By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – On July 1, the merger of the Bess & Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy and Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE) will be formalized to create the Hartford area’s first comprehensive Modern Orthodox Jewish school for students in grades K-12.
While classes at the newly formed New England Jewish Academy will continue to be held at both of the schools’ current campuses during the 2019-2020 school year, it is expected that the new school will be housed entirely in HHNE’s West Hartford building by the 2020-2021 school year when an elementary school wing is added.
And if Jewish community leaders Ann and Jeremy Pava get their wish, a tuition subsidy they are providing will spur more families to send their children to the new Jewish school.
With the Pavas’ gift every New England Jewish Academy student will receive a major subsidy ranging from $7,000 to $10,000, depending upon the grade.
According to the Pavas, who are residents of West Hartford, all New England Jewish Academy students will receive the tuition subsidies, even those already enrolled, and the subsidies will remain in place for each student for a minimum of five years. Additional scholarships will still be available for families who need them.
“Our goal is to try our best to make sure that anyone who wants a Jewish day school education will get one,” Ann Pava said.
The Pavas will make up the difference to the school, paying a total of $1.5 million – or $300,000 for the next five years – to cover the subsidies.
“We hope this gift will encourage enrollment by making day school tuition affordable and accessible to a broader range of families while also ensuring that our school provides an academic program of the highest quality,” said Jeremy Pava.
Ann Pava said that the hope is that local families who have wanted to send their children to day schools, but were unable to afford it, might now be able to swing the tuition.
“This is middle income family relief because some people who [can afford it] can just pay the tuition and people who are going to send their kids no matter what will be willing to accept scholarships,” she said. “But there are all these people in the middle – the majority of Jewish people – that think that a Jewish day school education would be nice but that it’s difficult.”
Current acting chair of the board of Prizmah: Jewish Center for Jewish Day Schools, an umbrella organization that emerged in 2016 from the North American Jewish Day School Conference, Pava says she has examined different tuition models used by day schools around North America.
“This one is a hybrid of different things we saw,” she said. “We decided to try and implement something locally, especially now that we are going to have a new school and a new product and new leadership, so we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to also offer a new tuition structure so that people could choose to come.”
Going all in
The Hebrew Academy, founded nearly 80 years ago as the Yeshiva of Hartford, is the oldest Orthodox Jewish day school in the United States. Originally located on Cornwall Street in Hartford, it moved to its present Bloomfield campus in 1974.
HHNE was founded in 1996 by a group of Jewish leaders that included Ann Pava, who then served as the school’s first president. The high school held classes at Agudas Achim Synagogue in West Hartford before relocating in January 2011 to a new building that sits across from the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford. The regional high school is supported by the three Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Foundations of Western Massachusetts, Greater Hartford and Greater New Haven.
“We’ve been working on this merger for over a year now,” said Yitz Moss, co-president of Hebrew Academy along with his wife, Juanita. “The whole process has been a good way to take a solid look at what we are doing well and what we could be doing better. Moving the Hebrew Academy to West Hartford, I think, is a step in the right direction. [Hebrew Academy] has a great campus where it is right now but it has aged and it’s not really where the population lives. We think that coming to the West Hartford campus will improve the profile of the school and put us in the middle of the Jewish community. Two schools together allows for a lot of synergy and will strengthen the entire institution.”
The Mosses, who will become co-presidents of the New England Hebrew Academy after the merger is complete, currently have four children enrolled at Hebrew Academy with one headed to high school next year.
“We feel that Jewish education is very important for [our children],” says Moss. “The tuition incentive is icing on the cake. The Pavas’ generosity is really unbelievable. They are already major supporters of the high school and of the elementary school and then to really double down on this and say ‘we want this to work’ is amazing.”
Dr. Joshua Levinsohn, who has served as merger director since January 2018, described the Pavas as “the most extraordinary of community supporters,” calling their tuition initiative “quite unusual.”
“It’s an indication of [the Pavas’] commitment to the school. They really want to go all in and make sure this is a successful venture and that the school continues to thrive,” Levinsohn said.
As for the merger, Levinsohn said the search for a permanent head of school is the next order of business.
“We actually have decided to wait to make a permanent hiring until next year,” he said. “We are going to go with an interim situation and we have two good options there.”
Levinsohn, whose engagement with the school is up at the end of June, said he would continue to assist the new leadership if needed.
Ann Pava says that while she did not attend Jewish day school as a child, her three childrens’ attendance at Jewish day schools helped her to grow as a Jew. She said that she hopes other families can take the same kind of Jewish day school journey.
“There is nothing like a Jewish day school education… We know that day schools immerse entire families in exploring our tradition and sacred values and enables a knowledge and understanding of Judaism that can never be replicated elsewhere.
“I didn’t know when I sent my kids to Jewish day school that it was going to be a family affair,” she continued. “I became a better Jewish person because my children were in Jewish day school because I could participate in and learn from everything they were doing in day school. It changed me. My children going to day school made me into the best possible Jewish leader I could be.”