New Orthodox day school brings a touch of Manhattan to Memphis


ATLANTA — Can a prestigious, Orthodox prep school from Manhattan take root in Memphis?

Andy Groveman is betting on it.

Steeped in the city’s business and Jewish life, Groveman, president of the new Memphis Jewish High School, has experience to draw on: He has presided over a slew of local Jewish groups, from the Memphis Jewish federation to the city’s largest Orthodox synagogue, Baron Hirsch.

Groveman’s family business, Belz Enterprises, owns Memphis’ legendary Peabody Hotel — famous for its opulence and the ducks who, in a tradition begun in the 1930s, march through the lobby on a red carpet twice a day to the strains of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March.”

Orthodox Jews make up as much as 25 percent of Memphis’ 8,500-strong Jewish community, and they lend significant leadership to the community.

When it came time to send his kids to high school, however, Groveman shipped them to the Ramaz School in Manhattan. Now he’s trying to infuse a bit of Ramaz into Memphis.

Three weeks ago, the Memphis Jewish High School opened its doors to nine freshman students, some of the city’s most illustrious and devoted teachers and the Harkness method — a roundtable approach to learning instituted at the Phillips Exeter Academy.

So far, so good, those affiliated with the new venture say.

But not everyone is convinced Memphis Jewry can sustain the modern Orthodox school. That’s because the city already has an Orthodox Jewish high school — though not a co-ed one, a feature Groveman believes is key.

“If we can figure out a way to support two high schools, ‘kol hakavod,'” a Hebrew expression meaning roughly “more power to you,” said David Cooper, president of the Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South.

But it “flies in the face of reality and logic,” he added. “My fear is that because of the size of our community and not trying to work together, whatever the reason, that we’re going to have two struggling high schools, and nobody wins that way”

He called it “disappointing to see another school open in the same mold that we are.”

But Groveman argues that the new school uses a different model and reaches a different market.

Early discussions between the schools showed it made more sense to have separate institutions because of their different ideologies, Groveman said. Without the Memphis Jewish High School, the current crop of freshmen would have chosen non-Jewish schools, he added.

Furthermore, Memphis Jewry’s financial and human resources are “extremely elastic,” Groveman said, pointing to similar concerns about straining the community when the Bornblum Solomon Schechter School and the Young Israel synagogue were founded, in 1988 and 1998, respectively. Neither seemed to hurt existing institutions, he said.

“We want to provide to Jewish children the finest general-studies education, not only in the city of Memphis but in the region” — while still offering a first-rate, co-ed Jewish education, Groveman said.

The education is certainly an unconventional one.

Apart from the Harkness method, students fulfill their physical education requirement by practicing yoga after morning prayers — it helps them focus for class, faculty members say — and each child receives a state-of-the-art Apple laptop.

The school “will appeal to the majority that’s in the middle,” principal Adrian Weissman said. There are “a lot of parents that want their daughters to be able to learn gemara” and “to study some of the same things that the boys have been able to study.”

All but one of the students come from Orthodox backgrounds, and all but two are boys. A new freshman class will be added each year until the school serves a full four grades.

“As a parent, it’s amazing and beyond our expectations,” said Pam Thomas, whose daughter, Courtney, studies at the school. “I’ve never seen my kids so excited and happy about going to school as I have with Courtney.”

“It’s, like, amazing,” Courtney said, especially impressed by the personal laptops. “I love it.”

The teaching style of open, respectful discussion, rather than having to raise a hand to speak, makes students feel respected, she said.

“We’re all kind of like on the same level,” she said.

Monte Eiseman, the class president, voiced a sense of student empowerment.

“It’s not like your usual school. You’re more part of it than just going to it,” he said, noting that students’ opinions were taken into account in the school’s formation. “It’s really awesome just being like the first one there” and “knowing that we will be looked upon as the first people at that school.”

Tuition is $12,500 per year, but a “pioneering discount” of $5,000 was offered to the first class, according to Groveman. Beyond the initial investment of the three co-founders — Groveman and his wife, Jan; Groveman’s in-laws, Jack and Marilyn Belz; and Mark and Sally Wender — the school is seeking to raise money from the Jewish community in Memphis and nationally.

The local federation already offers scholarships for Memphis’ other Jewish schools. Some 1,000 students attend Jewish day schools or after-school programs.

“Our community is extremely supportive of Jewish education, and when we do our annual allocations the single largest allocation that stays local is Jewish education,” associate federation director Norris Marcus said.

That funding comes by way of scholarship money — more than $452,000 this year, out of the nearly $1.45 million the federation allocated to local services.

Still, both this year and last, the federation remained $100,000 short of scholarship requests.

“There is never enough money,” Marcus said.