It’s half an hour after classes ended at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Rabbi Joshua Kahn feels the building hum with life and energy. Many of school’s 315 students have remained on campus to take part in one of the school’s four dozen clubs or teams.
It wasn’t that way when Rabbi Kahn, the school’s dean of student life and associate principal of Judaic studies, first joined the faculty of the boys’ high school 12 years ago as a teacher and co-director of student activities.
Back then, he said, “you would have been trampled when the bell rang” and the students rushed from the school.
“It’s something I’m really proud of,” he said of the change. “The field of education has realized that education is not just about knowledge. It’s about much more than what takes place in the classroom.”
Rabbi Kahn is looking back, because he is leaving TABC to become head of school at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, across the George Washington Bridge in Washington Heights. TABC was Rabbi Kahn’s first job after being ordained a rabbi at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Kahn came to the world of education naturally. “My grandmother was a teacher and ultimately an assistant principal in a public school,” he said. “My mother has been a second grade teacher at Yavneh for 30 years.”
His wife, Tamar, also is a born educator. Her mother is a librarian at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, and she is a first grade teacher and director of admissions at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.
Rabbi Kahn lives in Bergenfield, not far from where he grew up in Teaneck. He went to the Yavneh Academy in Paramus for elementary school, and then to Ramaz School for high school.
In high school, he was recruited to work at a youth leader in a Teaneck synagogue. After two years studying in yeshiva in Israel, he entered Yeshiva College and began to think seriously about becoming a teacher. “I wanted to educate and hopefully have a positive impact on adolescents, on the future of the Jewish people,” he said.
After graduating college, he studied and was ordained by Yeshiva University’s seminary. He is working on his dissertation at YU’s graduate school of education on adolescents and prayer — a matter of importance at yeshivas like TABC and YU, which require all students to take part in morning and afternoon prayer services. He’s trying to isolate the factors that make teens more likely to connect to the ritual of prayer.
“Is a student who has a certain affinity to role models more likely to connect to tefillah?” he said, using the Hebrew term for prayer.
“There are a lot of core issues that are not unique to Judaism,” he added. “A lot of the literature review involves all denominations and religions.”
The difficulty of maintaining order during high school services reflects a challenge “typical for teenagers,” he said. “It’s a time they’re trying to break away from authority. A lot of prayer is about dependence, turning to God to give whatever to me.” If you’re a teen, however, “I don’t want to ask anyone for anything, I want to be autonomous.”
So how can a high school lead its charges to pray?
“First and foremost, we have a responsibility to make sure that students who want to positively engage in tefillah can do that,” he said. “It’s a matter of decorum and managements. Tefillah should be no different than a class in terms of expectations.”
With decorum in place, a positive connection to role models can make a difference. So too can “making tefillah part of the conversation, so students are aware of what we’re trying to do,” Rabbi Kahn said. “If we’re expecting decorum, we need to explain why that is important, rather than just demanding it.”
At TABC, “we’re experimenting with running different types of minyanim. We’ve had a Sephardic minyan that is a very active kind of davening because a lot is said out loud. We’ve had explanatory minyanim where we say less but talk more about it.
“The flip side is to also manage the tefillah experience so it’s the appropriate time for a high school boy. If it’s too long, it’s hard to sit still.
“We’ve experimented with different minyan sizes. We’ve davened by class and with the whole school — trying to find the balance of what would allow for a more personal tefillah, at same time to make sure that students are feeling the notion that there’s a community involved.”
And there’s a fundamental problem with prayer that needs to be addressed.
“We live in a time when our students feel fortunate and blessed,” Rabbi Kahn said. “They don’t necessarily feel the need part of tefillah so much.”
So the school works to help the students “recognize how meaningful our tefillot are, to recognize there may be someone else in the minyan who needs tefillah, whether because a family member is out of work or someone is ill.”
Rabbi Kahn is not yet talking about any changes he wants to make at the YU high school, where he is replacing Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck. Rabbi Taubes, who leads Teaneck’s Congregation Zichron Mordechai, still will be involved with the high school, where he will teach Talmud. Rabbi Kahn is spending time getting to know the school and its stakeholders.
Looking back at his time at TABC, there are two moments other than the afterschool hum of activity that Rabbi Kahn would like to capture. He is proud of starting TABC’s disaster relief missions and wishes he could “capture the look on a student’s face when he realizes the impact he made on someone’s life. It’s important for our high school students to understand that they they’re powerful and impactful people. I don’t think adolescents realize that. These chesed trips are a very concentrated and visible way to see how they transform someone’s life.
“One more picture is a student holding up his diploma at graduation, when I know how much time the student and I worked to get him to that point.
“Sometimes you have a student who wasn’t confident in his ability. It’s sometimes manifest in his behavior. I explain to him we have standards and accountability because we believe in him. That graduation moment encapsulates all of the stakeholders, the parents, the student, the teachers and I, who got them all to that point.”