The Kohelet Yeshiva High School principal, who over three years introduced innovative programs and worked to make the Modern Orthodox institution more open to non-Orthodox Jews, is leaving the school effective immediately, the school announced in a letter to parents this week.
Rabbi Elchanan Jay Weinbach, “for personal reasons, will no longer serve as head of school,” the letter states. Weinbach will move on to work with Project Kodachrome, a start-up that develops a mix of online and classroom curriculum and is funded by the Seligsohn family, which also donates to the Orthodox school, the letter continues.
Weinbach was the first principal of Kohelet, a co-educational institution that opened in the fall of 2010 in Merion Station. With the financial backing of philanthropist David Magerman, who created the Kohelet Foundation, the school relocated from its roots in the Northeast where it was called Stern Hebrew High School. Since then, the school has increased its enrollment from 95 to 166 students, according to school officials.
Under Weinbach, the school has opened to Jewish students from outside the Orthodox community, introduced an adult learning program that attracted people from different sectors of Judaism, increased its secular elective curriculum offerings — for example, hiring new music teachers and instituting a daily fitness program — and enabled students to participate in creative programs such as poetry slam competitions with Philadelphia public schools.
Tensions sometimes arose in the Modern Orthodox community as a result of these changes. But Weinbach had emphasized the importance of appealing to a broader audience.
“We’re doing things inclusively that have never been done before,” Weinbach said in an interview with the Exponent in 2012, referring to the decision to enroll non-Orthodox students. “We want every family that values their child getting a Jewish education in our environment to have the opportunity to do so to the best of our ability, and if that means that we have to create new models of inclusion, then that is our obligation.”
Weinbach, a Long Island native who had been head of a day school in Los Angeles before coming to Kohelet, acknowledged that there was not unanimous support for allowing students to participate in the poetry slams, where the Kohelet teens spoke about issues such as the pressures boys face to be macho and judgments made on the basis of sexual orientation while listening to students from other schools use graphic language to depict life in urban, low-income communities.
Of the Kohelet students’ participation, Weinbach said earlier this year. “We read literature that uses all sorts of terminology that students wouldn’t use, but within the context, it is understood. Same thing here. The context is clear enough that we don’t see it as being a detrimental influence.”
In the Nov. 20 letter to Kohelet families announcing Weinbach’s departure, which apparently took students and parents by surprise, board president Jerome Marcus wrote, “I am personally grateful to him for the great work he has done for our school, for the growth he has helped it experience both in size and in its fulfillment of its mission. I count him as a friend, and I am sorry to see him go.”
Weinbach and school officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Weinbach’s exit is the second such change this year at an Orthodox school in Philadelphia. To the surprise of many at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, school principal Rabbi Shmuel Jablon announced in June that he would be leaving at the end of this academic year to explore other job opportunities in North America and Israel.
The news of Weinbach’s departure also comes one week after plans to establish a new Orthodox high school for boys on the Main Line were announced.