After 24 years, a Reform synagogue partnership is coming to an end. The Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism will not re-open in the fall. Instead, each of the three participating congregations will be running its own educational programs for their teenagers.
Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who was involved with BARJ since its second year, is “saddened” by the school’s closing.
“The issues were economic,” he said.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey significantly reduced its $250 per capita contribution to BARJ, according to various sources – as well as to the predominately Conservative Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies – as part of a series of allocation cutbacks that affected almost all federation agencies.
“If the federation was still putting in the subsidy, we would still be in business. But each synagogue is suffering economic challenges,” said Borovitz.
In a statement, David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president, UJA-NNJ, said, “Our strategic plan places a high priority on the accessibility and affordability of Jewish learning opportunities in northern New Jersey. We are now identifying the most potent ways [the federation] can use its funding, its expertise, and its good offices to address these challenges.”
Borovitz said he had hoped to find a more cost-effective way of continuing the program, but the other partner synagogues weren’t interested in pursuing that approach.
Another factor that hurt BARJ, he said, was the county’s increasing road congestion. “Because of traffic patterns, it’s harder and harder for people to get around at 7 o’clock at night,” the time of BARJ’s weekly sessions on Wednesdays.
Temple Beth El in Closter pulled out of BARJ a couple of years ago, said Borovitz, in hopes of attracting more students to a local program. Other Reform synagogues that had at one point participated have closed or merged, reflecting the movement’s demographic decline in Bergen County, said Borovitz.
Avodat Shalom students constitute 47 of BARJ’s 87 enrollment. The school’s enrollment peaked at about 155 students four or five years ago.
Marla Compa, BARJ educational director and Avodat Shalom’s youth group adviser, has been hired to run the shul’s high school program in the fall, which will follow the BARJ format and take place during the BARJ Wednesday time slot.
Avodat Shalom will open its program to all interested teens, whether they are members or not. “We want to reach out to unaffiliated teens and let them know they’re always welcome here,” Borovitz said.
He added that the synagogue is considering offering “Jewish SAT programming, using Jewish texts to hone skills such as writing and reading comprehension. We have some accomplished SAT tutors who are helping us develop that.”
At Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick said that re-envisioning teen programming for the synagogue “is an exciting opportunity to build and transform our teen culture here.”
Beth Or’s program will replace a classroom focus with a community orientation, she said.
“The basic vision is that we teach all of our b’nai mitzvah students that once they have become bar or bat mitzvah, they are able to take on the same privileges and responsibilities of adult members. We don’t make our adults sit in classrooms. Adult members engage in Judaism through a variety of ways that touch their lives. For some, it’s learning. For some, spirituality. For some, acts of social justice. We feel it’s important that we provide teens with the same opportunities to find their own doorways in,” she said.
Where BARJ offered mostly “discussion-based classes” of several weeks’ duration, each of the 25 sessions of Beth Or’s Teen Community Night will feature a different program facilitated by Shawn Fogel, the synagogue’s teen director.
“Some are just fun and experiential, some are more formal learning opportunities on themes that they are interested in learning about. There will be a fair amount of comparative religion, questions of Jewish identity, and moral choices, as well explorations of various parts of Jewish culture,” said Zlotnick.
The meetings will be preceded by dinner. “All communities, especially Jewish communities, are built around food,” said Zlotnick.
Zlotnick said the dinner will help solve what was a perpetual challenge to BARJ, convincing students to continue their Jewish education after the seventh grade, generally the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. Beth Or’s seventh-graders will join the older teens for dinners on Tuesday nights before going off to their own program.
“The seventh-graders will see a lively teen culture, which will counter the notion that bar or bat mitzvah is the end,” said Zlotnick.
At Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Rabbi Steven Sirbu said he and his congregation are “very excited by the prospect of serving our teens here at the Temple Emeth building” and having the “kids and family maintain a connection with their congregation and clergy.”
The synagogue is planning a new program for teens that will take place on Sunday mornings and include leadership training, arts and culture, Jewish knowledge, Jewish history, social activities, mitzvah projects, and travel.
“We will have a more flexible approach to curriculum and logistics,” said Sirbu. He expects the Sunday time slot will attract teens to the program who didn’t participate in BARJ.
The Sunday schedule will also enable Temple Emeth to connect the teen program with volunteering in the religious school and serving on the youth group board.
“Teaching and board meetings will end at 11. Other kids will be arriving at 11 and we will then serve brunch,” said Sirbu. “We will have mitzvah projects that are in the building that kids can sign up for. These are things that a collaborative synagogue program couldn’t be expected to accomplish.
“We consider this a work in progress,” he said. “We have the major rubrics down, but we will work out the details to make sure this is something our teens and their parents can be excited about.”
All three rabbis agree that they will need to work together to maintain the socializing that BARJ offered.
“We are committed to finding as many possible opportunities for our kids to continue to interact together,” said Borovitz.