Tehiyah Day School will close before the start of the 2018-2019 school year. Photo: J-Weekly

Suffering from dire financial woes, Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito is shutting down. The K-8 school’s board of trustees unanimously voted to close during a public meeting on July 17.

The first day of school would have been Aug. 27.

In a July 18 email to the Tehiyah community, the board wrote, “We have made the painful decision to close the school because we could not guarantee stable or sufficient enrollment or funds to keep the school in operation through the academic year.”

The email went on: “There are multiple reasons for the decision: the continuing decline in enrollment, significant financial aid needs of our current families, and the heavy and increasing fundraising commitment needed to stay open through the end of the school year.  Ultimately, given these reasons and the remaining uncertainty around the school’s financial situation, we could not responsibly continue to operate the school with the real risk of an emergency closure mid-year.”

Going into the 2017-2018 academic year, the school was facing a $1.9 million deficit. Though the school made fiscal progress, the remaining gap (approximately $700,000), coupled with declining enrollment — from 140 students last year to 74 who had registered for this year — forced the board’s decision to close.

The school’s faculty and administrative staff totals about 20 people.

The board plans to sell the Tehiyah campus (formerly a public school) and use the proceeds to pay off a sizeable debt, including a $4.4 million mortgage, a recent $1.1 million loan to the school and refunds to parents for tuition deposits.

“We felt at this point, given the fact we had no assistance from the community, we couldn’t run the risk of running out of money midyear,” said board member Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the parent of twins at Tehiyah.

Founded in 1979 as an egalitarian Jewish day school, it purchased its current hillside location in 1984. In addition to general academics, Tehiyah offered integrated K-8 Hebrew language, Jewish history and culture, and an annual two-week Israel trip for eighth-grade students.

As the financial problems deepened in recent months, school officials pondered solutions, among them leasing out the building and moving to a smaller site, or leasing out just part of the building.

“We approached both the East Bay Jewish Federation and the S.F. Jewish Community Federation, and neither was able to offer substantive help,” Solomon said.

He did note that the East Bay Federation has given the school annual grants, though the amount recently had been cut.

Tehiyah’s closure leaves only two K-8 Jewish day schools in the East Bay: Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette and Oakland Hebrew Day School.

Attending the July 17 meeting was board member Rebecca Golbert, executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. She said about 50 people showed up, including Tehiyah parents, representatives from other local Jewish schools and East Bay rabbis. About 30 to 40 other people called in to the meeting.

“We knew that our margin was so narrow that if any additional money was spent, or if we lost more families, we wouldn’t make it,” Golbert told J. “And that’s where we were.”

Like Solomon, Golbert is a Tehiyah parent, with children going into sixth and eighth grades. “They’re at summer camp and they don’t know yet” about the school closing, she said. “They love that school.”

Solomon said if the board had more time, it might have found a way to keep the school going. But time ran out.

“We’re heartbroken,” he said. “Jewish day schools can survive and thrive, but they need to be supported by the community. It’s a huge loss that there is now no egalitarian Jewish day school in the growing Jewish population in the Berkeley-Richmond-El Cerrito area.”

This story was first published by J-Weekly on July 18, 2018.