School is back in session

School is back in session

Hebrew school goes 'Ninja'

Parents and students at NNJJA last year. Photo courtesy Sharon Litwin

You’re going to Ninja school?

Wait. What?

Starting next month, children whose parents belong to five Conservative shuls across northern Bergen County will meet for Hebrew school at NNJJA, a mouthful of initials, standing for the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy, pronounced as if it were a mutant green turtle expert in Japanese hand combat.


The school will meet at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood. It will run from kindergarten – which is not, properly speaking, Hebrew school at all – through seventh grade. The young children will meet on Sundays, and the older ones will get together on Wednesday afternoons as well.

Everything will be centralized except tuition, which will be paid to each student’s home shul. That way, each synagogue can decide, based on its own specific circumstances, how much to subsidize its students.

The five synagogues that will send students to the combined school each has its own distinct culture. One of them, Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn, is not egalitarian; another, Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck, has a lot of children, but overwhelmingly most of them go to day schools. Several of the participating shuls have problems with declining enrollment, mostly as a result of changing demographics. All of them – the group also includes Kol Haneshamah of Englewood and Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes – have concluded that they have far more to gain than to lose from banding together.

Of course, that is not an easy decision. It can feel like giving up autonomy and some of your identity – in fact, it is giving up some autonomy and identity, which is what prevented the development of a regional Hebrew school system in the past. These five shuls concluded, however, that the tradeoff is worth it.

NNJJA, long in gestation, has many parents. One is SLI, the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Under the stewardship first of Judy Beck and then of Lisa Harris Glass, the idea percolated for a few years.

Last year, as the result of conversations between Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich and Temple Israel’s David Fine, the two shuls merged their schools. That combined entity, as this year’s bigger one will, met at Temple Israel.

“It has been very gratifying,” Temple Israel’s president, Denis Vogel, said; Vogel is the first chair of the board of overseers of the new school. “It is an absolutely tremendous undertaking. Over the last year, we saw the benefit of combining Hebrew schools, getting more children together, and showing them that there is a great Jewish community out there.

“There are some Hebrew schools that have just eight or 10 kids in them. That’s not an educational opportunity,” he said. “When children can engage with other children their own age, that benefits everybody. The children have a greater chance to learn, to bring what they learn back to their homes and communities.”

Although the school meets at Temple Israel, “we are equal partners in this,” Vogel said. “Everyone has an opportunity for input. We want to be the most innovative Hebrew school in the county.”

He is not denying that it is a challenge. “We have to take huge steps and baby steps – at the same time. There have been minor stumbling blocks, and that’s to be expected, but so far everything is positive.”

Lisa Swill, vice president of education at Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, also thinks that last year’s experiment worked. She has high hopes for this year’s more complex version.

One factor that made the Beth Sholom-Temple Israel partnership easy was physical proximity. “We’re just a mile and a half apart,” she said. And Beth Sholom really needed it. “We had 15 kids, and Temple Israel had 50.”

Still, Beth Sholom’s children did not feel swallowed up. “It was warm,” Swill said, and the children integrated well. This was critical. Although the synagogues are close, they are not in the same town, so the children go to different schools and did not know each other.

Swill worried that the question of identity would be a problem, but it proved not to be. “Our kids were the minority, and sometimes it felt like it was the Temple Israel school, even though it wasn’t. By the end of the year, though, they felt that it was ‘Ninja.’ And now there will be even more a sense of community.”

Rosalie Berman, the Hebrew school committee chair at Emanuel, whose school will be joining Ninja for the first time, said that her synagogue is ready for the change. “Last year we had eight students in our Hebrew school. It was a wonderful school, and the kids learned a lot, but it certainly wasn’t social. We thought it would be better for them to be part of a larger group.”

Ninja plans to pay attention to “special needs, whether they’re high or low,” Berman said. “We hope it will be a success.”

Matt Halpern, the director of synagogue life at Teaneck’s Beth Sholom, said that for the last few years, Kol Haneshamah’s students had come to Beth Sholom for Hebrew school. Because most of the shul’s many children go to day school, its Hebrew school had about 25 students; about 10 of them were children of Beth Sholom members. He assumes the shul will send between four and six students to Ninja.

The biggest risk, Halpern said, is the length of the commute. Sundays are not likely to be a problem, he said, but Wednesday afternoons at about 3:30 on Route 4 could be a nightmare. “The distance will be the biggest challenge,” he said. Another possible problem is that “when it’s in your own synagogue, you have ownership.” This isn’t.

Beth Sholom, in fact, was part of an earlier experiment, as a partner in the now defunct East Bergen Regional Hebrew School, which was housed first in a Leonia synagogue and then in the Jewish Center of Teaneck. That experiment was successful for several years, but the rabbis’ success in steering students to day schools left EBRHS without a critical mass. Efforts to revive the school in succeeding years failed, despite the apparent need.

“When this opportunity came, we thought it was worth our while,” Halpern said.

Rabbi Fred Elias of Kol Haneshamah added, “We are very excited to be a part of the greater communal effort among our fellow Conservative synagogues in providing this opportunity for Hebrew school families to learn in an engaging and experiential environment among a larger group of peers.”

Temple Israel’s Rabbi Sharon Litwin is Ninja’s director.

“We’re anticipating about 91 kids,” she said. “The biggest challenge I’m anticipating is integrating all the new students into the program, making sure that everybody feels comfortable, and that by the end of the year we are all operating at the same level and everyone’s skills match.

“The most interesting part will be the social aspect,” she continued. “Kids who have been in schools that had six students in that school, or three in the grade, will have interactions with a broader range of Jewish children. It creates a sense of community for kids who wouldn’t have it otherwise.”

Litwin, 38, grew up in Bergen County. “Rabbi Fine and I started to have these conversations about what would make Conservative Judaism in Bergen County sustainable when he first came to Temple Israel a few years,” she said. “It was different when I was a kid. The flavor was different. The demographics were different. There are fewer Jewish families moving here and joining Conservative synagogues.

“We plan to work together, and find the things we do together that help create vibrancy and connection.”

read more: