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Stern Hebrew High School: A Balance of Modern and Orthodox

May 28, 2009 By:
Amy Purdy, JF Feature
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Baseball team members share camaraderie with coach Ari Bluestein (far right). From left are Zach Greenberg, Josh Patkin and Natan Koloski.

This is the fourth article in a Federation series on area day schools. Support for Jewish education is a core priority of the Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Past articles and photos are posted on www.jewishphilly.org on the community page.

Students at Stern Hebrew High School, the only Modern Orthodox high school in the Greater Philadelphia area, divide their day equally between rigorous college prep courses and intensive Judaic studies. Community service and co-curricular activities are woven into Stern's program of study. The curriculum challenges and educates students intellectually, spiritually and ethically in a vibrant and caring school environment. Rabbi Mordechai Wecker, head of school, notes that "Modern Orthodox students have one foot in the secular world and one foot in the halachic world of Jewish law and tradition; and the bridge connecting these realms is community service."

Stern students are taught the same secular and Judaic-studies curriculum -- in separate classes for male and female students. Secular courses include advanced-placement and honors science, history, calculus, psychology and English. The Jewish-studies curriculum is infused with Zionism, modern and biblical Hebrew, a commitment to community service and study of traditional Jewish text. Currently, 92 students attend the school in Northeast Philadelphia; in September 2010 Stern plans to move to the former Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy site in Merion Station.

For junior Tali Sved, Stern's small classes are an advantage because they "allow students to build close relationships not only with each other, but with teachers as well. The teachers are extremely understanding and always available for extra help."

Shoshana and Shawn Couzens of Yardley, whose son Jacob is in 10th grade, appreciate that he is getting "a top-notch education," and "a nice balance between academics and socialization."

Stern was founded in 2000, to address the need for a local Modern Orthodox high school, according to Jerry Stern, a member of the school's founding family.

The Harry Stern Family Foundation supports Stern through generous grants.

Jerry Stern, the current school board vice president and wife Marilyn have three children: daughter Atara, and sons Daniel, a 2006 Stern graduate, and David, a ninth-grader at the school.

The late Harry Stern, grantor of the Stern Foundation and the school's founding chairman, "envisioned the school as a way to strengthen the community," notes Jerry, explaining that "we hope that families will educate their children in the community, and that these students will ultimately make their home in the Philadelphia Jewish community."

Outstanding Preparation for College

In addition to Stern's 100 percent college acceptance rate, 75 percent of Stern graduates spend a year in Israel, studying Judaic subjects in either a yeshiva (men) or midrasha (women) before attending college.

"The college advising is exceptionally hands-on," says Debbi Frankel, who together with husband Marc have completed the college application process with their daughter, Rachel. After graduating this June, Rachel will study in Israel for a year before attending college in New York. The Frankels also have a daughter, Sara, in 10th grade at Stern.

Cutting-Edge Judaic Curriculum Challenges Students of Both Genders

Atara Eis, Stern's Judaic-studies instructor for female students, expresses her belief that high school is the perfect time to expose young women to challenging Judaic education that was traditionally offered only to young men.

"At this age, students are focused on gender issues, and it's phenomenal for them to learn how traditional Jewish texts and laws have grappled with the same issues they think about today."

Eis is a Yoetzet Halacha, or women's halachic consultant to nine synagogues.

She is one of only three women in the United States trained to advise Orthodox women in Jewish family purity laws. She was recently named "a young innovator who is reshaping Jewish life" in the "36 Under 36" section of the New York Jewish Week.

Eis believes that Modern Orthodoxy "doesn't reject the secular world, but shares its wisdom through the unique lens of Torah and halacha." And just as women in secular society have seen advances, says Eis, "so, too, women can advance our understanding of Judaism."

Young men are similarly challenged by Stern's Judaic-studies program.

According to junior Josh Twersky: "Our teachers and rabbis offer an approach that is not just about the 'whats,' but the 'whys.' They do not shy away from teaching the larger philosophical concepts that build the foundation for strong religious practice."

Emphasis on Community Service and Co-Curricular Activities

Hands-on community service, co-curricular activities and sports are integral to Stern's education. All students volunteer in the community once a week, during the school day. Stern holds monthly school trips to work for Habitat for Humanity and the Jewish Relief Agency. Students also volunteer after school hours.

Talia Sved, for example, volunteers with the Friendship Circle, a group that serves special-needs children and their families. In addition to fulfilling Stern's community-service requirement, Sved says that volunteer work gives her "the opportunity to forge a friendship with these incredible kids, and experience the satisfaction of making a meaningful difference in a child's life."

Co-curricular activities include weekly student-run publications and clubs; participation in national academic competitions; Israel advocacy; and after-school sports like soccer, tennis, basketball and baseball. This year, Yonatan Eckmann, Josh Halpern and Chason Danzig were chosen for the Orthodox Day School All-Tournament Basketball Team, run by Yeshiva University in New York City.

Looking to the Future

Scott Seligsohn, who is serving a two-year term as President of Stern, is optimistic that the school's move to Merion Station will result in growth. The Philadelphia-based Kohelet Foundation is generously underwriting the renovation of the now-empty Merion Station building for Stern.

Seligsohn says that the new facility offers "plentiful classrooms, spacious science labs and a full-size gymnasium. We hope that more students who have opted to go out of town for high school will seriously consider our program."

Seligsohn served on the board of directors, and his wife, Sharon, is chair of the Recruitment Committee.

The Seligsohn family has generously supported Stern since its founding. The Seligsohn's son, Akiva, is in 10th grade at Stern, while sons Jonathan and Ezra are Stern alumnus.

Nechama Horwitz, a member of Stern's first graduating class of 2004, recently made aliyah to Israel. In December, Horwitz graduated from Brandeis College as a Presidential Scholar, National Merit Scholar and member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society.

Of Stern's lasting influence on its students, she said: "Stern gave us the permission, even the obligation, to ask questions. Our teachers were confident that this searching -- coupled with an overall dedication to halachah and Torah -- would encourage us to develop stronger and more sophisticated Jewish identities." 

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