As spring weather brightened the hallways at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station this semester, students raced newly created robots, tinkered on a grand piano and practiced for spoken word competitions.
Last month, several dozen adults gathered in the school's beit midrash for a free evening seminar on medical ethics presented by a world-renowned Orthodox rabbi.
Meanwhile, a 14-year-old girl who has never been to day school pondered whether the Modern Orthodox setting might be right for her. She'll find out this coming fall as she joins an inaugural "Step Up" program designed to ease students into the Hebrew and Jewish studies curriculum that comprises a significant chunk of the nine-hour day at Kohelet.
While students take their last finals this week, the building will hardly be dormant for the summer as administrators continue working on these and other initiatives designed to position Kohelet as a regional center for Modern Orthodoxy.
In the two years since Kohelet relocated to the heart of Lower Merion's Orthodox community, "we're doing things inclusively that have never been done before," said head of school Rabbi Elchanan Jay Weinbach. "We want every family that values their child getting a Jewish education in our environment to have the opportunity to do so to the best of our ability, and if that means that we have to create new models of inclusion, then that is our obligation."
Of course, there's a fine balance between welcoming newcomers and disenfranchising traditionalists. But so far at least, the community seems receptive to the inclusive mission. More than 250 adults have frequented Kohelet's new community education seminars. According to Weinbach, at least half of them had no prior connection to the school. Administrators expect about 140 students in the fall, breaking the previous record of 116.
Given the harsh economy, day schools have no choice but to experiment with innovative programs in order to reach larger, more stable audiences, said Donna Woonteiler, marketing communications director for the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. According to data from her agency, 77 of 635 Jewish day schools in North America identify as Modern Orthodox.
Kohelet seems tiny compared to nearby public schools that house more than 1,000 students. But in the day school world, any enrollment growth is noteworthy as rising tuition and competition from other private schools makes it ever more challenging to attract new families. Tuition for Kohelet's 2012-13 school year costs $19,990, not counting enrollment, scholarship and capital fund fees.
In fact, Kohelet's growth has been practically exponential considering that it only started with 15 students back in 2000, when it was called Stern Hebrew High School after communal leader and industrialist Harry Stern. After three years in the basement of the Klein JCC in Northeast Philadelphia, the school acquired its own campus at a former Conservative synagogue in the Rhawnhurst neighborhood. By the end of the school's first decade, the student body had grown to nearly 100, too big for the space even with use of a garage and trailer.
The Kohelet Foundation, funded by philanthropist David Magerman, offered to relocate the school into its current home, a two-story 1909 mansion that previously housed the larger, pluralistic Akiba Hebrew Academy. That school had also outgrown its site, and moved to Bryn Mawr with the new name Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
The foundation spent more than $4 million to purchase the 41,000-square-foot building and invested another $4 million into renovations, including a new heating/cooling system, energy-efficient windows, insulation and a large beit midrash. Though some renovations were still in progress, students celebrated the opening of Kohelet Yeshiva High School on the Martha & Harry Stern Campus in the fall of 2010. Enrollment grew nearly 25 percent that first year in Lower Merion, though the numbers dipped from 116 to 108 students this academic year. Prayers were held in the gym until this fall, when workers completed construction on the 4,000-square-foot beit midrash addition that serves as a synagogue and multi-purpose room.
Along with the new building, Kohelet welcomed Weinbach, a Long Island native who'd come from overseeing a day school more than twice as large in Los Angeles.
With input from the students, this fall Weinbach hired two music teachers from the Curtis Institute of Music and rearranged the schedule to include an expanded two-hour "intensives" period once a week. During that time, students choose from a variety of activities such as instrumental ensemble, art, intramural sports, robotics, or slam poetry. Many of the offerings, like acrobatics or cooking, weren't even possible in the old building because they simply didn't have the space, Weinbach said. He also added a daily "brain blast," to give students a break from the long day of studies that runs from 8 a.m. to nearly 5 p.m. Every afternoon, the entire student body spends 20 minutes doing some sort of physical activity, whether playing ping pong, dancing along with a Zumba DVD, exercising on brand new spin bikes, scaling a climbing wall or stretching with a yoga teacher.
Though small schools often struggle to fund these kinds of specialty programs, Weinbach said board members have agreed to "support a budget that lets us do far more than our enrollment would normally justify" to make sure Kohelet can compete with the offerings at other, larger schools.
Along that vein, administrators secured a $30,000 grant from the New York-based Tikvah Fund to create a Tikvah AP English curriculum for 11th graders who want to go further than the traditional AP course. The students compare themes and philosophies from Judaic and classic English texts, a profound example of "Torah u-Madda," or the idea of combining Jewish learning with "all the best of Western civilization and the world at large," said Sharon Baker, director of admissions and marketing.
For students on the other end of the learning spectrum, administrators used $35,000 from the Kohelet Foundation to hire a teacher and purchase computers for a remedial track to accommodate those who tested significantly below grade level. Up until that started last fall, the school simply didn't admit students who didn't pass the entrance exams.
The four freshmen who jump-started the program spent most of their secular studies in a separate classroom, where they worked on a computer at their own pace. They joined the other students for lunch, breaks, Bible classes, art, music, intensives and other activities.
Daniel Salemi said he would have preferred to be in regular classes because "I tend to learn better in a social environment," but he was grateful for the chance to be able to go to Kohelet. Though he graduated with honors from Politz Hebrew Academy, he struggled with reading fluency and scored particularly low on math tests, said his mom, Shelli. He'd been accepted to a yeshiva in Cherry Hill, N.J., but Salemi said he preferred to go to Kohelet, where he'd get a stronger base in biology to prepare him for a possible career in the medical field.
"For a student who's not going to make it in public school anyway, this is just the perfect option," Shelli Salemi raved. "All it is is a different learning style and a different pace. It's like having your child home-schooled, but with an actual teacher in an actual class."
Aside from getting social skills from being around other students, Salemi said her son gets to take advantage of all the faculty and programs Kohelet has to offer. "He's totally included in everything," she said, noting that he plays in a student band and on the school baseball team.
After a year in the program, Salemi said he now tests at or above grade level, which means he'll return to the mainstream classroom for general studies in the fall. While Salemi said he's looking forward to that, he'll miss not having to take as many notes because he could always pull them up on his screen, or the ability to work ahead at any time.
This spring, for example, he finished a biology course, so his teacher gave him chemistry lessons that he might continue over the summer.
"It's really up to the student," Salemi said. "If you don't want to work as much you're not going to get as far and if you want to excel, you will."
Along with revamping student curriculum, Weinbach used another $15,000 of Kohelet Foundation funding approved by a team of leaders from the Jewish Day School Collaborative of Greater Philadelphia to hire local law professor Chaim Saiman to coordinate multiple levels of free adult education programs.
"The Jewish world needs Modern Orthodoxy that is true to itself and engaged with the Jewish and world communities around it," Weinbach said. "We need to connect to our entire Jewish community as we all share a common Jewish destiny."
In addition to basic and advanced level text study groups on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings, Saiman brought in guest speakers on a variety of topics.
"This is groundbreaking for Philadelphia," said Saiman's wife, Shari, 35. "We get world class speakers from all walks of life."
Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky will take over the programming in the fall as the new, full-time head of the beit midrash. Aside from facilitating adult education, Sinensky will coordinate a team of part-time Jewish studies teachers and lead religious discussions for the students. His wife, Tova Warburg Sinensky, will also join the staff.
Bella Krieger, 30, of Bala Cynwyd, lauded Kohelet for coming up with an innovative, sophisticated way for the local community to learn about their Jewish heritage. "I haven't had things like this in my adult life," said Krieger.
"It's been able to strengthen the community, to get people through the doors," added Yonina Jacobson, 41, of Bala Cynwyd, who has two daughters at the school and another who just graduated.
Most recently, the school hosted a four-part series on the relationship between Jewish law and medical ethics. One of the presentations, featuring New York-based Orthodox rabbi and biology professor Moshe David Tendler, drew microbiologist David Abraham and his wife.
"It was a rare opportunity to hear it from somebody who knows it from both ends," Abraham said, referencing Tendler's role as both a rabbi and a scientist.
Normally, Henchy Abraham said, they don't have any reason to come to Kohelet. They sent their four sons to yeshivas. But, she said, the topic caught their attention because they both have elderly mothers who could be facing palliative care fairly soon.
"Here it's a religious outlook as well as a secular," she said. "It feels more trustworthy than just being out in the world and hearing those philosophies."
Likewise, the topic attracted Amy Davis, 38, of Bryn Mawr, a palliative care doctor who describes herself as "conservadox." Davis said she's participated in many medical ethics discussions, but this one intrigued her because Tendler "could actually give us the answers."
"It was geared toward asking more questions than you knew how to ask when you came in the room, which I can't find so easy as an adult," Davis said. "Whatever they're going to do next, I'm going to come."
Kohelet's next venture begins in the fall: the "Step Up" track for students new to day school. Instead of joining the rest of their age group in classes on the books of the Prophets, the Talmud and the Torah, "Step Up" students will spend that time learning Hebrew, with a little complementary text study. They'll rejoin regular Judaic studies courses the following year.
Administrators have discussed the concept for a while, Baker said, but it wasn't until this year that there seemed to be enough interest and support to make it a reality. So far, three students have enrolled, and a few others expressed interest, according to administrators.
Among them is Claire Eckstein Indik. She became a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Wynnewood, and has been studying with a private tutor since then — but the rest of her education has been completely secular at a series of Friends schools, said her mom, Sharon Eckstein.
Eckstein, a product of day school herself, said she would've sent Claire and her other 11-year-old daughter to day school earlier but the options close to their home in Ardmore just didn't seem like a good fit. Though Eckstein doesn't define her family as Modern Orthodox, she said Kohelet appealed to them because it was co-ed and the "Step Up" program presented an inviting, manageable way to ease into a Jewish setting.
"They're not trying to be thrust into something that would be difficult to get up to speed with everybody else," said Eckstein, a supervisor at a University of Pennsylvania legal clinic.
The fact that other students will be catching up on Hebrew was also a selling point, Eckstein said, because "it's nice not to be the only one."
Even though Claire will start out behind most of her classmates, Eckstein said she thought her daughter would find that being in a Jewish environment makes certain aspects of life easier.
"You have a community of people who are on your same cycle," Eckstein explained. "You're not choosing should I do this afterschool activity or maybe I can't do it because they always have the track meet on Saturday.
"You don't have to always make those choices," she continued, because "that's part of the life of the school."