Esther Nir knew she wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. Although she and her Israeli-born husband, Ofer, were living in a decidedly secular kibbutz, Nir had attended yeshiva as a young girl in Brooklyn.
"I wanted my children to learn Torah and decide for themselves what they wanted to do when they got older," she said.
But when the family moved to the United States from Israel in 1990, Nir was shocked by the cost of day school education. None of the Orthodox day schools she approached could give the family a financially viable offer.
"If a school cost $12,000 per year, they would go down by $2,000.... It was still out of reach," Nir recalled.
One school implied that the family was not observant enough to be accepted.
Discouraged, the couple sent their three daughters to public school.
Four years later, Ofer Nir saw an article in a Hebrew-language newspaper about Perutz Etz Jacob Academy, an Orthodox day school reaching out to families of all religious levels, economic abilities and nations of origin. He looked up from the paper and said to his wife, "I think we've found the school we're looking for."
Located in a nondescript building on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, Etz Jacob is not glamorous. The furniture is worn, the walls need a paint job and the outdoor play area is tiny.
The Nirs were undaunted. The following year, they enrolled their three daughters: D'vorah in eighth grade, Ayala in sixth grade and Kesem in second grade. Based on the family's financial situation, tuition was initially set at $100 per child per month.
Etz Jacob prides itself on accepting children who would not otherwise get a Jewish education. Rabbi Rubin Huttler of Congregation Etz Jacob founded the school in 1989 as a haven for new immigrants flooding into Los Angeles from Russia and Iran.
"Other schools weren't accepting these children," he said. "So we decided to take on that mitzvah."
Over the years, immigration slowed, but Etz Jacob continues to take students who have not been able to find a home at other Jewish schools for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Nirs, are struggling financially. Others have learning disabilities or emotional issues. A few have experienced discipline problems at other schools.
"We see the potential in the child, not what he's doing now," said Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the school's principal. He believes it's never too late to begin learning.
"Rabbi Akiba started studying the alphabet at the age of 40, and he became one of the greatest rabbis in history," he said.
Only 5 percent of Etz Jacob's students pay full tuition of $8,000, with the rest paying on a sliding scale. According to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, 40 percent of all day school students in L.A. receive need-based financial aid. However, Graff noted, "Other schools with a high percentage of scholarships tend to have a support base that can sustain them from year to year."
This is not the case with Etz Jacob. The school's liberal admissions policy jeopardized its very existence. Over the years, Huttler and Harrosh struggled continuously to keep the school afloat. Over time, debt mounted. Last summer, Etz Jacob Academy owed an entire year's rent. Huttler reluctantly concluded that he would have to close the school.
Enter Aron Abecassis. A go-getter who prospered in real estate, Abecassis had supported the school when he first heard it was having troubles making ends meet eight years ago. Then in 2004, when he learned of the impending bankruptcy, Abecassis took the school on as a personal mission. Although his three children were enrolled at nearby Maimonides Academy, Etz Jacob's plight touched a chord: Abecassis himself had once been a poor immigrant in search of a Jewish education.
In 1970, his family fled Morocco because of the increasingly hostile climate for Jews. "We left everything behind," said Abecassis, who was 9 years old at the time.
The family went to Canada, but when his father tried to find a Jewish day school for his three children, "they came up with all kinds of excuses not to admit us," Abecassis recalled. "I always felt I missed the structure and foundation of a Jewish identity that comes through Jewish education."
In addition to donating his own funds, Abecassis created a business plan to save the school. He enlisted rabbis throughout the community to appeal to their congregants for help. He solicited individuals to provide $10,000 student sponsorships.
"We're Jews. And Jews all help people in need," Abecassis said.
When Abecassis approached L.A. Jewish Federation President John Fishel about Etz Jacob's financial plight, Fishel provided the school with a $50,000 emergency gift. The gift came with two conditions: That the school undergo accreditation and that it strengthen its leadership structure.
"Providing this support to Etz Jacob is consistent with the Federation's aim of ensuring that a Jewish education is accessible to every Jewish child who seeks one," Fishel said.
Regina Goldman, a former principal of Melrose Avenue Elementary now on Etz Jacob's board, oversaw the accreditation process. The school just received accreditation approval from the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which gives the stamp of approval to both secular and religious schools. It is in the process of applying for accreditation the Bureau of Jewish Education. Nancy Field, previously of the Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, has been hired as Etz Jacob's general studies principal.
In what Abecassis describes as "a rescue effort by the Jewish community," 17 local synagogues and foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, have provided funds to the school. In addition, 47 individuals have sponsored student scholarships averaging $10,000 each. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, enough to cover not only this year's operating expense, Abecassis said, but also -- for the first time in its 17 years of existence -- Etz Jacob is now free of debt.
Ultimately, Abecassis hopes the school will be able to build a permanent facility that would allow it to double or triple its current 100-student capacity. He'd like to break ground within three years.
As for the Nir family, who found a haven at Etz Jacob 10 years ago, they grew more observant and eventually became baalei teshuvah. Two daughters now live in Israel, and the youngest is enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles. The Nirs say they are grateful for the impact the school made upon their family and heartened to hear that Etz Jacob's future finally seems secure. "Torah is more important to them than money or a fancy building," Esther Nir said. "The most important thing to them is giving a Jewish education to a Jewish child."