Eight years ago, the Hebrew school at Hillcrest Jewish Center was facing tough times.
“We were losing students,” said Robert Zuckerman, vice president of the Conservative congregation in Fresh Meadows.
Two other nearby Queens synagogues, the Hollis Hills Jewish Center and the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, in Flushing, were facing a similar situation. But instead of cutting staff or programs, they have joined forces.
The result was Ohr Chadash Religious School, which begins the new school year with some 75 students — more than were enrolled in the three separate programs combined — and offers such activities as frequent field trips, shofar-making workshops and matzah-baking sessions.
The Queens synagogues may not have known it back in 2008, but it turns out that they were on the leading edge of an educational trend. Today, Hebrew schools from Minneapolis to Houston to Toronto are merging to form community religious schools. Making the best of demographic changes in the Jewish community and the fact that most Hebrew school students leave religious education behind after completing their bar/bat mitzvah obligations, they are increasingly partnering with other congregations, often across denominational boundaries.
“It’s a whole new model of education,” said Dana Prottas, executive director of Yachad — the Jewish Educational Platform for Teens in Minneapolis.
Some of these schools hold classes on a rotating basis in each of the participating congregations; others meet at a neutral site like a Jewish Community Center. Most are geared to high school-aged students though there are a few for the pre-bat/bar mitzvah crowd. Some have ambiguous names (such as “Experience” or “Yachad” or “Educational Platform”) that skirt the onus and out-of-date reputation of standard Hebrew school education. Many tend to offer courses with playful names: “Midrash Manicures,” “Mitzvah Clowning,” “Sex in the Texts” and “Cooking with Bubbies.”
The Westchester Jewish Teen Learning Initiative, launched four years ago by a coalition of 18 Westchester synagogues and JCCs, features such mini-courses as “Jewish Comedy 101” and “Sacred Scandals.”
The Project’s 18 participating Jewish Education Project congregations were brought together with the cooperation of UJA-Federation and Neshamot: Westchester Women’s Venture Philanthropy.
The Jewish Journey Project, which also began four years ago, allows students at JCC Manhattan and six partner shuls to choose among classes, college-style, with such options as “Printmaking the Parsha” and weeklong winter-break “intensives,” where they can improve their Ivrit fluency at “Hebrew Boot-Camp,” or collaboratively compose and perform a Torah-themed rock song at “Jewish Kids Rock.”
The merged programs, while not directly reducing the participating schools’ overhead or families’ tuition costs, keep expenses from rising and provide a larger group of peers with whom students can study and socialize.
“There isn’t any saving for us,” said Jordan Hoffman, assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.
The benefits are “absolutely not just economic,” said Shari Weinberger, director of the decade-old North American Association of Community and Congregational Hebrew High Schools (NAACCHHS, pronounced like the Yiddish word for pride).
At Hillcrest Jewish Center, the benefits of joining forces were palpable. Without the creation of Ohr Chadash, extracurriculars at the three schools “would have been barebones,” Zuckerman said. Now, the offerings are more robust, and the school has earned several “Framework for Excellence” citations from the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.
In the 2016-17 academic year, more such community-minded schools are beginning their first or second year of operation. In Toronto, several dozen Jewish teenagers, meeting at landmark Holy Blossom, a Reform synagogue, will take part in the Jewish Teen Experience Midtown, under the auspices of Holy Blossom and two nearby Conservative synagogues.
In Minneapolis, Yachad classes, under the aegis of several local congregations, ranging from Reform to Modern Orthodox, and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, will meet at the Sabes JCC.
In Houston, Kehillah High classes will resume at Congregation Beth Israel, a major Reform temple – the joint school is sponsored by Brith Shalom (Reform) and Beth Yeshurun (Conservative).
And in the last two years, other merged schools have begun in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, northern New Jersey and Peabody, Mass.
The road to building such community schools can be bumpy. “It comes and it goes,” Weinberger said, with mergers collapsing and new ones starting all the time. Her organization’s membership has remained relatively steady, at several dozen, with new schools replacing those that have gone out of business, she added.
Such merged schools are more likely to qualify for funds from a local Jewish federation than a school affiliated with a single congregation, she said.
About half of the estimated 500,000 Jewish students in this country receiving religious instruction each year are enrolled in supplemental schools, which typically meet once or twice a week. The other half are students in day schools, the great majority of them Orthodox.
With clergy from all the participating congregations typically serving as teachers in the new schools, students are exposed to a greater variety of views.
The new merged schools are reminiscent of the old-style community religious schools (usually known as “cheders” or “Talmud Torahs”) that previous generations of Jews attended; they were not affiliated with a specific branch of Judaism and presented a single, consensus approach to Jewish education.
The new crop of merged schools serves many pedagogic masters, balancing the needs of their participating congregations. This is particularly tricky in terms of such areas as curricula, texts and levels of adherence to Jewish law where the partnering institutions do not agree, necessitating an ongoing balancing act and frequent negotiations.
“That’s really challenging for us,” said Dana Prottas of Yachad. The Minneapolis school was born following five years of discussion among the rabbis who led the synagogues whose religious schools would become part of the joint program, she said.
Sometimes the schools teach the denominations’ various approaches to a controversial subject (e.g., patrilineal descent or the status of gay Jews); sometimes they avoid the topic altogether.
It’s a continuing balancing act. “Once one synagogue pulls out,” Weinberger said, “it’s like a house of cards,” threatening the merged school’s viability.
Most of the schools offer flexible schedules, serve kosher food at their activities and have taken on the character of an ersatz youth group. Most are open to students from unaffiliated families or families that belong to a congregation that isn’t a partner in the merged school.
“It’s not ‘one model fits all,’” said Danielle Alexander, director of Kehillah High in Houston.
“Reinventing the traditional religious school model,” the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles wrote in 2015 of the city’s Jewish Learning Community Network, a partnership of three Conservative congregations.
The teens enrolled in Yachad’s first year, 2015-2016, “attended on average 2.6 hours per week” of religious school classes, up from the two hours per week that students had attended at their individual schools the previous year, Prottas said. “Certainly engagement is higher, which is exactly where we are heading.”
Yachad, was one of nine nonprofits nationwide selected as a recipient of funding this year from UpStart, a California-based “accelerator.”
Leaders of all the merged schools said they have noticed, anecdotally, that the dropout and absence rates at their institutions are lower than at standard Hebrew school programs.
“They’re excited to come each week,” Alexander said. “They love it.”