NEWTON – Unable to outlast the pandemic and struggling to keep up enrollment, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies closed this summer after 76 years of serving unaffiliated and interfaith families in the Greater Boston area.
A statement on the SSJS website thanked the Jewish community for support and pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as a “hardship faced by many organizations.”
The statement continued: “We have worked passionately to avoid closing the school. This has been a difficult decision for us and we have explored a variety of options to keep SSJS open.”
Two of the school’s board members, Joshua Farber-Sault and Elana November, did not return phone calls requesting more explanation. The school’s recorded phone message states that it is no longer monitoring calls.
The Sunday School for Jewish Studies was started after World War II by two returning GIs who became Harvard University professors and wanted to have a Jewish education for their children without joining a synagogue, said David Gladstone, a past president of the school’s board. The school incorporated in the 1960s and became more progressive, attracting families that were unaffiliated, interfaith, multi-racial, and single gender, he said.
Over the years, more than 5,000 students passed through the school, including Gladstone’s wife, Joanne, who grew up in Newton.
The Sunday School moved several times over the decades, paying rent for one day a week, Gladstone said. Those locations included Pine Manor College, Regis College, Oak Hill Middle School, the University of Massachusetts Mount Ida campus, and, most recently, Gann Academy in Waltham.
Peak enrollment was 175 in the 1990s, Gladstone said. Students came from Brookline, Newton, Wellesley, Framingham, Natick, Chestnut Hill, Boston, Brighton, and Jamaica Plain, he added.
The school differed from synagogue-based Hebrew School programs. “It became the school of last resort for interfaith families who wanted a traditional type of Jewish education,” said Gladstone, who served on the board from 1992 to 2015. Two generations of his family attended the Sunday School. “Anyone was welcomed with open arms at the school.”
The closing of the K-7 school, which also offered High Holiday services, left some in the Jewish community saddened.
Dori Stern served as education director for 15 years leading up to the pandemic. During those years, enrollment peaked at 160 children, she said.
“It’s such a sad thing,” said Stern, who heard from distressed parents over the summer. She also spoke to SSJS’s former director, Michelle Folickman, “when the decision was made at the end of the 2021-22 school year.”
Stern laments the shutdown. “It was really a very special school where kids of interfaith families would get a really solid traditional education about Judaism,” she said.
The school also offered bar and bat mitzvah training. Its Torah would travel to any celebration venue, Gladstone said.
“I would put these kids up against any kid that comes out of a regular temple with regards to the knowledge of Torah,” he said.
Gladstone said he wished the board had reached out to seasoned supporters who helped run the school for a long time and navigate difficult situations. Stern said she also would have liked community outreach from the board.
“A lot of Sunday schools were able to pivot out of COVID and be successful,” said Gladstone, who tried but couldn’t reach current board members. “I’m just confused about why and what happened.”
Alex Katz, an 18-year-old student at Clark University, is one of the many students who started in kindergarten at SSJS and came back after seventh grade as a teacher’s aide. She saw the attendance decline and disinterest grow at the campus.
“I thought it was sad. I noticed a lot of people started to not come or care as much about the classes and activities,” she said.
“I’m done with school [at SSJS] so it was a natural ending for me, but I feel sad for the future of the kids there because I really wanted them to go through the experience I went through and they won’t really get to do that.”
Her grandmother, Barbara Katz, said, “The best thing for us as a family is that the school very much cemented Alex’s Jewish identity. I thought the inclusiveness of all kinds of family constellations was wonderful.
“It’s extremely unfortunate because I feel that the Sunday School filled an important community niche. A shame to have [it close].”
The nondenominational school always held well-attended High Holiday services. Going forward, the Boston-area Jewish Education Program, another independent Sunday school, will hold them at Brandeis University, according to the Sunday School website. SSJS will donate resources “as a meaningful way to preserve our legacy and fulfill our mission.”