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North of Boston, in the seaside town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Epstein Hillel School (formerly Cohen Hillel Academy) has experienced a transformation that permeates every aspect of the school. The recent $5 million gift that resulted in the school’s renaming is only one indicator of this tremendous turnaround. How has the 60-plus-year-old community school turned the tide from dwindling enrollment and financial uncertainty to a joyful, forward-thinking community treasure?

If you ask Amy Gold, the Head of School, you are bound to hear about the power of relationships—among the faculty, within the larger Jewish community north of Boston, on the board, in the classroom. Veteran community leaders like Jerry Somers are likely to point to the deep and long-lasting love the school has generated for decades. Board Chair Ariel Berger will describe how the board has enlisted expertise and data to improve its own functioning, and empowered its professional staff to bring the school to a new level of excellence. Prioritizing the value of relationships, leveraging the deep love felt for the school, and using the best available expertise have all contributed to securing the school’s present and future.

Getting the Turnaround Started

After the merger of the North Shore Jewish Federation with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the school drew the attention of federation leaders who were concerned about its future.  Somers, a former national chair of UAHC (now Union for Reform Judaism), lived on the North Shore and had gotten involved in day schools for the first time when he decided to focus his many years of national leadership more locally and joined the board of the Rashi School, a Reform day school in Dedham, Massachusetts. Federation professionals asked Somers, whose children had not attended day school and who had no direct connection to what was then Cohen Hillel, to help. Perhaps unusual, but then “Jerry is more than your average lay leader,” says Linda Greenseid, a parent of alumni, longtime supporter, and former board chair.

“I knew a little about the school’s history, having lived in the community for many years,” said Somers. “There was a strong group of parents who had supported the school for years after their children graduated, and the school itself generated a very strong community around it.” The changing economy, shifting demographics on Boston’s North Shore, and leadership changes had left the school in serious need of financial and educational attention. Where enrollment in the “glory days” had been 250, it was now down to 51 students K-8.

Somers, a few current parents, and a few board members formed a Committee on Excellence for the school and set to work. With support from CJP, the Committee hired an outside firm to conduct a market analysis and community perception study, and the board was offered a significant discount to work with CJP’s Leadership Development Institute’s coaches to tackle its own way of functioning. When the Head of School accepted a position elsewhere, the Committee’s first task became to fill the position, and Somers reached out to Amy Gold, whom he had known as Rashi’s Associate Head of School. The relationship between Somers and Gold was perhaps the first stroke of luck the school needed.

Gold had started her day school career at the Jewish Primary Day School (now Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School) in Washington, D.C., and then moved to the Rashi School, teaching third grade and then taking on senior educational roles over 18 years. She was a participant in Head of School Excellence Project (HOSPEP) when it was run by RAVSAK. Gold prepared a presentation for the Committee on Excellence detailing a strategic plan for turning the school around, and it made a huge impression. She was hired nearly on the spot.

“She blew the Committee on Excellence away,” said Somers. He told her that she had the opportunity to reimagine the school, to make it have her vision and fingerprint all over it. When Greenseid met her and saw her potential impact, “it was like someone had turned the lights on in the school.”

Gold accepted the position knowing she was meant to be an instrument of change. “The faculty, staff, board, parents—everyone was eager for focus, to learn, and to change,” said Gold. “Even before I stepped in to the position full-time, while still working at Rashi, I was fortunate to have the ability to meet community leaders [both in Massachusetts and in Florida where many spent the winter] and solicit support for strategic initiatives that would quickly get the school on more steady footing.” One of the school’s supporters she met in Florida was Arthur Epstein, a long-time supporter of the school who made a significant gift that enabled Gold to begin implementing her strategic plan quickly.

Epstein had first connected to the school through Bennett Solomon, whom he met when Solomon was a graduate student at Brandeis and led a trip to Israel.  Epstein began supporting the school when Solomon was named head in the late 1970s. Not coincidentally, Solomon had also had a close personal relationship with Somers and with Greenseid. He was the kind of Jewish professional who attracted influential leaders. Despite an untimely death at the age of 36, Solomon left a lasting impact on the school, felt most poignantly in these significant relationships.  His name comes up in nearly every conversation about the school.

A Strong New Start

In her first year, Gold concentrated on what she called the five C’s:  culture, communication, conditions, curriculum, and community. Within her first four months, the school had a new logo, and a marketing firm helped them convey what made them unique in the marketplace. “There was an astounding amount of change in one year, everyone kept going full speed,” said Gold.

To honor the memory of a long-standing benefactor who died that spring, Gold commissioned an artist to create a mosaic that would represent the school’s values. In the first eight weeks of her second year, all members of the school contributed to the mosaic, which now graces the school’s central external pillar.

Gold hired 10 new faculty and staff members when she started, and she credits the faculty—new and veteran—with much of the school’s transformation. The faculty’s openness and eagerness to learn is the first thing Gold mentions when talking about the school. She interviewed each faculty member in her first months, and in a personal demonstration of confidence and what she calls her own “leap of faith,” she transferred her own daughter to the school, entailing an hour-long commute each way.

To Gold, relationships are at the heart of her educational philosophy as a teacher and an educational leader. “If the faculty are happy, kids are happy. If kids are happy, parents are happy.” And in a small community, happy parents are the best sales force. Now at the start of her third year, kindergarten and first grade enrollment are at their full capacity of 15, with 50% of the families paying full tuition, data that Gold says points to a promising trend.

At the same time that Gold was brought in to focus on the school’s academics, the Committee on Excellence knew it needed to change the way the school functioned financially and hired a professional with experience in independent school financial management. The board had a team of professionals in place to lead the school, and it also had engaged in a serious assessment of its own role and the way it needed to operate.

From Love to Strategy

Board Chair Ariel Berger was a member of the Committee on Excellence and assumed his role as Chair at the same time that Gold started her tenure. “Our board was made up of very committed individuals who were not fully aware of the role a board should play,” said Berger.  They saw themselves as volunteers and took on work “in the weeds” of the school that would be better done by professionals. Working with coaches from CJP’s LDI institute, the board leadership came to understand how they could shift to become the kind of board the school needed.  “So many people really love the school. We just needed to ask them to do what was needed,” said Berger.

Berger worked on board composition and undertook the difficult process of transitioning some long-standing board members off the board while bringing in new members with particular areas of expertise the school needed (such as understanding a financial audit). Each board member now has a designated portfolio with specific goals and signs a formal contract detailing responsibilities for the school and vice versa. Berger has brought in training for the board on how to read and understand the school’s budget. Board functioning is now “more deliberate, more deliberative, and better informed,” said Berger. And board members understand and embrace their role in fundraising on behalf of the school.

Above all, Berger, said, the school owes its success to “the willingness of everyone [board, professionals, and other volunteers] to embrace their roles and work tirelessly and collaboratively together.”

The relationship between Gold and Berger is another one of the great “jackpots” for the school. Each speaks in glowing terms about the other. “People of Amy’s caliber do not come around every day, or even every week,” said Berger. “I am not sure someone else would have come through the way she has.”

“Ariel and I think very differently and complement each other, which makes for a great partnership,” said Gold. “His willingness to spend countless hours to professionalize the board and the school is beyond measure.”

Greenlight

Gold’s achievements, coupled with the board’s hard work and the repositioning of the school in the broader community, were impressive, but the school still needed considerable resources to fulfill its plan and gain long-term stability. Gold had maintained a close relationship with former Marblehead resident Arthur Epstein, who had supported the school since the Bennett Solomon days, most recently serving as Chair of the Board of Trustees from 2001-2014.  Gold communicated often with Epstein, especially as she put his strategic plan funding to fast work with good effect. It became clear that there was an opportunity for a major gift.

This past August, in recognition of a $5 million gift from Epstein, the school was renamed in his honor. The celebratory ceremony was attended by 300 lovers of the school—students, parents, faculty, board member, alumni, rabbis, and other community leaders. Gold and Berger are quick to point out that having “turned the ship,” there remains hard work, including raising additional funds to support tuition assistance and academic excellence.

In the words of Jerry Somers, perhaps the matchmaker behind the school’s new direction, everyone in the school is “all in,” and there is every reason to expect that Epstein Hillel will remain a “jewel of the community” for many years to come.

Read more about the historic gift for the Epstein Hillel School in The Boston Globe and the Jewish Journal.