Shul revamps approach to teen education

Shul revamps approach to teen education

With a new curriculum and a new name, the high school at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick has seen increased interest and enrollment.

The new curriculum puts a modern, topical spin on the traditional Hebrew language, holiday, and ritual-centered program. Based on an eight-semester program developed by Brandeis University’s Institute for Informal Jewish Education, the curriculum will include courses on Jewish bioethics, modern and historic Israel, and “Who Wrote the Bible?”

“I went to Hebrew high school when I was much younger and thought it was great, and while our program here was not horrible, it was the same curriculum and people coming back year after year,” said David Cukor, the Conservative synagogue’s vice president of administration.

He said that some students lost interest in the four-year program, which is for post-b’nei mitzva students beginning in eighth grade. With two daughters, Evie and Farrah, in ninth and 11th grade, respectively, he researched alternative curriculums.

Going beyond the Brandeis suggestions, each Sunday morning class will include a second session combining the best-liked components of the old curriculum with some new elements. A returning favorite is “Breakfast with the Rabbi,” during which Rabbi Robert Wolkoff will come in two or three times a semester to discuss any topic of interest to the students.

“Some things were really popular with the teens in the past so we saw no reason not to keep them,” said Doug Smoller, the congregation’s vice president of school and youth.

Other new features include JAM — Jewish art and music — with Cantor Bruce Rockoff; “News for Jews,” a discussion of current events; and “Who Inspires Us?” in which guests, including Holocaust survivors, will visit with the students.

In its effort to “rebrand” itself, Smoller said, the school will now go by the name “CBT Chai,” with its own logo.

“It sounds simple but giving it a new design and curriculum gives the teenagers attending a sense of ownership,” said Smoller. “Their younger siblings attending religious school are working toward their bar or bat mitzva, but CBT Chai is just for teens.”

Since the new program was unveiled at an open house for prospective students and their parents on Sept. 8, there has been growing enthusiasm, Cukor said. While 14 students had registered for the high school, 13 more signed on immediately after attending the open house, and inquiries have continued to come in.

Others from outside B’nai Tikvah who heard about the school through friends have also called, prompting a decision to open the program to the general community.

“From my point of view, this program really goes to the heart of what it means to be Jewish,” said Smoller. “My oldest is 11, and he is just over the moon looking forward to this after his bar mitzva.”

Presenting this first semester’s topic of exploration, synagogue education director Ann Ruth Nimberg said that students will study Jewish bioethics and morality, how they change over time, and their importance and role in Judaism. “We will define free choice and the slippery slope of some topics, such as abortion, and relate them to what is going on in their own lives,” said Nimberg.

She said the class will “challenge students to think about a person’s freedom and the control and consequences for decisions made.”

Another future semester, “Loom of Israel,” will delve into the Jewish state’s history, as well as its role in Jewish identity. The curriculum includes sections on the Palestinian question, the peace process, and possible conflicts between a Jewish and democratic state.

Cukor said he hoped the new high school would engender a greater sense of belonging among participating teens, benefitting both B’nai Tikvah and the general Jewish community.

“We all know synagogues today are trying to interest new members and retain the ones we have,” he said. “I hope this will build an even greater sense of community at B’nai Tikvah and greater ties to the Jewish community among our teens.”

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