This used to be the norm: After becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the boy or girl would continue their Jewish education through either confirmation or a similar program of study and then often go beyond.
Times have changed.
Now it seems that more often than not a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is the end of one’s Jewish education. As post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah enrollment for Hebrew high schools has steadily declined, it’s caused concern among area synagogues. They’re wondering how to reverse the trend and what can be done to make kids want to continue their Jewish education.
Lower Merion Area Hebrew High, or LMAHH (pronounced lama), could be the answer.
The brainchild of four Conservative synagogues — Har Zion Temple, Adath Israel, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El and Beth Am Israel — will open its doors next September.
The hope is that students who are already familiar with each other through their social circles will feel comfortable continuing their Jewish education together.
“We wanted to pool our resources and our kids and put more teens in the room,” LMAHH director Norman Einhorn said. “No one wants to be in a classroom with four or five kids.
“This will enable us to have an educational environment with a social aspect. It’s not a day school. It’s supplementary — for kids who’ve been seeing each other at public events who’ll now be able to see each other in an educational setting.”
They’ll kick things off with an April 2 launch party at Beth Am Israel for parents and prospective students.
“We want to generate excitement and a positive buzz around a completely new entity which has never existed before on the Main Line,” said Hazzan Harold Messinger of Beth Am Israel. “People are curious what it will mean to have our four synagogues come together.
“This will give them a taste. It will allow them to know us and our style and see what we have to offer. As professionals, it’ll be an opportunity for us to hear what they’re interested in.”
After meeting opposition for years whenever such a proposal was raised, the timing is finally right.
“This is something Norman and I talked about for years — what would it be like to break down those walls,” Messinger continued, “but people kept saying, ‘What we’re doing works. It’s not broken, so we don’t need to fix it.’
“But the past three or four years we’ve all seen a downward trend in enrollment — an increase in students being pulled in many directions. Nationally, a number of communities are doing this successfully. We said, ‘Maybe we can do our own version of it and be unique to Philly.’”
The 2017-’18 plan for LMAHH is that students from grades 8 through 12 will meet on Sundays at Har Zion from 9:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and on Tuesdays at Beth Am Israel from 6:30 to 8.30 p.m. Students can register for one or both programs.
In subsequent years, the host site will rotate, and the organizers want to make it clear that other synagogues — regardless of denomination — are welcome to join them. Students don’t need to be synagogue members to enroll.
It’s an idea long overdue, according to another participant.
“Our kids go to the same schools, the same camps and participate in the same activities,” said Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El Associate Rabbi Marc Israel. “So to break kids down by synagogue in certain ways is artificial.
“These kids don’t make a distinction based on synagogues. There are friendship groups across synagogue lines. Our goals in education are no different. When we started looking at what’s best for students, the answer became obvious.”
Officials at Adath Israel are equally thrilled.
“We want our teens to have a great program,” Adath Israel Rabbi Eric Yanoff said. “One thing we know about teens is that the more there are in a program, the more likely it is to succeed.
“Teens go where teens are. That’s what they do.”
Getting them there is one challenge. Keeping them interested so that they’re willing to come back is a different one.
Einhorn is open to any suggestions.
“This program is going to have an engagement part,” he said. “We want to have our staff involved in trips and social engagement.
“Whatever their youth group is into, we’d like to get their feedback. We’re excited to have an advisory council that includes students. The ultimate goal is to give them a sense of their Jewish identity before they head off to college.”
The administrators aren’t the only ones intrigued.
“Right now, Hebrew school is not that big for many kids my age,” said 14-year-old Anna Reisner, who’ll be in ninth grade when LMAHH gets underway. “This could be a good opportunity for them.
“Once you’ve had your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, you should still want to learn more because you’re still going to be Jewish. … I’m hoping to be able learn things from teachers I haven’t been exposed to. I’m excited to see how other teachers do it.”
“As a parent, I’m excited for kids to have both a larger network to create higher energy for their experiences and to have more options,” added her mother, Cindy Reisner, vice president of education and youth at Har Zion. “It’s really important for young adults to experience Jewish engagement in places other than their own synagogue.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729