The wandering Jews of Hillel Academy’s boys high school may have finally found their way home.
For the third time in as many years, the high school is relocating for the new school year. After academic years spent at Congregation Poale Zedeck and Congregation Beth Shalom, the high school’s 28 students will attend class at the Jewish Community Center Robinson Building in Squirrel Hill this fall.
Though the move is to an even busier building, the space would give students the “ability to feel more at home,” according to Rabbi Sam Weinberg, the high school’s principal.
Plans are going into action this month to renovate space on the JCC’s third floor to prepare for classroom needs. The approximately 1,800-square-foot floor is currently home to a music program run through Duquesne University and an art class, among other programs. Both will be relocated.
To JCC President and CEO Brian Schreiber, the switch simply made sense. The art room was used 10 to 20 hours a week while the music program occupied the space about 30 hours a week, he noted.
“We project in that space 70 to 80 hours of usage a week now,” Schreiber said. “We wanted to maximize the usage of the space we had, using it in the most effective and inclusive way. While Hillel Academy will be there during the day, we’re hoping to have Hebrew language programs there as well as other community benefits.”
Those other programs include the teen J-Site program, which uses the space on Wednesday nights.
Schreiber described renovations as “very modest,” but he said they would accommodate the school.
Hillel Academy Executive Director Daniel Kraut lauded last year’s move to Beth Shalom as “a tremendous step up,” but he said that the JCC “creates a lot of really fascinating potentials for synergy, an even more real learning environment for our kids that benefits both institutions. The options are endless.”
Those options are academic, as well as athletic — for the first time, the high school will have access to a full-sized gym.
“For our basketball team, it’ll make a difference,” said Kraut.
The move will also make a difference in the high school’s ability to recruit new students, and thereby help grow the Orthodox community in Pittsburgh, said Kraut, who has been with the school for two years.
“To have a major Jewish community, you need a boys high school,” he said. “An Orthodox Jewish family will think twice before moving to a city without one.”
Schreiber said the JCC’s current agreement with Hillel Academy is for two school years, but it could be extended.
“While having the Hillel Academy at the JCC is new, it’s not new from a JCC operating principle,” said Schreiber. “Changing space has been an everyday part of JCC life for decades. We shift space as needs change. We’re committed for the next two years, but we’ll be re-exploring that over the year.”
“Because the JCC is a house of so many different institutions, in a way that makes it feel like it’s more our place,” said Weinberg.
Schreiber echoed that notion.
“For [the students], they’ll feel very much a part of the community. We have a couple thousand people coming in and out of the building every day,” he said. “It’s a home for people, it’s a part of people’s lives.”
The new space, though not necessarily secure forever, still has the school’s leaders excited and hopeful that a more permanent home is in sight, though the JCC is not the endgame location, said Kraut.
“The JCC is gorgeous,” he said. “Each time we take someone to a better and better facility, until we can, God willing, build our own.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)