A lot of Jewish kids have never had a Jewish education, said Fred Nagler. He keeps hearing about 13-year-olds who decide after their b’nai mitzvahs that they’ve had their fill.
“Some parents don’t see the need to go past bar mitzvah education,” said the principal of Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. “That’s unfortunate, because you leave your child at a very elementary level.”
For families looking for more Jewish education but not for day school, programs like BCHSJS can provide it. As the once-a-week Hebrew high school begins its 36th year, it is adding a third campus at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Nagler expects enrollment numbers to jump in the coming weeks.
“This is an excellent opportunity for Jewish teens to come together,” said Beth Rishon’s Rabbi Kenneth Emert.
Enrollment in the synagogue’s own post-b’nai mitzvah program had dwindled in recent years, which led Emert and the synagogue’s leadership to seek out BCHSJS. Beth Rishon’s leaders were eager to replicate the success they saw at the branch at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, now entering its third year. Three weeks into the new school year, the program has 35 students signed up for the Wyckoff campus, and Emert sees “potential from a great many more.”
“There’s a draw for these Jewish teenagers to come to a place where they can combine the continuing exploration of their Jewish identity with a social space,” said Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, BCHSJS senior vice principal, who is heading up the new campus.
The school’s original Teaneck branch meets on Sundays at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls. The program doesn’t have confirmed numbers yet, but Nagler expects enrollment among all three campuses to reach about 300 for this year. He hopes the Wyckoff campus will draw new students from western Bergen and Passaic counties.
“There is a need,” Nagler said. “And people want it but for whatever reason they wouldn’t travel to Teaneck on Sundays. So we’re coming there, basically.”
Students enrolled at any of the three sites may attend part-time at other locations. Each semester each student takes three electives. The program also holds Shabbatons, trips, and other social programs that unite the students.
“All research shows that [these] years are the most important for Jewish teens to be involved,” Forman-Jacobi said. “These are the years they’re asking identity questions. Going forward it gives them a good foundation for when they go off to college.”
Since BCHSJS came to Temple Emanuel and took over its Hebrew high school program, the number of students has doubled, said Rabbi Ben Shull. He credited the program’s social and tikkun olam programs with integrating teenagers from the synagogue with those from around the area.
“We’ve been able to sell it to the kids because it’s a fuller program than what we were able to offer ourselves,” he said. “It’s really benefited them in lots of ways.”
With the cost of day school continuing to make headlines, one option that has been proposed is an intensive after-school Jewish education program.
“Families have to understand that … a Jewish education is very, very important,” Emert said.
Programs like BCHSJS are not a replacement for day school, he continued, but they are “an excellent option.”