Global, Justice, Politics, Religion

Money talks for state-of-the art new building: Goodbye Rabbi Akiba, Hello Barrack Family

The country’s oldest community Jewish day school finally gives in and changes its name to satisfy a major donor. Read on to learn about the outcry of alumni:

At a private Jewish day school outside of Philadelphia, school long called Akiba Hebrew Academy, alumni are outraged about a donation from an alum that mandated a name change to an unrecognizable name tied to a concept foreign to what many of us learned at Akiba, a school where values used to come first.
Akiba is the oldest Jewish community day school in the United States. It has many distinguished alumni including individuals active across the religious and political spectrum in the American Jewish community and in Israel.
See the letter below signed by more than half of the class of ’71 as well as the response from the school which ignores both requests made in our letter and then asks for our financial support!
Considering the growing influence of individual donors in American Jewish life we thought your readers would also be interested in the Akiba story, one that well illustrates the pitfalls of modern-day fundraising for private Jewish schools and other institutions in the American Jewish community.
If you wish, several of people who signed the letter are available for interviews. Please respond to this e-mail with a request if you wish to speak to one or more of the alumni.
Thank you,
The Akiba Hebrew Academy Class of 1971
AkibaClassof71- at – a o l – dot – com
(original letter and response below)

October 15, 2007
4 Cheshvan, 5768
Jay A. Dorsch, Esq.
Rabbi Philip Field
Dear Mr. Dorsch and Rabbi Field:
This letter is from twenty-five members of Akiba Hebrew Academy’s class of 1971 and one other alumnus.
We are writing to express our anger and disappointment regarding the renaming of our high school. We are also writing to inform you that we would like a full accounting of the process by which this decision was made and that we want the “Akiba” name retained in a more significant way than just in memory. Finally, we are writing to let you know that none of us consider ourselves to be graduates of any high school except AKIBA Hebrew Academy, and that this is the name that we will always use.
Some of us have already contacted the school to express our opposition to the renaming. So why write now that the ceremony has taken place? There are two reasons. First, we want you to know how we (and most likely other alumni) feel about the renaming and the fact that it was presented as a “done deal” (which is a major reason why many of us did not speak up earlier). One very important lesson we learned at Akiba is to speak up and be counted on issues that concern us. The second reason we are writing is to ask whether there is still some way to preserve the Akiba name.
All of us understand the need for fund raising to keep the school running. We also fully understand that appropriate recognition of donors who have given to the school is an obligation of the institution. This being said, we do not consider renaming the school to be an appropriate expression of appreciation, even for a large gift. There are other models that could be used for recognizing schools that have received generous gifts. Two peer institutions of Akiba, Episcopal Academy and the George School, have recently received large donations from alumni, and in neither case is the school being renamed, even in the case of the George School, which has received the largest gift ever given to a high school.
We are both puzzled and disturbed by the manner in which the transaction was conducted. How could the name of one of the greatest spiritual and intellectual lights in the history of our people, Rabbi Akiba, be so swiftly erased from this institution? Almost everyone was notified only after the fact. Practically overnight, Akiba was no longer “Akiba.” The decision by the Board to accept the offer without public discussion, debate or the exploration of alternatives is disquieting. We ask for a full accounting, in detail, of how this decision was reached and the factors that influenced the decision.
Many of us have made donations to Akiba over the years, either as financial gifts or gifts of time and professional expertise. We feel that these expressions of loyalty and interest in the school have been ignored (in that none of these donors were consulted) in favor of one huge giver. The message this sends to us and other alumni is very clear, and we will take the lesson it teaches to heart.
The message you are sending—that money is all that matters—is one we hear more and more from institutions both within and outside the Jewish community. But this message is not one that we expected from our high school. Many of us (the graduates of the class of 1971) are active in the Jewish community in either a lay or professional capacity, and some have made aliya. Are we now to assume that the school only sees us in terms of our capacity to donate money? If the purpose of Akiba is to turn out graduates who believe that being committed to and concerned about the Jewish people and society at large are important parts of what being a successful adult means, then the school itself needs to behave in a manner that sets a continuing example for students and alumni alike.
We are all aware of the appeal of “greater good” arguments such as “with this money we can offer even more students the same type of education you received.” But such arguments often lead to a slippery slope. At what point do such compromises begin to change the very nature of the institution? The issue here is not who gave how much or who could have given more. It is about the very reason the school exists and the values we learned at Akiba. These are values we have taken with us in the many and varied paths we have followed since graduation.
We have been discussing this letter for several weeks, and in this discussion many of us have expressed our gratitude for the legacy the school gave us. We are and will always be graduates of Akiba Hebrew Academy. We want to be able to continue to express our feelings of connection and that means maintaining the Akiba name. If keeping the money that is so important requires renaming the school, isn’t there some way that the name “Akiba” can continue to be part of its name?
Our class attended Akiba at a time of enormous social change in the society around us. We know the stresses the school must face in changing times as it continues to progress. But an institution such as Akiba has no future that is not rooted in its past, and that means, in large part, connection with the alumni. At Akiba we were taught that Jewish tradition commands us not to discard those who are growing older in years. Following that advice will benefit all, including the generations to come.
The following members of AKIBA’s (and no other name) Class of 1971:
Irene Eintracht Afek
David Backman
David Binder
Sarah Bricklin
Malka Levine Chaiken
Robert Charry
Leora Chwalow
Lisa Cohen
Evan Frank
Allen Glicksman
Susan Kabler Herring
Jane Jacobson
Daniel Kaplan
Gail Friedman Kardon
Florence Manson
Benjamin F. Miller
Mitchell Pulwer
Neal Rechtman
Mindy Klein Rosen
Gerson D Rothenberg
Neil Shachter
Hennie Marine Shore
David Stern
David Swiatlo
Stephanie Zimmt-Mack
Craig Meritz ’73
Dear Class of ’71,
We want to thank you for your email and your ongoing love and concern regarding your alma mater. We appreciate how difficult it is to change the name of our school which has been so meaningful to all of us. In order to connect our past alumni with our future alumni and keeping in mind the significance of the Akiba name to our alumni, we have named our alumni association the Akiba–Barrack Alumni Association.
We also want to assure you that the traditions of academic excellence and the celebration of Jewish life and values that helped shape the accomplished and caring adults you are today will continue as we move toward the future.
Please know that the decision made by the Board of Directors to accept the Barrack gift and the subsequent renaming of our school was not taken lightly. Our Board members, including 10 alumni, understood the positive impact of the gift on our students and community, today and for the future.
Moreover, the Barrack gift has generated additional interest in and financial support for our school. As you know, we are moving to a larger campus with state-of the art facilities in the fall of 2008. This combination of scholarship funds and new facilities assures that your alma mater will continue to educate and inspire increasing numbers of students for generations to come.
Based on your letter, we know how much you value your high school experience and know that you would want to extend the same opportunities to future generations. We hope that you will continue to support your school and remain involved as we move forward.
Kol tov and may we all go from mi’chayil lechayil.
Jay Dorsch, President Philip D. Field
Board of Directors Head of School

22 thoughts on “Money talks for state-of-the art new building: Goodbye Rabbi Akiba, Hello Barrack Family

  1. This is fascinating since I work at the “New Jew” (New Community Jewish High School) in Los Angeles. These alumni have every right to be upset. It sounds like there is not enough alumni involvement at the board level which may have led to their voice not being heard on this issue. Schools and other institutions that rely on donor contributions are constantly balancing the wants and demand of their stakeholders in order to achieve the ultimate goal of educating and strengthening the Jewish people.

  2. As an alumnus, I fully supported the board decision. Back in 1998 the board voted to turn down a donation from a major Jewish philanthropist in Philadelphia because it required a name change. As a result the school was considered hostile to major donors and was overlooked both by that donor and by another major donor who gave to multiple Jewish organization. If the board had turned down Barrack now, no other donor would have even bothered to approach the school about large donation.
    It’s a sad statement about modern life that donors ask for name changes, but the board can’t control that. At the end of the day, the board needs to look out for the welfare of the school. And a name which doesn’t effect anything that happens at the school is a small price to pay for money that will help dozens of students receive a Jewish education.

  3. Whoever wrote the school’s letter doesn’t have basic literacy in Hebrew. What does that say about the school? “Kol tov and may we all go from mi’chayil lechayil” ought to have been “Kol tuv and may we all go mi’chayil lechayil.” I know this sounds petty but no one who actually spoke the language could make those mistakes. Isn’t this surprising in a letter signed by the principal of a Jewish day school that always emphasized Hebrew language and literature?
    OK, maybe he never saw the letter – but then they shouldn’t have felt free to stick his name on it. Either way it says something about the current seriousness of the place. It makes the school look like a jobs program for bureaucrats, just the sort of people for whom selling out for a few mill would be no problem at all. Unfortunately, This is a very familiar pattern throughout the institutional Jewish community: government of the professionals, by the professionals, for the professionals. The former “Akiba Hebrew Academy” is not the first institution to have perished from the earth because of it and it will not be the last.

  4. It seems to me the important part of this is actually the hubris of the donor, which placed Akiba in this sticky situation. I understand donors appreciate recognition, but if the donor had actually been generous, rather than self aggrandizing, perhaps the name of rav akiba could have been kept, and they could have named the campus or the front door or the some scholarship after Mr. Barrrack. Donors deserve tremendous gratitude for their generosity, but they should not have a say in organizational policy, whether about name changes or otherwise. Its a DONATION. That means he is giving the money away, not keeping control over how it gets spent. If he wanted to actually purchase a school as a playground for his own ego, he should have done that.

  5. Those with money get their way. That is the way of the world. But is it coincidence that the donor is also the head of the Philadelphia Federation and this takes place at a time that the Federation will have the newly named school as the anchor tenant on a new mega-million dollar property?
    Is it coincidence that the general alumni were not consulted (as their negative response would have been a given)?
    The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School is still often called JDS.
    Barak’s name could have been honored without stealing the birthright of so many.
    Perhaps the donation will allow for more middle class students to attend. But how many more? With tuition at $21,000 (plus lots more for the Israel program) I would have hoped for a serious push to open the school’s education to all.

  6. As a graduate of this school (’99) and a current coach of two teams there I am not only saddened but distressed by the light-hearted reply from the administration. First off, if Mr. Barrack cared one ounce about Judaism, he would never have requested a name change to memorialize his brother; he would have realized the importance of Rabbi Akiba’s name being attached to the institution and instead named a wing for his late brother.
    Secondly, while I do understand the point made above regarding other donors thinking Akiba as hostile if this donation was turned down, I think that some negotiation should have occurred. My father, who sits on the board, filled me in on much of the on-goings at this particular meeting which went late into the night. He felt that they didn’t discuss all of the elements to this donation and truly what it really meant in enough depth to justify taking this on.
    The kids get mad if I refer to it as I have been, “Akiba rather Barrack”, and tell me that it will always and forever be Akiba. I appreciate and agree with this attitude but have to, legally, refer to it as Barrack due to my contract. Money talks was not what I was taught at Akiba, but it seems to be what they are hinting at now.

  7. As fellow of Alum of Akiba: thank you for putting that politey and eloquently in a way that I never would have. ( I am but young and a bit firey in the mouth) The gift wasn’t even a siginificant one if you look out how the funds end up distributed. Akiba turned herself into a cheap whore when even a high class prostitute would have been a little odious.
    lesley B. 2001

  8. Its a DONATION. That means he is giving the money away, not keeping control over how it gets spent.
    Actually, if someone makes a donation subject to certain conditions, the recipient of the donation is obligated by contract to meet the donor’s conditions. If the recipient doesn’t like the conditions, it needs to either negotiate for a different deal or turn down the donation (just like any other contract).
    There is a major lawsuit pending in New Jersey, however, that turns on just how much long-term control the donor gets, and will likely have a major effect on how restricted gifts work in the future. In short, the children of a major donor to Princeton don’t like how their family’s (once-anonymous) gift has been handled over the decades, and want it back (with appreciation). For both sides of the story, see: (the donor/plaintiffs) (the recipient/defendants)

  9. I don’t think anyone who is opposed to this donation and name change understands the actual facts of Akiba’s continuation without such a donation and name change — THERE WOULD BE NO MORE JEWISH HIGH-SCHOOL EDUCATION FOR OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS. Your children will be forced to locate out of Philadelphia or go to a public school.
    Are you all serious that you are upset about a name change? You are willing to say that this man Barrack is not right because he asked that the name of the school be changed? This is what happens. Deal with it! Change is a good thing, especially if it means helping the continuation of Jewish education.
    Someone said it before, back in 1998 Akiba was blacklisted by all the big donors because they disgraced someone’s name, someone who just wanted to help.
    You know, maybe the name change will be good, the future generations will learn to focus on the bigger picture and not be so selfish!

  10. This is my high school (’99), and I was at the meeting in 1998 (though I think it was actually 1999) when the Akiba board rejected the last naming donation. If I remember correctly, the donation at the time was $2 million. One of the speakers at the meeting, a friend of a board member who was otherwise not connected with Akiba, and who had spent years working in development at a large university, said that rejecting the gift was right from a purely economic standpoint. Akiba’s name was worth about $15 million, she said, and it would be bad for future fundraising to accept a naming gift so small. She turned out to be right in the sense that it took less than 10 years to more than double the size of the next naming donation offer.
    If this is in fact the way fundraising has to work now, then there are many ways Mr. Barrack could have gotten his name on the school without removing that of Rabbi Akiba. It could have been “Akiba Hebrew Academy, Barrack campus”, for example. But from what I hear, he not only had all the signage changed, but he had the gymnasium floor ripped up and sports team banner replacements ordered, all for the purpose of removing the name Akiba from a building that’s being sold in a year.
    I’m a sentimental fool, it’s true, but what bothers me more than the naming donation at all is the rush to purge all mention of Rabbi Akiba from the institution. Akiba has been awful at fundraising over the years, and in their eagerness to shed the “blackball” reputation, they undersold one of the great figures in our cultural history by about $10 million.

  11. I think the letter, would better be addressed to the alumni (myself included) than to the present board and/or headmaster.
    With full candor, as alumni, we have no one to blame but ourselves re: the “selling out” of the name. And, if we look forward to the opportunity for our children and their children’s children to enjoy a Jewish education similar to that we received have no one to thank but the current forward-thinking board and Mr. Barrack.
    In an ironic twist, the entity who’s personally ensuring that Jewish education remain accessible Jewish youth of all socio-economic backgrounds is – ultimately – ensuring that the education remain truly pluralistic, rather than naturally digress to a luxury available to only a select cross section of the Jewish community.

    What’s the true economic worth of the “Akiba” name? Sure, maybe it’s been handicapped at $5 million or $10 million or $15 million.
    Ultimately, it’s what the market will bear. And, if the alumni base are the market makers – $2 million was generous…
    In the end of the day – after all the dust settles and we each go back to our day-to-day routines:
    By giving a sizable donation (that, clearly, others were not in a position to come close to matching) Mr. Barrack has put his money where his mouth is (and his name and reputation on the line) to make a clear statement that Jewish education is invaluable, for himself, for his children, for their children – and for those whom he respects and who respect him.
    Just as Akiba served as a model for a pluralistic Jewish school, Barrack’s efforts should serve as a model for a pluralistic Jewish education. There’s simply no other way to spin the basic fact: Mr. Barrack is a wonderful role model for other Jewish philanthropists, who – by and large – rarely contribute to such Jewish causes with such personal commitment.

    If there’s anything that the Akiba/Barrack leadership should be criticized for, it’s not allowing a “go-shop” period – to solicit a better offer from the alumni community. And let the money talk.
    Shai D.
    Class of 2002

  12. 1. “First off, if Mr. Barrack cared one ounce about Judaism, he would never have requested a name change to memorialize his brother”
    2. “The gift wasn’t even a siginificant one if you look out how the funds end up distributed. Akiba turned herself into a cheap whore when even a high class prostitute would have been a little odious.”
    Here’s another quote:
    “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
    In the end of the day, an education organization is best managed on the basis maximizing the value of the tuition and not the diploma.
    Am I disappointed that others won’t recognize the name of the high school I attended?
    – Yes, and I presume each of us share a similar sentiment.
    Is my self-admitted selfish desire that others recognize the name of the high school I attended so great that future generations be deprived of a Jewish education at an affordable price?
    – That’s for each of us to answer, individually.
    In an ideal world:
    (a) Akiba would have retained the name, and
    (b) Akiba would have enjoyed a position of financial strength to remain viable on a long-term basis.
    In practical terms:
    And it’s now up to each of us to retroactively determine the relative values of these two variables.
    It appears the board valued the latter, more than the former. And I think the story isn’t so much commentary about the “state of affairs” in Jewish Philanthropy (re: trend for name changing as a condition for large scale gifts) but rather the underlying conditions that make such a “state of affairs” exist: had we each supported the school — in the 8 years since the last fiasco, history would not have repeated itself!
    The basic math, ignoring any interest…
    ~ 50 graduating classes, ~ 20 alumni / grade (low-ball)
    8 years.
    $4.2 million
    = $525 / graduate per year.
    We’re quick with the pen when writing letters – on short notice, but even better would have been quick with the pen when writing a check – put out money where out mouths are now – for each year since the 1999 dynamic.
    $525* / graduate – and there never would have been this situation.
    (In reality – most likely materially less than $525 / graduate: There’s more than 20 alumni in a grade. Class of 2002 had 60+ and was a fairly normal sized grade, and some alumni would give a bit more than others…)
    The Akiba/Barrack story should be a wake up call to other high school “development offices” around the country; (a) to ask the alumni to give a small amount, annually, and (b) recognize the few philanthropist who truly cherish Jewish education.
    Was $4 million a low-ball bid? I don’t see anyone offering $40 million…. (yet)

  13. Regardless of the merits of public school, the board of Akiba has a responsibility to make sure the school can educate the most students possible. If the board to told a student, “sorry we feel the name of the school is more important than your Jewish education so we think you should go to public school,” it would be abandoning its responsibility.

  14. Avi: When the board rejected the $2M offer 9 years ago, one can argue it was with the aim of educating the most students possible, betting that a bigger offer was still to come. Why not make the same argument now?
    And how does the fact that this name change was completed and signed before the offer was made public further the goal of educating the most students possible?

  15. But why did the name Akiba have to be eradicated? Couldn’t the school have offered to add Barrack’s name but negotiated to retain Akiba’s as well? I think “Jack M. Barrack Akiba Hebrew Academy” is a bit clumsy but still far superior to the current “Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.” And (as someone else suggested) naming the building for Barrack would have been even better.
    But also, if the school needed funds, why didn’t it ask its alumni???
    (I’m a member of the class of ’71 and a signatory to the letter.)

  16. There are many ways out of this situation, and it appears not half of them were even brought up. So far, I think Desh’s solution of “Barrack Campus” would be best. In fact, is it possible I wonder for another donation to make it the Akiba Campus? That wouldn’t negate the terms of Barrack’s contract…
    I, too, was there when we spoke out against the $2M contribution in 99, and I think there will be another bidder later in life. Sad, that we lost the gym floor; I would have liked some good photos of that old thing before moving campuses. (It’s not torn up, just painted over in a very tacky way)

  17. I am very disappointed by the various ’71 alumni who agreed to sign the letter. I know a one who did not and told me it was because “he didn’t feel like he knew all the facts.” So here are a few that most of us know but need to be reminded of occasionally:
    It took almost 10 years after turning down the last donation to even think of getting a new donor, and we should be thankful for what we have got. Studies show that Jewish philanthropists are no longer choosing by and large to give money to Jewish organizations, so a comparison to the donors to the George school and Episcopal are not fair comparisons. Jews are donating everywhere but Jewish causes. It’s a huge problem, without question, but a reality that we have to face. Aside from a recent 4100 million donation to YU, I can’t even think of a large donation given to an independent day school in recent years. And as a related tangent, by and large, the Orthodox community who is willing to make donations that big to Jewish causes is not supporting Jewish non-denominational schools. After the last name change debacle (although, for $3 million more now, not such debacle), alumni pledged to come up with the money to make it up. We failed. It’s time for the school to pick up the pieces and move on. $40 million or even $15 million just isn’t feasible right now.
    For those of you who said that “if Mr. Barrack was such a religious Jew, he would not have asked to have the school named after his brother,” you are without question on the bounds of Jewish law incorrect. Please see Yoreh Deah of the Shulchan Aruch, laws of tzedakah, to see that in fact, people may be given honor for the giving of tzedakah. And please do not talk ill of the deceased.
    And ironically, I think about Rabbi Akiva’s classroom itself; if he knew that money (whether it was 5 dollars or 5 million) would be put toward giving more students a Jewish education, do you think he would be turn it down because of a name change? Frankly, as we are all committed to perpetuating the future of the Jewish people and Jewish education, as was Rabbi Akiva, I would think not.
    I look forward to reading your responses.

  18. Desh:
    “Avi: When the board rejected the $2M offer 9 years ago, one can argue it was with the aim of educating the most students possible, betting that a bigger offer was still to come.”
    Why not make the same argument now?
    It’s the same argument as:
    Case A:
    A 10 year old kid turning away a summer job – to devote the summer towards summer school. In other words, defer some immediate cash flow, for personal investment – that’s sure to come at a later point. In this case, the worst outcome would be that there’s (in a long shot…) just no income a year or two (or five) later, but that’s find – since he’s still just 10 years old…and can live at home, and anyway – has no need to even spent the money he’d earn.
    Case B:
    A married person with a husband/wife, and many kids…lacking income for the past decade (out of a job and out of luck) – finally gets a job opportunity. Not the best pay, not the best hours, but absolutely the best offer seen in a very long time – with nothing material on the horizon. Again, to remain unemployed is asking for the household to fall apart – time is the enemy, not the friend – in this case.

    1. Akiba Hebrew Academy had 400 kids. Literally.
    2. Akiba Hebrew Academy was “out of luck” for nearly a decade, largely (I presume…) due to the songs-and-dances from 1999 – literally throwing salt into the eyes of people reaching into their pockets of forward-looking businesspeople eager to lend support during a time of need.
    – And, yes, extending their name and their reputation behind the school. Which, in the long run, would likely only increase the school’s long-term viability.
    – If a window breaks at a public school, it stays broken until someone fixes it. If a window breaks at a school with “your” name on it, “you” fix it – sooner rather than later.
    – Was the 1999 offer a “low-ball” bid, at $2 million? I think it’s safe to say that… fast forward 8 years… the total contribution from the initial people who expressed interest and related entities would have been far, far more than $2 million.
    Again, Akiba should be *appreciative* to have received a seven-figure personal contribution from a concerned alumnus, who clearly understand the culture, and has a personal investment that extends beyond the raw numbers.
    And let’s hope that the contribution is the start of a new chapter in our school’s future, and not merely the start of a cycle of shortsightedness on a historic scale that we’ve, sadly, seen once before…

  19. To those respondents who have condescended to the disappointed alumni, I say: I’m sorry, the spin you’re trying to put on this just confirms what we’ve suspected.
    “…if Mr. Barrack was such a religious Jew, he would not have asked to have the school named after his brother,” you are without question on the bounds of Jewish law incorrect. Please see Yoreh Deah of the Shulchan Aruch, laws of tzedakah, to see that in fact, people may be given honor for the giving of tzedakah.”
    People may be given the honor, but what does it say about donors who DEMAND it? Was this “gift” altruist or self-serving? What lesson will be learned by the current and future students about giving from the heart, not the ego? Not to mention the lying, the deceit, the secrecy, etc. I’m embarrassed for the school and for all Jews who have had to combat the stereotype of Jews and money.
    I can’t wait til I get the next Akiba Annual Giving solicitation and the next request from Federation for donations.

  20. First, I love how Jew School brings the Akiba alumni out of the woodwork.
    Second, while some people think that $5 mil is not enough for the name, it came with the promise that there was more to come, both from him, from other donors, and from Federation. To that point, since the announcement, Barrack has gotten a donor who gave a small amount to Akiba anonymously in the past has agreed to a substantial gift this coming year. It seems like he will be able to fulfill his promise of more.

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