The consolidation occurring at Gratz Jewish Community High School is sad but also offers new opportunities, writes the president of Gratz College.
Recently, Gratz College announced a new, revitalized plan for the future of its Jewish Community High School. While we see many positive opportunities in the changes we have in store next fall, we know that transformation is difficult and often scary for all involved. Our plan to close our satellite high school branches and operate one centralized campus is no exception.
So to our partner synagogues that have housed these branches, to the families that have supported them and, especially, to the teens who have attended them, we want to take this opportunity to say once again, publicly: We did not take this decision lightly, and we had to face the facts.
Gratz has educated Jewish teens for 120 years and has operated multiple branches for almost 30 of those years. That is a long legacy, and it’s one that bears out this truth: Institutions whose histories span centuries must implement change over the course of time in order to address changing community needs. For the first 57 years of the college’s existence, teens took courses side by side with college students, who continued to take Jewish studies at Gratz while they attended Temple and Penn, and even when they were in medical school.
Understanding that best practices in education in the 1950s required significant changes, the then-leadership of Gratz launched a formal five-year Hebrew High School program in 1952. The decision to create the branch-based JCHS came 36 years later, in the late 1980s, and addressed the needs and realities of that time.
Today the sociological trends that challenge “part-time” Jewish education, the geographic expansiveness of our five-county community, and the trend among local synagogues to develop their own high school programs are key factors in our realities. Like Jewish community high schools nationally, Gratz JCHS has seen steep enrollment declines — 50 percent over the last eight years — despite the fact that students and parents continue to express great satisfaction with our program.
So, with heavy hearts and after careful deliberation, we concluded that it is financially unfeasible to continue the JCHS program in the decentralized model.
We are confident that this difficult period is exactly that — one phase in a longer change process that will ultimately yield good results. Gratz College remains committed to Jewish teen education. Gratz high school education will live on; it will simply serve the community in different ways in the future than it has in the past. Quite possibly it will serve more members of the community in a new paradigm.
We and the community we continue to serve stand at a place that may feel precarious but that actually marks the beginning of a new era.
First and of most immediate importance, classes are continuing as usual at all seven branches. In the period between now and September, we want to help the synagogues that currently house our branches to develop free-standing, high-caliber teen programs. Overlooked in the reporting of our high school changes is that we are offering our partners, at no cost, expert consulting on curricula development and more.
In the longer run, we envision ourselves providing different services to area synagogues and other Jewish entities that want to serve teenagers. We hope to develop new curriculum for teens, including a library of videos, to trigger lively discussion on Jewish topics. We also plan to introduce a social entrepreneurship program that will allow teens to earn academic credit while engaging in community service, without requiring a weekly commitment at Mandell. And teens can also get a Gratz education without commuting to Mandell at all, through our JOLT (Jewish Online Learning for Teens) program.
At our central location, Mandell, we look forward to drawing a community of talented, involved eighth- to 12th-grade students who might not otherwise ever meet each other. We’ll reorganize much of our curriculum so that students pursue individual passions for politics, the arts and leadership development, through a Jewish lens, and we’ll retain our offerings in Hebrew language and Jewish teacher training.
Along with the Jewish community nationally, we’ve grappled with the question of how we can continue to engage teens so they remain actively Jewish beyond their B’nai Mitzvah, as they enter the crucial stage of young adulthood. Leading research has given us some good answers. Thought leaders challenge us to continue to innovate.
Institutions must be informed by the past while being cognizant of the present and focused on the future. For Jewish educational institutions, the stakes are high. Although the planned changes for JCHS are difficult, we invite the community to move past these challenging times with us. Together, we can play an important role in building the Jewish community of the future.
Joy W. Goldstein is president of Gratz College.