Disproving naysayers, Schneerson Day School opens

Defying the odds, a scaled-down incarnation of the Schneerson Hebrew Day School reopened its doors in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Even a week ago, the school — now known as the Schneerson Day School — officially had no site. After losing a court battle, it had leave its former campus by Sept. 10.

But in the end, the school's backers found refuge and rental space at Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue at 22nd Avenue and Quintara Street in the Sunset District.

"We wish them mazel, success and good luck, in their endeavor to educate Jewish children to appreciate their heritage and learn about the lessons our religion teaches," Charlotte Hyman, Ner Tamid's board president, said in a written statement.

Once run by the now-bankrupt Jewish Educational Center, the day school was forced to leave its previous campus at 34th Avenue and Balboa Street last week. A a federal bankrupcy judge last month sustained the landlord's contention that JEC's lease and option to purchase the building had expired.

The Orthodox day school is now operated by the Schneerson Russian Jewish Center, a religious nonprofit that is one of JEC's sister institutions but is not facing bankruptcy proceedings.

"I am thrilled and delighted the Schneerson Day School has opened its doors," Carol Ruth Silver, the Schneerson center's board president, said Wednesday.

"It's a start," said Frank Malifrando, an interim board member. "It's very nice. I just hope it works."

The school's two-page newsletter, issued Tuesday, offered basic information: Mattie Pil, a co-founder of the JEC, will be head teacher and Jack George will continue as principal.

"We all have struggled long and hard to come to this day when this school would open. And we deserve to congratulate each other, every one of us," Silver wrote in the newsletter.

At the top of the newsletter is a small photograph of the school's namesake, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Mattie Pil and her husband, Rabbi Bentzion Pil, are followers of Schneerson, though they have no formal links to Chabad, the official organization of the Lubavitch Chassidim.

By providing space, Congregation Ner Tamid became the city's first Jewish organization to offer the school a real helping hand since the JEC's fortunes turned sour this summer.

"They've been extremely helpful," Silver said of Ner Tamid's lay leaders and staff.

Hyman and Rabbi Steven Rubenstein, Ner Tamid's spiritual leader, declined interviews. But on Tuesday, they issued a statement welcoming the school.

"It is an honor and privilege for us to be able to share our religious school classrooms with the Schneerson Day School and to participate in the mitzvah, the obligation and the commandment, to teach Jewish children about their Jewish heritage," the statement read in part.

Malifrando estimated that 30 children ranging from kindergarten to seventh grade enrolled. The school is seeking more students. Last year, the school enrolled 140.

Tuition is set at $700, Malifrando said, but few children will pay the full amount. Nursery school will begin as soon as the administrators get the proper license, he added.

In previous years, the school could supplement tuition with proceeds from auctions of donated used cars that once brought in millions of dollars. Those auctions ended this summer after the state attorney general's office accused the Pils of fraud, tax evasion and diversion of charitable assets for personal use. They have denied wrongdoing.

The school must rely almost exclusively on tuition as its revenue for now, though it is accepting car donations.

At the same time, the Schneerson center has been working with a car-parts business to rev up the radio ads and the car auctions again. The agreement with Pick Your Part isn't final yet, Malifrando said.

All the JEC's other chariable programs, including English classes for Russian immigrants, are on hold.

Meanwhile, the JEC's court-appointed bankruptcy trustee continues attempting to regain possession of a large building at 11th Avenue and Clement Street.

The JEC purchased the building more than a year ago and then gave it as a gift to the Schneerson Russian Jewish Center. The center intended to use it as a synagogue for Russian emigres, but that never came to pass.

Stuart Kaplan, the bankruptcy trustee, asserts the gift was a "fraudulent transaction" and plans to sue for it.

But according to a legal declaration by Bentzion Pil filed in bankruptcy court Sept. 8, the transfer was legal.

Citing a Jewish text called Mishnah Berurah, Pil also notes that "it is against Jewish law for a synagogue to be demolished or sold unless there is in existence another, better synagogue building ready and available for use."

Kaplan plans to sell the building to help pay off more than 100 creditors owed between $600,000 and $1 million. He also plans to sell other donations still in JEC's possession, including a 1989 Cadillac the rabbi once drove.

Meanwhile, Kaplan has decided to liquidate the JEC, instead of reorganizing it as originally planned.

"It will not be revived," he said.