Rigor With Vigor
"How can anyone command us to be joyous?"
Bill Cohen, director of Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), paces in front of the junior seminar meeting in the University of Judaism's (UJ) chapel, his hands in the air, his eyes delighted as he conducts a spirited give-and-take with 11th-graders on the theology, rituals and liturgy of Sukkot. What are the different names for Sukkot? Why do we do what we do? What is God asking of us by mandating joy on this holiday? The room is alive with Jewish learning and engagement.
LAHHS, founded in 1949, is the jewel in the crown of supplementary Jewish education in Los Angeles, a program for teens in grades eight through 12. By graduation, students have experienced in-depth study of Torah, Hebrew, Pirke Avot, Jewish history, Israel, ethics, and any number of issues in Jewish life.
The students, about 440 of them this year, congregate at UJ on Sunday mornings for three hours of classroom instruction divided into four periods. About 80 percent of the students take another three or four hours of instruction during the week at nine different Conservative synagogues from the South Bay to the West Valley. Those students receive foreign language credit from their high schools for their mastery of Hebrew.
LAHHS's student body has expanded by 40 percent during the past two years, thanks in part to aggressive recruitment on Cohen's part. It isn't easy to sell seven hours of religious school to kids who are up to their ears in sports, music lessons and homework, but LAHHS students aren't ordinary kids. Many spent their elementary years in day school; Cohen has had to add more and more upper-level Hebrew classes to accommodate them.
Although conventional wisdom has it that the best Jewish education is a full-time Jewish education -- it's how almost every Orthodox child is educated in greater Los Angeles, from preschool to high school, and is flourishing in the non-Orthodox community -- every year, hundreds of erstwhile L.A.-area day school students leave full-time Jewish education and enroll in public and secular prep schools for high school.
But many of these parents still want their kids in a Jewish setting on a regular basis, so they join the hundreds of Jewish parents whose children have always received their Jewish education in their synagogues' religious schools.
They all know, explicitly or intuitively, what research has shown: that youngsters who remain in some ongoing program of Jewish education through 12th grade are launched into adulthood with a stronger sense of their Jewishness than kids who quit after becoming bar or bat mitzvah.
And by the time they're high school juniors, they actually may be ready to engage in serious Jewish learning, says longtime Jewish educator Joel Grishaver, one of the partners in Jewish publishing house Torah Aura Productions. "By 11th or 12th grade, you may well have something that you haven't had previously: an intellectual commitment to Judaism," he told The Journal. "They discover that they really love learning about Judaism."
Nathan Osadchey, a 10th-grader at Cleveland High School in Reseda, followed an older brother, now a senior, to LAHHS after nine years at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School. "We decided it was time to go to public school, explore the outside world," he said. Osadchey lists the variety of classes, understanding teachers and the presence of friends as reasons for attending Hebrew High. In addition, he adds, "I feel I'm getting to speak Hebrew better as well as learn many more things about my Jewish heritage that I have never learned before."
Two of Ann Steinberg's children, who transferred from Sinai Akiba Academy to public school while in middle school and currently attend Santa Monica High School, are enrolled at LAHHS. "They're involved in stuff they couldn't have in day school, like band," she said. "I feel they're getting the best of both worlds."
A Firm Commitment
Mah karah bashavua hazeh ba'Aretz? (What happened in Israel this week?)
Yardena Shamir, curriculum coordinator for Union Hebrew High School (UHHS), the Reform movement's counterpart to LAHHS, listens to her honors students describe the latest developments in Israel. Most of the teens in this classroom at Temple Judea in Tarzana are fluent in Hebrew, either because of Israeli parentage, past residence or both.
But although they could put in minimal effort and collect their foreign language credit -- UHHS, like LAHHS, has an arrangement with the Los Angeles public schools -- the students are engaged in the discussion, eager to contribute their two cents' worth on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
UHHS enrolls about 100 students on four sites (three in the Valley, one Westside). Not all of them are from Reform synagogues, and some are day school graduates. Less interested at the moment in continuing a broad-based Jewish education than the LAHHS students, they are drawn by the program's focus on Hebrew language and Israel, which includes reading and grammar in modern Hebrew, conversation on current events, and lots of Israeli pop songs.
"I know I'll be spending a fair amount of my adult life in Israel, so I decided it'd be best to keep my Hebrew up," said Laura Nye, an 11th-grader in public school who attended Heschel Day School. "Yardena is a good teacher, plus I've made some good friends here."
"It's a wonderful program," said Sharoni Finkelstein, a junior at Cleveland High's humanities magnet. "It builds a connection to Israel, where most of my family resides. There's no homework or tests, yet I still get so much out of the program. I love Yardena."
UHHS is a "perfect solution" for one Israeli-born mother. "I wanted them to be involved more with Jewish kids so hopefully they'll marry one," said Ruth Shukartsi, who has 10th- and 11th-graders at UHHS. Why not day school? "The [Judaica] takes too much time from the general studies," she said. "I think the science and math and English take more than a half day if they're going to be prepared for college."
Shamir, who also teaches Hebrew at Milken Community High School, acknowledges that a lot of the kids at UHHS are motivated mostly by the chance to earn foreign-language credit, but she says the students who are there for more can find it. "We cannot ignore the fact that they are getting credit, but they also get the culture: food, songs, history."
Teaching to Learn
"How much do you let your friends influence your life?"
The teacher is Pamela Kohanchi, age 16. The students are eighth-graders. The place is Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills; the topic is peer pressure, and the text, a paraphrase from Pirke Avot, is "In a place without good people, be a good person."
In Kohanchi's classroom, boys and girls discuss the extent to which kids try to look the way their friends want them to look. In another room, three other 11th-graders use role playing and discussion to dramatize the difficulties Germans faced in standing up to the Nazis.
"I decided to continue my Jewish education because of my own curiosity and desire to know more about who I am and where I belong," said Jerami Goldschen, another madrichah in Shomrei Torah's Gesher l'Kesher (Bridge to Connection) program. "I chose the synagogue's program over other programs because I grew up with the synagogue and I feel that I can relate to the other students in that way."
Most non-Orthodox synagogues in and around Los Angeles offer some form of structured educational program for teens after bar and bat mitzvah, at least through grade 10, which culminates in confirmation at Reform, Reconstructionist and a number of Conservative congregations. (A few Reform synagogues, such as Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge and Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood, extend religious school by holding confirmation at the end of 11th grade.)
At most temples, programming drops off on the "post-confirmation" level; juniors and seniors might meet once or twice a month with the rabbi for an hour's discussion, or interested students might serve informally as madrichim. At least half of all local non-Orthodox synagogues, large and small, offer no structured educational programming at all for 11th- and 12th-graders.
Some synagogues take pains to include serious academic content in their secondary-level religious school programs. At Ahavat Shalom, for example, the curriculum for upper grades includes comparative religion, the Jewish lifecycle, theological differences among Jewish movements, and Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles."
"We've established a culture that this is a school, and we take education very seriously," said Rabbi Barry Lutz, Ahavat Shalom's longtime school director. "More than having fun, I'm interested in a meaningful educational experience."
Other synagogues with programs through 12th grade that offer structured learning opportunities are Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, which this year has about 50 kids studying topics in Hebrew, religion and Jewish arts, and Sha'arei Am in Santa Monica, which just began a program of eight-week classes for students in grades eight through 12.
Parent commitment is important; Grishaver says the best thing parents can do to encourage teens to learn is to continue their own learning. Aviva Kadosh, a staffer at the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, cites Ahavat Shalom as a synagogue where teens stay in religious school because there's a sense among parents that everybody's kids stay in religious school.
"It's the culture of an institution rather than any individual that makes the difference," Kadosh said. "In a place where there's a real sense of community, there's more commitment to sticking around."
Feeling and Doing
Most temple-based programs after seventh grade tend to focus on "identity building" rather than book learning. Some synagogues use the Dor Hadash (New Generation) and Havurat Noar (Community of Youth) programs developed by the BJE, which focus, respectively, on general teen issues and on Jewish issues and one's personal relationship to Judaism.
Identity-building programs are often criticized as lacking in content, encouraging teens to "feel Jewish" without giving them the tools of ritual and Hebrew that facilitate "doing Jewish." But such programs can be highly meaningful to the kids in them, and the longer teens stick with them, the more enthusiastic about Jewish identity they become.
Leanne Stein, a senior who lives in Sunland and attends a prep school in La Cañada, has spent every Sunday morning of every school year since kindergarten in Wilshire Boulevard Temple's religious school and now works in the temple as a madrichah. "Since I don't live in a Jewish neighborhood or go to a school that has a lot of Jewish students, my Sundays are my one chance a week to be with others who share my religion," she said. "My Jewish identity is a significant part of who I am, and going to temple every Sunday is one way I make sure that identity survives and grows."
Nor does Wilshire Boulevard's religious school principal, Anat Ben-Ishai, think there's anything wrong with warm fuzzies. "They can always get information from books, from the Internet," she said. "But if they don't develop warm, positive feelings [about Judaism], they won't look for the information."
Necessary for successful teen education, Grishaver says, are "caring, listening teachers. I can't tell you how many teachers I've seen [who] are not scholars, but they have one major skill: They know how to listen to kids."
The 22 Wilshire Boulevard juniors and seniors have such a teacher in Richard Weintraub, who studies with them the issues that they'll be discussing with eighth-graders as madrichim, topics covering both the sacred (such as the Ten Commandments, belief in God, kashrut, prayer and holiness) and the profane (sexuality, peer pressure). He's been working with religious schools for more than 25 years.
His students adore him. "He teaches us lessons about spirituality that I don't think any other teacher could, because he believes so strongly in what he teaches," said 11th-grader Jessie Shulman.
And if these committed students aren't Talmud scholars at 16 and 17, they have certainly assimilated solid Jewish values. "I feel that as a madrichah I am able to give something back, that I really can relate to these kids and can instill something worth instilling that will remain with them their entire lives," said Shomrei Torah's Kohanchi.
Giving something back is also important to Shulman, who rediscovered her Jewishness at Wilshire Boulevard. "I not only feel like a part of the Jewish community again, but like I am helping to pass along a tradition that should not be forgotten by future generations," she said.
After all, the Jewish educator's primary task, Ben-Ishai suggests, is to help set youngsters on the path of learning. Where it leads is up to each student. "If you manage to make a connection and get them to love this place," she said, "and they come back and say, 'I want to make a better world, and this is how I'm going to do it,' this is the fruit of our work."