A question of principals?

Why is former Evelina principal Beverly Gribetz's new school Tehilla facing closure?

ramaz 88 (photo credit: )
ramaz 88
(photo credit: )
Beverly Gribetz strides into her office with a Steinsaltz edition of Tractate Sanhedrin tucked under her arm and a Cafe Hillel take-away bag in her hand. She doesn't close the door behind her. There is no door. Nor is there a phone, a fax, a computer, or enough room to swing a proverbial cat. The situation is the same throughout the makeshift Tehilla school, located in the building on Rehov Hanevi'im that formerly housed the ORT College. But the principal Gribetz isn't concerned about what the school, opened on September 1, doesn't have. “We invested in people, not in things,” she says in her signature New York accent. As a result of her investment, the school currently has 23 10th-grade female students, 19 hand-picked part-time teachers, three levels of math, three science choices, two levels of English, and 11 specializations for matriculation. All these are assets that make Gribetz, former principal of the Evelina de Rothschild School, commonly called “Evelina,” proud. But there is one thing that she could most definitely do without a closure order from the Education Ministry, received on September 7, stating that the school was opened without a permit from the Ministry and that it will be shut down within 30 days. “Those 30 days were over on Sunday this week,” says Gribetz. “Do you see anyone leaving?” But for many, the story of the closure order doesn't start with the fledgling Tehilla school. It starts with the Evelina de Rothschild School, or “Bevelina,” as it was known when Beverly Gribetz was principal of the junior high. THE EVELINA STORY In June 2003, Gribetz received a letter from the Education Ministry stating that there were three reporting errors on her time cards. At the heart of the problem was a 10-day fund-raising trip to the States for which she was paid as office hours. The sum owed to the Ministry of Education totaled $940. At the time, Gribetz had been at Evelina for six years. Hundreds of parents had seen her turn around the 193 year-old school from “a dump” as one of the parents put it to a place of academic excellence. They were expecting her to take over the role of high school principal within the next couple of years, when then principal Gideon Langman left. But the letter from the ministry meant that Gribetz was suspended from Evelina from September 2003 until March 2004, so she missed the tender for principal, and somebody else was elected to the role. In the end, the administrative errors were straightened. Gribetz paid back the sum and the Civil Service Commission cleared her of any charges in January 2005. She was given the all-clear by the ministry to assume the role of principal in any school (private or public) in September 2005. “It wasn't like I snuck out of the country in secret,” says Gribetz of the episode. “Everyone knew where I was going and what I was going for. And there were a number of people who could have told me that there was a form that I had to fill out. But they didn't...they chose not to. They choose to get me into trouble.” Gribetz argued then and continues to argue now that there were people who didn't like her progressive, innovative, American liberal-Orthodox attitude to education, an attitude that had been honed at the progressive Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls in Jerusalem, where she acted as coordinator for Oral Torah Law between 1977 and '84, and before that at the Manhattan based Ramaz School, where she had been the junior-high school principal. Gribetz acknowledges that she had clashed with outgoing principal Langman over issues of authority and academic jurisdiction. Supported by a group of parents, who set up a committee in her defense, Gribetz argued Langman “hounded” her and did whatever he could to limit her authority. Langman wanted, Gribetz and the parents contended, to ensure that he would be replaced by an Israeli, traditional Orthodox man. At least on the surface, Langman succeeded. In September 2004, Daniel Zecharia, who represented all the above, took over as principal of the Evelina de Rothschild School. But in May 2005 (when she formally resigned from the school) things started shifting again. THE TEHILLA SCHOOL Gribetz had a vision for a girls' school, based on the values she had tried to bring to Evelina. It was to be a non-elitist girls' school that accepted all families regardless of their socio-economic background; proffered “open” Orthodoxy; taught Talmud to girls, strove for academic excellence without academic selection tests; and offered girls an individualized learning program. In June she held a meeting with parents who had supported her throughout her tenure at Evelina. It was clear from that meeting that there were parents who were very committed to establishing a school that would fulfill her vision. Many weren't happy with what they viewed as the changes in the school that had taken place since Gribetz's departure. “The girls weren't stretched academically,” says parent Baruch Lionarons, whose daughter attends the Tehilla school. “You could see that they weren't studying at night. The principal was less inspiring.” “Our daughter just messed around last year. She wasn't challenged, she skipped class all the time,” agrees parent Zina Lindenberg. “Evelina had become lifeless. An industrial silence had entered. That's not the sound of learning... that's not what a school should sound like.” A group of parents formed and registered the Tehilla non-profit organization to oversee the new school. Over the summer, Gribetz raised enough money in the United States to provide scholarships for girls who couldn't afford the NIS 9,600 annual fee. On August 30, the non-profit organization sent a letter to the Jerusalem Education Authority stating its intentions to open the school and seeking formal accrediting by the Education Ministry. They received no reply. Instead, the parents of the girls who were attending the Tehilla school received a letter from the Jerusalem Education Authority informing them that their daughters were studying in an unaccredited “institution” (not a school) “with no license from the Ministry of Education, as is legally required.” The school was therefore “under an order of closure,” and girls attending Tehilla were not guaranteed to be externally accredited for their internal 10th-grade exams, the letter said. Subsequently, on September 17, Evelina principal Daniel Zecharia sent a letter to the parents of the 21 girls who had transferred from Evelina to Tehilla, stating that if the girls did not return to the Evelina de Rothschild School by September 20, they would not be accepted back. Despite these two letters, not one girl withdrew from the Tehilla school. “The letter was a scare tactic. And I thought, what nonsense, of course they'll take us back,” says Einav Klein, a former Evelina and current Tehilla student. “[All of] this is psychological warfare,” says Gribetz. “It's designed to breed fear.” THE LEGAL BATTLE Opening a school without a license from the Education Ministry is hardly unusual among private-sector schools, says Ori Keidar, attorney for Tehilla, who cites the Himmelfarb, Democratic, Adam and Reut schools as examples of schools that opened under similar circumstances. Keidar continues, “The problem lies with the Education Ministry. They have a hard, bureaucratic attitude and they don't support independent initiatives such as these.” He explains that the law requires four factors to already be in place before a license is even considered: a building, teachers, students and a timetable. And so orders of closure such as the one presented to Tehilla in September aren't unusual in pioneering, independent schools. “But never has a closure order come so swiftly,” states Keidar. “Usually it takes months to put together and even pass through the Jerusalem Education Authority.” And the letter from the ministry sent to parents is an anomaly, Keidar says, in as much as it was sent to all students, and not just a handful, and with surprising efficiency. “I've never seen a letter quite like this,” he admits. As to the letter from Zecharia, Keidar calls its legality dubious and says it was “certainly not legally appropriate.” Gribetz and many of the parents believe that the threats against Tehilla are gratuitious and directed against Gribetz personally. “They sit just there,” says Gribetz, pointing out of her office window to the Education Ministry. “If they wanted to just put an RPG through my window, it would be quicker and easier than this,” she says, riffling through the letters she received. “They have cleared her name. She's considered a successful principal. What do they have against her?” complains parent Baruch Lionarons, “the color of her hair?” To others, the issue reveals what happens when parents motivated by ideological and social ideas cluster around a charismatic, yet controversial leader who challenges accepted traditional norms and threatens vested interests. In its response to In Jerusalem's questions regarding these issues, the municipal spokesman reiterated that the school is under an order of closure and that the students are attending an unrecognized institution. “Beverly Gribetz was suspended from the Evelina de Rothschild school before the end of the academic year of 5764,” the written statement continues. “The city of Jerusalem has no need for another high school... and especially a school that is opposed to the Dovrat recommendations. All this has nothing to do with Ms. Beverly's leadership, over which there are divided opinions... It is important to point out that the parents are contradicting the law of mandatory education and the municipality is working to enforce the law.” “I too want to be a big Dovrat school,” Gribetz sighs. “I'm also against academic selection. We fit into the Dovrat commission vision to offer more opportunities. If they came to actually investigate, they could see we would be willing to accommodate so many more girls. But I'm not willing to submit girls to a school with substandard teaching and a dubious hashkafa [outlook].” As to the argument that there are enough schools, and Tehilla is an unnecessary addition, Gribetz replies, “If you're just counting tushes [bottoms] on chairs, then yes, there are enough chairs for religious girls' tushes. But that's not what the parents want.” On October 27, a petition filed by the Tehilla non-profit organization will be heard in district court in the presence of the ministry's legal adviser. Keidar anticipates that the ministry will agree to a temporary suspension of the closure order. The school will have a license by the end of the school year, he believes. But is all of the anxiety, paperwork and headache worth it? Doesn't Gribetz ever think of returning to the old country, where things were seemingly so much easier? “The thought has crossed my mind,” she says after a short hesitation. “But I've met a lot of good people through this process, and I believe that we're doing important work.” She looks out of the window for a moment. “And the weather is still good,” she adds with a wry smile. “Which is why we came here in the first place.”