by Shari Weinberger
Supplemental community and congregational Hebrew high schools are key to building a vibrant Jewish future. These schools help solidify strong Jewish identity in teens, so that when they leave their communities for college and realms beyond, they have a firm understanding of who they are and where they come from. In these schools, students work with engaged teachers from a diverse cross section of their Jewish community. They hang out with other Jewish teens with multiple points of view. They build self-esteem, learn to share ideas, to listen, to synthesize information, work collaboratively and become leaders. Supplemental Hebrew high schools help foster the values and behaviors we hope for in adult members of our Jewish communities.
The numbers of teens in supplemental Jewish schools is at a dangerously low level. In the school year 2006-2007, the total population was 8130 students in 48 NAACCHHS schools. By the 2012-2013 school year, that number had fallen to 3141 students in 33 schools. This year, 2013-2014, isn’t looking much better.
But instead of synagogues, youth movements, Federations and other Jewish communal institutions coming together, we splinter and compete for teens: each institution with its own teen program. A better solution would be to use community Hebrew high schools as the launching pad to propelling Jewish teens into a meaningful Jewish adulthood.
Community Hebrew high schools provide places not only for teens to meet, but also for community rabbis to teach together, for diverse community members to participate on boards and for a broad selection of parents to interact. Yet in order for community Hebrew high schools to survive into the future, they need access to potential families way before bar mitzvah age, and many congregations are not eager to grant this access. All Hebrew high directors are in unanimous agreement that recruitment needs to begin well before 7th grade. The whole community needs to work together to make sure that youth are excited to walk through the doors of these great programs.
Let’s not succumb to despair, division, dumbing-down and disillusion. Rather, let’s foster an environment in which synagogue rabbis, Jewish educators and classroom religious school teachers begin early to tell parents and families how great these high school programs are. Let parents start dreaming when their children are in fifth grade, fourth grade, even third grade, about the innovative, engaging and relevant programs awaiting their children when they become teens. Let’s create communal norms in which the Jewish involvement of our teens is a status symbol.
Often parents say their teens just can’t handle the stress of both academic excellence and extracurricular activities chosen for how good they will look on a college application. It may not occur to these parents and teens that participation in Hebrew high school is exactly the sort of activity that impresses college admissions officers. Wouldn’t it be great if cocktail party bragging from parents of teens was not only about what sports teams they played on but also about the engaging ideas their teen brought home from that week’s classes at Hebrew high school?
Too many teens don’t know what they’re missing. Our Hebrew high schools are full of dynamic, interactive, deeply thought-provoking programming led by creative and charismatic educators. If we start early and keep strong in our message of how Jewish educational programming can enrich and help our teens. We can engage Jewish teens’ lives in meaningful ways that best form the basis of lifetime involvement. In fact, many teens find that their involvement in Hebrew high schools provides just the opposite of a stressor. They say that their few hours a week at Hebrew high school are the one time in their week where they find an island of sanity and can be themselves.
What is needed is a collaborative approach. Where it is not YOUR teens and THEIR teens but OUR teens. Where supplemental Hebrew high schools work together with youth groups. Where Jewish Family Service supports teens and their families through joint programming with schools. Where Federations back community-wide efforts by knocking down obstacles. Educating teens is not a money maker. The tuition for these programs in most communities covers only 50% of the cost, but if a community values its future and the future of the Jewish people, educating teens seems like a mighty good place to invest.