US Jewish day schools take in hundreds of Israeli students fleeing war – USA TODAY

As deadly attacks and bombings unfolded in Israel and Gaza, Jewish day schools in U.S. cites like Philadelphia and Dallas began hearing from worried families: Can you take our children?
Jay Leberman was one who answered the calls. So far, five Israeli students have enrolled at the school he runs in Beachwood, Ohio. The school, Mandel Jewish Day School, hasn’t been charging tuition due to their dire need and is now preparing for possibly extended enrollment.
“We knew we needed to take them and we’ll worry about paying for it later,” Leberman told USA TODAY.
About 92% of Jewish day schools in the U.S. and Canada reported receiving inquiries about enrolling Israeli students since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israeli border communities, according to a survey by Prizmah Center for Jewish Day Schools.
All types of schools − community, Conservative, Orthodox, pluralistic and Reform − received inquiries, and 80% of the schools surveyed said they’d already enrolled new students. In the two-week period immediately after war broke out, Prizmah said, 278 new students enrolled in Jewish day schools.
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“After the war started, we were seeing an enormous amount of stress in the Jewish community,” said Paul Bernstein, Prizmah’s founder and CEO. The center heard from families looking to enroll their children for a variety of reasons: Some were relocating from Israel; some were visiting the U.S. when war broke out and didn’t want, or were unable, to return home; and others wanted their children to feel a deeper connection to their Jewish faith and heritage.
“The schools wanted to open their arms as wide as they could and embrace a very traumatized population,” Bernstein said.
The initial attacks left about 1,200 people dead, and Hamas captured an estimated 240 hostages, according to the Israeli military. Many of those hostages have been released as part of a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says more than 13,000 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting.
Leberman is helping a handful of students at Mandel Jewish Day School adjust to life in the U.S. after they came here to escape the Israel-Hamas war. The school’s leaders wanted to make them feel safe and welcome.
“It’s amazing how quickly they can feel absorbed and safe,” Leberman said.
But it’s taken more than just kind words and flexible lesson plans. It’s taken an entire community committed to enveloping the children and their families in a welcoming embrace.
The school has hired additional staff to provide social and emotional support services, as well as Hebrew speakers and English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors.
They’re doing their best to place Hebrew-speaking students into classes with instructors fluent in the language and helped existing students whose fathers have returned to Israel to fight with reserve units or gone to aid in the war effort.
One child was worried about her father, a doctor who had gone to Israel. “She was crying and very scared,” Leberman said. He acknowledged her fears and talked about how her father was going to help others. “She was able to feel proud of him, and smiled and felt better.”
Prizmah conducted the survey in late October to measure the scale of Israeli student enrollment in North American schools, and to discern what the students might need − and how the schools could help meet those needs.
“Like any unexpected situation, there were things we didn’t anticipate,” Berstein said. Students’ needs varied, especially according to their ages. There were language barriers for students who only speak Hebrew at home, and the differences in high school curricula in the U.S. and Israel are “very substantial,” he said. Schools said they don’t just need teachers fluent in Hebrew − they need counselors who are.
“Our schools have proven themselves even before this crisis to be incredibly versatile and resourceful,” Bernstein said, recalling how Jewish day schools in the New York and North Jersey region in particular were among the first to pivot to online instruction in the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak. “The tragedy is this, that it comes so soon after another period of uncertainty.”
Leberman is not just worried about the students in his school. He’s also thinking about his grandchildren, a toddler and a preschooler, who are with their mother and other grandparents near Philadelphia while their father, Leberman’s son, fights with an elite Israeli military unit.
“You want them to be safe, but it’s a paradox,” Leberman said. “The father goes home to an empty house when he’s not fighting. He wants his children to be safe, but he misses them.”
The family decided after the Oct. 7 attacks that the children and their mother would come to the U.S., fearful that another front might open in Northern Israel. The children are 18 months and 3½, too young to grasp what’s happening. The Jewish day school where Leberman used to work, outside Philadelphia, has a preschool that luckily was able to accept his grandchildren.
“They know they’re not home, and they know they’re not seeing their father,” Leberman said. “The goal is to provide them with as much support as possible so they feel good about being here.”
Staff and students at Akiba Yavneh Academy in Dallas welcomed 16 new students since Oct. 7. The school initiated a program geared toward their needs, partnering with the local Jewish Family Services agency to offer social, emotional and academic support for students and their families, head of school Jason Feld said.
“Our initial impulse, to the extent that we knew families would be here temporarily, was to support them. So the first question was: Should we do something? The quick answer was yes, but then we had to ask, what do we do?”
Feld consulted with his administrative team and faculty. His concern was not just for the students, both the ones coming in and the ones already at the academy. He also didn’t want to overburden their teachers.
For now, Israeli students are in a self-contained program that includes ESL and core academics in Hebrew, as well as electives such as art and physical education. There are also daily opportunities for Israeli students to interact with their American counterparts, such as lunch, prayers and other activities.
Schools are also helping families financially, either forgoing tuition altogether or offering reduced rates, Prizmah’s Bernstein said. Some are partnering with local Jewish groups, synagogues and charities to pick up the costs of tuition, additional staff and other support. They’re also asking parents, grandparents and people who have a background in education to volunteer.
As the war drags on, schools and families are confronting the reality of an open-ended stay. Feld said his school administrators are reassessing their programs every two weeks, prepared to adjust as students’ needs evolve.
“Parents told us they really just wanted some structure and routine for their children” after so much uncertainty, Feld said. “What everyone in the Jewish community is going through, and especially these families, is so heavy. But we’re also trying to keep things light. Kids are already bonding with their teachers.”
Feld said he’s gotten positive feedback from faculty members, too, some of whom feel powerless in the face of a seemingly intractable conflict a world away.
“They feel the impact of the war,” he said. “But this is quite rewarding for them, knowing we’re doing something positive. They appreciate that in light of what is otherwise a very worrying situation.”
Contact Phaedra Trethan by email at or on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra.


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