It all began when the lay leaders of two Wayne synagogues were looking for a way to hold on to their post b’nai mitzvah teens.
Describing the genesis of the new Wayne Hebrew High program, Rabbi Randall Mark, religious leader of Wayne’s Shomrei Torah, said, “It started with lay leaders from both Shomrei Torah and Temple Beth Tikvah discussing ways to bring our teens together, since every congregation struggles to keep students engaged post-bar/bat mitzvah.”
True, Shomrei Torah is Conservative and Beth Tikvah is Reform, but that difference didn’t seem to make a difference.
“It was felt that the benefit to the teens outweighed any differences we might have as congregations from two different denominations,” Rabbi Mark said. The lay leaders “worked out a proposal that was then presented to and approved by the boards of both congregations.”
Rabbi Meeka Simerly, who heads Temple Beth Tikvah, said that “we here at Temple Beth Tikvah are really looking forward to studying together with the students and teachers of Shomrei Torah, as we all feel that bringing both schools together will enrich everyone’s Jewish life in more ways that we can probably anticipate at the moment. And that’s what’s exciting for us — the possibilities.”
For her own part, she said, “I am looking forward to getting to know more Jewish youth from our community at large, as I feel that their knowledge is a blessing to my own growth as a rabbi.” Rabbi Mark is excited about it as well. “I look forward to seeing what questions the teens will ask,” he said. “They ask the best questions, sometimes very challenging ones! Also, I love that I can learn as much from our teens as I seem to impart to them.”
He noted that while the school’s leaders are actively working on its curriculum now, he already knows that “our focus will be on contemporary issues, and how Judaism can inform our decisions and our actions as Jews living in 21st-century America.”
The two rabbis will teach the 10th graders as a confirmation class, “and we will do a joint confirmation service, which this year will be at Temple Beth Tikvah and next year at Shomrei Torah,” he said. “We will also have a 12th-grade graduation that will be in the opposite location, truly making this a joint venture.” Educators from the two congregations will teach as well.
Both synagogues will share in the costs of running the school, and organizers hope that this, together with tuition income, will cover their expenses. Right now, the congregations are talking to teens and their parents, Rabbi Mark said, “and we are cautiously optimistic that the parents and teens will be as excited about this joint venture as those of us involved are at this time.”
Wayne Hebrew High will begin on September 12. The joint congregational high school program, for grades eight to 12, will meet on Tuesday evenings for two hours and include dinner. For the first semester, classes will meet at Shomrei Torah; they’ll meet at Temple Beth Tikvah for the second part of the year. The first class will be an open house, where parents and Jewish teens in the Wayne area will be invited to “come and try it out,” Marian Kleinman, the school’s head, said.
According to Ms. Kleinman, connecting teens to their synagogues will connect them with the greater Jewish community as well. “One of the most inspiring experiences in my field is to see Jewish teens gathering, networking, and studying Judaism together after bar mitzvah,” she said. She cited the findings of a recent Pew report, which indicated that “children who stay involved in their synagogue until they graduate high school are much more likely to stay Jewishly connected throughout their lives.”
Before coming to Wayne in July to become the education director of Temple Beth Tikvah, Ms. Kleinman enjoyed a varied career as an educator, Hebrew school principal, and cantorial soloist. She now is working toward cantorial ordination.
She grew up in Rockland County, where her parents were founding members of Temple Beth Sholom in New City. She holds two master’s degrees — one in creative writing from the City College of New York and a second, in Jewish studies, from Gratz College, where she also received an award for academic achievement in the field of liturgy. She worked for nine years as the cantorial soloist at Congregation Agudas Achim in Livingston Manor, N.Y., and for seven years as the religious school principal at Beth Am Temple in Pearl River, N.Y. She has also worked in North Carolina, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. She lives in Wayne and has a daughter in high school.
While she will serve as the Hebrew high school’s coordinator, “I probably will do some teaching,” Ms. Kleinman said. “I want to get to know the students. I’ve taught Hebrew High before and have some engaging lessons. Some are fun, some have more history.” The new school, she said, “is all about Judaism, but informal. They’re not doing preparation for their b’nai mitzvah any more.
“One of our goals is to prepare them for the Jewish world and the world outside, letting them know, for example, what they are likely to experience on the college campus,” she continued. The curriculum is likely to include Israel advocacy, Torah/Talmud, Holocaust studies, and other subjects suggested by the students themselves. “We want to engage them to help us plan, to find out what they’d like to learn,” Ms. Kleinman said.
“We want our Jewish teens to know that tikkun olam is a Jewish ethic and we want them to become active, involved members of the world by engaging in social action,” she added. There is “so much in our text” urging us to do things for others. Hillel, for example, said that “Where people are acting inhuman, we must strive to be human.” Ms. Kleinman also cited the Talmud passage that tells us “Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.”
Referring once again to the Pew study, Ms. Kleinman noted that her uncle, the late Daniel Isaacman, a former president of Gratz College, did his doctoral thesis on the subject of Jewish continuity. According to Dr. Isaacman’s niece, he showed that children who go to Jewish summer camp, or stay involved in the Jewish community through organizations such as youth groups, are more likely to stay connected to the Jewish community for the rest of their lives. With this in mind, Ms. Kleinman wants religious school to be as much fun as camp — “with content.”
“Judaism has always been a key part of my life,” she said, adding that her mother is a Holocaust survivor. She attended Jewish summer camp for many years and is a passionate Zionist. “Judaism “is an important part of my identity,” she said.
“I feel so blessed and delighted to be involved in the Jewish community in Wayne and see this wonderful collaboration between the two shuls,” she continued. “I really feel that way. I could have another career, but I was called to this.” Having worked as a cantor for a dozen years in various congregations, “This is the first time in 12 years that I’m not preparing for the High Holidays.”
Interested parents and teens are invited to talk to Ms. Kleinman to find out more about the program. Call her at (973) 595-6565 ext. 16, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.