Musings on a shuttered Jewish high school

The Kimel Family Education Centre. (TanenbaumCHAT's north campus). OPENBUILDINGS PHOTO

Apprehension, optimism and less-than-ideal timing at TanenbaumCHAT

Zev Steinfeld

Last week’s announcement of a significant drop in tuition at the GTA’s Jewish community high school, the Anne and Max Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, is being hailed as an unprecedented victory for Jewish education.

Those who have been sharply critical of rising tuition rates can now point to this as a tangible step toward determining how much of a factor rising cost has been in declining enrolment. There’s reason to be optimistic, but I believe we should also understand that there’s real apprehension, and some risks as well.

At the same time as the tuition cut was introduced, it was revealed that TanenbaumCHAT’s northern campus in York Region will be closed at the end of this academic year. In light of declining enrolment, shuttering the campus makes sense, but the timing of it is extremely peculiar.


Only recently, the school introduced an initiative with Leo Baeck Day School’s to share TanenbaumCHAT’s northern campus starting next year. This move, it was said, would help ensure the campus’ viability and provide a home for both schools. The sudden change of direction is bizarre.

For years, TanenbaumCHAT’s administration has spoken of unwavering support for a two-branch school to ensure that Jewish high school education would maintain a foothold in York Region. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, we were told, shared this view. What precipitated such an abrupt change in position?

The closure of the north campus will undoubtedly result in teachers and staff losing their jobs. If that weren’t worrisome enough, the announcement came after the deadline for teachers to apply for substitute teaching jobs at the York Region District School Board. Did TanenbaumCHAT and federation know about the closure for some time? If the answer is yes, it seems the announcement’s timing could have been better.

Another question: if the impetus was to reduce the cost of tuition, seemingly the chief cause of declining enrolment at the northern campus specifically, why not announce the initiative and wait a year to see if numbers increase there as a result? Why throw up the white flag on a Jewish high school north of Toronto just like that? What about parents and children who live in York Region? Surely the notion of community implies a broader vision, not one that stops at Steeles Avenue?


While I want to stress that I sincerely hope this plan to revitalize TanenbaumCHAT works, many staff at the northern campus are interpreting it as a kind of “hail Mary” play. If it works, it will be spectacular. But if it doesn’t, it may cost you the game. I’m not suggesting it isn’t worth the risk. I simply want the risk, and the stakeholders who will be bearing the brunt of it, to be acknowledged.

The day after the announcement, north campus students wore black and staged a walkout in the middle of class to protest the closure. They chanted “save our teachers.”

Closing a school is not as simple as shutting the lights after leaving the room. There’s a human side, too. What many pundits who pontificate about Jewish education and making necessary changes to it don’t realize is that the two branches of TanenbaumCHAT are two very distinct schools. They have many different student cultural events, different socio-economics, a robust athletic rivalry and different idiosyncratic practices, habits and cliques. North campus students have expressed angst and trepidation about being forced to move south. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

The message to students and staff has been to have faith, recognize the necessity of merging the branches and trust that the school will work to make the transition as smooth as possible. I believe TanenbaumCHAT can make good on this, and I certainly hope it will. In the meantime, as this all plays out, like many of my colleagues, I’m left wondering whether I’ll have a job next year.

Zev Steinfeld teaches at TanenbaumCHAT’s northern campus.

Now, more than ever, is the time to enrol in Jewish high school

Daniel Held

I loved high school. It’s where I met the friends who have led me through the highs and lows of the last 20 years. It’s where I met teachers who continue to serve as my mentors and guides. And it’s where I made decisions about my career and my Jewish identity.

At the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, I came into myself. I excelled academically, was given support in courses that I found challenging and choosing electives that spoke to my interests, and I participated in extracurricular activities, organizing lighting for school plays and acting as a madrich on Shabbatonim.

After graduation, the school opened doors for me. I had a choice of universities and programs, and my first years of undergrad breezed by because of the academic skills I learned in high school.

The high school years are a critical time of identity formation. At the same time as teens get the keys to the car and choose a university, they make life-impacting decisions about their social network, religious identity and communal commitments. Because of this critical time for identity formation, the right high school, with the right friends, the right teachers and the right environment is so important in shaping the future of our community.


I loved high school so much I went back for a second round as a teacher. During my years of teaching at TanenbaumCHAT, I learned that the job of a teacher is not just about the subject – math, science or Jewish history – it’s also about the students. As teachers, we serve as coaches and mentors, cheerleaders and guides. The commitment of my colleagues went so far beyond the curriculum, ensuring that students developed the skills, knowledge, attitudes and aptitudes to succeed.

All this is why I’m so excited by the new affordability initiative at TanenbaumCHAT.

For a decade, the proportion of students in Jewish middle school who have continued on to TanenbaumCHAT has dropped. Research points the finger squarely at cost. The jump in day school tuition in Toronto from Grade 8 – which is around $16,000 – to Grade 9 – which last year was about $27,000 – was just too much. Because of the cost of tuition, kids were leaving Jewish day school for public school.

But TanenbaumCHAT’s new affordability initiative, brought to life through a Jesin-Neuberger Foundation gift and an anonymous donor, will bring its tuition down to $18,500, within spitting distance of middle school tuition. It will enable hundreds of children to stay in Jewish day school through their critical, identity-forming teenage years.


At the same time, change is disruptive. Shrinking enrolment has resulted in fewer jobs, which means a painful loss of teachers who nurture the next generation. In parallel to the affordability initiative, TanenbaumCHAT is merging its two campuses, which is an unsettling change for many teachers, parents and students. In the long term, this will allow for more course and extracurricular offerings – the kinds of experiences that informed my high school years – but in the short term, it will require a significant change in culture and will ignite a sense of loss.

With all that said, now is the time to enrol.

High school was transformative for me. I learned, I made friends, I grew and I started making important decisions for myself. I did so within an environment that was academically rigorous, socially vibrant and personally nurturing. I feel truly blessed that today, that opportunity is accessible to so many more in our community, and I’m forever grateful to the philanthropists, lay leaders and professionals who have made this transformation a reality.

This initiative can only be the beginning – a catalyst to strengthen our educational system and community in other ways. May our community continue to be blessed by this kind of leadership and these kinds of efforts to strengthen Jewish life today and into the future.

Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.