The seventh-graders sat around the tables in the bet midrash – study hall and synagogue – of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. They were studying from hand-outs of rabbinic texts.

At each table was a guest, a fellow at New York City’s Mechon Hadar. Together, the students discussed the texts in front of them in light of questions posed by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, co-founder and rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar. (See related story.)

“It made me feel that I was on a high level,” said Yael Marans, “because I was studying with someone who chooses to go to a yeshiva and I just go to seventh grade.”

That was a mission accomplished for Rabbi Fred Elias of Schechter, who teaches Judaic studies to the eighth grade and who helped organize the visit.

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Schechter seventh-graders Eric and Noah Martz study with Ross Weissman of Mechon Hadar. Courtesy SSDS-BC

“We want to demonstrate to our students that studying Torah can be a part of their everyday life even long after they leave Schechter,” he said.

The visit from the Hadar fellows, which took place in November, is part of an ongoing partnership between the two schools which will continue with a visit by Schechter students to Mechon Hadar in March.

Most recently, Tucker came to New Milford on Feb. 16. In addition to teaching the school’s seventh- and eighth-graders, he led a workshop for Judaic studies faculty and presented a public class to a full house of 65 adults that evening.

Mechon Hadar follows the model of a traditional yeshiva bet midrash study hall, rather than that of a university classroom. Students mainly study texts in pairs, or chevruta. Only a small part of the school day is spent in a lecture.

Schechter has recently similarly transformed its seventh- and eighth-grade Talmud curriculum “from a frontal model,” lecturing, “to the bet midrash approach,” said Elias.

The partnership with Mechon Hadar makes sense, said Elias, “because we’re both using an inquiry-based approach to Jewish learning.” In that approach, he said, “we present texts that encourage … the students to ask questions instead of just factual memorization or regurgitating answers on exams.”

“Even though Mechon Hadar is not labeled Conservative,” as is Schechter, “it represents many ideals of the Conservative movement: its learning, its ideas of egalitarianism, tefillah – traditional prayer – and social action. We find ourselves quite similar in many respects,” he said.