After Gratz Jewish Community High School announced earlier this year that it would be closing its satellite campuses, with only its main location in Melrose Park’s Mandell campus to remain in operation, many in the community were left scrambling to come up with new programs to provide continuing Jewish education for students in eighth, ninth and 10th grades.
One such place was Ohev Shalom in Bucks County, which began its new program, Tichon at Ohev, this fall, thanks in part to a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“Our goal is to create a program that’ll be meaningful and compelling for kids that are post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah at our synagogue,” said Rabbi Eliott Perlstein.
For now, the program is only open to students whose families are members of the synagogue. If the need presents itself in the future, Perlstein added, the synagogue would open up enrollment.
“We had to think fast back in the spring: How much can we bite off at one time?” Perlstein said. “We were concerned — if we try to do everything, we’ll wind up doing nothing well — so we decided it’s [better to] build it stage by stage.”
The program officially kicked off in September and has 31 students currently enrolled. They are able to take two courses every Wednesday night and are treated to a dinner and prayer service as well, as a means of creating a stronger bond and kinship among the students.
Ohev’s Hebrew School and Tichon principal Barbara Glickman said the structure of the program really came down to “the kids’ Jewish identities.”
After holding focus groups with parents as well as students themselves to get a clearer picture of what the students want from a program like this, one theme consistently emerged: community.
Glickman said they took that theme and centered the curriculum around it. One course, taught by a rabbinical intern from Temple University’s Hillel, will focus on community, from that of Ohev Shalom to Bucks County all the way to the global Jewish mishpochah.
The other course, which will be taught by Cantor Annelise Ocanto-Romo, will focus on the connections between the texts the students read and Jewish values they learn from them.
Tenth-graders also have the opportunity to take confirmation lessons with Perlstein for an hour before the regularly scheduled courses begin.
A key element of the Tichon program is that it encourages experiential learning, Glickman said.
“We’re trying to find a different model that would be more engaging of the kids, and the kids would have more ownership of the program,” Perlstein said, adding that they looked into other programs and models as they were developing Tichon. “There was some real research that went into this before we developed what we wanted to have as our own type of high school.”
To make it different and engaging for students, there is also a focus on special programs. For example, the Anti-Defamation League will come speak with the students about anti-Semitism later on during the year.
The biggest challenge in setting up the program was simply time. Gratz only made the decision to centralize in late February, which didn’t allow much of a window to put together a program ready to start in the fall.
“At first, there was a sense of panic, but that quickly developed into a sense of real opportunity for us to take all that we had seen that works and doesn’t work to develop our own new program,” Perlstein recalled.
To go along with the importance of experiential learning, Perlstein and Glickman are both pushing for the students to form real relationships with their teachers.
Perlstein feels that it is too often the case that teachers stand in front of the room, teach their lessons — and that’s that. The students are not as engaged as they could be and there are no connections with the teachers — something he noticed at Gratz.
“Unfortunately, I saw over the last two years that the students did not develop a relationship with their teachers in the Gratz program to the point that when I would ask the kids who their next class was with, and they often didn’t know the name of the teacher,” he said.
“We want the kids to feel they have and are developing a personal relationship with the faculty so they’re not only dealing with the teacher, but someone who becomes a significant person within their lives.”
The classes themselves are 40 minutes long, and feature plenty of opportunities to engage the students in ways they are comfortable with and may not be able to do in their everyday classes at school. Cell phones, for instance, are not only not prohibited, but actually encouraged.
Students can tweet about what they’re learning in class that day and share their experiences with each other on social media.
“We’re bringing in a lot of technology and small group work and a lot of inquiry-based learning,” Glickman said. “It’s what the kids are comfortable using. Rather than resist, we’re embracing.”
Improvised dialogue in class may be a more effective route, she added. “The teachers will start and see where the conversation leads, but direct the conversation with some guidance.”
Conversation will be a pivotal piece in Perlstein’s confirmation class as well.
“There’s not frontal teaching by me,” he said, “but I bring in topics of concern. It might be the environment or gun control, it might be an issue of how we view homosexuality, and we look at these issues through a Jewish lens.
“My primary goal is for the kids to be thinking about these issues on their own — there’s no party line of how they need to think.”
Feedback will also be key as the program grows during its first year, and Glickman stated that they will continue to seek feedback from parents as well as students to see how they are finding the program and what’s working.
“Kids don’t generally go home and rave about any educational program,” Perlstein added, chuckling, “but we will get a sense from the parents how the kids are finding the program.”
Parents are also encouraged to talk about what students learned that day after classes are over, which he readily acknowledges is not an easy feat.
Instead, Glickman encourages “car talk” — but not the NPR program. She said there will be easels set up with keywords related to what the students learned that night, which will encourage open-ended questions and discussions on the way home.
Their goal is to create a sense of community for the students within the pre-existing community of Ohev, of which they are already a part.
The indicator that it is working will be attendance, Perlstein said. These kids have other programs and after-school activities they do every day on top of going to school every day, and attendance at Tichon will show that they enjoy what they are learning and who they are spending time with, he said.
“I am very respectful of them and proud of them,” Perlstein said of the Tichon students, “because I know they get up very early. It’s not something we ought to take lightly. We want to be as accommodating as we can be, which I think is the flavor of the synagogue in general.”