Rabbi Michoel Kerendian was 16 when Hurricane Katrina left its mark on New Orleans, and contributing to a collection taken up by his school in Chicago is his primary memory of it.
Nine years later, he finds himself in Metairie presiding over the rebirth of Torah Academy, a Jewish day school that was whittled down to 16 students by the storm but now is on the cusp of opening a new building.
“It’s been a long, arduous journey, but it’s coming together, thank God,” he said last week after leading a tour of the brightly lit facility at 4210 W. Esplanade Ave.
The $5.7 million building, which will open for the school year Aug. 20, was still awaiting desks and office equipment, but the freshly painted hallways and classrooms were otherwise ready to greet the 22 students who are enrolled this fall. Work is finishing up in the multipurpose room that will serve as the gym and auditorium, and the grass is just starting to spring up in the fenced-in yard where students will spend recess.
The academy is a private school for pupils from preschool to eighth grade that offers both standard and Judaic curriculums. While many traditional Jewish schools separate the two — sometimes so far as to even have separate principals — Torah Academy believes the two should be integrated, Kerendian said.
That’s not to say that standard-curriculum classes don’t have their primary focus on the subject at hand, just that they are infused where possible with subject matter that promotes a Jewish identity and pride. An essay in English class, for example, might ask about Jewish history rather than “what I did on my summer vacation,” Kerendian said.
The curriculum follows Common Core standards and classes adhere to the Montessori method, but Kerendian said that when next year’s schedule is completed, there likelywill be three Judaic-studies courses for students throughout the week: teaching the Torah in its original text, including the five books of Moses; Hebrew language instruction; and a general class on Jewish philosophy, values, beliefs, holidays and other subjects.
Kerendian, who came aboard in October, was hired by the board of directors at a crucial time for the school, which started in 1970 as Lakeshore Hebrew Day School.
Katrina badly damaged the former building at the same West Esplanade location and scattered the members of the local Jewish community. Enrollment fell from 70 before the storm to about 30 afterward.
“A lot of people left and never came back,” Kerendian said.
The school reopened in 2006, but fewer students and a diminished community led to lower revenue and a smaller staff. The building where Torah Academy had operated since 1994 proved to be unusable, and the school began bouncing around, operating out of a former Catholic school one year and at the Chabad Jewish Center the next as it raised funds, reorganized and planned for the new building.
Enrollment had fallen to about 16 students when Kerendian arrived, and the school was in “survival mode,” he said.
But just over a year ago, after a stop-and-go process with FEMA, construction began on the new building after the school’s board purchased the site and the previous building was demolished.
While much of the construction is funded by FEMA, Kerendian said, Torah Academy needs to fund some of the school’s religious elements on its own and is raising money to cover operations and create endowment, scholarship and financial assistance funds.
Since Torah is an independent school that’s not part of a network, it gets no money from a parent organization and funds 50 percent of its annual budget through donations.
The 16,000-square-foot building includes eight classrooms, two kosher commercial kitchens, the 4,600-square-foot multipurpose room and a large playground. The classrooms are wired for the latest technology, while ritual washing stations sit next to hallway water fountains. Kerendian said security is a key technological and operational component of the school, and all children and guests will enter by the front desk.
Elements of the school are geared toward expansion: Storage rooms have windows because they may soon become offices, and a second yard could become a separate playground for pre-K students. Kerendian said the goal is to have 65 students in three years and 80 to 100 students in five years.
“I would be ecstatic if we could get up to those numbers,” he said, noting the rejuvenation will require the school to build its rapport with the local Jewish community.
Kerendian also said the school could serve as another way to make New Orleans attractive to new families. He said there are Jewish doctors and other professionals, for example, who “wouldn’t move to a town that didn’t have a traditional Orthodox school.”
Torah Academy welcomes applications from children of all backgrounds, but Kerendian said students are required to take the Judaic curriculum classes.
“If it interests others to teach their children an in-depth look at Judaism,” he said, “then they are welcome at Torah Academy.”
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