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After-school ‘open yeshiva’ program proposed in Teaneck

 
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As the community continues to struggle with the high costs of Jewish day school, the Jewish Center of Teaneck is planning to launch an after-school program in the fall to supplement a public school education.

The synagogue’s Rabbi Lawrence Zierler revealed plans on Tuesday for what he called “an open yeshiva.” The four-day a week after-school program geared toward fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders will provide b’nai mitzvah preparation, Jewish education, and Hebrew language arts.

“With this economic crisis there will definitely be families that can no longer afford going to the day schools and will be looking for some way for their children to still get a secular education and follow that up with a Jewish education,” said Eva Gans, the center’s expected incoming president. “If this works for them then we’re doing a service for the community.”

Zierler noted that he grew up in a day-school environment and supports that model for Jewish education. He lamented that the economic downturn has made paying the already high tuition impossible for some. The center, he said, is in a position to help because of its large physical plant. The motivation behind the school is the need to be responsible and responsive, he said, emphasizing that it is not meant to diminish the day-school system.

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The Jewish Center of Teaneck is planning to offer an intensive after-school “open yeshiva.” The synagogue was the site of the now-defunct Metropolitan Schechter High School.

“That remains an important Jewish value,” he said. “We as a community should not find ourselves with students [leaving day school and] flailing about aimlessly and say, ‘Now what?’ Preparedness is also a Jewish responsibility.”

While bar and bat mitzvah preparation will be one focus of the new program, students will select one of three additional tracks in Jewish studies. Beyond learning the “geography” of the siddur, students will also take trips to see how Jewish values can be applied to everyday life, Zierler said.

“It’s not an old-fashioned cheder,” he said, referring to the classical model of intensive Hebrew programs. “It’s giving people the skills you need to live well as a Jew but at the same time in an exciting environment.”

Zierler dismissed concerns about adding another two hours of classes to a public-school student’s day. A day-school schedule typically runs until 5 p.m. or later, so the time commitment from a public school student would parallel the day-school schedule. Although the school is geared toward students who moved to public school from the day-school system, it will be open to students of all backgrounds, including all Jewish movements, he said.

“It has enough of the traditional for the traditional family but can also be a gateway opportunity for people coming from other parts of the denominational spectrum,” he said.

While the program has not yet been finalized, Zierler expected the cost to parents to be between $3,000 and $5,000 per student — significantly less than tuition for a day-school education, which can reach as high as $25,000 per student.

“Now the cost factor is huge, and for some families it’s going to become a barrier,” Zierler said.

“Business can’t be as usual in Jewish education,” he continued. “Part of it is a question of [becoming] ‘leaner and meaner.’ I don’t necessarily think we should be using words like ‘no frills’ — I don’t want it to become a caste system — but we’re going to have to do more with less.”

“No frills” was a reference to the idea of a low-cost yeshiva model under discussion in Englewood. A group of day-school parents concerned about tuition costs is investigating a new school track for $6,500 per student. To make the program work, the group is looking to increase class sizes, cut staff, and reduce such co-curricular programming as art, music, and gym.

With an intensive after-school Hebrew program available to public-school students, the elementary schools could find themselves more vulnerable in coming months.

Ruth Gafni, head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, declined comment on the specific proposal. The elementary school recently announced at least a dozen layoffs among its staff.

“As a school we have looked at the student body for next year and had to make some adjustments faculty-wise and staff-wise for what we will have at school,” she said.

The size of next year’s enrollment has not yet been determined. The school has just more than 500 students, about 100 fewer than three years ago.

“As Jewish day-school leaders we have gotten together on many levels to try to support and keep our students in our schools,” she said. “We do believe a day-school education is most important and we would like our students to stay where they are.”

Calls to Yavneh Academy in Paramus and The Moriah School in Englewood were not returned by press time.

Raphael Bachrach, the Englewood man who is trying to create a Hebrew immersion program in one of that city’s public elementary schools, thought the travel time necessary would be too great for the Jewish Center to supplement his proposed program. He could not, however, adequately weigh in on the JCT plan without more information, he said.

The Hebrew immersion program, meanwhile, remains in limbo waiting for movement from the Englewood school board. Bachrach, who last year tried unsuccessfully to create a Hebrew charter school, has resubmitted the application for that school to the state. The state board of education has until September to make a decision.

“Any addition to the fabric of Jewish education in the community is welcome,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah. “Certainly a program that would enrich the Jewish experience for public school students is deserving of support.”

Goldin has been working with parents, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and representatives of day schools, including Schechter, to address the tuition crisis. The RCBC was scheduled to meet Wednesday night to begin work on creating a community fund to aid area day schools.

“Our experience has shown that day-school education is still the best educational option available for students from the Jewish community,” Goldin said. “I would hope that the efforts being made on a communal basis to make that education more affordable will keep children in the day schools and will attract others to the day schools.”

 
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