An intensive afternoon Jewish studies program for area high school students is being planned for next year.
Yoel Kaplan says the Community Talmud Torah that he plans to open in September will serve public school students and others who are not being served by the community’s yeshivah high schools.
“There should be alternatives for students who are not living up to their fullest potential with the current models of Jewish education,” he says. “There are a lot of students who could do better in an alternative program that addresses their individual needs and is a little bit less cookie-cutter.”
Already, Kaplan has signed up two faculty members to teach and work on the curriculum: Dr. Daniel Rynhold, a professor of modern Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and Rabbi Ely Allen, director of the Hillel of Northern New Jersey and a teacher at YU’s program for non-yeshivah graduates.
“This is not meant to be a replacement of any of the yeshivah high schools,” says Allen, noting that his son is enrolled at the Torah Academy of Bergen County.
There are presently “dozens” of students from Orthodox homes not in yeshivah high school, he says.
Last month, Teaneck High School ran a special recruitment program showcasing the school to day school graduates. The hour-long school tour and presentation drew a reported 40 parents and students.
At a time when the Orthodox community is agonizing about the affordability of day school and yeshivah tuitions, the Community Talmud Torah’s pricetag will be of interest: At $5,000 per year, it is a fraction of the more than $24,000 charged by the Frisch School in Paramus – an amount that is representative of day school tuitions generally.
Until this year, Kaplan served as vice principal at Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. That program meets only once a week, and students choose from a menu of course offerings.
The Community Talmud Torah plans on meeting four afternoons a week, for two hours each day. And there will be a fixed curriculum, drawing on Jewish Montessori programs, designed to provide “a framework, the big picture of where everything fits in,” he says.
“We want students to engage the primary texts, the Torah, mishnah, Rambam, maybe a little gemara. Having them really learn Hebrew roots, prefixes, and suffixes; the timeline of Chumash; an outline of Tanach chapter by chapter. Knowing the 613 mitzvot, the 39 m’lachot [labors prohibited on Shabbat], having them really hold those pieces.”
Kaplan said the school will have “a holistic focus. It teaches students how to apply and live the Torah, rather than learning about Torah and about Judaism. The goal is to facilitate students in really building a strong faith-based, intellectually driven framework for their Judaism and their spirituality.
“We will expect our students to share their Judaism with others by going out into the real world. We’re empowering and entrusting teens, the next generation, with the Torah. We’re offering them the support system and the infrastructure of how to get the information,” he says.
“The pursuit of Jewish content and Jewish knowledge is a life long pursuit. We are giving student the tools to be lifelong learners.”
For Kaplan, spending high school out of the shelter of the yeshivah system makes more sense than waiting until college.
“While they’re in high school, we need to start to teach them how to live a Jewish lifestyle in a secular environment. We can give them the opportunity, with guidance and structure and the tools to do that in a safe way, little by little. They’re still living at home; their parents still have influence over their decisions; their teachers still have influence.
“The Torah and Judaism have survived for thousands of years. I believe if you teach Torah properly, in a way that is candid, honest, and relevant, teenagers are able to step up and integrate the information in a very healthy way.”
A generation or two ago, the Talmud Torah – the afternoon Hebrew school – was the standard Jewish educational model even in Orthodox synagogues. That model fell by the wayside with the spread of yeshivah high schools and the perception that the institution of the Talmud Torah failed to generate sufficient commitment to traditional Judaism.
Is the Talmud Torah ready for a comeback?
“Even though we’re utilizing the structure of a Talmud Torah, we’re really redefining what it means,” says Kaplan. “By utilizing the best practices of education as we know them today and integrating them into a Talmud Torah model, we’re hitting on something that, in fact, can be very successful.”
More information on the program is available at cooltorah.org.