Vital Signs: Putting the School into Hebrew School

February 22, 2010

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily


This is the second in a series on people and places fostering commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere by Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In it he tells about Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies (BCHSJS) a supplementary high school in New Jersey whose students attend once a week, most on Sunday but others after a full day at their regular school.


BCHSJS a community high school serving students from over a dozen New Jersey synagogues, most of them Conservative. With nearly 300 students, it can field courses in Jewish texts, the arts, values, identity-building, and language, and appeal to students coming with different levels of preparation. Socially, a communal school offers Jewish teens a unique opportunity to meet and befriend others from outside their immediate environs: this, in fact, is one of the major attractions of BCHSJS.


Wertheimer writes: "BCHSJS has all the academic trappings of a superior "real" school—clearly articulated syllabi and goals; the expectation that students will attend regularly, prepare homework assignments, and write exams; enforced penalties for delinquency; and formal assessments at the end of each semester. Such has been the credo of the school's principal, Fred Nagler, ever since he took over as principal a quarter-century ago. Only a strong academic atmosphere with accountability, he is convinced, will earn student respect and motivate student performance.


The fundamental purpose of BCHSJS is to address one of the most scandalous facts of American Jewish life. For most young people, Jewish education ends right after bar or bat mitzvah, leaving them with a childlike understanding of their religious culture just as they are developing the capacity to think in a more mature way. In supplementary education, as a rule, one-third of the students quit after the seventh grade, and only 15 percent of seventh graders are still enrolled by grade 12. Even day schools, at least those under non-Orthodox auspices, suffer similarly sharp declines. True, a number of non-Orthodox congregations manage to hold on to their adolescents by means of educational programs and other sorts of activities. But communal supplementary schools, designed like BCHJS to attract teens from a wide geographical area, may offer much greater promise. "

Updated: Mar. 21, 2010