While it is generally agreed upon that the seeds of greatness lie in each and every one of us, it is the rare and fortunate occasion when someone so deeply fulfills their destiny in a way that definitively alters the paths of others for generations to come.
Such is the story of Maurice “Chico” Sabbah, founder of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, the only pluralistic Jewish boarding school for high school students in the U.S.
Born in Brooklyn in 1929 and raised in Great Neck, Long Island, Chico’s religious heritage culminated from a mix of his father’s Sephardic Jewish upbringing and his mother’s Eastern European background as an Ashkenazi Jew. It was their unyielding commitment to causes supporting Jewish traditions and the creation of the State of Israel that would leave a lasting impression on the young Chico Sabbah and grow to sustain him throughout his 77 years of life.
“My grandparents were very philanthropically minded,” says Leeor Sabbah, Chico’s oldest daughter and chair of the Board of Trustees of the American Hebrew Academy, explaining that her grandmother was a lifelong member of Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization. “My grandmother worked tirelessly for Hadassah. Growing up, I heard her call people day after day asking for their support in purchasing Israel Bonds to help support the State of Israel. She and my grandfather were founding members of one of the local synagogues; she bound books for the blind; she was always working to support Jewish community causes. Volunteerism and giving back were very much a central theme at home throughout my father’s life.”
Chico’s journey through life forked down many different paths. He made Aliyah, the Jewish tradition of immigrating to Israel, working as one of the country’s early pioneers by farming the land as an irrigation specialist; a stint as a sharpshooter in the Israeli army; an 18-month tour for the U.S. military in the Korean War; and a career in the reinsurance industry that eventually led him to settle his family in the tobacco state of North Carolina.
When he was offered the opportunity to buy the aviation reinsurance company that he was working for, with installment payments over a five-year period, it only took him two-and-a-half years to pay off the contract in full. “Dad was a dreamer, but he also had a very practical side and he believed that anything was achievable through hard work,” says Leeor. “When I was a kid, we were never allowed to say, ‘I can’t.’ He would firmly respond, ‘What do you mean, you can’t? You can do anything you put your mind to and work hard at.’”
Growing the aviation reinsurance company to one of the largest in the world, Chico began to experience incredible financial success, though he remained uninterested in all of the accoutrements commonly associated with new wealth. Instead he, along with his wife Zmira, chose to reinvest his earnings in philanthropic causes that would support varied religious and educational foundations that helped sustain him throughout his life, and he did so anonymously.
When Chico’s parents died in 1995, he steadfastly observed the Jewish tradition of kaddish, saying daily prayers as part of a minyan, a quorum of 10 or more people. With the children from the local Jewish day school leading the weekday prayers at the synagogue, Chico used the opportunity to form close bonds with the students, teachers, and administrators from the school. “He was totally inspired by all of these kids who were so involved in their Jewish education. It was a real light for him, especially in a time when he had lost both of his parents. It was a nice juxtaposition,” observes Leeor.
Realizing that the local day school only supported Jewish students through the eighth grade, Chico found a new outlet for his philanthropic endeavors and a new lease on life. His new mission, which would become his life’s work and see him through to his death in 2006, was the creation of a modern Jewish boarding school that would rival some of the most elite prep schools in the nation. Glenn Drew, Chico’s nephew and executive director of the American Hebrew Academy, explained that Chico created a macro solution for a micro problem. “Chico’s dream was to solve the high school dilemma for maybe 35 to 40 Jewish kids in our community, and the way he solved it essentially created a solution for Jewish communities all around the world,” says Glenn. “Before the creation of the American Hebrew Academy, the only Jewish boarding schools that existed were traditional Orthodox. Chico wanted to speak to the thousands of families around the world, Jews of all denominations including modern Orthodox, who wanted to maintain their Jewish identity, lifestyle, and commitment to the State of Israel. Those were the founding principles of Chico’s dream for the Academy.”
Having no experience in education administration, curriculum building, or in construction and development only drove him harder to ensure the successful manifestation of his dream, particularly when he met roadblocks and naysayers around every bend. “It was a phenomenally expensive endeavor and no one wanted to get on board because it seemed like such an impossible idea,” Glenn explains. “But Chico set his mind on doing this and believed it would be his largest philanthropic undertaking ever. He said that aside from taking care of his family, he came into this world with nothing, planned to leave this world with nothing, and he committed all of his remaining assets to the building of the American Hebrew Academy.”
With Chico’s $150 million endowment, the American Hebrew Academy was officially formed in 1996, and by 1999 the design and building of the 100-acre campus was under way. The school opened its doors for the first class of freshmen and sophomore students on September 10, 2001. Today, under the guidance of his daughter and his nephew, enrollment has grown from 77 students to 160. With a maximum class size of 12 students, the campus of the Academy includes state-of-the-art science labs in botany, chemistry, biology, and physics, a student-operated television station, Hebrew language learning lab, media lab, and a library collection of more than 5,000 volumes of academic, fiction, and Jewish studies books, in addition to numerous online reference materials. The entire 100-acre campus facility is heated and cooled by the world’s largest closed-loop geothermal system.
“We have now seen our first two classes graduate from college and we can’t wait to witness all that they are about to accomplish in this world,” says Leeor. Glenn emphasizes his cousin’s sentiment. “These kids know that when they come to the American Hebrew Academy, we expect great things from them. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t interested in being hyper-involved in life. These are kids who are interested in doing unusual things and being leaders; these are not kids who are going to sit on the sidelines.”
With students from nearly 20 different countries and 23 states, Glenn explains that what Chico built was an international prep school that has become an enclave where students from all socio, economic, and religious walks of life can come together for learning and growing in one place. “The power of that environment is one of the most successful components of the school that I don’t think any of us could have verbalized or imagined in the beginning. Peer-to-peer learning is probably one of the most important and influential elements of the school today,” he says.
“My father was the ultimate idealist and anyone who knew him throughout his life would describe him that way,” sums up Leeor. “Because my grandmother was such a forceful, independent woman, I think that my father was used to seeing people accomplish anything that they set their minds to, and he never believed that there was something unachievable in life.”
Glenn concludes, “Leeor and I, and all of the staff and faculty at the American Hebrew Academy, are proud to help fulfill Chico’s dream, carry on his legacy, and further his commitment to Jewish philanthropy.”
American Hebrew Academy
4334 Hobbs Rd.
Greensboro, NC 27410