Florida Jewish school boom continues with opening of Tampa Torah Academy

Tampa Torah Academy, a private Orthodox Jewish school, will provide a challenging and well-rounded, age-appropriate curriculum emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving and independent research in diverse bodies of Judaic and general studies.

Abundant sunshine, greater opportunities for remote work, affordable housing, and school choice scholarships have attracted many young Jewish families from the Northeast to Florida. Now, a group from Queens, New York, is moving to the Tampa Bay area to open Tampa Torah Academy, a private Orthodox Jewish school.

The school will be led by Rabbis Ariel Wohlfarth and Yirmiyahu Rubenstein, who will serve as deans of the academy. The school will serve students in preschool through eighth grade, though leaders hope to add high school grades if enough parents express interest.

The school will be housed at 5209 Tampa Palms Blvd. in a rambling white building with dormer windows and an inviting wraparound porch that formerly served as a day care center. Renovations are nearly complete, and leaders expect to start classes by the end of this month.

The timing for the school is optimal, as more than 39,700 Jewish people live in the Tampa Bay counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, according to 2020 figures from the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to independent research about the intersection of religion, culture and public policy.

From left to right: Rabbi Ariel Wohlfarth, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Rubenstein, Rabbi Yossef Stulberger

Rubenstein explained that interest for the school came from parents in Tampa who contacted the Rabbinical Seminary of America, also called Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, and Orthodox families seeking to leave New York for Florida. He said eight Orthodox families will be coming down from New York with him.

The school is part of the services provided by the Kollel, a group of dedicated Jewish families who live, learn, and teach in the community. The outreach center will also offer classes for adults on topics related to Judaism as well as community events.

Tampa Torah Academy is an affiliate of the Rabbinical Seminary of America, of which both Rubenstein and Wohlfarth are graduates. The organization is connected to similar Torah academies throughout the country, including in Orlando and South Florida.

Rubenstein said the school day will begin with religious education followed by secular studies such as math, reading, science and social studies in an Orthodox environment that will include kosher meals and a calendar that allows students and staff to observe Jewish holidays.

Rubenstein, a husband and father of four young children, explained that Jewish day schools are not luxuries for families, who need their children to receive Judaic education in addition to traditional academics and be raised in their culture.

“The Tampa Torah Academy is a response to the growing need of the Jewish community in Hillsborough County,” said Allan Jacob, a North Miami Beach nephrologist who also is chairman of Rabbinical Seminary of America. “There is a high probability that this effort will succeed in attracting more and more families of faith to the area to live and to the school for their children’s education. These families will contribute in a very positive way to the overall business and moral climate of the county.”

Jacob said the growth in the Tampa Bay area is replicating what happened in south Florida as more New York families seek refuge from that state’s high taxes, high housing costs and expensive private school tuition.

“We have seen similar expansion and growth in parts of south Florida as our communities grow,” he said. “All this is only possible because of the scholarships available through the Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship and Step Up For Students.”

(Step Up for Students, which hosts this blog, manages the Family Empowerment Scholarships for Educational Options and for students with Unique Abilities as well as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, the New Worlds Reading Scholarship for struggling readers and the Hope Scholarship for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools.)

Figures from the Florida Department of Education show enrollment in Jewish day schools statewide grew in 2020 to 12,482 students from 10,623 in 2018. The number of such schools grew to 64 from 50 during that time.

Rubenstein thanked state leaders for approving the legislation that made the scholarship programs possible and enabled the school to open.

“We want to provide for these children and do all these great things, and obviously it costs money,” he said. “I feel it’s important for parents to have that choice, and the scholarships give them that choice.”

Once open, Tampa Torah Academy will be the third Jewish day school in Hillsborough County, joining Hillel Academy of Tampa and Hebrew Academy of Tampa Bay.

There is no Jewish day school In Pinellas County, but the Tampa Bay International School includes a Jewish studies program and receives support from the Jewish Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

For more information about the school and an upcoming open house, call (813) 485-5817 or email info@tampatorahacademy.org.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.