When her 16-year-old son, Billy, gets home from sleepaway camp this summer, Shelly Klein of Woodcliff Lake will tell the Pascack Hills High School student about a new educational program that she hopes will spark his enthusiasm.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our kids and for the community,” Ms. Klein said. “I would want him to attend.”
The program — a collaboration between Yeshiva University and Chabad houses throughout the nation — will give high school students a chance to learn more about Judaism, at a higher level than they had before. And it will award participants two college credits — that will make it a particularly attractive option.
“This fall, Yeshiva University will be partnering with CTeen International to offer a course on important Jewish topics to public high school teens,” Rabbi Yosef Orenstein, who heads Valley Chabad’s Teen Leadership Initiative, said. “Our chapter is one of a handful of chapters offering this course.” The university will create the course, and Rabbi Orenstein will teach it locally at the Chabad House in Woodcliff Lake.
“This is the first time this has ever been done,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “It is being offered at 17 select CTeen locations around the country. Ours is one of three in New Jersey, and the only one in northern New Jersey.”
“CTeen is the Chabad teen network, like USY,” he continued; each Chabad House structures the activities of its teen group around the needs of the particular community. “There are 500 around the world,” he said, calling CTeen the world’s fastest growing Jewish teen group.
In Woodcliff Lake, Rabbi Orenstein said, his goal is to get Jewish public school students more involved Jewishly, whether through social events or through community service. “We bring them together in a positive Jewish atmosphere,” he said.
He added that for this group of students, Jewish education often stops after they become bar or bat mitzvah. “CTeen’s goal is to pick it up from there, to engage them positively in a Jewish environment, and connect them with each other.” In addition, he said, “we’re always looking for ways to connect teens on a textual level, and that is sometimes challenging.”
Shelly Klein agreed. “Post Hebrew school, it’s a challenge to have kids in public school continue Jewish learning,” she said. “But giving college credit will create a greater level of interest for the kids. It’s not a youth group. Yeshiva designed it,” and given the school’s reputation, she has no doubt that the content will be of a high level and the credits will be accepted widely.
She is also enthusiastic about Rabbi Orenstein. “Teens like him,” she said. “He has a wonderful relationship with the kids.
“This will be new, not like Hebrew school, but with a higher level of relevance for teens and kids going off to college. It’s not ‘how we celebrate holidays,’ but a completely different approach.”
The idea for the program came from Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, Rabbi Orenstein said. “We were thinking about how valuable college credits are and how students could use a leg up before going forward. We thought, if we can find a way to teach Torah classes to our teens where they can get credit,” that would be the best of all worlds. With this in mind, Chabad reached out to Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky at YU — he is the dean of undergraduate Torah studies.
“When YU heard about this opportunity for Jewish public school students, they jumped on the idea,” Rabbi Kalinsky said. “It’s very unique, allowing a course created at YU to be taught by a regional person.”
While Rabbi Orenstein readily acknowledged that he had not taught a university course before, he said, “I have done extensive teaching in Torah studies, and my knowledge background is extensive. The topics that are covered are all well known to me.”
The course will be text-based. “We have a large Jewish community in Woodcliff Lake, but it is not observant,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “There is a thirst to know what the text says, to get a better sense of it. We’ll be shining a light on what it means.”
The program costs $999, but Rabbi Orenstein said he and YU administrators are working to bring the price down, and he is spending the summer seeking donors. “It’s below the market rate, but it’s still a lot,” he said. “We’re looking for local support.”
Already, a donor has agreed to cover 52 percent of the cost for the first 10 applicants. Those students will have to pay $749.
“It’s a win-win opportunity,” Rabbi Orenstein continued. “A chance for students to learn more about their heritage, and they can come and do the course without taking up too much time.” The course will be offered in one-hour segments on Sunday mornings. “And it will give them background in a way they can take home.”
Rabbi Dov Drizin, the director of Valley Chabad, talked about the “wonderful success” the group’s teen program has enjoyed in the Pascack community, citing “an incredible group of engaged teens — and there are many more. This is an opportunity for them to learn and gain personally,” he said, noting that many of their activities have involved giving back to the community. “They’ll have two credits when they go off to school, and it gives us an opportunity to engage them in Jewish learning at a high level.”
Rabbi Drizin said that he defines the success of the Teen Leadership Initiative in terms of the individual students’ leadership roles after they leave the program. For example, he said, several graduates of the Teen Leadership Initiative now head Jewish organizations at Columbia, Tulane, Binghamton, and Brandeis.
“This is success,” he said, whether students get involved at Hillel or Chabad. “We not only give them a sense of leadership,” but with the new program, they will also receive education, “so they can have the language and the taste of rich Jewish wisdom. Now they’ll be rich, full leaders.”
Rabbi Drizin said he realizes that this is a long-term vision, and “it will take some time. You chug along and then you hit a tipping point.” It also presents some difficulty because of its cost and how serious it is.
Still, “it’s an opportunity for our youngsters,” he said. “The gift of real learning.”
For more information about the course, call Rabbi Orenstein at (201) 476-0157 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.