With the aim of better preparing Jewish teens to face challenges they are likely to encounter when they enter college, two Marlboro congregations — one Reform, one Conservative — have announced plans for a joint high school program for students in grades eight-12.
“We are very pleased to offer our teenagers a new vision of Jewish learning as they begin their journey toward college,” said Pont, explaining that the guiding principle is that the more exposure they have to liberal Jewish ideas and modern Jewish life, the better able they will be to deal with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel arguments.
In his most recent Yom Kippur sermon, TRT’s Rabbi Donald Weber detailed the “new reality” on many campuses, where students are called on to defend their Jewish identity — or abandon it completely.
Weber said it is up to the community to do everything possible to continue and increase the involvement of high school students in active Jewish life.
He cited the joint high school effort as an important step toward this goal. “This new union will provide a wide variety of experiences for participants,” he said.
The curriculum is being crafted to bridge Conservative and Reform values, said Weber, whose synagogue is Reform. “Rabbi Pont and I spoke extensively about the philosophy of a joint high school. We found agreement on all the practical aspects, and we believe that having students learn about both streams of Jewish life will prepare them even more fully for life on campus and beyond.”
Pont said eighth- and ninth-graders will be able to choose from elective subjects ranging from tzedaka in real life, to Jewish cooking, to Jews in the news.
“We will also explore ethical dilemmas, as well as relationships and intimacy,” Pont said. “We intend to address the issues most pertinent to teens, taking into account their suggestions and feedback. We have a lot of resources to draw from in our community, and we hope to take advantage of them in our course offerings.”
Tenth grade, the year of confirmation, will be taught by both rabbis. It will include a trip to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, whose mission is to educate and mobilize the community on legislative and social concerns, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, and Israel. Post-confirmation sessions will focus on helping students set goals for themselves as they go through the college application process.
Plans call for grades eight-10 to meet on Monday evenings each week; 11th- and 12th-graders will meet once a month, on Sunday evenings. Participation is open to members of both communities, and classes will alternate between the two congregations.
“Our goal is to create a program that high school students want to be part of — something challenging, interesting, and fun for everyone involved. When this is ‘the place to be,’ we’ll know we have succeeded,” said MJC’s president, Jeff Katz.
Susan Klass, the incoming chair of Rodeph Torah’s education committee, said, “High school students are able to compare ideas, to challenge authority as they create their own belief systems. We are excited that we will be able to provide them with the opportunity to hear many voices — rabbis, educators, and fellow students — in these critical years of development.”
Emphasizing the innovative nature of the joint high school, and the need for such a program, Pont said that after the curriculum and special programs are finalized, organizers will apply to the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ for a grant to help in launching the project.