The teacher switched off the Israeli rock and hip-hop tunes blaring from his laptop and, although only a handful of students were at their desks, dove right into the day's topic: What does it mean to be a Jewish hero?
In the past few months, they have discussed a range of figures — from baseball legend Sandy Koufax to funny man Adam Sandler's movie character "Zohan" — in order to examine what defines heroics in Jewish terms.
It was well after 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and slowly, more eighth- and ninth-graders straggled into Adath Israel, the Conservative congregation in Merion Station. They didn't receive so much as a "you're late" rebuke from their instructor, Temple University junior Matan Silberstein.
"The most important part is having a positive, Jewish experience, and that they have Jewish friends, in a Jewish atmosphere. And they learn a little bit, too," said Silberstein, explaining why the atmosphere is so decidedly laid-back.
By the end of the class, 22 post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah students had crammed into the classroom. Last year, Silberstein said that he would have been lucky to have 10 seats filled.
No, Adath Israel hasn't gotten a rush of new members: As the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" and other surveys have made clear, Conservative congregations, in particular, have been struggling to hold on to those they already have.
Instead, Adath Israel and nearby Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood have teamed up to create the Collaborative Hebrew High School, which has a total of 78 students between the eighth and 11th grades.
It's a relatively new model in this age of collaboration and economies of scale that is inspiring similar discussions at other synagogues over how best to approach pre- and post-confirmation congregants.
Like the majority of congregations these days, these two have been grappling with the seemingly age-old question of how to get teenagers through the door once they've passed the age of 13.
Despite the joint effort, confirmation, which synagogues typically do around Shavuot, is one area of high school education where the two shuls are maintaining some independence.
For example, the combined 10th-grade class splits up for an hour each week to meet with their respective synagogue rabbis in order to prepare for confirmation.
"It was really important to each congregation that the kids still feel connected to their own congregation, even though they are coming together in this learning environment," noted Toby Mallin, Beth Hillel's vice president for education.
And this year, for the first time, Beth Hillel will begin confirming students in 10th grade, instead of 11th, to conform to the practice at Adath Israel.
"It will be interesting to see how many of our 10th-graders plan to continue next year, because, of course, we don't want them to think that confirmation is the end," said Mallin, who also sits on the joint board overseeing the high school.
Joining Forces Toward Goal
Though these may be the only congregations in the region that have combined religious schools without merging synagogues, they are certainly not the first to try a more efficient approach.
Rather than staff their own individual high school educational programs, a number of area shuls rely, at least in part, on the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College.
The program has existed for roughly 50 years, and currently has more than 700 students from 50 congregations studying at 10 locations throughout the Delaware Valley, a number of which are based in synagogues.
This year, Gratz decided to make its own merger between the 11th- and 12th-grade classes of two synagogues that are geographically close to one another — Temple Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Dresher, and Beth Or, a Reform congregation in Maple Glen. The classes now meet half the year at one synagogue and then the other.
Gratz, a high school that labels itself as pluralistic, felt that it didn't make sense to separate Reform teens from their peers, explained Ari Goldberg, director of the school.
According to several sources, a number of synagogues that run their own supplementary high school programs are keeping an eye on the Adath Israel/ Beth Hillel experiment.
Several questions have been raised by this test scenario: How much can synagogues cooperate without losing a part of their own identity? Should they combine youth groups and other functions as well?
Sherrie Klein, education director at Adath Israel and co-principal of the high school — sharing the title with Beth Hillel's education director, Rabbi Leah Richman — said that finances weren't their prime motivating factor (although they did go from employing three teachers apiece to five total.)
Instead, she continued, it was a growing realization that it's the social experience that gets kids through the door. Simply put: the more, the merrier.
Beth Schonberger, an Adath Israel parent who helped push for the change, said that her eighth-grade daughter "is only going to be involved because of the socialization. The idea of bringing in other kids from the community, so that it broadens her base of friends, is perfect."
In addition to having more peers, participants now have more choices and can pick from several different subjects each semester, such as Silberstein's "Heroes" class; other teachers focus on pop culture, ethics and the Bible. The school is overseen by a board comprised of members from both synagogues.
On a recent Sunday, the reviews from those seated at the classroom desks were generally positive.
During a class break, with the music back on, Lower Merion High School ninth-grader Ricky Figelman spoke enthusiastically about the change. He said that Hebrew school is "a lot more interactive, because last year we had really few people."
Suzy Berstein, a ninth-grader at Friends Central High School and a longtime student at Adath Israel, said that she literally "rolled her eyes" when she heard about plans to merge the schools, but now has a different attitude.
"I used to hate coming to Hebrew school," she admitted. "But now it's gotten much more relaxed, and I have the same group of friends."
Tenth-grader Eliana Yankelev arrived a little late to a recent Yom Ha'atzmaut program for the upper grades because of track practice at Lower Merion High School. The Beth Hillel/Beth El member said that the decision to combine the two synagogue schools has actually reinvigorated the program.
"I know everyone has that fight with their parents and says, 'This is stupid. Why am I here?' " said Yankelev, whose confirmation essay is about teen apathy toward Jewish identity.
She said that she chooses to keep going because she's "very proud of being Jewish, and continuing my Jewish education is very important to me. I know a ton of kids who belong to this synagogue and just don't go to Hebrew school."