They're all full-time Jewish communal professionals working toward doctorates in Jewish education at Gratz College in Melrose Park. The program, now entering its fourth year, has 15 students, who combine classroom work with online study.
One student from the neighborhood is Cheltenham resident Mimi Polin Ferraro, director of education at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am. Ferraro said that she had been waiting nearly 20 years -- since completing her master's in Jewish education at Gratz in 1990 -- for the college to offer an Ed.D.
With a demanding job and four children, she couldn't possibly go to school full-time or relocate to another city for study.
So when the country's oldest, nondenominational institution of higher Jewish education -- it opened its doors in 1895 -- announced that it would award doctoral degrees, Ferraro was one of the first to apply.
"I was waiting for it to be in my backyard," explained the 48-year-old. "The program is flexible and understanding to where we are in our personal lives. We have very full plates."
For his part, Alex Weinberg, director of congregational learning at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, a Conservative shul in Baltimore, is doing as much of his course work as he can over the computer. (He had also relied on the Web to earn his master's in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.)
Weinberg, 36, said that he selected Gratz because it wasn't affiliated with any movement and he wanted to study under Saul Wachs, who directs the program, and is considered by many to be an influential figure in Jewish education.
Lots of Challenges to Face
As Polin Ferraro and Weinberg prepare to embark on another year of study, the institution that they're depending on continues to confront fiscal challenges, brought on, at least in part, by the sour economy.
At the same time, Gratz's professional and lay leaders are working to clarify the school's educational mission by hammering out a new strategic plan amid some speculation about whether the college may have outlived its usefulness.
Wachs expressed the goals of the relatively new doctoral program: It's structured to help experienced educators become experts, even innovators, at a time when the Jewish world is counting on such leaders to help ensure continuity.
"I don't have to tell you that the expectations from Jewish education are greater right now than they have ever been, given what is happening in the community," he said. "What we need is visionaries, who will think out of the box and envision new models of Jewish education."
Students, who are expected to take two classes per semester, can focus on administration, teaching, supervision and curriculum development; sub-specializations include early childhood, special needs and informal education. Students are also expected to articulate their core beliefs about the purpose of Jewish education, envision ideal learning institutions, and grapple with theories of education from thinkers ranging from Plato to Maimonides, explained Wachs.
He and other administrators acknowledge that the program will never grow especially large, but they hope that offering an Ed.D. will boost the institution's gravitas in the academic world.
"If you ask a lot of people in Philadelphia about Gratz College, they will say, 'They have a high school there.' They don't know very much more," Wachs said, referring to the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, which serves about 800 students at more than half-a-dozen sites throughout the region.
"Once you begin to have doctoral students, I think it changes notions about what Gratz is capable of doing and what it aspires to do. It makes Gratz a center of excellence and a center of potential," he added.
In its earlier years, Gratz was known primarily for training Hebrew-school teachers. In the 1960s, it began awarding a bachelor's degree and, about a decade later, started the first of its master's programs. More recently, it has expanded into adult education and public programming.
The doctoral program's fourth year could be a pivotal one. It began operating with provisional approval from the state, but come December, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is expected to complete its three-year review and decide whether to bestow full-fledged accreditation. Wachs expects this to happen.
That process is under way as Gratz searches to replace Jonathan Rosenbaum, who stepped down as president in 2009.
Like many institutions, the college was hurt by the economic collapse of 2008. In 2009, it was forced to lay off two nonfaculty staff members, put the hiring of new faculty on hold and mandate a salary cut for staff making more than $50,000 annually.
Last year, administrators also made the difficult decision to suspend the cantorial program; it had been three years since a new student had enrolled. And Federation recently announced that it was cutting the $25,000 it had allocated for a signature program, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. Gratz officials assured that the program is going forward no matter what.
An Immediate Impact
These challenges aside, officials point to ample evidence that Gratz is plowing ahead.
According to Bruce Holberg, acting chairman of the board, the school is a leader in online Jewish education: Roughly two-thirds of the 275 students enrolled in Jewish-studies degree programs, including master's programs in Jewish education and Jewish studies, complete their coursework online.
And in May, the school, which had long relied on Federation funding but has seen its allocations shrink over the last several years, held its first-ever gala, which netted more than $100,000.
Administrators are also touting the doctoral program.
"We expect that it will continue to grow and will continue to sustain itself," said Holberg.
But Steven M. Brown, a former dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS who is considered an innovator in the field, said that the Gratz doctoral program hasn't yet proven itself or distinguished itself from existing programs. (He noted that the various seminaries take students from different movements.)
Brown -- who is listed on the program's advisory board, and is currently the head of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy -- also questioned whether the school has a large-enough faculty and sufficient resources to compete with larger institutions.
"Gratz is just kind of catching up to where a lot of other people have been," he said, adding that "it is meaningful for people who live and work in Philadelphia. Having this here makes it doable for them."
But several students said that they felt they were receiving top-notch exposure to a wide array of research and dilemmas in Jewish education.
Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman, who directs Chabad at the University of Delaware, said Gratz has selected high-quality students from diverse backgrounds who can have an immediate impact on the ground: "Look at the amount of students that these individuals touch on a constant basis. You are talking about individuals who connect with thousands of Jewish students."
For her part, Ferraro said: "We don't realize what a gem we have here. Gratz is holding on for dear life, and it kind of saddens me that we take it for granted."