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entries tagged with: Fred Nagler


Another campus for BCHSJS

A lot of Jewish kids have never had a Jewish education, said Fred Nagler. He keeps hearing about 13-year-olds who decide after their b’nai mitzvahs that they’ve had their fill.

“Some parents don’t see the need to go past bar mitzvah education,” said the principal of Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. “That’s unfortunate, because you leave your child at a very elementary level.”

For families looking for more Jewish education but not for day school, programs like BCHSJS can provide it. As the once-a-week Hebrew high school begins its 36th year, it is adding a third campus at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and Nagler expects enrollment numbers to jump in the coming weeks.

“This is an excellent opportunity for Jewish teens to come together,” said Beth Rishon’s Rabbi Kenneth Emert.

Enrollment in the synagogue’s own post-b’nai mitzvah program had dwindled in recent years, which led Emert and the synagogue’s leadership to seek out BCHSJS. Beth Rishon’s leaders were eager to replicate the success they saw at the branch at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, now entering its third year. Three weeks into the new school year, the program has 35 students signed up for the Wyckoff campus, and Emert sees “potential from a great many more.”

“There’s a draw for these Jewish teenagers to come to a place where they can combine the continuing exploration of their Jewish identity with a social space,” said Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, BCHSJS senior vice principal, who is heading up the new campus.

The school’s original Teaneck branch meets on Sundays at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls. The program doesn’t have confirmed numbers yet, but Nagler expects enrollment among all three campuses to reach about 300 for this year. He hopes the Wyckoff campus will draw new students from western Bergen and Passaic counties.

“There is a need,” Nagler said. “And people want it but for whatever reason they wouldn’t travel to Teaneck on Sundays. So we’re coming there, basically.”

Students enrolled at any of the three sites may attend part-time at other locations. Each semester each student takes three electives. The program also holds Shabbatons, trips, and other social programs that unite the students.

“All research shows that [these] years are the most important for Jewish teens to be involved,” Forman-Jacobi said. “These are the years they’re asking identity questions. Going forward it gives them a good foundation for when they go off to college.”

Since BCHSJS came to Temple Emanuel and took over its Hebrew high school program, the number of students has doubled, said Rabbi Ben Shull. He credited the program’s social and tikkun olam programs with integrating teenagers from the synagogue with those from around the area.

“We’ve been able to sell it to the kids because it’s a fuller program than what we were able to offer ourselves,” he said. “It’s really benefited them in lots of ways.”

With the cost of day school continuing to make headlines, one option that has been proposed is an intensive after-school Jewish education program.

“Families have to understand that … a Jewish education is very, very important,” Emert said.

Programs like BCHSJS are not a replacement for day school, he continued, but they are “an excellent option.”


‘Who’s going to teach our kids?’

From left, Talya Rand, Pnina Cohen, and Lottie Kestenbaum work on an assignment for their teacher training course.

I don’t think there’s any way to better learn something than to be pushed into the middle of it and do it hands on,” commented a Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School senior on an evaluation form for a teacher-training elective she recently completed. “It really gave me a feel for teaching.”

The object of the elective course, sponsored by the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Educational Service, is to address a looming teacher shortage in Jewish day schools.

“The issue is, who’s going to teach our kids?” said Minna Heilpern, JES director. “There are not enough educators coming down the pike, and not enough [graduate] schools for Jewish education. We could already see the problem coming 10 years ago.”

That was when Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies Principal Fred Nagler secured a continuity grant from the federation and asked Heilpern and faculty member Bruce Ettinger to use it toward promoting education as a profession.

Heilpern and Ettinger created a curriculum for BCHSJS — a Sunday program for public high school students — called “Hemshech (Continuity): Inspiring the Next Generation of Jewish Educators.” After a few years, they decided to adapt the program for area yeshiva high school seniors interested in exploring a teaching career.

“The idea is to plant the seeds while they’re still in high school, to give them opportunities to test out teaching as a profession,” said Heilpern, who has taught the one-semester, twice-weekly course at the Frisch School in Paramus and at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.

Ma’ayanot Principal Rookie Billet said Hemshech “suits the aspirations of some of our students. They appreciate a course that allows and encourages them to reflect on Jewish education in a meaningful, hands-on way. The course offers a taste of Jewish education as a career, and encourages creativity through original projects and assignments.”

The interactive class attempts to model and analyze what is effective. “The student are experiencing and ‘unpacking’ teaching,” said Heilpern.

This past semester, her 10 Ma’ayanot girls also observed teachers in action at Yavneh Academy and Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, and at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, with an eye toward understanding classroom management and teaching strategies.

“We also looked at professional films about teaching and even analyzed [the 1996 fantasy film] ‘Matilda’ for the different poses of teachers and classroom environments it presents,” said Heilpern.

The students studied how noted “horse whisperer” Monty Roberts applies his innovative horse-taming theories to classroom settings, and they wrote their own lesson plans and educational games. Fifth-grade teacher Talia Waizman came from the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey for a Q&A session with the girls, and Heilpern brought in her infant granddaughter for a hands-on demo of Piaget’s cognitive developmental stages.

“We try to look at things from a broad and unusual angle to extrapolate pedagogic theory,” said Heilpern.

Some of her former BCHJS students have gone onto teaching careers, she said, not just in schools but also in more informal settings such as youth groups, camps, campus Hillel houses, and family education programs. One of her Ma’ayanot students will be interning at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland. “There are all different ways this can play out,” she said.

The teacher shortage is a product of several factors, Heilpern explained. “People are not going into the field because it’s poorly paid and not well-respected despite past Jewish attitudes toward education,” she said. “Parents don’t necessarily encourage their kids to go into Jewish education. And there is no real career track seen; it seems that you have few choices but to be either a teacher or principal. However, there are other leadership roles available, such as teacher mentoring within schools.”

On their evaluation forms, many of the Hemshech students indicated that the school visits were their favorite part: “Hemshech helped me realize that I want to spend my life teaching children,” one student wrote. “I think it’s a very rewarding and fun job.”


Retiring BCHSJS head prepares for ‘life after life’

When Fred Nagler took over the helm of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies 28 years ago, the then eight-year-old school had suffered a severe decline in enrollment.

“It started with 160 students,” said the BCHSJS principal. “But by June 1982 it had less than 20.”

So dire was the state of Jewish education in the county at the time that a report was commissioned and submitted to the precursor of what now is UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Fred Nagler is retiring after 28 years as head of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies.

“It was very disheartening,” said Nagler, whose school today boasts some 300 students. “The school had three principals in eight years and students weren’t re-registering.”

Not wanting to “throw good money after bad,” the federation said it would no longer fund the venture but told him, “If it opens, you’re the principal.” In the end, “I pleaded and they gave us a new start.”

Nagler, who is retiring this year, said he already knew a good deal about the school when he took on the position in 1982. As principal and teacher in the Hebrew school at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, he had sat in on BCHSJS board meetings.

He knew, for example, that the high school had been started by seven local congregations. With small high school classes of their own, they wanted their youngsters to have the educational and social benefits that only a larger group could bring.

“Abe Foxman was one of the founders,” he said, noting that at the time, the Anti-Defamation League director, a Bergen County resident, was working as a volunteer for local Jewish organizations.

To stem the flow of students from the school, Nagler and then Temple Israel Rabbi Mark Kiel called a special meeting, inviting students and parents who knew Nagler from his years with the congregation.

“I told the students, you know me as a principal and teacher,” he recalled. “Come to the school and recruit others.” In fact, seven of the 10 students he addressed did enroll and encouraged friends to do so as well.

“Most people begin recruiting for the next year in January,” said Nagler. “I had August and September.” The school was able to reopen that year with 47 students.

Even now, however, financing remains an important issue. Nagler said he is hopeful that the upcoming BCHSJS fund-raising dinner will be successful, since tuition covers only 60 to 65 percent of expenditures and the school “took a 72 percent cut from UJA. [The federation’s allocation] is a small fraction of our budget now,” he said. “It used to be almost one-third.”

Nagler is particularly proud of the classes BCHSJS has been able to offer. At its Sunday campus — based now at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck but formerly held first at Frisch in Paramus and later at the Philip Ciarco Learning Center in Hackensack — about 200 students engage in continuing Jewish education.

For the past several years, the school has also offered a Monday evening track at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake and a Thursday evening component at Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon, “since a large number of our students have moved out of the central part of Bergen County,” said Nagler, whose five-year program serves students in grades eight to 12.

Designed for those not attending yeshiva high school — and at the age when “learning really begins” — BCHSJS ensures that students do not stop their Jewish learning “at the bar mitzvah level,” said Nagler, adding that one of his goals is to make Jewish learning enjoyable.

“We offer courses in Jewish history, Bible, philosophy, whatever they’re interested in,” he said, calling his teachers “fantastic, top-notch.” While higher degrees for teachers are not mandatory, this year’s teachers averaged “two degrees above the BA,” he said, noting, however, that “we’re looking for teachers who are really great at teaching, who like to be around teenagers and know their subject matter.”

Nagler said he has seen some interesting changes in recent years. For example, while 10 years ago students attended “because their parents told them to, now the parents say, ‘Go for one year and we’ll see what happens.’”

“Parents may say, ‘My seventh-grade child has decided not to continue his Jewish education. I’m only the parent.’ I never heard that 10 years ago,” he said.

Nevertheless, some 75 to 80 percent of students return each year, he said, pointing out that students may enter at any grade, even grade 12. One major entry point is ninth grade, when some of those graduating from day schools ending at eighth grade may be entering public high schools.

In addition to classwork, BCHSJS students engage in public outreach, said Nagler, insisting that “it is important for them to have an adult view of Judaism, including both text and community service.”

Students visit local group care homes on a regular basis, “and for 28 years we have been the only Jewish school that always has a large contingent of students at Super Sunday. ”

Nagler said that at the school’s annual dinner on June 6, BCHSJS will honor 28 alumni who have given of themselves to the general or Jewish community.

“We have two synagogue presidents and someone who works for AIPAC” as well as two members of the U.S military, he said.

The school also encourages socializing, said Nagler.

“Socializing with other Jews is an important value,” he said, recalling that in 1982 he was challenged by the federation for spending money on a school trip to Great Adventure, something that is commonplace now.

“It wasn’t a given then,” he said, adding that the school hosts a variety of social activities throughout the year.

Nagler described his upcoming retirement as “life after life.” A former math teacher and adviser — and for seven years the math editor of Sesame Street Magazine — he plans to return to math education. He pointed out that over the past 28 years, he has remained involved in the field, teaching math enrichment classes at local day schools and working on staff development. He has also written several math books and participated on the team that redeveloped New York City’s eighth-grade math curriculum in the 1990s.

“It’s been 28 fabulous years,” he said of his time at BCHSJS, which is now interviewing candidates to succeed him. “It’s six days a week, 12 months a year — I can’t put in that time any longer. But I’ll be around to consult.”

As for his proudest achievement, Nagler — who will receive an award for his service at the school dinner — said, “It was getting the school back on its feet.” He also cited “innovative programs,” such as the school’s Shabbaton and former Israel trip (“a casualty of Birthright”) as well as the hiring of a guidance counselor to help advise special needs students.

In addition, he said, “We’re slowly bringing technology into the school.” Where previously he might have given teachers newspaper clippings with program ideas, “now I send them things from YouTube and the Internet.”

He pointed out that Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a prolific author, “did a study of the 10 most effective supplemental schools in the U.S. and we were one of the 10. He said we put the ‘school’ back in ‘Hebrew school.’”

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