‘Meeting kids where they are’

Kehillah: A new and unique approach to Hebrew High School

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – This fall, a brand-new community Jewish high school will be available to teens in Central Massachusetts. Kehillah High will offer students their choice of several thematic tracks each semester, encouraging flexible scheduling, and bring the entire school together for six specific individual programs throughout the year.

The flexible structure and unique approach will give area Jewish high school students an opportunity to learn and to socialize together, fostering friendship and a spirit of community.

The new program stems from a reexamination of “what Hebrew High is and should be,” says Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, which serves as the managing body of Kehillah High in close conjunction with Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Emanuel Sinai.

After educator Wendy Wong, longtime principal of Worcester Community Hebrew High, retired last spring, Schimmel undertook that reexamination in conjunction with Rabbi Valerie Cohen of Temple Emanuel Sinai and Rabbi Aviva Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel.

Rabbi Valerie Cohen

“We recognized that the community needs have changed over past several years,” he continues. “In order to be effective and deliver a product that parents and students would be attracted to and find relevant, we needed to change a few things.”

Schimmel and the two rabbis solicited input first from Wendy Wong and then spoke to both parents and students. Of particular concern in devising a new approach was making it easier for teenagers to participate while also continuing their other extracurricular activities. In recent years, competition for afterschool time has been a consistent factor in discouraging students from attending.

In addition, says Schimmel, “We looked at what was working outside of Hebrew High in our community and recognized that there were some really interesting programs attracting a good number of young people in the synagogues.”

Rabbi Aviva Fellman

“Kehillah” means “congregation” in Hebrew, and the organizers agreed “rather quickly” that it was a fitting new name for a high school program intended to emphasize commonality among young people in a Jewish context.

The new format will create “almost a university feel,” he says. Each congregation is offering different tracks, and students will choose one every semester.

The tracks are:

Active Judaism, offered by Beth Israel, explores “how Judaism and Jewish values help you navigate your world and identify the root causes of social issues,” notes the Kehillah High School registration flyer.

Leadership will be offered in two tracks, one in each synagogue. Intended for student leaders who are active in any organization or leadership training, it will help enhance “skills, values and a Jewish foundation.” At Beth Israel, this track builds upon work Rabbi Fellman is already doing with students on leadership.

Madrichim, also offered by both synagogues, will provide religious school student teachers with mentoring and classroom experience as well as Jewish education theory. The religious school directors from Beth Israel and Emanuel Sinai will be working with students participating in this track.

The final two tracks, Tikkun Olam/Repairing the World and Torah L’shma, will both be offered by Temple Emanuel Sinai. The former addresses social justice in a Jewish framework, while the latter focuses on “Jewish learning for its own sake” and incorporates speakers and films.

In addition, in the spring, Rabbi Valerie Cohen will teach a Confirmation track for students at Temple Emanuel Sinai, in conjunction with other requirements for confirmation.

Classes will be smaller, both facilitating discussions and making scheduling easier. The tracks have been designed to allow students to “work to their own strengths or interests,” says Rabbi Fellman. For example, students who are already leaders in organizations and/or madrichim in religious school will be able to build upon activities in which they are already engaged.

“The key is trying to meet the kids where they are and based on what they’re already doing,” says Rabbi Cohen. “The goal is for Judaism to inform the work they are doing and how it will relate for their future.”

No matter which track they select, all of the students in Kehillah will come together as a group to take part in six joint programs over the course of the school year. Topics are still under discussion, notes Rabbi Fellman, but they will be organized around the concept of community as well as Jewish values.

“Through all the tracks as well as the six school-wide events, we are going to create intentional structure for social interaction,” says Rabbi Cohen. “Our kids don’t know each other – even within the congregations they don’t know each other so well. If we don’t do a focused structure they’re not going to. It’s about creating community in a very intentional way.”

Kehillah teachers will include the rabbis and religious school directors of both congregations as well as additional staff, in company with visiting speakers and presenters relevant to a range of topics. Scheduling will vary and emphasize flexibility. At TES, for example, tracks will meet every three weeks for two hours.

Both rabbis are enthusiastic about the new program.

“It enables students to be challenged to increase their Jewish identity and connection and to build a foundational community in a way that’s flexible, accommodating and geared to their individual interest,” says Rabbi Fellman.

Tuition for the yearlong program is $350 for synagogue members (scholarships may be available) and $550 for unaffiliated.

For more information and to register, contact: Federation, (508) 756-7153; Temple Emanuel Sinai; (508) 755-1257; or Congregation Beth Israel; (508) 756-6204.

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