We as a community are justifiably proud of our many day schools, the number of students enrolled, the number who continue on in Israel, and the many young men and women who go on to study in Jewish institutions of higher learning. While we may feel triumphant in our cocoon of insular Orthodoxy, there is a very large segment of the Jewish population in northern New Jersey who may not share our specific values. I will not engage in internecine disputation. However, I wish to explore one area of this divide where I believe we have common ground.
Whatever one’s belief system may be, and whatever one’s level of Jewish observance may be, anyone who is interested in a Jewish future understands that the key to a Jewish future for our children is Jewish education and authentic Jewish experiences. Orthodox and many committed Conservative Jews send their children to day schools. There are many thousands of children in our community who receive no Jewish education at all, including many children of Israeli parents. I do not wish to debate the merits of congregational schools. Suffice it to say that it is not an adequate Jewish education. The American Jewish community following World War II thought that synagogue schools were the answer. For about 25 years, with classes that met four to five times a week, something was accomplished. Today it’s just a holding area until a meaningless bar or bat mitzvah event. The increase of a Jewishly committed laity is a testament to the success of the day school movement. The prevalence of intermarriage and assimilation shows that, in the words of JTS Prof. Jack Wertheimer, “American Jews bet on the wrong horse.”
Our community is fortunate that there exists an institution that bravely and successfully works with Jewish teens from area synagogues to keep them Jewish. The Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, under the capable leadership of Fred Nagler, has been in operation for over 40 years. BCHSJS is a regional Sunday school program for Jewish teens in grades 8-12. It’s a five-year program. They draw from over 20 different northern New Jersey congregations (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox) and have non-affiliated students enrolled as well. They have been giving local teens the tools to form a Jewish identity that carries them into adulthood and stays with them for life.
BCHSJS is not “old school” Hebrew school. The program combines fun social activities with engaging, challenging and relevant Jewish studies taught by passionate, inspiring teachers. To help today’s over-scheduled teens enhance their preparation for college, they offer many opportunities for them to fulfill their community service requirements and even to earn college credits. It’s one of the only supplemental community high schools in the country that has a special program, “Project Success,” so students with special needs can fully integrate and thrive in this program.
Statistics show that after completing congregational Hebrew school, the vast majority of teens immediately drop any form of Jewish learning. And yet, this is the most important time to guide our youth into becoming adults with a strong Jewish affiliation and identity. As thousands of BCHSJS alumni and their parents can attest, BCHSJS has been a catalyst for making that happen. It prevents the B’nai Mitzvah from being the endpoint of Jewish education and ushers teens into the next phase of becoming compassionate, committed Jews. This community of teens graduates with a strong sense of what it means to be Jewish and with a deeper connection to Israel that supports them on the college campus and beyond.
Passionate teachers bring the fundamentals of BCHSJS to life and serve as mentors and role models. They are open-minded and care deeply about their students. Teens can relate to them, as the teachers openly share their personal experiences about how they developed their own Jewish identity. They understand what the students are going through and provide encouragement, guidance and new perspectives.
The teen years are when students can begin to really grapple with religious issues. BCHSJS is committed to giving students a meaningful Jewish education. Teens enjoy selecting their own classes, from history, current events, text study, art and music, social justice, Bible studies, popular culture and more—all of which they experience through a Jewish lens. Unlike “old school” Hebrew school, BCHSJS offers a personalized path to learning through interactive discussion and topic analysis instead of rote memorization. BCHSJS students write that “it’s cool to be Jewish”; “I’m proud to be Jewish”; “I want to be more involved”; “BCHSJS made me more aware”; “even though I may not be religious I am still Jewish”; and “Havdalah at the Shabbaton really blew me away, I’m going to do it at home now.” They regularly visit with seniors at Daughters of Miriam, meet with prominent Jewish leaders, and travel to Israel. But most importantly it is a five-year learning experience. Watching these typical high school seniors cry at their graduation at how much they will miss BCHSJS when they go to college is not something we usually see at yeshiva graduations.
Most eighth graders are reluctant to continue schooling after bar/bat mitzvah. Parents often force them to attend. The vast majority not only stay on and make new friends and develop Jewishly, but they actually look forward to getting up early on Sunday mornings to attend classes at Moriah in Englewood. At their graduation, they bemoan the fact that they will miss their friends and teachers. Alumni come back from college to visit and remain in contact with their teachers.
Graduates enroll in Judaic courses in college, join Hillel and kosher meal plans; many make aliyah and some serve in the IDF. Some attend yeshiva or seminary in Israel, or YU and Stern. I remember putting check marks next to certain names for the BCHSJS president at a graduation some years ago indicating which girls would not shake hands when receiving their diploma since they had become shomer negiah.
The 2017 BCHSJS dinner will take place on Wednesday, June 7, at 7 p.m. at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, 10-10 Norma Avenue in Fair Lawn. Contact Sue Daniele or Marie Reich at 201-488-0834
Please join us at the Annual Dinner of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. Your participation in the BCHSJS Annual Dinner will help secure the future of the school and allow them to continue to offer dynamic and engaging educational experiences for hundreds of teens in Bergen County and beyond. If you cannot attend, please consider making a contribution. We don’t expect that BCHSJS will become your #1 priority. But #4 or #5 on your tzedakah or ma’aser list would be nice.
By Wallace Greene
Rabbi Dr. Wallace has been an active board member of BCHSJS for 19 years.