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Finding a Formula to Keep Teens Learning

August 21, 2013 By:
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Students in Gratz College’s Hebrew high program celebrate Israel Independence Day.

After Ben Stern became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Dresher, his parents gave him little choice: He’d be continuing his Jewish education at the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College.

Stern wasn’t happy about it, at least at first. But now, two years later, the sophomore at Upper Dublin High School said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m pretty sure as long as I am in high school, I will continue,” said the 14-year-old Stern, who added that going to class once a week doesn’t wreak too much havoc with his schedule as a two-sport athlete.

Stern said he appreciates being able to choose his classes and stressed that they touch on subjects that he sees as relevant to his life.

“They are not your basic Hebrew school classes,” he said. “It is more classes that help you with your Jewish identity, Jewish values, Israel and the problems it faces.”

The issue, say educators at Gratz, isn’t getting students to stay with the program once they’ve started. The challenge is getting them through the door in the first place.

Keeping teenagers engaged in Jewish learning post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah during critical identity-building years has long been a difficult task for educators, synagogues and the community at large.

Now, with synagogues and Gratz — the largest supplementary school for teens in the region — facing increasing enrollment challenges, efforts are under way to combine forces to get the best schools for the buck.

To that end, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has set aside $50,000 to find ways to foster cooperation between Gratz and local synagogues, on the premise that each could benefit from the strengths of the other.

“We feel that we are uniquely positioned to create a new model in partnership with synagogues,” said Joy Goldstein, president of Gratz College. “We live in a new world. We consider ourselves fleet of foot in developing new programs.”

But finding the students and working out a model that works for all parties won’t be so easy, according to those involved.

Gratz’s enrollment has dipped between 35 and 40 percent over the last three years, dropping from a student body of more than 600 to around 350 today.

At the same time, synagogues have been working to bolster their own high school programs — often by joining forces with other congregations — in an effort to hold onto families once their children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah and keep their teens connected to the congregation and its clergy.

Despite the revitalization of some of the synagogue programs, there’s a sense that many of these institutions could benefit from some of Gratz’s expertise and educational resources.

For example, Gratz says its instructors could teach an array of courses — including classes for college credit —and run other programs for finite periods at synagogues.

“After speaking with a number of synagogue programs, we encouraged the Gratz Jewish Community High School to develop some more flexible ways of serving synagogue programs,” said Brian Mono, director of the Federation’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

In recent years, the Gratz high school and synagogue programs have been seen as competing for a decreasing pool of students.

The $50,000 grant, part of Federation’s annual, unrestricted allocations, is the result of a task force formed earlier in the year by Federation’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning, which examined the decline in enrollment at Gratz, according to Mono.

The Gratz high school was awarded $348,000 for the 2013-2014 fiscal year by Federation, a slight dip from last year. Those dollars also came through Federation’s annual unrestricted allocations.

Still, with Federation funding the high school to the tune of nearly $1,000 per student, Federation lay leaders and professionals have suggested that the program will have to evolve — and serve a broader segment of the teen population —if that kind of funding is to continue.

The partnership initiative is still in the early stages. Federation officials said they are planning to send a letter to synagogues introducing the program and explaining how it might work.

Gratz’s high school program — with its diverse offerings of electives, teacher training certificates and social service programs — has been a bright spot in recent years for the Jewish studies college that was founded in 1895 and has been located on the Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park since the mid-1980s.

In the past 10 years, a number of Hebrew colleges, challenged by the proliferation of Jewish studies programs at mainstream universities and colleges throughout the country, have either closed or merged with larger academic intuitions.

While it has tried to adapt to the challenges, Gratz is also strategizing about its future, according to school officials.

Gratz’s community high school component has existed in its current form since the late 1980s. Classes are offered at the Melrose Park building and at eight other locations, most of which are synagogues throughout the region.

Students at Gratz’s branches enroll through Gratz, and not through the synagogues — so a family doesn’t have to belong to a synagogue to participate in the program.

The drop in enrollment over the past several years is attributed to many factors, according to the school’s leaders. One is population figures. According to the 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” the number of Jewish households with children under the age of 18 fell by 16 percent from 1997.

In addition, Jewish teens have been increasingly likely to skip out on Jewish education after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

At the same time, Conservative synagogues, which have traditionally been the largest feeders for the Gratz program, have, on the whole, experienced a significant decline in membership, noted Goldstein. With reduced numbers, they are also trying to hold on to their own.

In an effort to retain more members and attract teens, some congregations have combined their educational programs to bring more students into one setting.

For example, the combined Hebrew high school run by Adath Israel and Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El on the Main Line has 80 students, while Gratz’s Main Line branch currently has about 50 students.

Ruth Schapira, Gratz’s director, said Gratz could offer synagogues a variety of curricula, including its introduction to Jewish life on campus and its myriad elective classes such as Jewish plays and playwriting. Gratz also runs a service-learning program that could be implemented at synagogue schools, she said.

“I think the most important thing is sitting around a table and talking about the goals that the synagogue has for their teens,” said Schapira. “When we try to fit something into a fixed paradigm, it might not serve the goals of either institution.”

An initiative being implemented at Dresher’s Temple Sinai could prove a test case for such a partnership. The Conservative synagogue is the site of one of Gratz’s branch locations. But this year, Gratz faculty will also be teaching seventh graders, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, on one of the two days a week that they report to religious school.

This experiment was not conceived under the Federation cooperative program, but officials at Gratz and Temple Sinai point to it as an example of how future partnerships could work. The hope, they say, is that if seventh graders are exposed to the depth of learning typical at a Gratz program, they will be more eager to sign up for more.

Carol Meltzer, whose twins Lauren and Josh are entering the seventh grade,   sees the positives with this arrangement.

“My understanding is that the children will take electives, which I think increases their interest and enthusiasm. It creates a dynamic feeling of being involved in a program that is different and more advanced,” said Meltzer, who also sends her kids to Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

Several educators and administrators at synagogues said they were open to partnering with Gratz, but they are not sure how it would work.

Sherrie Klein, co-director of the Adath Israel, Beth Hillel-Beth El collaborative high school, said she “would love to work with Gratz. I think there are pluses that we would gain and think there are pluses that Gratz would gain from a partnership.”

Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park said that for decades, her synagogue offered classes up until the 10th grade and the shul has long encouraged its graduates to go on to Gratz, which is just down the road, for 11th and 12th grade.

The only thing that has changed, Merow said, is that two years ago, Beth Sholom and Adath Jeshurun joined their high school programs, increasing the size of the student body. But the program still ends after 10th grade.

She said she’s heard about the funding for collaborative projects with Gratz. But in terms of partnerships, she said, until she learns more specifics, “there is nothing to talk about yet.”

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