Asya Sigelman took a leap of faith.
A graduate of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., Sigelman pursued a career as an academic, teaching Greek and Roman history, language, culture, poetry and philosophy. She continued teaching those subjects when she founded the Main Line Classical Academy (MCLA) four years ago, but the Orthodox Jew had a vision for something more. (A classical education is a nontraditional system based on the trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry.)
That’s why MLCA introduced its Gur Aryeh program this year. In addition to their regularly scheduled classes, students can take classes in Judaic studies and immersive modern Hebrew. It’s a school within a school and, to Sigelman’s knowledge, the first of its kind.
“Jewish families should want this kind of education,” Sigelman said. “We envisioned it, and we willed it. We are increasingly meeting people who say, ‘Yes, we want this for our kids.’”
Sigelman describes MLCA as having a “Judea-Christian-Western curriculum.” Indeed, MLCA also offers a Christian Studies Program.
The school has 48 children, ranging from kindergarteners to seventh-graders. Eight of them are involved in the Gur Aryeh program, which Sigelman hopes can balloon to about 20 students. Unlike many traditional Jewish day schools, the program does not have rabbinical supervision.
“There’s no law that we need to have rabbinical supervision or endorsement for the program,” Sigelman said. “It would be nice if at some point we get rabbinical supervision. There are some Jewish day schools out there that don’t have a rabbi endorsing them.”
Rabbi Ira Budow, the director of the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, expressed puzzlement at the program. In insisting he was not casting judgment, he attributed the concept of a school offering Jewish studies alongside Christian studies as likely appealing to interfaith couples.
“This is very foreign to me,” Budow said. “It’s the type of school that may really be [appealing] for an intermarried couple. The intermarried couple may be celebrating Chanukah and Christmas. To know they can go to a school where both religions are being taught and celebrated might be [favored by] those people.”
Judy Groner, Perelman Jewish Day School’s head of school, acknowledged Jewish day schools come in different formats. She pointed to Perelman as taking an interdisciplinary approach, weaving Hebrew into much of the school day.
“I just came in from our students singing the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by Hatikva,” Groner said. “From the moment our children come in in the morning, they are constantly exposed in a holistic way that their Jewish identity is a part of who they are, and they don’t see it as a silo that’s separate. Here, Hebrew is spoken in the hall.”
The school’s diversity of experience and curriculum is what appealed to Jacob Feeley, who teaches Judaic studies, Hebrew, Latin and history.
He said the format enables students to recognize parallels between what they’re learning in history and English classes with some of the things they are learning in the Jewish portion of their curriculum.
“In my experience in teaching, when you’re teaching secular stuff there’s not a lot of emphasis on the influence of biblical ideas on art or even literature, even though religion has been hugely influential on western art and literature,” Feeley said. “In my experience the Bible is restricted to Jewish studies and is oftentimes not brought out in secular studies. Here’s a unique way to draw these interesting connections.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said he was intrigued to see how MLCA’s model works out. He pointed to some potential drawbacks.
“There are some parents who will feel that this kind of solution is not for them because they actually want their children to be in an all-Jewish environment, and this will only be an all-Jewish environment for part of the day,” Sarna said. “It will be interesting to see where there are other tensions, between what is learned in the secular education, in this case unconstrained by Jewish teaching, and what is learned in the Jewish education.”
“I’ve been in [Jewish] day schools for 45 years,” Budow said. “Forty-five years ago this idea would have never been thought of.”
Sigelman believes the program’s ingenuity will be appealing to Jewish families interested in their children learning more about how Jews have played into some of the world’s great cultural innovations.
“We believe we owe it to new generations of Jewish kids,” she said.