GREENSBORO — After Tuesday's announcement of the sudden closing of the American Hebrew Academy, an elite international Jewish boarding school off Hobbs Road, Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel spent the morning in prayer and on the phone.
"The academy was a great school," Guttman said. "Academically superior."
The luxurious 100-acre campus also enabled the city to attract more Jewish families and professionals, he added.
"But today in our congregation we have seven families, who, when they woke up this morning, thought that this was going to be a good day ... and they had the rug pulled out from them," Guttman said of congregants who worked at the school.
The private school's board voted to close the campus immediately for financial reasons, according to an email sent Tuesday to staff, students and alumni. The school was losing millions annually.
"The American Hebrew Academy began as a dream," wrote Glenn Drew, the school's executive director. "It has been a dream fulfilled for 18 years, and it is a dream that must unfortunately come to an end."
Most school employees will be unemployed as of today.
Employees who lived on campus — some with their families — have until September to leave.
The campus opened in 2001 flush with money from businessman and philanthropist Maurice "Chico" Sabbah. BusinessWeek magazine estimated his donations were $100 million at the time.
In a 2002 interview with Forbes, Sabbah said the school had $50 million in the bank, which would cover 10 years of operating expenses.
In the early 2000s, the academy was entangled in a billion-dollar fraud suit that involved Sabbah, his company Fortress Re and a business partner. The school continued to operate, drawing students from around the world.
With Tuesday's announcement, it's unclear the number of students and faculty that have been affected or what will happen to the 100-acre property. The academy offered an $11.6 million athletics center and pool. And it was built with every classroom in the science building having a smart board that could function as a conventional blackboard or as a computer connected to the internet — much earlier than public schools.
Built to educate the best and brightest Jewish teenagers from around the world — tuition was roughly $40,000 this school year — the academy lost money every year from 2006 to 2017, according to tax data reviewed by the News & Record.
During the 2016-17 school year, the academy had $5 million in revenue and $18 million in expenses — a $13 million loss.
During the 2015-16 school year, the loss was $9.7 million.
Contributions and grants dropped from almost $3 million in the 2015-16 school year to $404,000 in 2016-17.
Sean Lerner, a 2016 graduate now attending Georgetown University, recalled there had been rumors of financial problems for so long that he didn’t initially believe the news.
The school offered low student-teacher ratio and what he called "world class" instructors and staff happy to be there.
“I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of that,” Lerner said.
Graduates had their choice of colleges.
Then came Tuesday's email outlining the worst. As word spread through online chat rooms and social media, shock turned to concern for students expected to return this fall.
The school's final class — 34 seniors — graduated from the academy on May 27. Enrollment this year was 134 in a school initially built for 400.
"The school didn’t seem sustainable because it was a huge campus and just a few of us," said Sofia Sabet, who graduated in May and is headed to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "But we all thought our kids would be able to go there, that our grandkids would be able to go there."
Sabet has started a Gofundme account she hopes will attract the attention of big-dollar donors who can help keep the school open or at least provide a financial cushion for staff, some of whom lived on campus with their families.
"I think about my academic adviser. I think about my voice teacher," said Tali Friedman, a 2016 graduate. "What are they going to do? They devoted their lives to this place."
The school, interwoven with the Greensboro Jewish community, provided a respite from students away from home and their traditions.
"I came as a depressed 14-year-old who felt disillusioned," Friedman recalled. "I grew and I left confident, assertive and connected to a community. I left feeling such a sense of optimism. I left with a sense of pride.
"I hate that others will not be able to experience that."