B’nai El may lease space to Muslim school

The space at B’nai El previously occupied by Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy (pictured above) may be leased to a new Muslim day school. Leaders of the school and B’nai El said nothing is final yet, but negotiations are ongoing.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

It looks as if a new, faith-based Islamic school will be moving into the property most recently occupied by the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy (RJA) and on the campus of B’nai El Congregation in Frontenac.

The new school, Al Manara Academy (which stands for “brightness” in Arabic) hopes to be up and running by next month to coincide with the start of the 2012-2013 year. Tuesday night, a conditional use permit was approved by the Frontenac City Council, which limited the number of children enrolled to 100.

Amye Carrigan, President of B’nai El, said that while the permit was passed, “we have no firm, signed lease agreement. That is still being negotiated. Until it is signed I am not comfortable giving out information.”

Then she added: “If and when it happens, I hope it’s going to be a very positive thing for the community. This arrangement can be a wonderful opportunity for understanding and promoting positive outcomes.”

She said while she understood the Academy’s desire to move forward quickly, “there are many facets to a lease agreement and we are doing our due diligence. That’s really the bottom line. There is nothing official yet.”

RJA ended its lease agreement with B’nai El earlier this year when it merged with Solomon Schechter Day School. The two schools formed the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, which will operate on the campus of Congregation B’nai Amoona (the space formerly occupied by Schechter) at 348 South Mason Road in Creve Coeur. Before RJA, the B’nai El property housed a Lutheran school and a school for the deaf.

Phillip Paeltz, a board member of Al Manara Academy and headmaster of Governor French Academy, a private school in Belleville, said Al Manara Academy was recently formed because some families involved with another Islamic day school in West County were unhappy with changes there.

He explained the Dar ul Islam mosque in Ballwin, which runs the Al Salam Day School, is governed by an elected board of 15 people, called the shura. “The most recent elections brought in a group of people who were not happy with the existing school and the existing administration of the day school,” said Paeltz. “In the last six months, the new shura has replaced the school board and the administration of the day school. As a result, there are a number of people not happy about those changes and they are leaving the (Al Salam) day school to start the new school.”

Paeltz, who is Muslim and originally served as a consultant when Al Salam Day School began 11 years ago, is serving as chief consultant for the new Al Manara Academy. He said part of the reason for starting the new school was to make more scholarship money available to students.

“One of the things that surprised and saddened me is that the incoming shura greatly limited the number of students who qualify for financial need,” said Paeltz. “This new school is going to take up the burden of that financial need. As with any religious school, you feel you have the duty to provide a religious education to people in your faith who cannot afford that for their children.”

Paeltz said a recent fundraiser for the school raised $150,000. Tuition for Al Manara Academy, which will encompass grades kindergarten through eighth, will be $4,000 a school year. So far 65 students have signed up to enroll but 100 are expected by the time school begins, Paeltz said, adding that 15 to 18 teachers have applied, including some from Al Salam Day School.

He described the school’s educational philosophy as “an Islamic school which seeks to train students in the Islamic faith but also prepares them for a multi-cultural world.” In addition to religious education, the new school also will offer a “rigorous academic program that is intended to serve the needs of the modern world without sacrificing moral and spiritual values,” said its website www.almanara-stl.com.

While Paeltz said his primary role was as a consultant for the school’s academics, he added, “my understanding is that the lease isn’t yet finalized but close.”

As to the idea of an Islamic school being housed in a building owned by Jews, Paeltz said, ”As Muslims, we refer to all Jews as people of the book. In so many places in the world there are conflicts between Muslims and Jews. Hopefully, this is a time when we seize the opportunity to work together.”