What's next for Jewish teen education?
Beit Hamidrash, the community Hebrew high school program, was created more than 25 years ago by the area synagogues in conjunction with the Jewish Federation. The program—which seeks to impart post b’nai mitzvah high school students with a mixture of serious Jewish learning, including the Holocaust and American Jewish history, coupled with lighter educational classes such as cooking and art—has educated several thousand teens in the last 25 years. Unfortunately, the program has experienced a steady decline in numbers over the last eight years. In light of this, the Federation convened a task force consisting of educators and lay people to assess the current needs of the community and present a proposal to the Federation Board of Directors.
Sixty students enrolled in Beit Hamidrash during this 2013 – 2014 school year, however, a maximum of 35 students came out for classes on Monday evenings. When you consider that there were over 230 students enrolled in the program, per year, at its peak (2005/2006), there can be no denying that the current model is not working. As Lisa Sholk, director of Beit Hamidrash, succinctly puts it, “times have changed, and we need to keep up with them!”
The Federation believes there are some key reasons for the decline in numbers. Firstly, they note that there has been a huge emphasis on students building up their college resumes over the last six years or so. In today’s highly competitive society, students are finding it necessary to strive harder than ever before to achieve accolades and goals that can give them that edge over their peers. Extracurricular activities have become ever consuming. If a student participates in sports for example, this can often involve attending team practice up to six times per week. In addition, accumulating volunteer hours and other activities such as clubs and band practice all mean that attending Beit Hamidrash has taken a back seat and in a lot of cases, been dropped completely.
Maxine Rosenthal, the task force chairperson, notes, “getting teens to commit on a regular basis to add any further time commitment in their crazy schedules is proving harder.” Having three teenagers herself, all of whom attend Beit Hamidrash, Rosenthal is adamant about the importance of their Jewish education. “Keeping the children attached to their Jewish identity is very important, especially as they enter the secular world,” she states. “My hope is that their post bar mitzvah education will allow them to learn about Jewish topics on a more in-depth level.”
Helping parents realize the need for further Jewish learning is often challenging. B’nai mitzvah is an incredible milestone for a child, but it is only the beginning of their real Jewish learning. Giving them the tools to become Jews with a strong sense of identity can only be achieved by giving them an outstanding Jewish education. In Judaism, learning never stops.
Another reason for the declining numbers is the increased involvement in synagogue life. When Beit Hamidrash was created, there were no strong youth groups and teen programs in the synagogues. Today, many of the synagogues offer very strong youth group programs, and BBYO is gaining a presence again in the community. Additionally, many synagogues have created “Madrichim” programs, in which students get a chance to volunteer in the religious school classrooms as teacher aides, after the seventh-grade year. This is helping the synagogues keep teens engaged in synagogue life longer than they previously had, and in some cases, all the way through high school. This connection to the synagogue is incredibly important. Lisa Sholk says, “Having teens connected to their synagogue, actually active in their synagogue every week, is hopefully going to make a huge difference in synagogue affiliation in the future. If you think about kids leaving the synagogue after b’nai mitzvah, versus after high school, you are cutting down on the time until they will reconnect with a synagogue. And hopefully this will lead them to connect with Jewish organizations in college, and seek out a synagogue when they start their first job.”
It should be noted that Orlando is not alone. The North American Association for Community Hebrew High Schools (NAACHS) reports steadily declining numbers across the country. In 2007/2008 there were a little over 8000 students registered in 48 community Hebrew high programs. For the 2012/2013 school year, that number had fallen to 3000 in 33 schools. While this may indicate that this is a model that has run its course, it does not negate the fact that the need for Jewish education for teens is still as important as ever.
What is next for teen Jewish education is the real question. The task force is in the process of holding focus groups for parents and teens at various synagogues. A survey has been sent out to families with teens to gather further information about the community’s interest in Jewish teen education. All of the information is being compiled and will be discussed by the task force in the coming weeks.
Will the synagogues take over the task of educating their Jewish youth? Will there still be community-based programming for Jewish teens in Orlando? Do we need a central address for Jewish educators to work together? One thing is certain: the Federation is as committed as ever to supporting Jewish education. As Lisa Sholk states, “our ultimate goal is to best meet the community’s Jewish teen educational needs, by using our dollars to support the best programming we possibly can.”