Does Bergen County need a new Jewish high school?
Gershon Distenfeld thinks it does.
Distenfeld is an advocate for more affordable Jewish day schools.
He was among the creators of Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, which has raised more than one million dollars for area day schools since 2009.
He serves as chairman of the board of Yeshivat He’atid in Bergenfield, which opened last year offering tuition that was considerably lower than other area day schools.
In an email sent last week to parents of local day school students who will enter seventh grade in the fall, he wrote, “We would like to start a new high school in September 2015 that will not only provide an innovative and outstanding Yeshiva education in an affordable manner, but will change the face of Jewish education and be a model to be copied throughout the country (and beyond).”
Joining him in signing the letter was Jeff Kiderman, executive director of the Affordable Jewish Education Project, which is backing Yeshivat He’atid and other similar schools.
“We are extremely confident that a superior and more cost effective high school program can be created,” the letter continued
There are three yeshivah high schools in Bergen County: the Frisch School, in Paramus, which is coeducational; and the Torah Academy of Bergen County, which serves boys only, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck. (Some local high school students go to yeshivot outside the county.)
Whether the proposed high school would be co-ed will be “based on demand,” according the letter, which encouraged parents to sign up for focus groups.
“We don’t just need to tweak the way we go about Jewish high school education – we need an overhaul,” they wrote. “We need a program that is much more flexible, is much more student centered, gives our children the new skills that they will need to succeed in life, and fosters a love of Yiddishkeit.
“These programs already exist in the secular world and have been very successful. But we believe that the opportunity to do better is even greater on the Judaic side.”
The letter cited a survey conducted by the Affordable Jewish Education Project, in which more than 600 yeshivah high school students answered questions on how and what they preferred to learn.
The conclusions Distenfeld and Kiderman drew from the survey:
“1. Students are different and want different things.
“2. Students are interested in learning, but they want to have a say in what they learn.
“3. Students want to learn actively (projects, discussions, etc.) rather than passively (lectures, textbooks, etc.).
“4. Students hate tests and think they are useless.
“5. Students want to learn collaboratively in small groups.”
The letter didn’t address what perhaps is one of the most challenging findings of the survey for yeshivah high school educators: The low regard the surveyed students have for the core elements of the yeshivah curriculum.
Asked to express their interest in 25 subjects – some part of the traditional curriculum, some not – Tanach (Bible) and Talmud were among the six lowest rated, with fewer than 30 percent expressing an interest in them. “Literature/Poetry” ranked lowest.
The most popular subject was psychology, chosen by more than 60 percent. That was followed by “Business/Economics” and “Israel/Zionism” – both with more than 45 percent – followed in turn by Jewish philosophy, math, “art/architecture,” music, sports, science, and history.
Kiderman said the survey was conducted online and publicized by social media. Survey results are posted at http://bit.ly/js-hssurv
As it enters its second year, Yeshivat He’atid expects to grow to around 180 students as it expands to second grade.
According to Distenfeld, the school’s re-enrollment rate was “well above 90 percent, and 95 percent if you take out families making aliyah.”
Meanwhile, a school similar to Yeshivat He’atid, the Westchester Torah Academy, is opening in New Rochelle, N.Y., in September, with the assistance of the Affordable Jewish Education Project. Another planned school in Long Island instead has merged with the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, which will begin introducing “blended learning” techniques in its kindergarten and first grade classes.
In blended learning, students are divided into small groups and rotate through different stations in the classroom, including computer-based instruction, teacher-led instruction, and project-based learning. The Affordable Jewish Education Project and other advocates for blended learning maintain that this technique can provide better education at a lower cost.