Paulette Mendelsohn of Livingston wasn’t sure how she was going to continue her 12-year-old daughter’s Jewish education. After third grade, she transferred from the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA) in Livingston to public school in Livingston to access the services there.
The family hired a tutor and sent their youngest child to the Hebrew school at Chabad of Short Hills, but it wasn’t ideal, particularly from a social perspective. Her peers at the family’s Orthodox congregation, Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, were cordial but she had lost her Sabbath-observant network of friends, according to Mendelsohn.
“The kids say hello to her, but they’re not having playdates with her on Shabbos afternoon,” said Mendelsohn. “It’s very hard.” To make matters worse, the Chabad Hebrew school ends after sixth grade, leaving few options for continuing education.
Kulanu, a new after-school Hebrew school under Orthodox auspices, announced it would open this fall, with classes to be held at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange. During an open house at the JCC on Aug. 7, attended by about 30 people, Mendelsohn told NJJN she had already signed her daughter up.
The school is the brainchild of three local Orthodox men: Moshe Glick, Ira Bloom, and Larry Rein; none have children who might be candidates for Kulanu. To hear them tell it, they are just stepping in to solve a problem they see facing the community.
“When no one is doing it, you have to do it,” said Glick, paraphrasing an adage of Hillel.
Once Orthodox students leave day schools and yeshiva high schools, their Jewish educational options are limited. Whether they switch schools because of learning disabilities, finances, mental-health issues, or other reasons, they fall into something of a communal black hole. There’s no go-to educational program for them, and despite the availability of social and educational options like NCSY — a teen group affiliated with the Orthodox Union — and youth groups run by synagogues, parents say their children lose their social networks.
“There’s so much pain people feel when their kids are no longer in school with their peers,” said Glick in a series of telephone conversations with NJJN. “They’re not on the bar and bat mitzvah lists, and they are not really friends anymore” with the kids in yeshiva.
“These kids are slipping through the cracks. We can’t keep burying our heads in the sand.”
Realizing the uphill battle these families face galvanized the threesome from West Orange. Glick believes the day school drop-out rate is only going to get worse, and said that millennials are not as willing to pay the steep tuition bills as their predecessors have been.
“It’s a paradigm shift. Either we get ahead and prepare for it or we don’t,” he said, suggesting the consequences for not stepping in would be a significant deficit in Jewish knowledge, observance, and literacy for the next generation.
(Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at JKHA and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, told NJJN he hasn’t seen an increase in student attrition from his Orthodox-affiliated day school, one of two Orthodox day schools located in the Greater MetroWest area, to public schools.)
Kulanu, open to students in grades three-12, will offer Jewish education as well as occasional social and spiritual programming, like a quarterly Shabbaton and other holiday experiences. Its founders also envision it as a kind of clearinghouse, helping similarly situated kids and families find one another. Kulanu is being set up as a 501(c)(3) and will operate as a nonprofit organization.
It is not strictly a program of the JCC or of the Orthodox community, but the school’s founders have sought buy-in from local stakeholders, from area synagogues and day schools to the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest.
“Kulanu is a critical resource for families whose children currently attend public school,” said Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of the Orthodox Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange. “While in no way does it compare to or replace a Jewish day school education, it certainly gives a child an ability to learn Torah and connect with members of the Jewish community.”
It is not the first independent religious school to open locally, but it is the first in the Orthodox community. In 2010, the JCC opened its own religious school for unaffiliated families with young children. After area rabbis raised concerns that it was encroaching on the synagogue religious school model, it closed at the end of that year.
Others, like the Bayt Yeladim Jewish Learning Center, which opened in 2015 in Livingston and had more than 70 students enrolled last year, also targets unaffiliated families and takes a non-denominational approach to Judaism.
Kulanu will meet on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Tuition is set at $1,000 for six months and $1,800 for the year.
Binyamin Bromberg of Livingston is the school’s director. Program director for the YM-YWHA of Union County and youth director at Congregation Israel of Springfield, Bromberg has taught at JKHA as well as in the New York City public school system. All of Kulnau’s teachers will come from Orthodox backgrounds, according to the organizers, but students from all denominations will be welcomed.
The school will rest on three educational pillars: traditional, spiritual, and social. Topics that will be covered in the curriculum will include prayer, Jewish law, mussar (ethics), and the weekly parsha.
Prospective families attending the open house were receptive to the program and revealed a wide range of reasons for pulling their kids from local yeshivot.
Lee and Esti Morreale of West Orange are moving their daughter, who has some learning challenges, from JKHA to public school as she enters ninth grade. “Taking her out was a big decision, and it wasn’t made lightly,” Esti said. They are considering Kulanu, but they know the transition to public school may be a lot to manage. They are also considering a combination of private tutoring and NCSY.
Peter Kessel of Springfield moved his children, now 13 and 15, to public school for financial reasons five years ago. His two children are doing well in Springfield public schools, according to Kessel, and the family joined Chabad of Springfield for the peer group. “It’s social for us,” he said.
He told NJJN he’d like his children to have more Jewish friends and wants his youngest child exposed to serious Jewish learning, something he hopes she’ll get at Kulanu.
Judith Ness of Teaneck came to the open house with her son, Ezra. The family moved to Bergen County from West Orange for educational opportunities for Ezra, but still feels connected to the local community. Ness called the open house presentation “very comprehensive,” and added, “I think they have a great product.” She has not been able to find anything comparable for her son in terms of community support in Teaneck and decided to enroll him in Kulanu.
Asked what he thought of Kulanu, Ezra said, “I’m not sure.” But his
“I think it’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be great, and you’re going to learn a lot,” she told him.
For Evan Bell of West Orange, Kulanu is the obvious solution. His daughter, 11, went to JKHA through the third grade and switched to public school for the reading services. She goes to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires during the summer and has a private tutor at home for Jewish subjects on a weekly basis. “But I think the social aspects of having a classroom and other kids that are in similar situations would be good for her,” said Bell. He added, “This will be a great way for her to connect with the broader Jewish community, make new friends, and learn about her culture and religious aspects of Judaism.”
For more information, contact Kulanu at firstname.lastname@example.org.