Changes In Jewish HS Education In the Twin Cities This Fall

Having taught for more than 60 years, Rabbi Yosi Gordon had a problem last winter: A serious leg fracture that kept him out of the classroom for more than three months. But, thanks to technology, he only missed one class teaching at Talmud Torah St. Paul.

That use of technology is being utilized as TTSP is rolling out the new Minnesota Online Jewish Ulpan, an online Jewish education program that is part of the changing landscaping of educating Jewish teens across the Twin Cities this fall.

“One of the insurmountable difficulties in Jewish education is time and space,” Gordon said. “I have a student who spends more than an hour getting to class and has to switch buses to do it. Then after class, the same thing. It’s hard. Our community is moving beyond the first and second rings and simply can’t get there.”

MOJU is aiming to take that difficulty out the equation. The classes will meet in real-time over Zoom, an online video conferencing app. Currently, there are two “mini-courses,” three trimester courses, and two year-long college-level Hebrew courses.

“It seems that our teens are quite busy; they are really involved and have to make tough choices,” said Heidi Tarshish, the executive director of TTSP. “This seemed like a nice option for people who couldn’t get here. People have thought it was a great alternative.”

Said Gordon: “There are a lot of teens that would like to learn, and there are teens that never considered it. We think the market exists and this is the way to reach them. From my contacts and beyond, I’m getting enormous positive response.”

Gordon is teaching both mini-courses, Judaism & Islam and Judaism & Christianity alongside friends who are subject-matter experts. The former will be co-taught with Mohamed El-Tayash, and the latter with Greg Meland.

“Mohammed a serious scholar. He’s not coming in as a guest,” said Gordon. “It will give a chance to see how Islam and Judaism are similar and how they are different, and kids will get to understand more of both. We will both present positively in a welcoming way. I know that’s taking a risk, but I trust the kids.”

Changes In Minneapolis

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Jewish Federation officially announced the demise of Yachad, the centralized teen education initiative that had received national acclaim. In its place, Federation rolled out the Teen Education Network (TEN), which empowered the synagogues that had been involved in Yachad – Adath Jeshurun, Bet Shalom, Beth El, Darchei Noam, Shir Tikvah, Temple Israel – to house their own programs, but open them up to the entire community.

Yachad had been housed at the Sabes JCC, which Bet Shalom Rabbi David Locketz said created a hurdle.

“There are people across the community who had never set foot in the JCC before,” he said. “Being at your synagogue brings comfort to people.”

Prior to the 2018-19 school year, Temple Israel and Bet Shalom took their 10th-grade confirmation classes out of Yachad and back in-house after dwindling participation. Locketz said they are working to rebuild their numbers and increase retention.

“We will get back to where we were before Yachad, which was in the low 30s,” he said. “On a regular basis, we had 50 plus kids participate.”

Locketz said that TEN – or a version of it – was one of the options considered before Yachad launched.

“It was under consideration of a hub-and-spoke model of having a central body of information but programs all over that were run by different groups, but the excitement of bringing everyone to one place won the day,” Locketz said.

Eilat Harel, the Minneapolis Federation director of community impact: engagement and Israel Center, said that Yachad was a good idea, even if it didn’t work long-term.

“It was a good idea but reality showed different things and realistically, there were too many challenges,” she said. “It would have been bad if no one tried. Educators still care enough to figure out what the needs are and to work and address Jewish identity and not live in the past.”

Harel said she’s not sure the challenges in the Twin Cities are all that different from what’s happening nationwide.

“We’re not East Coast or Florida with bigger communities and resources,” she said. “We’re addressing things, and we’re trying and failing. But we’re trying. It’s not an unusual challenge.”

St. Paul Status Quo

While Minneapolis is attempting its second community high school education initiative, the St. Paul Jewish Federation and its stakeholders made the decision to not go forward with a communal high school program. A brit had been signed by Federation, Talmud Torah of St. Paul, Temple of Aaron, Mount Zion, and Beth Jacob in June of 2017, and the idea stemmed from the Federation’s strategic priority to “Strengthen Jewish Education.” The decision to end discussions was made in February 2018.

Federation’s outgoing Planning Director Judy Sharken Simon said the study went on for about a year with a consultant from Philadelphia.

“The culmination was a decision to not pursue a joint communal supplemental high school,” she said. “In general, it was just decided it wasn’t the right timing and there were challenges that had to be overcome.”

Sharken Simon said some of the differences included philosophy and what the format should look like.

“We didn’t get into content,” she said. “The financial piece wasn’t working in a way that people felt confident in.”

Despite a communal high school program not going forward, there are still positives to look at going forward.

“What came out of the process was the sense that other joint efforts could be undertaken,” she said. “How the Federation funds education hasn’t been looked at in many years. A task force has been formed to look at how Federation funds education in the country and assess if the current model is right or if change is needed.”