Torah Day School survives 1st year — without car sales

Donning handmade graduation caps decorated with Stars of David last week, about 30 kids marked the end of the first year of San Francisco's Torah Day School.

The graduation was a benchmark for the elementary school, which replaced the Schneerson Hebrew Day School after it folded last summer.

"From my view, it was a good year in all. The school is still open," Rabbi Maklouf Benchlouch said Monday. "We have a hope next year to get more kids."

Benchlouch serves as board president of the Jewish Foundation for Learning, the religious nonprofit that oversees the Orthodox school.

Torah Day School opened in September after the Schneerson Hebrew Day School lost its four-story building, the vast majority of its 140 pupils and its major mode of fund-raising — proceeds from the auction of used cars donated to the now-defunct Jewish Educational Center.

The JFL took over the work of the JEC after the state attorney general's office accused JEC's founders, Rabbi Bentzion and Mattie Pil, of financial misdeeds last summer. The Pils have denied any wrongdoing. Soon after, the JEC was declared bankrupt.

Benchlouch acknowledged that money is an ongoing problem for the school, which rents classrooms for preschool through third grade at Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District.

Charlotte Hyman, the congregation's president, has been a "blessing for the school," Benchlouch said.

When the school's leaders realized they couldn't afford the $2,000 monthly rent, he said, Hyman helped get the amount cut in half.

"It's a really big mitzvah. That woman is special. And that gives us big hope."

Preschoolers, who account for about half the school's enrollment, will continue to meet there during the summer. The school plans to stay at Ner Tamid for the next school year.

Tuition ranges from $150 to $400 per month, he said, depending on what each family can afford. Most of the students are children of emigres from the former Soviet Union.

Carol Ruth Silver, former board president of both the JEC and the JFL, said the financial problems are inherent in the school's philosophy that no child should be denied a Jewish education for lack of funds.

The day school has had "many problems because the amount of money coming in from tuition is relatively low," said Silver, who has remained unofficially involved with the school.

Benchlouch hopes fund-raising and tuition from additional students will ease the financial burden.

Early in the school year, JFL leaders tried to rev up donations of used cars again but later dropped the plan. Silver added that used-car solicitations may begin again someday.

To save money, the school let go of its principal early in the academic year. Three full-time, paid teachers remained on staff, Benchlouch said.

Mattie Pil continued to teach at the school, he said, mostly as a volunteer. She founded the school's original incarnation, Beth Aaron Day School, in the mid-1980s. Neither Benchlouch nor Silver would comment on whether Mattie Pil will definitely return in the fall.

"I'm sure the school will do just fine, no matter who comes and goes," Silver said. "The real challenge is to maintain the vision that Mattie Pil brought to the school."

While adults were shouldering the burden of keeping the school open, the kids were enjoying themselves last week.

At the graduation, they recited poems on spring, winter and fish. They sang "Havenu Shalom Aleichem." And they received certificates for completing the school year.

"They were really cute," Silver said.