Retiring BCHSJS head prepares for ‘life after life’

Retiring BCHSJS head prepares for ‘life after life’

When Fred Nagler took over the helm of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies 28 years ago, the then eight-year-old school had suffered a severe decline in enrollment.

“It started with 160 students,” said the BCHSJS principal. “But by June 1982 it had less than 20.”

So dire was the state of Jewish education in the county at the time that a report was commissioned and submitted to the precursor of what now is UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Fred Nagler is retiring after 28 years as head of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.

“It was very disheartening,” said Nagler, whose school today boasts some 300 students. “The school had three principals in eight years and students weren’t re-registering.”

Not wanting to “throw good money after bad,” the federation said it would no longer fund the venture but told him, “If it opens, you’re the principal.” In the end, “I pleaded and they gave us a new start.”

Nagler, who is retiring this year, said he already knew a good deal about the school when he took on the position in 1982. As principal and teacher in the Hebrew school at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, he had sat in on BCHSJS board meetings.

He knew, for example, that the high school had been started by seven local congregations. With small high school classes of their own, they wanted their youngsters to have the educational and social benefits that only a larger group could bring.

“Abe Foxman was one of the founders,” he said, noting that at the time, the Anti-Defamation League director, a Bergen County resident, was working as a volunteer for local Jewish organizations.

To stem the flow of students from the school, Nagler and then Temple Israel Rabbi Mark Kiel called a special meeting, inviting students and parents who knew Nagler from his years with the congregation.

“I told the students, you know me as a principal and teacher,” he recalled. “Come to the school and recruit others.” In fact, seven of the 10 students he addressed did enroll and encouraged friends to do so as well.

“Most people begin recruiting for the next year in January,” said Nagler. “I had August and September.” The school was able to reopen that year with 47 students.

Even now, however, financing remains an important issue. Nagler said he is hopeful that the upcoming BCHSJS fund-raising dinner will be successful, since tuition covers only 60 to 65 percent of expenditures and the school “took a 72 percent cut from UJA. [The federation’s allocation] is a small fraction of our budget now,” he said. “It used to be almost one-third.”

Nagler is particularly proud of the classes BCHSJS has been able to offer. At its Sunday campus – based now at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck but formerly held first at Frisch in Paramus and later at the Philip Ciarco Learning Center in Hackensack – about 200 students engage in continuing Jewish education.

For the past several years, the school has also offered a Monday evening track at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake and a Thursday evening component at Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon, “since a large number of our students have moved out of the central part of Bergen County,” said Nagler, whose five-year program serves students in grades eight to 12.

Designed for those not attending yeshiva high school – and at the age when “learning really begins” – BCHSJS ensures that students do not stop their Jewish learning “at the bar mitzvah level,” said Nagler, adding that one of his goals is to make Jewish learning enjoyable.

“We offer courses in Jewish history, Bible, philosophy, whatever they’re interested in,” he said, calling his teachers “fantastic, top-notch.” While higher degrees for teachers are not mandatory, this year’s teachers averaged “two degrees above the BA,” he said, noting, however, that “we’re looking for teachers who are really great at teaching, who like to be around teenagers and know their subject matter.”

Nagler said he has seen some interesting changes in recent years. For example, while 10 years ago students attended “because their parents told them to, now the parents say, ‘Go for one year and we’ll see what happens.'”

“Parents may say, ‘My seventh-grade child has decided not to continue his Jewish education. I’m only the parent.’ I never heard that 10 years ago,” he said.

Nevertheless, some 75 to 80 percent of students return each year, he said, pointing out that students may enter at any grade, even grade 12. One major entry point is ninth grade, when some of those graduating from day schools ending at eighth grade may be entering public high schools.

In addition to classwork, BCHSJS students engage in public outreach, said Nagler, insisting that “it is important for them to have an adult view of Judaism, including both text and community service.”

Students visit local group care homes on a regular basis, “and for 28 years we have been the only Jewish school that always has a large contingent of students at Super Sunday. “

Nagler said that at the school’s annual dinner on June 6, BCHSJS will honor 28 alumni who have given of themselves to the general or Jewish community.

“We have two synagogue presidents and someone who works for AIPAC” as well as two members of the U.S military, he said.

The school also encourages socializing, said Nagler.

“Socializing with other Jews is an important value,” he said, recalling that in 1982 he was challenged by the federation for spending money on a school trip to Great Adventure, something that is commonplace now.

“It wasn’t a given then,” he said, adding that the school hosts a variety of social activities throughout the year.

Nagler described his upcoming retirement as “life after life.” A former math teacher and adviser – and for seven years the math editor of Sesame Street Magazine – he plans to return to math education. He pointed out that over the past 28 years, he has remained involved in the field, teaching math enrichment classes at local day schools and working on staff development. He has also written several math books and participated on the team that redeveloped New York City’s eighth-grade math curriculum in the 1990s.

“It’s been 28 fabulous years,” he said of his time at BCHSJS, which is now interviewing candidates to succeed him. “It’s six days a week, 12 months a year – I can’t put in that time any longer. But I’ll be around to consult.”

As for his proudest achievement, Nagler – who will receive an award for his service at the school dinner – said, “It was getting the school back on its feet.” He also cited “innovative programs,” such as the school’s Shabbaton and former Israel trip (“a casualty of Birthright”) as well as the hiring of a guidance counselor to help advise special needs students.

In addition, he said, “We’re slowly bringing technology into the school.” Where previously he might have given teachers newspaper clippings with program ideas, “now I send them things from YouTube and the Internet.”

He pointed out that Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a prolific author, “did a study of the 10 most effective supplemental schools in the U.S. and we were one of the 10. He said we put the ‘school’ back in ‘Hebrew school.'”

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