Toronto Reform Congregations Launch Community Chai School
by Marlene Myerson, RJE
In “the good old days,” Toronto’s six Reform congregations prided themselves on their successful teen programs. Each congregation devoted time, money and human resources to making its own program the best it could be. Virtually all students returned to religious school following their b’nai mitzvah and remained in the program until Confirmation. Students formed a close-knit community and developed lifelong friendships and attachment to their congregation.
Fast forward to the present. Today there are 10 Reform congregations in Toronto and the outlying areas. However, the number of students enrolled in the Toronto religious schools has decreased significantly, the dropout rate following bar/bat mitzvah is devastatingly high, and the funds available for resources and programming have shrunk considerably. What happened to the “good old days?”
The intervening years witnessed the climax of many factors that led to decreased retention rates and the decline in Toronto’s congregational teen programs. Unrest in the Middle East made parents reluctant to send students on summer trips to Israel; a severe downturn in the economy led families to withdraw from synagogue membership entirely or reduce their financial contributions dramatically; after school activities (sports, dance, music lessons, etc.) competed for post b’nai mitzvah students’ time, with no assurance that ongoing religious school education would be as much of a draw as baseball or guitar.
In 2007, in a study on Recent Trends in Supplementary Jewish Education, Jack Wertheimer acknowledged that recent research indicated that supplementary high schools produced students who were engaged with Jewish life. He suggested that high school programs seemed to be more effective when under communal auspices or when they operate as a consortia body of several congregations.
In November, 2012, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs visited Toronto. He was impressed with the solidarity of the Reform community and its commitment to Reform Jewish values. During a live, online conversation with the Toronto area Reform Educators Council, Rabbi Jacobs addressed the serious issue of post-b’nai mitzvah education and retention, and challenged the educators to work together to find a solution. Following his call, the Reform educators agreed that they would join forces and create a Reform community high school program – Chai School.
Designed to increase teen engagement by offering relevant and practical Jewish education within a liberal and progressive setting, Chai School is schedule to open in September. Consulting with teens from each congregation, the educators have created an exciting program with numerous options including three high school credit courses and a driving course (Driving Like a Mensch) approved by the Ministry of Transportation. We anticipate that students from at least six Toronto-area congregations will enroll in Chai School in the first year.
Supplementary high school programs are not new, so what makes Chai School different? In Toronto, we are responding to an existing demand from parents and teens for supplementary Jewish and secular education. Our teens are already participating in these types of programs where they are offered, which in Toronto is often within the Orthodox community. Chai School will provide a post b’nai mitzvah education in a liberal Jewish setting. In Canada there also is a great demand for Ministry-approved high school credit, which we are able to provide to students (and their parents!).
Most important, all of Toronto’s Reform congregations are supporting Chai School, financially and programmatically, making this a true communal endeavor. By collaborating, we are able to share resources and offer more diverse programming than any individual congregation could do alone. Chai School also offers added value for our teens, who get to meet and engage with peers from across the city. As the school year approaches, a sense of excitement and optimism fills the air as the dream of creating a communal Reform Jewish high school for Toronto’s teens becomes a reality.
For more information or to pre-register for Toronto’s Chai School, visit our website.
Marlene Myerson is a curriculum consultant for URJ Books and Music.
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