How do you make Jewish education interesting and relevant to teenagers? It’s a question probably as old as the Jewish people. And the organizers behind Jewish High are taking a stab.
“We’re tremendously improving the curriculum, especially the Jewish philosophy or ethics curriculum, along with a number of electives,” said Rabbi Mark Spiro, Jewish High’s principal. “They should get a secure Jewish education, not just talking heads.”
Jewish High emerges from a partnership formed in 2010 between Hebrew High, a nondenominational program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and Torah High, an accredited program out of Toronto adapted by Ari Hoffman, the director of Seattle’s Orthodox National Council of Synagogue Youth chapter. Hebrew High closed its doors after 41 years this June, and in its place have grown Jewish High and the Livnot Project, a social justice curriculum.
At Jewish High — JHigh for short — students attend two one-hour periods at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. First, they choose an elective — like conversational Hebrew, cooking, Krav Maga, Israel advocacy, music, or independent Jewish study — then 9th and 10th graders head to Jewish values and 11th and 12th graders to Jewish ethics. Jewish High also offers a junior high program for 6th–8th graders.
Spiro hopes the students will “discuss and debate and come to their own conclusions.” The Jewish values class covers a spectrum of Jewish foundational concepts such as God, Torah, reward and punishment, and community; Jewish ethics works through applying such concepts to real-life ethical dilemmas and situations.
So, how do you make Jewish education interesting and relevant to teenagers? You pay them. And give them school credit. For every friend students sign up, they get $20, and the student who signs up the most friends wins a trip to Israel. But the real driving force behind Jewish High is its accreditation program, which has expanded since the days of Torah High.
“We are fully adapting the model that has proven very successful in Canada,” said Hoffman, referring to the original Torah High, where students earn school credit for their supplementary school classes. Hoffman is the dean of Jewish High.
Hoffman is particularly excited about a new program he and two partners, Josh Russak and Greg Beretta, are implementing called Business Ethics Torah, or B.E.T. It’s a multi-year business school track focusing on business and personal fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship, and Jewish ethics. Students can earn math credits, intern with local tech startups, and invest mock funds that will mature into actual funds for Jewish programs and Israel trips.
In the long term, Hoffman hopes B.E.T. will become its own accrediting agency with tracks for non-Jewish youth as well. But most important, in the wake of financial scandals like Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, he said, “We really need to put things in perspective.”
The separation from Hebrew High occurred because when Federation leadership decided to overhaul its allocations model, it chose to shift its focus away from programming, said interim CEO Nancy Greer.
“The decision to get out of the program was simply…consistent with the fact that the Federation really didn’t want to be running programs; it wanted to be funding programs,” Greer said. The Federation allocated funds to both Jewish High and to Livnot.
“Jewish High pretty much took the best of Hebrew High and Torah High,” said Hoffman. He stresses that the program is meant for students of any or no affiliation.
“There are so many thousands of Jewish kids in Seattle,” he said. “If we don’t get these kids now, we’re never going to see them again. It’s fighting a battle against assimilation.”