Two years ago, Yachad was recognized nationally for being an innovative Jewish education program for teens. Despite that success, the program will be completely revamped for the upcoming school year. Rather than 9th-12th grade being at the Sabes JCC, the synagogues will be taking back the 9th and 10th-grade programs, and launch a “leadership academy” for 11th and 12th grade.
“We are built for change,” said executive director Dana Prottas. “We knew along the way that we’d be fluctuating and changing because that’s what happens in 21st-century education. The synagogues were limited into what they would afford Yachad to do in terms of pivoting and this was their recommendation that came out of it.”
Jim Cohen, the executive director of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, which oversees the program, said that the enrollment numbers being down led to the change. After back-to-back years of 210 students, the number of students fell to 158 – a drop of nearly 25 percent.
“Some of the rabbis felt if there was a synagogue connection (for 9th and 10th grades), they may get a higher percentage of 11th and 12th graders,” said Cohen. “It wasn’t an insignificant difference, which is why we acted quickly to address it,” “I’m proud of the fact that teens are doing more and engaged more than [they have] ever been,” said Prottas, who said that the enrollment numbers don’t tell the whole story because the engagement of the teens had increased. “Having a much richer and more fulfilling experience; I don’t think that can be overlooked.”
Yachad was developed as a partnership between the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and: Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Bet Shalom Congregation, Beth El Synagogue, Darchei Noam, Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, the Sabes JCC, Sharei Chesed, Shir Tikvah, Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, and Temple Israel. A brit — covenant — was signed by each of the synagogues and agencies. Sharei Chesed and Darchei Noam don’t have confirmation programs, and Shir Tikvah had always kept their confirmation program in-house.
“All of the brit signers, as far as I’m concerned, are very committed to the concept of keeping Yachad active even if it looks different,” Cohen added. “People worked too hard to create it; we aren’t selling it down the river.”
Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El said that even when the high school program existed as part of Talmud Torah, 9th grade was typically small, attendance ramped back up for 10th grade, and then the 11th and 12th grade had “a handful of committed students” that stuck it out. Davis’ Beth El colleague Rabbi Avi Olitzky, who teaches the confirmation class, said about 75 percent of eligible teens are in confirmation.
“I’ve always said we have to be nimble enough to say that even if it works now for a teen, it may not in three years,” said Rabbi David Locketz of Bet Shalom.
Locketz said that they had been seeing a drop in engagement after 8th grade. “I couldn’t get the 9th and 10th graders to make that transition [to Yachad]. That was the big risk we took. Anecdotally, we see 75 percent or greater retention through confirmation.”
Prottas’ initial plan for Yachad was a post-B’nai Mitzvah through 8th-grade program, and a separate 9th-12th-grade program in order to combat the drop.
Davis said that he isn’t surprised that the program needs to reevaluate where it goes.
“Why didn’t we meet those numbers? I’m not sure,” he said. “There are some programs where the recruitment was fantastic. Prep U was something new and brought in all kinds of new students. [Programs] which will be retained and which will be reexamined, and under which structure, is yet to be seen.”
“A National Model”
Prior to the overhaul of the program, Prottas said that Yachad has been a model in the Jewish education world; she said it’s seen nationally as the largest and strongest communal high school program.
“When I talk to people nationally about these kinds of changes, they are kind of floored because we’re doing what no one has been able to pull off,” she said. “That’s hugely noteworthy in that what we’re doing is outstanding. Everybody is looking at Yachad to see how it’s working, what’s going on, and how to strengthen their program through what we are doing. We are showcased as a national model for success.”
Location A Challenge?
Locketz said that he thought, among some of the challenges for Yachad, was the geographic one of moving to the Sabes JCC. Adath and Beth El have long had their 10th-grade confirmation programs at the Sabes JCC, as they used to be part of Talmud Torah of Minneapolis Beit Midrash. Temple Israel had its programs there while they were renovating their facilities.
“That was sort of the general issue but there were others too,” Locketz said. “We didn’t have a relationship with the space and it didn’t feel like home.”
Adath Rabbi Harold Kravitz and Davis both said that the premise of Yachad was that it didn’t all have to be located in one spot.
“From the outset, there were questions about the model: Focused on a central campus vs. the city as a campus,” Davis said. “How much should it operate like a traditional Hebrew high school vs. developing new outreach techniques? Those options were always on the table. The current Yachad, on Wednesday nights at the JCC, felt like a Hebrew high school. “
Said Kravitz: “I think everyone tried to make it work. It’s challenging to get kids to commit even though it’s a great program. There are lots of things competing for their time.”
Temple Israel Rabbi Jennifer Hartman declined to answer any questions about the program and the synagogue’s involvement, deferring to a statement released by Federation last week.
“I don’t see it as pulling out or the demise of Yachad. We’re being nimble and recognizing how to reach more people and not just continue to do what was done because we’ve always done it a certain way,” said Locketz. “If I can engage them where they’re comfortable, I can turn them over to Yachad and point them at something that interests them: The higher level, self-selected programming that Yachad is amazing at. If you remove our confirmation class and look at those 12 kids participating, I think we can far exceed that once we have them back and have those relationships.”