Four years ago, there were more than 40 Jewish teenagers from the South Hills who traveled to Squirrel Hill each Sunday and/or Wednesday night to join with their peers in learning Hebrew and Judaics at J-SITE.
Today, there are two.
For years, J-SITE provided a bus twice a week to transport the South Hills kids to the Jewish supplemental high school program, but the Wednesday night bus was canceled earlier this school year. The Sunday bus has also been canceled, although a J-SITE employee has agreed to come out and pick up the one Sunday student who still needs a ride.
J-SITE programming for South Hills students has also been cut.
Two weeks ago, J-SITE announced that a satellite Hebrew class offered on Monday nights at Beth El Congregation was canceled when enrollment slipped from eight students last year to one student this semester.
“When I heard the Monday evening program was being canceled, my first thought was that they were throwing our kids under the bus,” said Mindy Hutchinson of Mt. Lebanon, whose daughter, Anna, is one of the two remaining South Hills J-SITE students. “But then I remembered the bus had been canceled, first the Wednesday night bus in September, then the Sunday bus in December.”
Hutchinson, whose two older sons graduated from J-SITE and its precursor program, SAJS, knows that it is not financially feasible for J-SITE to continue to provide transportation and programming options to South Hills kids when the numbers just aren’t there anymore.
But that doesn’t ease her sense of frustration.
“Until this fall, J-SITE offered up to five weekly hours of instruction, and the two bus rides from the South Hills,” she said. “I don’t know what the critical mass is, but it seems like once enrollment starts dropping too far, it just plummets.”
Kids from the South Hills have been dropping out of J-SITE steadily for the last four years.
“For us, some of it has been scheduling and other demands,” said Shelly Seigel, a South Hills parent whose twin daughters, now seniors, attended J-SITE until this year.
“We really encouraged them, to support community education and for the social component,” Seigel said. “But with their other activities [such as USY], they felt they were still meeting their needs.”
“You don’t want to overwhelm them,” she continued. “Sometimes one less thing isn’t a bad thing. They enjoyed the time they attended [J-SITE], but it wasn’t worth the push as a parent.”
Hutchinson, who served on the SAJS and J-Site committees from 2007-2010, attributes the decline in South Hills enrollment, in part, to other supplementary programs in the South Hills that are effectively competing with J-SITE. While these programs may be more convenient to attend, she said they do not offer the same level of instruction or citywide socialization.
“Kids have more supplementary options now,” said Hutchinson. “When our older kids finished congregation-based schools after their b’nai mitzvah, J-SITE was the clear next step. We used to regularly hear in the devar Torah/thank you speech, ‘I plan to continue my Jewish education at SAJS next year.’ But a South Hills Monday night alternative to riding the bus to Squirrel Hill on Wednesdays was started around 2004. Some of us worried even then that we were competing with ourselves.
“Now there is a confirmation class at Beth El, and a teen program at Chabad,” she added. “And some parents even have arranged a private Hebrew group that meets at Beth El. I think the beginning of the end started when Beth El established its confirmation class in 2008.”
The launch of a confirmation class at Beth El did contribute to the decline in J-SITE enrollment of South Hills students, according to Ed Frim, executive director of the Agency for Jewish Learning, under which J-SITE operates.
Beth El’s confirmation program is less expensive than J-SITE, and “transportation is easier,” Frim said.
But there are additional factors contributing to the decline in South Hills enrollment, Frim said, including fewer numbers of Jewish teens overall, and a shifting demography.
“There used to be a whole group of families that were really committed to having their kids study a certain body of content,” Frim said. “Conservative congregations have all been shrinking, and that part also has been shrinking.”
While the Beth El confirmation class may have drawn some potential J-SITE kids away from that program, Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who teaches it, said it’s not bursting at the seams either.
“My confirmation class is a one-room schoolhouse for eighth- to 12th-graders,” Greenbaum said. “I get about 10 kids.”
The decline in the numbers of South Hills kids that continue their Jewish education post-b’nai mitzvah is the result of changing times, according to Greenbaum.
“Kids have more homework and are busier than they used to be,” he said.
In lieu of formal Jewish educational programs, many teens are opting to participate in youth groups or Jewish summer camps to stay Jewishly connected, Greenbaum added.
“The kids’ favorite part of J-SITE was having Squirrel Hill friends,” he said. “But what we’re finding is they are getting their Squirrel Hill friends from different venues.”
The decline in enrollment in educational programs has less to do with a lack of commitment, and more to do with fewer numbers, he said.
“It’s not so much that the parents care less, but we are having trouble with critical mass,” Greenbaum said.
“I don’t believe our priorities have changed,” he continued. “But to respond to the times, we’re trying to find other ways to educate our children, knowing there are less of them that will sit in a traditional educational setting. So, we’re doing it through youth groups, weekend retreats, and camps. We just might not have the numbers we had once upon a time.”
While the drop in South Hills enrollment in J-SITE is dramatic, the total J-SITE enrollment also is down.
The J-SITE core program currently has about 90 kids enrolled citywide, down from its peak of 130 students, according to Frim.
“None of us really understand it,” he said. “This all happened in the last two years.”
It’s not that Jewish teens are doing nothing Jewish, Frim said, noting active participation in the Diller program and youth groups such as BBYO and J-Serve, the annual day of youth community service.
But fewer teens are choosing J-SITE.
“There are lots of opportunities for kids, and I think they’re taking advantage of them,” Frim said. “People are making a lot of choices about what they do. If a kid is doing Friendship Circle and BBYO, and is really busy in school … I think it’s part of the changing world we live in.”
Enrollment numbers in Jewish supplemental high school programs are dropping nationwide, according to Shari Weinberger, director of the North American Association of Community Hebrew High Schools.
One school in Arizona has dropped from 140 kids in 2007 to 59 in 2013. Another school in New Jersey went from 274 kids in 2007 to its current enrollment of 135.
Of the 30 member schools in the Association, which extends from California to Vermont and Canada, each one has seen a drop in enrollment, Weinberger said, and several have closed altogether.
“Everybody is down,” she said. “Nobody is close to their 2007 numbers.
“If I had a crystal ball we could put our finger on it, we could fix it,” she said. “Everybody is racking their brains to figure out what it is.”
But what Weinberger does know is that such a school cannot be successful without both a strong program director and solid community support.
“The director can be fabulous, but without community support it won’t succeed,” she said. The inverse, she added, is true as well.
Communities would be well served to unite in support of their supplemental Jewish high schools, she said, and individual institutions need to take a broader perspective and work together.
“They can’t say, ‘These are their teens and these are our teens,’ ” she said. “The more polarized we are, the harder it will be to solve the problem. Building bridges — that’s how we’re going to be successful.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation, shares a similar perspective.
“Our choice is whether we will each continue to go it alone, or whether we’ll be willing to link arms and accomplish great things for our children together,” Bisno said.
To that end, Rodef Shalom requires its confirmation students to attend J-SITE as part of its program.
“Our experience for our students at J-SITE has been a net positive,” Bisno said. “Creating a critical mass of students from different congregations is a value added that no one of us can offer alone.”
In the meantime, Gabe Goldman, the director of J-SITE who began his tenure last semester, is hard at work on programming ideas that will appeal to a broad base of Jewish teens.
He is facing challenges, he said, including the city’s geography.
“There is the perception,” he said, “that if you cross over a river, you’re going to another country.”
Goldman is working on a new model where there would be “hubs” of learning in the various geographic areas, that would come together on occasion for group events.
He is also focusing on ways to engage kids in meaningful ways during the year following their b’nai mitzvah.
“I want to focus intensively on transitioning students from their b’nai mitzvah year to eighth grade,” Goldman said, “and put in place some classes at J-SITE that no one else is doing.”
Those classes could include training in krav maga, Israeli self-defense, and more community service opportunities.
“I want to come up with a model that will meet everyone’s needs and take everything up a notch,” Goldman said. “I really think we have some extraordinary people in this community.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)