As we head into the final weeks of summer — with children savoring those last few days of freedom before the school bells ring — Pittsburgh’s Jewish educators are busily preparing for the launch of a new academic year promising to bring new programs, new faces and some new spaces as well.
Teachers and administrators at the Steel City’s three Jewish day schools, as well as J Line — a supplemental educational program for teens, with classes in both Squirrel Hill and the South Hills — are enthusiastic about what the new school year has to offer.
Some students at Hillel Academy can look forward to learning in an entirely new space, as the school opens its Herman Lipsitz Building for boys in grades 5-12 at 5706 Bartlett St. — the former site of Kether Torah Congregation — which abuts Hillel’s main building on Beacon Street.
“The boys’ high school and boys’ middle school were housed at the JCC for the past eight years,” explained Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal and education director of Hillel Academy. “Now, they are coming back to our main campus, which will provide a great learning environment and also improve the experience for students in our current building, which will house early childhood, grades 5-12 girls, and the entire elementary school.
“We are extremely excited for our schools and excited for our community to have this physical thing that demonstrates our growth over the last five to 10 years,” Weinberg continued, noting that Hillel Academy is boasting a “record enrollment” this year of more than 375 students.
In addition to the new space, Hillel has hired a new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) coordinator, Rebecca Huff, to work with all grades in integrating robotics and coding programs throughout the school, thanks to funding from an anonymous donor.
“This will enhance the learning experience for all our students, so they will be ready to compete in the 21st-century job market,” Weinberg said. Huff also will help to integrate coding and robotics into the school’s Judaics and humanities classes, working with other faculty to integrate STEAM into their curricula.
An increased focus on STEAM education will be emphasized at Community Day School as well.
“Our library and computer labs are being transformed into a learning innovation hub in a renovation project made possible through a Legacy Learning Labs match challenge grant and the generosity of the Rabin family and many community donors,” said Jennifer Bails, director of marketing and communications at Community Day School, in an email.
The remodeled space, dedicated to STEAM learning, “is being designed to activate skills needed for children to become fully engaged citizens in the 21st century, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration,” Bails said.
Children enrolled in grades K-2 at CDS also will be introduced to a new language arts curriculum “called Fountas & Pinnell Classroom that uses authentic texts to teach literacy instruction,” she added. “The use of a digital blended learning approach to teach Hebrew called iTaLAM — piloted last year in our Intermediate School — will be expanded to grades 1 and 2.”
The challenges children face living in a digital age will continue to be confronted head on this year at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, with the further development of a program begun last year on “digital citizenship,” said Chezky Rosenfeld, director of development at Yeshiva Schools.
The program — born of a collaboration between parents, students and faculty — features a curriculum aiming to empower students by “recognizing children are dealing with different challenges than they had in the past, especially with social media,” Rosenfeld said, adding that emphasis will be placed on the “safe use” of social media.
In addition, a new curriculum at Yeshiva Girls School, developed in conjunction with the Jewish Women’s Foundation, will focus on girls’ physical, mental and emotional health, according to Rosenfeld.
Teens enrolled in the supplemental educational program, J Line, both in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills, will see new course offerings as well as new formats.
“We are really excited to be introducing these new structures and models,” said Hannah Kalson, director of teen engagement and experiences at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, who heads J Line in Squirrel Hill.
The program, for those not enrolled in J Line’s Hebrew classes, is “track-based,” she said, “with themed tracks with a different focus each semester. Students will take one experience at a time, one for the whole year or they can mix it up.”
Teens can choose their tracks from among four themes: Israel, Social Justice, Jewish Culture and Peoplehood, or Adulting 101. J Line operates on a trimester schedule, and teens will “focus on one experience per trimester to create a depth of learning experience,” Kalson said, adding that the aim is to “make learning more in-depth and more experiential.”
Topics of study within the tracks include issues of social concern such as “March for Our Lives: Gun Violence,” “#MeToo,” and “Gender and Sexuality.”
Students can elect to take Modern Hebrew in lieu of the track-based study. Of the approximately 80 students enrolled, about 25 or 30 choose to learn Hebrew, according to Kalson.
Also new this year at J Line in Squirrel Hill is a free brunch — open to all community teens regardless of whether they are J Line students — after classes each Sunday morning at the JCC.
“This will be a fun, casual opportunity to spend time together,” said Kalson.
Likewise, J Line in the South Hills has “reimagined” itself based on feedback from parents and participants, according to Chris Herman, teen division director at the JCC, who coordinates J Line in the South Hills. This will be the second year that J Line in the South Hills has been sponsored through a collaboration of the South Hills JCC, South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, Temple Emanuel and Beth El Congregation.
The classes will be moving from Monday nights to Wednesday nights, Herman said, in order to better accommodate the students’ schedules, and the sessions will be shorter in length.
In addition, the structure of the program has been altered so that each grade will explore one “core question” each year. Those questions are “who am I?” for eighth grade; “to whom am I connected?” for ninth grade; and “to whom am I responsible?” for 10th grade. A leadership workshop will be offered once a month for 11th- and 12th-graders, to “dive deeper into using leadership skills to address real life issues,” Herman said.
Modern Hebrew will still be offered in the South Hills on Monday nights. Electives will include “March for Our Lives and Gun Violence in School,” an improv workshop focusing on better communication and teamwork, and “Off to the Races,” exploring topics of concern in the midterm elections. PJC