For Jewish Boarding School, It’s Old Wine In New Bottle
Tue, 08/17/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

Touring the sites of Riverdale with out-of-town visitors on a recent Shabbat, I noted the scenic campus of the Telshe Yeshiva, an elite academy overlooking the Hudson River educating high school and post-high school budding Talmudic scholars. Virtually all students are out-of-towners, who, together with their prestigious faculty, are creating a haredi community in many ways dissonant yet coexisting with Riverdale’s Modern Orthodox subculture.

In direct contrast to the ethos behind Jewish day schools, the supporters of the Telshe Yeshiva advocate that adolescents leave their homes and immerse themselves in a full-time Torah community far removed from the attractions, as well as the pitfalls, of modern secular culture.

This model has a long history in Jewish life going back to the famed yeshivot of Poland and Lithuania. What is remarkable is how the model currently prospers — in Lakewood, N.J., Baltimore, Cleveland and Riverdale, among other places. Yet only in recent decades has thought been given in non-haredi sectors to a Jewish boarding school. When I first joined the American Jewish Committee in 1982, leaders E. Robert Goodkind and the late Yehuda Rosenman promoted the concept of a Jewish boarding school, similar to Britain’s now-defunct Carmel College, to create a community of students living in a pluralistic and Jewishly rich environment. Rosenman and Goodkind hoped to capture an elite student body, provide them with the best faculty and facilities and create quality high school experiences that would both combat assimilation and train future Jewish leaders. In subsequent years, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, among others, explored this concept further.

Recently, I visited the primary expression of this vision at the American Hebrew Academy, in Greensboro, N.C. The academy is the brainchild of the late Chico Sabbah, a prominent philanthropist, who, having made his fortune in the re-insurance industry, channeled his resources to Jewish education in the United States and projects in Israel. Sabbah’s nephew, Glen Drew, serves as executive director and general counsel of the academy, preserving his uncle’s vision and legacy.

After a decade of activity, the academy is clearly making its mark. Currently, it enrolls 157 students from 24 states and 14 countries. Four-fifths are full-time boarders, with the remainder Greensboro local residents. Religious pluralism is the norm. Eighteen percent define themselves as Modern Orthodox and 28 percent Reform, which is in itself a minor miracle of intra-Jewish relations. The school admits only Jews.

Tuition is relatively steep, exceeding $27,000, including room and board. Children of Jewish communal professionals receive an automatic 33 percent discount, and nearly two-thirds of the student body receives some form of financial aid.

The school itself is quite impressive. The campus grounds are magnificent and environmentally sensitive. Students celebrate Shabbat in a pluralistic and non-coercive fashion. The sports facilities are state-of-the-art, and competitive sports teams comprise an integral component of the learning environment. A visiting teenager from a competing basketball team, mistaking me for a school official, commented in awe, “You guys really know how to build a gym!”

Academically, the school aspires to wed the best of the prep school with serious Jewish studies. The faculty I encountered were talented and impressive, and had at their fingertips the most up-to-date technology and tools of learning. High school juniors spend 10 weeks in Israel at the Alexander Muss High School. Most impressive, however, were the ongoing interactions between faculty and students, creating a learning community within a Jewish environment.

To be sure, there have been growing pains, especially during the initial years. Student recruitment was difficult at first, and many were admitted who really were not suited for the experience. To this day, students often fail to perceive the utility of Jewish studies in comparison to secular disciplines. Although quality secular studies instructors can be recruited locally, the school must search nationally for Judaic studies instructors and bring them to Greensboro, a challenging task given the relative weakness of Greensboro as a Jewish community. The students themselves often have very different ideas about what constitutes intensive Jewish life. At times, students with minimal Judaic backgrounds experience difficulty with a Jewishly rich curriculum and environment.

Yet after a decade of growing pains, the American Hebrew Academy seems poised to establish its uniqueness and position on the map of Jewish education. The challenges it confronts — building a wholesome and rich Jewish environment; intensifying the relationship with Israel; giving meaning to pluralism as a model of diverse Jews living together; and pursuing excellence in both formal and informal educational programming — all constitute enormous opportunities rather than insurmountable problems.

Clearly, such an experiment in Jewish education is not meant for everyone. Many parents, myself included, balk at sending children away during the critical adolescent years. Others perceive great tension between the twin goals of inclusivity and Judaic distinctiveness, and question whether a school can, in fact, realize both these worthy ends at the same time. Still others might hesitate at the considerable costs involved.

Yet clearly a Jewish boarding school is an idea whose time has come, and it should be seen as a serious option for those desiring intensive Jewish education. High school experiences are critical in identity formation. It is often noted that the Jewish community receives the quality of Jewish education it actually desires. The American Hebrew Academy is setting a standard of excellence to which all should aspire.

As a community, we should never permit ourselves to be satisfied with mediocrity in Jewish education or content ourselves with minimalist standards. If the Telshe Yeshiva can flourish in a very secular American society because of the dedication and perseverance of its leadership, faculty and supporters, non-haredi sectors should aspire to no less. The American Hebrew Academy is a good place to start.

Steven Bayme serves as director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.