The once-iconic institution of Jewish learning for local teenagers is severely cutting back its operations.
A once-iconic institution of learning for local teenagers is severely cutting back its operations.
The Gratz Jewish Community High School is shutting down all of its satellite branches, leaving only its Mandell campus location in Melrose Park to serve teenagers beginning in the fall.
The move, communicated to parents, branch directors and rabbis earlier this month, is due to fiscal and demographic challenges, according to Gratz College president Joy Goldstein.
“This was not a decision made easily,” Goldstein said, noting that it was the result of a four-month planning process by the college’s board of directors.
With a “precipitous decline in enrollment” and an increase in synagogue-based programs that competed for the same shrinking pool of interested teenagers, “the program as it currently was formulated was no longer financially feasible,” she said.
The dramatic shift for Gratz’s high school program, which dates back in one form or another to the college’s founding 120 years ago, is being greeted in many communal quarters with sadness but not surprise.
Some, however, are expressing dismay at the abrupt and impersonal nature with which the decision was communicated — and concern about what will fill the void.
It comes as Jewish educators and community leaders continue to wrestle with how to keep high schoolers engaged in Jewish learning and involvement post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
“It’s a pretty universal retention problem following Bar and Bat Mitzvah,” said Rabbi Erin Hirsh, director of Gratz College’s professional development program for educators, who has been charged with absorbing the high school program into her portfolio.
In addition, she said, the synagogues that used to serve as feeders to the Gratz high school program are now trying to hold on to their teens themselves. “It’s a broad sociological phenomenon” that Hirsh attributed primarily to budgetary considerations as synagogues strive to retain family memberships even as the children get older.
Some synagogue officials, however, say they offer their own programming to better serve their members.
The numbers tell the story.
There are currently 386 students enrolled in the Gratz high school programs, 277 of whom travel to one of the seven branches, including its anchor at the Mandell campus. The balance of the students are connected through the school’s online learning or service learning programs. Those programs will continue to exist.
The 277 students at the branches include 107 at the Mandell campus. The rest are disbursed at these locations: Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro; Beth David Reform in Gladwyne; Congregation Beth El in Yardley; Temple Sinai in Dresher; Kesher Israel Congregation in Chester County; and the Reading Jewish Cultural Center in Reading.
This represents a nearly 60 percent decline from the 2006-2007 academic year, when 675 students were enrolled in the branches.
Noting that other community high schools around the country have either closed or declined in recent years, Goldstein said the situation is “not unique to Philadelphia.”
She pointed to a recent survey of the North American Association of Community Hebrew High Schools, which found that in 2014, member schools reported 2,031 students, down from 5,441 in 2010 and 6,692 in 2007.
Gratz’s school, she added, last year constituted 21 percent of those enrollment figures.
The Gratz high school program dates back to the earliest days of Gratz College in the late 19th century. For roughly a century, it served as an important venue to educate teenagers in the Philadelphia region, although a dedicated high school program did not begin until the early 1950s.
In 1988, the Gratz high school merged with a network of Conservative synagogue-based Hebrew high schools to become the Gratz Jewish Community High School. It was then that it began to open up branches around the region.
Although the branches will continue through the academic year, the top administrators of the high school — Ruth Schapira and Michael Schatz — were recently laid off.
Hirsh, the new director of the program, said that while she is saddened by the developments, she is looking at the new reality as an opportunity to reimagine what might be offered.
“It is an opportunity born of unfortunate circumstances but it also enabled us to take a fresh look at how to organize” the academic programs and what classes are offered. She said they are convening focus groups to work with the teens themselves to “make sure we have their input.”
She said that the online learning program, not heavily marketed to Philadelphia-area teens in the past, would be made more widely known to local students. In addition, she said, a social entrepreneurship program is being launched, which could tap into the popular and sometimes required community service work high schoolers engage in.
Some of the new plans for the school could depend on funding. Gratz received $313,000 in funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for the high school program this year.
Gratz has already submitted a proposal to Federation seeking a similar level of funding next year that would be used to create the new model at Mandell.
“Our goal is to redeploy the funding that is currently used for infrastructure to enhance the program,” Goldstein said. Hirsh added that they wanted to use the communal dollars “as wisely as possible,” to support high quality programming.
She said she sees new opportunities to reach unaffiliated teens, and said their focus would be on 11th- and 12th-graders, who are not widely served by synagogue programs.
Barbara Hirsh, head of Jewish Life and Learning at the Federation, said it was too early to determine what funding Gratz would get. She said the developments would be an opportunity to look at the needs of the community as a whole regarding teen education.
Meanwhile, the news has hit hard in some parts of the community, particularly the areas served by the current satellite branches.
At Congregation Beth El in Yardley, one of two Gratz outposts in Bucks County, Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg said the news, which arrived via an email from Goldstein, “took us by surprise, caught us off guard and left us reeling.”
“It doesn’t leave us with a lot of time to scramble and put a program together” for September, he said. He said the synagogues in Bucks County are already in early discussions about developing a new community high school in the county. He said that if a strong program can’t be put in place by September, each synagogue may be forced to come up with its own interim approach until they can get a collaborative school together.
Gratz has served as a “wonderful program” for teenagers, he said, adding that he didn’t think the Mandell option was a viable one for most of the families served by the Beth El branch, where about 40 students attend.
With kids as busy as they are, he said, they are not likely to add the extra time required to get to the Mandell campus, especially on a weeknight.
He said he “gets the financial realities” but he wishes there had been some sort of heads up, or at least a phasing out to give communities time to prepare. “It’s a shame,” he said. “Gratz was one of the shining stars of the Philadelphia community.”
Miriam Eiseman, a Gratz high school graduate herself who now sends her two teenage boys to the Gratz Jewish Community High School, agreed.
“I’m one of those legacy kids” who attended Gratz twice a week in the late ’70s and early ’80s, said Eiseman, who lives in Lower Merion. She got her certificate to teach Hebrew school, which led to jobs that helped pay for her college tuition, and she traveled to Israel with her class of 100 peers at the age of 16. “It stayed with me my whole life; it formed my connection to Israel.”
When her own boys, Noah, 17, and Jacob, 14, came of age, “it was a very natural thing to send them to Gratz,” she said. “I like the programming, the spirit.”
Though she and her husband, Elliott, are active members at Beth Am Israel Congregation in Penn Valley, she likes that the Gratz program at Beth David Reform gives her boys “a neat connection beyond your synagogue community.”
Now that the Beth David branch is shutting down, she said, she is determined to get the boys to the Mandell campus to continue at the consolidated Gratz program.
While it’s not clear how many current students studying in the suburbs will follow that path, Goldstein and Hirsh are trying to be optimistic.
“I’ve been known to say that my experience in the high school has had a lifelong impact on me,” said Goldstein, who graduated from Gratz Hebrew High in 1975 at the age of 16. “While I am saddened at the trends that have led us here, I feel confident that this is the right decision for this century.”