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Confirming Their Future

May 28, 2009
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Brett Bernstein at his Bar Mitzvah in 2007
What makes Maya Rosenberg different from many other 13-year-olds is that she likes to learn -- about Judaism.

"Torah stories. Holidays. Jewish customs." Rosenberg lists things that she's looking forward to exploring when she enrolls in her first year of Hebrew high school this fall at Har Zion Temple, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley.

She became a Bat Mitzvah on April 18, and decided, with parental encouragement, to continue her studies. "I like being Jewish, and talking about Judaism. And I like being in a class with my Jewish friends because we are all -- Jewish. That sounds strange, but sometimes, you feel like you are different from everyone else."

Getting teenagers to enroll in Hebrew school post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah is not easy, as evidenced by the number of teens being confirmed at many area synagogues this month.

Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Thursday, May 28, is when many congregational Hebrew high schools hold confirmation celebrations.

In a December study titled "Retention of Students Following B'nei Mitzvah in Reform Congregational Schools," the Union for Reform Judaism reported that only 20 percent of congregations had retention rates of 80 percent or higher.

The challenge of attracting teens to confirmation programs is not specific to Reform Judaism; it is specific to young teens.

"Scheduling conflicts are the biggest obstacle to Hebrew high school enrollment," says Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Manayunk.

This year, Mishkan Shalom has its first confirmation class, with nine teens.

"The challenge is not Reconstructionist, Reform or any denomination," states Holtzman. "It's a systemic problem."

So congregations are grappling with ways to bring in Hebrew high-schoolers. Some are adopting unusual programming, new teaching methods and schedules to fit the lives of busy teens.

Beth Sholom Congregation, a Conservative congregation in Elkins Park, rolled out a whole new high school program for the 2008-09 academic year.

"It's a mix between experiential and formal education," explains Rabbi Andrea Merow. "I call it a 'concierge curriculum.' "

It was developed in conjunction with a team from Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools, an initiative of the Auerbach Center for Jewish Education.

On Sundays, Beth Sholom's high school students learn Hebrew and discuss hot topics in small group discussions, moderated by teachers.

The other innovation, on Wednesdays, is called "Choose Your Own Jewish Adventure." Teens select from various programs, each with its own requirements. Options include Torah reading, minyan, Jewish book club, social action or an independent study.

Brett Bernstein is a 14-year-old finishing eighth grade at Beth Sholom. He's working with two friends on "a mosaic consisting of glass and paintings of what we believe Judaism is."

Merow says that she is seeing results for the new approach: "I don't hear the teens complaining about coming to Hebrew school."

Neither does Rabbi Gregory Marx of Reform Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. Each B'nei Mitzvah class averages 100 kids; Marx estimates that at least 50 continue on.

"I would not be pleased to get 50 percent on a test," the rabbi says, "but I think we do a good job attracting teens."

One secret is scheduling; the high school program, known as Beth Or Academy, meets Mondays for two hours. However, some can't make it that night -- or any weeknight.

So Marx says that they hold small high school classes on Sunday mornings: "We have to work with their schedules."

Programming includes core classes, and tracks like social action and intergenerational study.

Available to the eighth- and ninth-graders, the intergenerational class takes place at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Horsham, where students and seniors tackle various topics.

"It's such a popular program that students' parents started to attend," says Marx. "We usually have a full house."

High-schoolers can also take electives ranging from text study to Torah yoga to Jewish cooking.

But that wouldn't fly at Har Zion, according to Neil Einhorn.

"The No. 1 thing they say is: 'Don't waste my time! Teach me.' Our students have 50-pound book bags and so many other things to do. They don't want to listen to music and play games when they come here," he says.

For 25 years, Einhorn and Steve Goldberg have been co-principals of Har Zion's Hebrew high school, a program that requires attendance two days a week. Teens take Torah study, Jewish literature, social action and electives. The retention rate from its B'nei Mitzvah class this past year was 57 percent.

But for Einhorn, the primary mission is focusing on the students: "We want to keep them learning and loving Judaism. We are working to keep these kids in Hebrew high school for one reason -- they are the next generation of Jews." 

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