It’s been eight years since the Berman Hebrew Academy purchased the former Peary High School building and accompanying land in Aspen Hill, Maryland. That might seem like a long time ago, but it was a memorable negotiation for members of the Jewish community — and a battle they want assurances they won’t have to fight twice, regardless of who wins the race for Montgomery County Executive.
Originally named the Hebrew Academy of Washington, Berman opened in 1944 with 21 students. It was the first Jewish day school in the Washington, D.C. The school quickly outgrew its location, and in 1950, construction began on its new home at 16th Street and Fort Stevens Dr. NW.
In the 1990s, the Jewish community was seeking a new home for the school and a committee zeroed in on the vacant high school facilities on Arctic Avenue, shuttered since 1987. The building was in total disrepair and had become a hangout for drug dealers and gangs, recalled Diana Epstein, a former school board president. Epstein listed the building’s problems as if it were only yesterday that she discovered them: Thieves had stolen the copper wire and toilets. Shattered window glass littered the floors, which were covered in water from a leaking roof.
“It was a horror,” she said.
The school signed a contract in 1996 for a long-term lease with the Montgomery County school district and went on to spend close to $9 million in repairs. The school, now with 700 students, thrived, and the Jewish community around it grew. A decision was made in 2010 to purchase the building, but the request had to be approved by county councilmembers as the school district had deeded the land to the county.
Both Montgomery County Councilmembers Nancy Floreen, currently running as an Independent candidate for county executive, and Marc Elrich, the Democratic candidate, were councilmembers at the time. (Republican Robin Flicker is also currently running for county executive, but was not involved in the school sale.)
Several people interviewed for this article recalled how Floreen, then council president, supported the sale to Berman, but Elrich opposed it fiercely, although he ultimately voted for it in the end.
Silver Spring, Maryland, lawyer and Berman parent Behnam Dayanim helped lead the negotiations on the school’s behalf. He agreed with Epstein’s characterization of the process.
“If it were up to Marc, we would not own that property today,” said Dayanim.
Floreen remembered how strongly the Jewish community wanted that school; the hundreds of people who testified and wrote letters to the council were “very compelling,” she said. She also noted that the community had spent millions to fix up the building and accompanying 19.5 acres.
“My concern was one thing and one thing only,” said Elrich: Was the school district going to need the building in the future? “I’ve got a responsibility to the whole community to protect all assets,” he said. At the time, Elrich also questioned the $1.9 million sale price, which he considered too low.
Once “the school system said they weren’t going to need it,” he voted in support of the sale, he said.
“You always worry about disposing of public property,” Floreen acknowledged, but she has “no regrets” about supporting the sale.
The final vote was 8-1, with only former Councilmember Phil Andrews in opposition.
Sam Melamed, a Berman parent and co-chair of Maryland Parents for Education, hosted a recent kiddush for Elrich supporters in his Silver Spring home.
“He reaffirmed that no one is looking to take the school away,” said Melamed.
Last week, both Floreen and Elrich said they would not revisit the issue if they were elected county executive.
“I think it’s a dead issue. We made a decision,” Elrich said.
By Suzanne Pollak
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.