms of building something, we need to involve the [entire Jewish] community more. We need more responsibility and support.

"I hoped the yeshiva would be an education not just for students, but for funders in the Bay Area. That time has not yet arrived."

Winchell agrees. However, he and other parents are considering many options to attract greater support — in terms of both funding and number of students.

One thought was to move the school to San Francisco. However, lower rents in Marin County make a move to a more central location less cost-effective.

Winchell also hopes to entice families to enroll in either the yeshiva or its successor by improving the school's secular curriculum.

Yeshiva of the Bay Area employs seven part-time and two full-time teachers. Winchell insists that in order to attract new students, "the school has to offer a high-quality general education.

"This is one of the things which has concerned some parents. Many of us feel strongly that our kids should be able to get into the best colleges in the country, in addition to being Talmud knowledgeable."

Because Winchell lives in Sonoma County, Yeshiva of the Bay Area is his only Orthodox day- school choice.

If the school closes, Winchell most likely will enroll his children in public school and hire a tutor for Jewish studies three times weekly for four-hour sessions.

"That's not something we look forward to. But we can't afford to move either," said Winchell.

Other parents, like Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad in Berkeley, can consider other education options — like Oakland Hebrew Day School or San Francisco's Hebrew Academy.

Nonetheless, Ferris said, "I think we have to make yeshiva education a priority.

"The school offers a living Torah education that is very difficult to duplicate," he said. "I think now we have to regroup and rebuild. We're Jews. We're survivors."