David Bryfman’s May 12 article (“Jewish Teenagers want to engage. Just ask them”) rightly points out the critical importance of engaging post-b’nai mitzvah teens in Jewish programs of substance. We at Shoresh Hebrew High School could not agree more. Since 1999, Shoresh has developed a successful model of text-based Jewish study for students who attend secular schools to help them become critical thinkers about our Jewish heritage, to find a sense of shared community and destiny among all Jews, and to meet the challenges of American Jewish life.
Shoresh meets at the JCC of Greater Washington, in Rockville, Maryland, each Sunday night 6-9 pm during the school year. Three 1-hour classes, grouped by grade, cover four core subject areas: tanach, siddur, rabbinics, and history. Our students embody the diversity of the Washington Jewish community, coming from Conservative, Chabad, Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues, as well as those who are not affiliated. Some have day school experience, others do not.
The key to our success has been our focus on critical thinking. Because our students and faculty come from different Jewish backgrounds, our focus is less on “what” than on “why.” There are no “wrong” answers, and students are encouraged to bring Judaism into their daily lives in a way which they find satisfying and meaningful.
Our goals are relatively simple, yet profound. First, we encourage our students to “Think Jewish while doing secular.” Our curriculum leverages what our students are doing in secular school, and provides them with the ability to think about secular studies from a knowledgeable Jewish perspective.
Second, we foster Jewish pluralism and a sense of “Klal Yisrael.” Teens are by nature risk takers (or should be!) and respect for differences is crucial. As one student stated, “I’m Orthodox, but I grew up in a Conservadox household. I went to a community day school, I belong to both an Orthodox and a Conservative synagogue, I go to a Conservative camp, and most of my Jewish friends from school are Reform. And in none of those environments have I ever seen the kind of respect for difference that Shoresh offers.”
Our third goal is to help create meaningful relationships among peers and adults. Classmates often spend 5 or 6 years together, fostering enduring friendships with fellow teens they might not otherwise encounter. The relationship between students and teachers changes, develops and deepens over the years. A recent graduate stated, “My time at Shoresh has been amazing, full of wonderful teachers and classmates, all of whom want to teach and learn.”
The final building block of our program is to help build core Jewish life-coping skills, through open and frank discussions of current issues, always with an eye to historical precedent. These are introduced through classic Jewish media: tanach, siddur, rabbinics, and history (including classes on Zionism, modern Israel, and the American Jewish experience).
Shoresh achieves these objectives without making unrealistic demands on our students. As a recent graduate remarked, “For the past 5 years, we have had the opportunity to show up to Shoresh on Sunday nights, and simply learn about Judaism—with no strings attached. Shoresh does not expect anything from us besides our presence and attention.” She continued, “Shoresh has given us the solid basis of knowledge necessary to continue to mold our Jewish identities simply by asking us to be available and open to learn for three hours each week.”
Finally, what is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Shoresh story has been its impact on students. One recent graduate, stopping by to see his teachers during a college break, reported that he was amazed to realize how much Shoresh discussions, and its curriculum, helped him to be a successful college student, and how the Shoresh experience encouraged him to participate in Jewish campus life.
Shoresh is, as Shoresh parents recently commented, “a hidden community gem.” We would welcome more students who want to engage in Jewish life, and to see their own lives and contemporary issues through a Jewish lens. Please visit http://shoreshhebrewhigh.org/ for many more testimonials from students about how Shoresh has inspired and informed them to discover their own Jewish identities.
Gary D. Simms is a Shoresh teacher. He was formerly executive director of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations in the Washington area.
Neal J. Meiselman is co-founder and current president of Shoresh Hebrew High School.