Faced with a rise in enrollment from 500 students in the 2015-16 school year to 750 currently, Yeshiva Derech Hatorah is planning to buy a South Euclid school building to house its classes for boys.
In August, the Jewish day school signed a purchase and sale agreement for the former Sacred Heart of Jesus Academy building near the corner of South Green and Mayfield roads. The 34,352-square-foot classroom school with a 9,164-square-foot attached gymnasium at 4478 Rushton Road is on the campus of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish. An independent Catholic school, the Lyceum School, is on an adjacent parcel.
“With profound joy and an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the Ribono Shel Olam (master of the universe) we are pleased to announce that our search for the right building to enhance our boys' learning has finally come to an end,” states a Sept. 18 letter to parents and friends of Yeshiva Derech Hatorah signed by Rabbi Yitzchok Margareten, head of school, and Moish Tohn, executive director. “This is one of the most significant developments in the history of YDT.”
The building will require “extensive renovation,” according to the letter, but should be ready for school use by September 2020.
Talks were underway for more than two years with the parish, which received permission from Bishop Nelson Perez at the Diocese of Cleveland before signing the contract to sell the building.
As part of the agreement, the Orthodox day school will purchase 52 parking spaces and allow both Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and Corpus Christi School in Lyndhurst occasional scheduled use of the gymnasium. In return, the diocese will allow Yeshiva Derech Hatorah to use field space, which will remain under diocese ownership.
The need for more space
“We are really having trouble with space, classroom space,” Tohn told the Cleveland Jewish News Sept. 23. “We have made it work. We have learning going on in every nook and cranny in all three of our facilities.”
At this point, classes for pre-K to eighth-grade boys are held at the former Warrensville Center Synagogue at 1508 Warrensville Center Road in Cleveland Heights. Girls’ classes are held at two buildings. Pre-K to grade six classes are held at 1700 S.Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights. Yeshiva Derech Hatorah owns both of the Cleveland Heights buildings. Classes for girls in grades seven through 12 are held in rented space at 1975 Lyndway Road in Lyndhurst, Hebrew Academy of Cleveland’s Sapirstein Campus.
The deal will hinge on Yeshiva Derech Hatorah winning both city and county permission to split and consolidate lots, as well as city approval to run a school at the site, known as conditional use.
Yeshiva Derech Hatorah is actively fundraising for the purchase and renovation of the 30-plus classroom building, Tohn said.
“Cleveland has seen a tremendous amount of growth,” Tohn said. “The Orthodox community has been growing and growing. That has impacted Yeshiva Derech Hatorah.”
The school turned away potential students this fall because it could not, Tohn said, “in good conscience,” squeeze more desks into classrooms.
“Here’s the line that we’re using,” Tohn said. “Literally, the smallest classroom in this new building is larger than our largest current classroom. It says it all. We’re moving into a school building.”
Negotiations and details
Tohn first met with the Rev. Dave Ireland at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish to begin talks in August 2017.
“It took some time,” Tohn said. “After a long negotiation, the bishop signed off a few weeks ago.”
Closing is set for 60 to 90 days after the August signing of the purchase and sale agreement. However, Yeshiva Derech Hatorah has not yet filed formal documentation to go forward with the permitting needed. But both buyer and seller are hopeful.
“We’re a school,” said Tohn, explaining the need for the conditions set out in the purchase and sale agreement. “If we’re not zoned to be a school, then obviously the property is of no value to us.”
Tohn said South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo struck a positive tone during talks with South Euclid administrative staff last week.
“I felt very confident that South Euclid wants this to happen,” Tohn said. “And I think they felt very positive in what we’re trying to accomplish. We are trying to build a school. It’s very possible that we are trying to build a community. … The location of the building is very good for our constituency in Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Beachwood. Some students … come from Wickliffe also, but the community is growing. And the location of the school is in a very nice neighborhood.”
Tohn said an architect is reviewing plans for the building to determine what renovations will be necessary.
“We’re going to take this building and turn it into a more 2020 building,” Tohn said.
South Euclid’s role
“We want to work with the school to get them in,” said Mike Love, South Euclid’s economic development director. “It is repurposing a building that was standing vacant.”
Love said the city will welcome more Jews if a community develops around the new campus.
“There’s definitely room for the Orthodox Jewish community to grow in South Euclid,” he said. Love said the planning commission will need to approve conditional use of the building after a review and public hearing. The final decision will rest with the South Euclid City Council which may, but is not required to, hold a public hearing. Both bodies may place conditions on the use.
A second step, involving splitting the lot and consolidating the lot, will require both planning commission approval and administrative approval from city and county offices.
“The school and or the church has not yet made an application to the city at this time,” Love said.
Further, exterior or interior alterations will require city involvement. An exterior sign, for example, will need permission from South Euclid’s architectural review board.
South Euclid is in the midst of a project to revamp the intersection at South Green and Mayfield roads into a downtown. When plans were unveiled, the school was envisioned as an apartment complex with a day care center.
Yeshiva Derech Hatorah bought the former Mosdos Ohr HaTorah day school in December 2015 after Mosdos went into receivership. The school continued functioning throughout the transaction and most of the teaching staff remained the same during the transition. The purchase price was $950,000. Facing a debt of about $14 million, Mosdos Ohr HaTorah applied for a judicial dissolution of its two corporations in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in July 2015.
“We hope the school will be successful in its mission to the stakeholders in the community,” Harry Brown, a partner at Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff, the Cleveland-based law firm that represented Mosdos in the case, told the Cleveland Jewish News in December 2015. “I think the assets and operations have been sold to very good people – those who are the directors of Yeshiva Derech HaTorah – and they have a commitment to excellent education and fiscal solvency, which is what the school needs.”
Ireland said there were many meetings prior to the finalization of the purchase and sale agreement with Yeshiva Derech Hatorah.
“We’re very, very pleased,” Ireland told the Cleveland Jewish News Sept. 23. “We want this to work very much. I think we’ll be really good neighbors with each other. … It’s been a delightful journey,” he said. “It really has.”
Ireland penned a letter to parishioners Sept. 11 about the pending sale.
“After full discussion, and after I had discussions with other parishioners and pastors, it was decided not to alter the previous decision to sell to Yeshiva,” he wrote. “I know that the sale of our school … may be difficult and filled with emotion for many of our parishioners. It has been for me. It was a challenging process for all of us. However, through careful examination, consideration, and guidance from the Diocese, I believe the decision is definitely in the long-term best interest of our beloved Parish.”
Formerly known as St. Gregory the Great, the academy closed in 2016 when it merged with St. Clare School to form Corpus Christi Academy in Lyndhurst. He said the parish favored keeping the building in use as a school rather than converting it to a different use.
“When that building was built, it was built to be a school,” said Ireland, adding that the oldest section of the building dates to the 1940s. ”I think we’re kind of continuing that mission, obviously with our differences that we have of course. But that’s what the school’s going to be used for, right? To educate children in faith, so that they can grow to be good, faith-filled people. That’s what we wanted it to be, and it’s going to be continuing on that way.”