GREENSBORO — Lior Gilo knows how good she’s got it.
The 17-year-old is sitting in a hallway, a school-issued laptop balanced on her knee. She has the world at her fingertips at the American Hebrew Academy, where computerized microscopes, wireless Internet access, interactive chalkboards that project online encyclopedias and Israeli TV in every classroom are part of the school day.
“In the beginning, we were like, ‘Oh my God, this stuff is so crazy,’ ” said Lior, a senior and the student body president. “For me, I’m still amazed.”
Six years ago, it was little more than one man’s dream: Take 100 acres off Hobbs Road and build an elite boarding school — the Jewish Exeter, the Jewish Andover, the Jewish equivalent of New England prep schools famous for producing Fortune-500 CEOs. Hire Frank Lloyd Wright’s partner as the campus architect. Import Jerusalem stone for every building. Stock classrooms with technology direct from Silicon Valley.
And above all, nurture future Jewish leaders so they may always retain their Jewish identity.
Today, the academy is considered one of America’s top Jewish schools, a place where students receive an Ivy League education in a Jewish-centered setting.
But the school’s financial stability might be in jeopardy because of a billion-dollar fraud case, which could be settled this month. Attorneys claim Maurice “Chico” Sabbah of Greensboro built the academy with $104 million “wrongfully diverted” from three Japanese insurers who were clients of Sabbah’s Fortress Re reinsurance company. Sabbah has denied the charges, but his lawyers are participating in settlement talks.
Lawyers for the insurers are coy about how they hope to recover the money. Cliff Schoenberg, an attorney for one Japanese company, won’t say what his clients want — cash, land, buildings. But what he does say makes clear his position: The Japanese want their money back.
The company is “respectful of the fact (the academy) is an institution that’s trying to do good,” he said. “That obviously will be taken into account.”
Built for success
Springsong Cooper’s dorm room is dark, save the florescent light brightening her desk. It’s midmorning and she’s finishing homework, making use of the one open period that’s built into students’ schedules every other day.
Springsong, 17, hails from Republic, Wash., population 954. The nearest synagogue is three hours away. Before arriving at the academy, she spoke little Hebrew. She never attended a Jewish service until a week before her bat mitzvah, a ceremony marking the passage from childhood.
And as the only Jewish children in town, Springsong and her younger brother, Lev, had no outlet for Jewish activities and social events. So, they attended Christian camps with friends, sharing their Judaism with others students only on holidays.
“I was always in the position where I felt a little out of place,” she said.
It was for children like Springsong that the academy was created.
In 1998, organizers announced plans to turn $8.3 million worth of land into a lavish boarding school, with million-dollar dorms, highly trained teachers, classrooms wired with the latest technology. Architect Aaron Green unveiled a Prairie-style design that’s textbook Frank Lloyd Wright, including light-filled classrooms and green roofs.
Trustees would say only that the money — there would need to be lots for their ambitious plan — was coming from a “small group of anonymous donors.”
Yet many in Greensboro’s tight-knit Jewish community suspected Chico Sabbah was bankrolling the project almost exclusively, something tax and court records later revealed. Between 1997 and 2000, records show, the academy received $99.6 million, most from Sabbah’s private charity and an anonymous fund he established.
Sabbah declined to be interviewed for this article but allowed his daughter to give a tour of the normally intensely private school grounds. Few people in Greensboro have visited the campus, heavily guarded by Greensboro police, private security officers and a black metal gate that surrounds the school.
Even fewer people understand why Sabbah built the academy, the nation’s only boarding school for non-Orthodox Jews. It was his deep love of his Jewish faith and tradition, and a fear that fewer and fewer young people were embracing it, said his daughter, academy spokeswoman Leeor Sabbah.
“He wanted to create an environment where (students) could feel tied to Judaism,’’ she said. “Part of the vision of Mr. Sabbah is to create an environment to nurture future Jewish leaders of the world.”
Springsong, whose interest in Judaism spiked after her bat mitzvah, learned about the academy through a brochure. She said she was reluctant to leave Republic, filled with her family and lifelong friends. But she was more reluctant to leave her interest in Judaism unexplored.
“Something was missing,” she said. “I never knew what it was.”
For that very reason, Judaism is the heart of campus life. The academy “keeps Kosher,” meaning there is strict separation of meat and dairy products, a religious tradition not every Jew observes.
Students must attend Sabbath services on Friday nights, along with daily prayer meetings. Those with shaky Hebrew must practice until they become fluent enough to chant prayers. And juniors spend 12 weeks in Israel, studying and practicing their Hebrew as they explore the country.
The academy offers what it calls a “dual curriculum,” which includes traditional and Jewish-centered course work. Students enroll in seven classes a semester, three more than the average Guilford County student taking a block-style schedule. Hebrew-language and Judaic study courses are mandatory, as is the two-hour study hall Sunday through Thursday nights .
It all makes for long school days — squeezing in religious observances, sports and classroom studies, which happen around teardrop-shaped tables designed to inspire debate. Dori Chandler, one of 22 day students, often doesn’t come home until after 6 p.m., said mother Marilyn Chandler.
Chandler, head of Greensboro’s thriving Jewish federation, likens the curriculum to the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous slate of college-prep courses taken by top students.
“She studies all the time,” Chandler said of her daughter’s life after school.
The academy’s academic standards are so high that a student who succeeds there “can walk into any college and be socially, academically and theologically light-years ahead of their peers,” said Marc Kramer, head of RAVSAK, an association of U.S. Jewish day schools.
He credits a slow, measured plan for growth for the school’s success. Instead of opening with 800 students, the academy’s long-term goal, officials are gradually increasing enrollment, building dorms and classrooms as needed.
Most of all, he credits Chico Sabbah, who never strayed from his original goal: building the best Jewish school money could buy.
“It’s absolutely unique as an educational experience for the American Jewish community,” said Kramer, whose organization represents 25,000 students. “He just stuck to his guns. I think it’s heroic.”
Each of the five $1.7 million dorms includes spacious rooms for roughly 20 students. Because administrators believe in strict supervision of students, each dorm includes a 2,200-square-foot apartment for house parents, with four bedrooms and granite countertops. The headmaster will live on campus, too — in a $472,000 house being built this year.
Visitors aren’t allowed to drive far past the entrance gate; gas-powered vehicles aren’t allowed on campus for environmental and security reasons. Students either walk or ride electric-powered golf carts along the winding, wooded paths between buildings. They’re driven off-campus in a school-owned shuttle.
And talk about supervision: Teachers have technology to monitor students’ use of the Internet in their classroom by viewing the images on their screens.
As for Springsong — she’s become quite well-versed in Hebrew, though she’s reluctant to call herself fluent. She adores attending the mandatory services and treasures her three months in Israel, where she soaked up Jewish culture and, albeit briefly, considered becoming a rabbi.
“None of these things would have been available to me back home,” she said.
Weathering the lawsuit storm
Sabbah, 75, made his fortune through Fortress Re — the “Re” stands for reinsurance. He and partner Kenneth Kornfeld managed an aviation-reinsurance “pool,’’ a risk-sharing insurance group, for three Japanese companies. Those companies paid premiums to Fortress Re, which was expected to use that money to pay claims if any airplanes crashed.
On Sept. 11, 2001, one day after the academy opened, terrorists crashed four airplanes, all insured by Fortress Re’s pool.
The Japanese companies say in multiple lawsuits that Sabbah and Kornfeld spent the money they were supposed to save for such an event. Fortress Re shareholders deny the charge. But in December, an arbitration panel found Fortress Re guilty of defrauding one of the companies, Sompo Insurance Co., and ordered Fortress Re to pay $1.1 billion.
Fortress Re has paid $265 million to Sompo and the two other Japanese companies. All three expect to receive hundreds of millions more through a settlement, which could be reached in late February, said Sompo attorney Schoenberg. It’s unclear whether Sabbah and Kornfeld will use their personal fortunes to pay the settlement.
Schoenberg said “there’s no accusation that the American Hebrew Academy acted improperly,” only that Fortress Re gave the academy “illicitly gotten gains” the Japanese want back.
His tone changes when he mentions multimillion-dollar geothermal wells buried under the soccer field — the largest of their kind in the United States and the source of the academy’s water.
“It appears that’s where they spent all the pool members’ money,” he said.
The settlement does inspire thoughts of an “incongruity,” as one British insurance publication wrote in November: “the Japanese owning the first ever American Hebrew boarding school.” But it’s unlikely the Japanese will take over the school; there won’t be a Sompo Academy in Greensboro, Schoenberg said.
Meanwhile, trustees are moving forward — building an $11.6 million athletics center and pool, aggressively recruiting students, advertising jobs for teachers and house parents.
Sabbah’s lawyers won’t discuss the pending settlement or what that settlement might mean for the academy. Leeor Sabbah said its future will be unchanged regardless of the outcome of her father’s legal problems, with one exception: Leaders are seeking high-dollar donors in America and abroad.
“My father isn’t the only one who feels strongly about Jewish education,” she said of “endowment opportunities” being created for donors. “There’s no concern, just a realignment of finances.”
In a 2002 interview for Forbes magazine with Greensboro writer Ed Cone, Sabbah said the school had $50 million in the bank, which would cover 10 years of operating expenses. He also told Cone he would leave his estate to the academy. What is left unspoken is that Sabbah, the school’s primary benefactor, might not have as many millions to donate once the settlement is complete.
So, the academy’s first-ever development campaign begins as expectations for the school, and the stakes for its future, have never been higher.