There’s a new Hebrew school in town.
Say hello to the Community Hebrew School of Bergen County.
The Community Hebrew School of Bergen County is a joint project of two Conservative synagogues, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, six miles away. (Those synagogues themselves are the results of mergers; Congregation Beth Tikvah of New Milford joined the Jewish Community Center of Paramus in 2013, and Congregation B’nai Israel merged with the Fair Lawn Jewish Center in 2006.)
The new school will enroll children from kindergarten through seventh grade.
“Currently it’s basically our two synagogues, but the hope is to open it up to any youth who is hoping to get a great Jewish education,” Jill Wiser said. Ms. Wiser in on the board of education of the Paramus synagogue, and was involved in the discussions between the two congregations, which began in March.
“It seemed a very good fit,” she said. “There are a lot of similarities between our educational curriculum, as well as our synagogues. We’ve been able to combine the best of both Hebrew schools into one entity. We’re very excited.”
Ms. Wiser grew up in the JCC of Paramus when there were far more students in its Hebrew school. “I remember being bused from elementary school,” she said. “Now our numbers are such that that would be very cost prohibitive.”
Combining the two schools will mean that the classes bigger. On their own, often the schools didn’t have enough students in a single grade to have a viable class, so they had to combine two grades. In the new school, that’s unlikely to happen — it is expected to have between 60 and 75 students.
“It’s a great opportunity for our youth to be able to be with other Jewish children their age,” Ms. Wiser said. “That’s been a challenge as Hebrew schools have been shrinking in size. It will enrich the classroom learning for them as well as the social aspect. That is a big bonus.”
Evan Marcus is the executive vice president of the Fair Lawn congregation.
“Both schools have seen diminishing enrollments over the last several years,” he said. “Our synagogues have partnered on other projects in recent times. This seemed like a great opportunity to partner on something bigger. it came up in conversation about some of the other programs we’ve been doing together. Both sides were interested in talking, and it came together really quickly.”
Neil Garfinkle is a vice president of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. By day, he teaches history to ninth graders in the New York City public school system. At the Jewish Center, he teaches seventh graders a two-month long unit about the Holocaust. “This year I co-taught it with the seventh grade teacher from Paramus,” he said. “That was easy and wonderful.”
Mr. Garfinkle said the Fair Lawn Hebrew school had a strong faculty and curriculum, strengths that will continue in the new, combined school.
His three adult children are graduates of the school. “Our children can lead seders,” he said. “They can lead holidays. They got the foundation for that at our Hebrew school.”
Marcia Kagedan will be the educational director of the Community Hebrew School of Bergen County. She has been at the Paramus Hebrew school since 1987, spending 10 years there as a teacher before becoming the educational director.
She already is familiar with the families of the Fair Lawn synagogue. She is the youth group advisor for the “Flipper” chapter of USY and Kadima, which includes the Fair Lawn and Paramus congregations, as well as Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood and Congregation B’nai Israel of Emerson.
“We’re building community into this community Hebrew school,” Ms. Kagedan said. “We’re trying to engage the parents and the families. There will be more families for the younger people to meet and engage with. We’re trying to create a hub that will attract more and more people. You don’t have to be members anywhere; you can just sign up for the school. That’s one of the reasons we’re choosing a new name. It’s not Paramus. It’s not Fair Lawn. It’s a new entity.”
Classes will rotate between the two synagogues. “We’re probably going to move every six to eight weeks,” Ms. Kagedan said. “If we’re planning on doing a big Chanukah family program in Paramus, we’ll probably move three or four weeks beforehand, so the hallways will be decked out for the holiday.
“When we put the two curricula together, they’re very similar. They’re both Conservative congregations. They both have an egalitarian service, though Paramus also has a traditional service every Shabbat. We have the same hashkafa,” she said, using the Hebrew word for outlook. “We all care about halacha, about Shabbat, about kashrut. It’s a natural fit.
“The two rabbis” — Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Paramus synagogue, and Rabbi Ronald Roth, the rabbi emeritus of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center — “were very similarly minded. The rabbis themselves are friends. Conversations began about this merger three or four years ago. The time was right to go ahead with it now, to make more robust programs. Though with covid and coronavirus, who knows exactly what it will look like.”
“Our hope is obviously to do in-person school, but we’ll have to wait for the governor to allow that to happen,” Ms. Wiser said. “We are having alternative options built into our planning of our curriculum.”