In a room on the second floor of the Seattle Kollel, three 9th-grade girls sat around tables strewn with Tanakhs, binders, worksheets, and cookies. They were explaining “The Hunger Games” to their teacher, Shirley Edelstone, before she began the next lesson on the commandments of interpersonal relations.
“Judging favorably — what does that mean?” Edelstone asked. “Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt? Is the Torah saying we need to be naïve? How do I live this commandment?”
This is Derech Emunah, the all-girls high school that quietly launched this September with an inaugural class of five teens. Currently staked out at the Kollel in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood, the school is in the process of moving to a more permanent residence in the basement of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth.
“There are a number of people in the community who would like a separate-gender school,” said Rooksie David, Derech Emunah’s head of school. David said she was positively influenced by her women-only educational experiences, and she sent her daughters to a single-sex high school in New Jersey. The girls, she said, should be able to build “strong relationships with their peers without the distraction.”
This is the second time members of the Orthodox community in Seward Park have attempted an all-girls high school. The first, Shaarei Binah, opened in 2006 and closed a year later due to lack of interest and enrollment. Seattle has one other Orthodox girls’ high school, out of Chabad’s Menachem Mendel Seattle Cheder in the North End, which has been in existence since 1994.
Jessica Hoffman, Derech Emunah’s board president, explained that the school will serve a pipeline of girls coming out of Torah Day School, which also opened in 2006.
“I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to wait until my daughter is old enough,” said Hoffman, whose daughter is 2. “I do feel passionate about it, and not even for religious reasons, but for educational reasons.”
A student of co-ed schools her whole life, Hoffman said of the boys, “either I was distracted by them, or I was intimidated by them.”
Derech Emunah advocates are in conversation with the Samis Foundation, but Samis won’t fund projects until they have been in operation for at least two years.
“They’re hoping they’ll receive some Samis funds eventually,” said Rob Toren, Samis’s grants administrator.
The women who spearheaded the program “worked rather quickly and intensely” to get it off the ground, said Toren. How it will develop — into a full-fledged high school, merged with Torah Day School or the Cheder’s girls’ high school, or something else — has yet to be determined.
“We have been open in the past, and remain open to working together for the mutual benefit of all,” Tziviah Goldberg, development direct at the MMSC, wrote in an email. The freestyle approach is part of the plan, said Hoffman. Derech Emunah (which means “path of faith”) follows the lean startup business philosophy developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. Instead of planning and investing for years, lean startup’s “build-measure-learn” approach means the entrepreneur, using a series of tools, constantly assesses the needs of the target community instead of setting out to achieve a desired outcome that may ultimately fail.
They’re “essentially beta testing the product,” Hoffman said. “This is an interim program that will lead into a long-term program.” When it hard launches in 2014, it may look completely different.
With build-measure-learn, “We can adjust and modify the curriculum as we go along to meet the needs of the girls or current events,” said David.
In spite of the variables, Hoffman and David are clear about the vision.
“Long-term, the girls should be able to open up any sefer [Jewish book] and find the answer,” Hoffman said. She also hopes they’ll be empowered by successful women and inspired to go into the “next wave of careers” that will be flexible for women. “We really did want to focus a lot on technology and entrepreneurship.”
“We want to foster a love for learning,” David added. “I feel very strongly that a Jewish woman is always developing herself…she has to have the skills to access the knowledge that she needs.”
One of the students, Clara (Aviva) Prizont, 14, said she is so far finding the educational style useful.
“The learning style is good because it’s build around the student, and it really is structured around the best way to learn,” she said.
The girls spend half the day on Jewish studies and half on blended, online and in-class general studies. The general studies program, from the Insight School of Washington, is accredited by the National Accreditation Commission.
The class also commits to 100 hours of volunteering, and this semester, they’re taking a circus performance class at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts in Georgetown. Next semester: Zumba.
David quoted Rabbi Solomon Maimon, who visited the girls on a Friday to lead a weekly study of the Torah portion.
“First you have to make them happy, then you can teach them,” he told her.
“That’s really our underlying presence,” David said. “A positive, upbeat, strengthening and uplifting environment.”