by Tamar Jacobson
Three Jewish high schools across the country reveal current trends about modern Orthodox education in America.
Interviews with students and staff from these schools show that there are some shared positive qualities among modern Orthodox schools.
School administrators say their respective schools prepare their students well for yeshiva, seminary, and college.
At Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS), Assistant Head of School Malka Popper said she believes that students are very prepared for college, and attributes this to the time-management skills students must learn at NYHS because of the rigorous course load and dual curriculum.
People at Shalhevet, an approximately 250 students high school in Los Angeles, agree with Popper’s stance. Jason Feld, previous dean of students at Shalhevet and current head of school at NYHS said about Shalhevet, “Students are by and large very well prepared for either their gap year Yeshiva program or University because the educators of the institution are mindful of the core skills that students need.”
Beren Academy, a school in Houston with a high school of around 65 students, produces similar results. “Most of our students go on to very prestigious yeshivot and colleges,” said Rabbi Aaron Levitt, Judaic studies principal at Beren.
The students at all the schools also explain that while each of their respective schools have some students that are unhappy, most of them enjoy going to school.
“I have to tell you that the reason I love fall is for three things: boot season, the colors in fall, and school’s starting,” said Fay Koyfman, junior at NYHS.
“I think it’s really special,” said Rosie Wolkind, a senior at Shalhevet. “If I had a choice of where I would go to high school, I would choose Shalhevet.”
“I actually look forward to going to school. It’s fun for me,” said Nathan Plumb, senior at Beren.
The schools are also similar in the advanced classes that they offer. NYHS offers University of Washington courses taught by teachers at NYHS, Shalhevet has Shalhevet Advanced Studies (SAS), and Beren provides Advanced Placement (AP) classes.
There is also a key overlapping weakness found in these modern Orthodox high schools: overworking the students. Students and teachers at the schools say that students are working hard for many hours every day, including long school days and even longer nights.
“Most students are taking nine or ten classes, plus they’re doing after school activities,” said Popper.
“There is a tremendous amount of work being done by students after school,” said Wolkind, “I do between six and eight hours of homework a night.”
“Students are way overscheduled,” said Kellerman, a teacher at Beren.
These are just some of the trends that each modern Orthodox high school shares, despite their many differences. However, some of the trends are correlated to the size of the school.
The smaller schools, NYHS and Beren, are lacking the resources and opportunities that larger schools like Shalhevet benefit from.
“In a small school like ours (65 high schoolers), resources are limited,” said Kellerman. Max Greisman, a senior at NYHS, agrees with this explaining that, “I’ve heard from kids at other schools that they have cool research opportunities in STEM and stuff, which we don’t necessarily have.”
At Shalhevet, its size allows more of these opportunities and resources. “I think Shalhevet does a really good job of making sure we have lots of options to enrich your own schedule when it comes to Judaics,” said Wolkind. “There are opportunities besides just the regular [classes offered].”
Another difference between the smaller schools and the bigger schools is the complaint from people at NYHS and Beren that many of the classes contain students at different levels.
“It can be frustrating when you’re not on the same level as other kids, so that’s what contributes to a lesser understanding of Judaic studies,” explains Koyfman.
“While we do a great job differentiating for students at different levels, it would always be better to have more classes in order to cater more specifically to more people,” said Kellerman.
Many of the complaints and compliments at NYHS are not a result of the school as much as a direct result of the fact that it is a modern Orthodox high school of approximately fifty students. However, there are a few key aspects of NYHS that are unique.
NYHS prides itself on its conceptual Judaic teaching, and how it teaches its students to be high-level thinkers. Koyfman said that as a result of her NYHS education, “I am more eager to have intellectual conversations.” Popper supports this by saying, “The courses that we have, the classes that we teach, and the subjects that we learn here really prepare our students to engage in the type of discussion and dialogue.”
However, students at NYHS express a feeling that they are less proficient in Judaic textual study and Hebrew language than students in other modern Orthodox schools.
Greisman compares his own education to that of his friends from other modern Orthodox schools around the country: “A lot of the time they’re a lot better at Hebrew than I am, and a lot better at learning.”
“An area of growth would be really developing a high level of comfort with text and navigating text and experiencing different types of text,” said Popper.
These two main areas of growth, Judaic textual understanding and Hebrew language skills, are not a result of NYHS being a small modern Orthodox school, but they are ones that NYHS can overcome.
Understanding the difference between inherent struggles in modern Orthodox schools and those particular to NYHS will allow the school to improve every day and, in Popper’s words, “do a lot with little time.”