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Saturday, July 11, 2020

After closing, rallying cry for Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy

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For more than 20 years, a Jewish Orthodox day school in West Hollywood strived to provide a quality education to children from immigrant families who couldn’t afford to pay a private school tuition. 

But in recent months, Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy fell behind on rent payments and it was forced to close in July. Now, supporters are fighting to reopen its doors somewhere else. 

“I want to cry when I think about what happened,” said Kenneth Lowenstein, 35, an alumnus who is trying to raise money for the school. “Where is the outcry from the philanthropies? Where is the community outrage?”   

The academy’s financial troubles started a few months ago, after its landlord raised the rent, Lowenstein said.

The school occupies a corner near the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, just a short walk from the glitz and glam of The Grove and other luxury boutiques that have popped up in the vicinity. The academy paid $8,000 a month until its landlord nearly tripled the rate to $22,000 earlier this year, according to Lowenstein. 

 A representative of Hayworth Property Management, the leasing management company, declined to comment for this article, and Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, who has been the principal of the school since 1994, said he preferred not to discuss the reason for the academy’s closure.

Bernard Suissa, president of the school’s board, said rising costs forced the academy to close but there are no hard feelings. The property’s landlord has been Jacob’s biggest donor for many years, he said.“Sometimes we didn’t pay for many months and they looked the other way,” Suissa said. “They were incredibly patient and gracious with us.”

More than 80 percent of the school’s income came from donations and only 20 percent from tuition, Harrosh said. On top of that, the majority of students whose families struggled with financial problems received a significant discount. The tuition was set at $10,000 a year, but only a fraction of students paid the full amount, according to Harrosh. “If you could pay $600 a month, they would take you,” Lowenstein said. “If you could afford only $200 a month, they would still take you.”

That proved to be an unsustainable business model.

“Rabbi Harrosh has never been a successful fundraiser, but he has always been an excellent teacher,” Lowenstein said. “He has touched so many lives though his education and impacted so many children.” 

The Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, named after Holocaust survivor Rachela Silber Perutz, was founded in 1993 by Rabbi Rubin Huttler as an emergency school for children who immigrated from Russia and Iran. It enrolled 55 students last year in grades one to eight, some of them with learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

“We took in children who other schools couldn’t handle,” Harrosh said. “We enrolled children who struggled emotionally, academically and financially.”

Since the school’s closure in July, some families placed their children into public schools, while others are still scrambling to find a new school.

One parent is Ross, the father of a 9-year-old son who has a pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD, characterized by delays in the development of social and communication skills. (Ross preferred his full name not be published in order to protect his son’s privacy.) 

He reached out to the academy two years ago after other Jewish Orthodox schools refused to accept his son, and was welcomed. Over time, he said, his son fell in love with Perutz Etz Jacobs. Once a day, the boy spent at least an hour studying one on one with Harrosh or other teachers. During holidays, the boy begged Ross to take him to school. 

In August, Ross found out that the academy was forced to close, news that his son didn’t take well. Now, Ross is scrambling to find a new school for his son. 

“It was very traumatic for him,” Ross said. “He has nowhere to go now, and he is very upset about it.”

Unlike some other schools, Perutz Etz Jacob, situated in an unimposing, one-story structure, could never brag about a state-of-the-art building, spacious grounds or classrooms equipped with iPads, said Lowenstein, who spent two years there before graduating in 1995. 

But its teachers provided plenty of love and support for their students, according Harrosh. 

“Our students saw Judaism in action,” the rabbi said. “When you care about every child, you see Judaism in action.”

Lowenstein, who now runs a security firm, said he was a troubled child with learning disabilities when he was accepted to the school, which quickly became his second home. 

“I had combative relationships with my parents and sometimes I asked my teachers to stay a little longer,” he said. “The school became my home away from home.” 

Many other children had similar experiences, said Ross, who reached out to the academy after several people told him how Harrosh changed their lives. “More than one person told me something like, ‘When I was a kid, Rabbi Harrosh saved my life,’ ” he said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the yellow one-story stucco building located at the intersection of Beverly and Hayworth Avenue showed no sign of the day school. Construction materials were seen in empty rooms through a dusty window. 

Just recently, Lowenstein posted a message on Facebook about the closure of the academy, calling on the school’s alumni, including lawyers, doctors and real estate developers, to give back to the school that “has done so much for so many families.” His hope is that with the community’s support, the school will find a new building so that it can relocate.  

“I want to reach as many people as possible, make phone calls, and track alumni via social media,” he said. “I want to do as much as possible to help the school.” 

In the meantime, Harrosh is planning to meet and work with some students one on one. He said it breaks his heart knowing that some children still have not started the school year. 

“Those children need more love and attention,” he said. “I don’t blame other schools, but they are too big to give attention that those children need.” 

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