A Jewish day school near the University of Washington has left the Chabad center it has called home for the last 35 years, for a bigger and greener learning environment.
“We’re going to move from having skinned knees to having grass stains,” said Rabbi Yossi Charytan, head of the Menachem Mendel Seattle Cheder Day School.
MMSC frantically assembled more than $3 million in pledges and loans in less than two months. Board members raced to the finish line breathlessly on Monday, when they closed on the new Maple Leaf property that will allow them relocate from the grassless school grounds it has outgrown.
The independent school, which operated rent-free on “Frat Row” in Seattle’s University District, was told in February that Chabad would lease its building the following school year to a Jewish fraternity.
“Sometimes something seemingly unfortunate has to happen to get a good thing finally to come,” said Mihal Ehven, a parent with four children enrolled at MMSC.
Founded by Mrs. Chanie Levitin in 1974, the school, which offers a mix of Jewish and secular education for Jewish students of all denominations, searched the area for a new site.
“We were initially looking for buildings that were empty because of the recession, that we could move into rent free and be there while the developer waited to develop the property,” said Tziviah Goldberg, an MMSC board member.
Then the school discovered a secluded 1.6 acre property with a 21,000-square-foot building surrounded by fir trees and a park just minutes from MMSC in Maple Leaf. But the land was already sold and in the process of being developed. Eventually, the space was relisted and MMSC made a $3.425 million bid, money it didn’t have.
Securing the idyllic land required breakneck fundraising and a lot of prayer.
Goldberg spearheaded the initiative. She told the board “we have to write to the Rebbe that we’re somehow going to find a way for this to happen – because we don’t have any money set aside to do this.”
At every turn they sent a letter to the Ohel, the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, asking for blessings that their efforts be successful.
During this period, a business partner of Goldberg’s husband, John Mills, agreed to lend the school $1.8 million.
The school also went to the Samis Foundation for money. The foundation provides grants to Jewish schools in Washington State, which is home to 40,000 Jews, according to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State.
The Samis Foundation has helped fund MMSC for more than a decade, but its trustees wanted MMSC to collect pledges before they donated money for the new project.
MMSC quickly pulled together $613,000, “which in Judaism is very important because that’s the 613 mitzvahs,” said Goldberg. “That happened to be the number it came up to be, we didn’t seek to do that – that’s a good omen.”
Impressed with the school’s fundraising efforts, Samis said it would provide $1.3 million if the MMSC could raise its pledges to $1 million.
MMSC scrounged together the money and the Samis Foundation backed its word, all within a tight deadline set by the property owners.
“Even in these recessionary times we’ve found people to give money that we never even knew, or thought, or imagined would come forward,” said Goldberg. “I think it is because they see we’re determined and doing a good thing – we’re supporting Jewish education.”
Charytan uses the phrase “Hashgacha Pratis,” meaning divine providence, to describe the chain of events that transpired, making it possible for them to meet unlikely deadlines and raise sizeable sums in the most difficult of economic times.
For all their achievements, no one at MMSC is kicking up their feet just yet. “We have to raise over $2M in the next 2 – 3 years to complete the renovation and endow the building,” says Tziviah.
Because of renovations, the building will not be ready for the fall school year. A local unused public school will serve as a temporary facility for MMSC.
Ehven is thrilled about the switch. She said holding classes in the Chabad house was a “challenge” because of its cramped space and rowdy university neighbors.
The new building will house an early childhood Montessori style program, an elementary school, and a high school for girls.
Charytan looks forward to seeing MMSC grow; the new school can accommodate an additional 100 students.
“They are not just entering into a system; they’re entering into something almost like a family,” said Charytan. “And that has become meaningful for many of our parents.”