OPEN LETTER: HELLO UHS, THE CHUTZPAH!

My open letter to the Professional Leadership, Board of Governors and Trustees of the United Herzlia schools.

Dear Professional Leadership, Board of Governors and Trustees of the United Herzlia schools

I write this letter to you all, wondering what in the coronavirus-plagued-world you were thinking when you announced, via email, the closure of Herzlia Constantia. The Chutzpah! As a former pupil, I feel it is my duty to put my thoughts in writing and share my dismay for the way in which this news has ruined our Shabbat weekend.

Some basic research leads me to believe the parents of the school weren’t even consulted before your e-mail was sent. I am led to believe the teachers had been either informed or consulted but that’s almost irrelevant right now. Like me, and my fellow alumni, Parents found out while preparing their Shabbas meals from an email sent at 3PM — I bet many actually only read it after they were done — if not only after Havdalah.

Let me start by dismissing your e-mail which was painful to read. It’s almost as though you have been asleep since 1994 and just woke up? Do you have no regard for the people of the community that it’s just so easy to send out a mass mailer letting everyone know their lives will be turned upside down in a few months’ time? Did you give ANY thought to the families who would sit across the table on Friday night and be forced to discuss the possibility of uprooting their lives without any time to digest or consult on the matter?

Then, I have to wonder why no comment was made about the Shul. I’ll dive into that shortly, but you do know there’s a Shul there — right? Just checking.

Unfortunately, the demise of Herzlia Constantia has been a long time coming. I empathize with those who were involved in making the decision. Besides the mere (or blatant) disregard for one’s emotional state at this incredibly testing time, the e-mail was always coming. We just didn’t expect it to arrive, without warning, a couple of hours before we were to sing Lecha Dodi.

The problem I sit with, however, is that this is the first time I have ever seen an email from the UHS in which points such as “the reduction in size of the Jewish population”, “lower birth numbers” and “continuously declining student numbers” have actually been mentioned. And before you tell me it’s been up for discussion at UHS Board level, let me ask why it’s never filtered down? Perhaps I am wrong, but I have never seen these topics advertised in our community as being up for discussion, debate, or input. I’ll take it on the chin if it has.

It’s rather sad that the closing of my school is the only opportunity I get to address these major community issues. When I decided to put my name forward to join the Cape SAJBD, I did so because I am passionate about speaking for the “lost souls” of my generation — my friends and others who came through the Jewish Day School system but have somewhat been discarded by society for whatever reason. It’s ironic on the same day the nominations are announced, the UHS distribute this news — but it’s no surprise Constantia has been dealt this card given the expenses outweight the income.

Let’s get back to the Shul. A whole Shul. With members, a Rabbi and Congregants. Surely some kind of dialogue with the Shul’s members should have taken place? What are we supposed to think now? We have no other Shul near us beside Claremont — over the major holidays, the Shul is rather full — but I also know that over Shabbat, and weekday mornings, it’s near empty so I can understand if you have a negative perception.

Not only does the Shul have a rich history, since I can remember, it has a community which relies on it. A Rabbi who helps his Congregants when they’re stuck in Korea with a tragic death and nobody nearby to turn to for help. Yep, that’s my story — but the point I am making is that this decision affects more than just the school.

Perhaps I am jumping the gun — you haven’t even mentioned the Shul in your letter — but can you understand why we may be concerned? In fact, how many of those who were involved in this decision have spent a Shabbas with Rabbi Green and the Constantia Hebrew Congregation? I challenge you to at least ensure everyone has done that before the shul shuts down. Come down, I’ll sponsor the Brocha and we can share our memories of Herzlia Constantia.

This open letter is not about debating the merits of whether the school should be closed or not. The point of this letter is to (hopefully) force you to understand that your reckless communication strategy has caused sadness and panic among the parents and alumni of Herzlia Constantia — particularly the parents who must now suddenly find a school for next year. Have you any idea what that will be like? The emotional stress on a family who must now find another school — aligned to their beliefs and values — and secure a position for their child — in a matter of weeks.

This is a greater problem though — we should have identified this many years ago and spoken about the decline of Herzlia Constantia on an open forum across mediums. So we could solve it. Or at least try. We should ask ourselves why the community has dwindled, we should supply facts and figures to support the arguments; and we should look deeper into the links between the different Jewish Cape Town communities.

We should have looked at other options. Perhaps a school like Valenture Institute. Or a scaled down and completely overhauled approach to Jewish education. Maybe a partnership with someone like Curro. Who knows. Perhaps a way to use the land to our advantage by developing affordable property for Jewish families to move into; and for a school (and shul) — within that property — to prosper and service its community.

I do not have the answers. I certainly cannot be expected to have them considering today is the first time I’ve thought about it in such detail. I am sure — or at least I hope — members of the UHS have given this a lot of thought and this conclusion is the only viable on for the future sustainability of the UHS; there’s no way they can continue funding the financial loss in a Jewish community where something like 90% of its donations come from 5% of its community.

But none of this should have been done without the full consultation of the community it effects; especially not via e-mail.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the teachers and leadership at Herzlia Constantia who, through all the changes within the community over the last few years, still managed to keep the school going and ensure the kids who attended received a top education. I am sure you too will be sad to see the school shutdown.

In closing, I urge the UHS to reconsider its decision and give thought to the proposal listed in the online petition. There’s a lot of history on the wall displaying the achievements of those who attended the school and names of loved ones we have lost along the way.

If not for the sake of our Southern Suburbs Jewish community then for the kids of Herzlia Constantia who have roughly +- 180 days to say goodbye to their friends and introduce themselves to new ones.

Justin Asher is a former pupil of Herzlia Constantia. The views above represent his own and not necessarily that of any organisation or person.

Traveller, Blogger, Author, Sports Fanatic. Chairman of Rygersdal Football Club, Founder of Incoming SA and The Kimberly Rose Cancer Foundation.