Jewish school in the desert closes

The only Jewish day school (K-5) between Los Angeles and Phoenix officially closed on June 30 due to lack of funds and an anticipated drop in enrollment for the upcoming school year. The last day of school was June 13.

The Jewish Community School of the Desert (JCSD), a nondenominational Jewish school located on the grounds of Temple Sinai in Palm Desert, needed to raise at least $150,000 to guarantee that it could stay open for the entire 2013-14 academic school year, said Sandy Banner, school board president. 

“This school has, for 21 years, been a jewel in the desert,” Banner said. “The children left this building with a sense of commitment to Judaic values as well as having academic secular skills.”

In May, The Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and Desert Area decided to cut its regular $175,000 annual grant to the school, and that proved too big a hit to the school’s budget — which was just under $500,000 for the entire year — for it to survive, according to Banner.

Federation’s CEO, Bruce Landgarten, declined to comment. An open letter sent by Federation to the local Jewish community on June 5 stated that “a lower-than-expected enrollment projection for the coming school year is compelling the school to close.” Earlier that day, JCSD’s board sent an e-mail stating that it voted to close the school.

Miri Ketayi, JCSD’s head of school, said that 41 students were enrolled in the school year that just ended. But only 25 students were signed up for next year, a significant drop, especially considering that most of those 25 students were slated to be on financial aid, according to Banner.

According to the school’s Web site (, 2012-13 tuition was $8,190 for full-day kindergarten and $9,437 for grades 1-5. Federation wrote in its letter that at the school’s anticipated 2013-14 enrollment, it would have had to subsidize each student to the tune of $3,725. 

“When numbers like that came to our attention,” the letter stated, “we found that not to be sustainable.”

Banner thinks that the school may have been able to enroll five to 10 additional students, but, she added, “I understand their concerns about declining enrollment and the expenditure of money for so few children.”

Banner said that one factor hurting enrollment numbers is that local public schools will be offering full-day kindergarten in the fall, which was a draw for some JCSD families.

Founded in 1993, JCSD has been for two decades the only Jewish day school in a region that Federation estimates is home to about 20,000 Jews. Laura Friedman of Indian Wells, Calif., a mother of two JCSD graduates and one current student, said she will have to send her youngest son, who is entering third grade, to public school following JCSD’s closure. The Jewish education and the small class sizes will be missed, she said.

“He was getting a Jewish education,” Friedman said. “By being in a Jewish school, he will identify much more strongly with his religion, heritage and traditions.”

Dana Brown of Indio, Calif., is a parent of two daughters who have attended JCSD, including one, Sophie, who just graduated from fifth grade. She said that she was “shocked” when she heard about JCSD’s closure. Sophie added that at this year’s graduation, some of the students were crying because of the school’s closure. 

Brown’s other daughter, Halle, also attended JCSD. She just graduated from Palm Desert Charter Middle School, where Sophie will be in the fall. Halle said that had she not attended a Jewish day school she might not have wanted to have a bat mitzvah. Not attending JCSD, she said, “would have impacted me as a person and as a Jew.”

“I wouldn’t have been as proud of my Jewishness as I am now.”

Even though Jews in the desert likely won’t have a day school for the upcoming school year, Banner said the JCSD board will not dissolve the entity, leaving open the possibility that JCSD will one day reorganize and reopen. For that to happen, though, enrollment would have to increase.

Ketayi, the school’s principal, hopes that the desert Jewish community will find a way to re-establish a day school that, like JCSD, will emphasize Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

“Hopefully one day something will reopen here,” Ketayi said. “There is a need in this community.”