When she was a teenager in the 1950s, Bunny Morris did two things that “nice Jewish girls didn’t do.”
“One, I was an athlete; and, two, I went to Hebrew school,” she recalled.
It was less common back then for Jewish women to attend Hebrew school, Morris said, but in 1956, she was in the first graduating class of the College of Jewish Studies — Pittsburgh’s first formal foray into Jewish teen education.
Morris will be addressing current students of J-Site, as well as alumni, parents and friends, on May 5 in celebration of 60 years of Jewish education for teens in Pittsburgh.
“It really was unique when it started,” Morris recalled. She was one of three students in the program’s first graduating class, who met in a house on Sunday mornings to further their Jewish education.
While the name of the program has changed over the years — from College of Jewish Studies, to SAJS (School of Advanced Jewish Education), to its current appellation of J-Site (Jewish Site for Innovative Teen Education) — the mission to provide continued education and social opportunities for Jewish teens across Pittsburgh has remained constant.
The history of the program goes back to a scholarly New Yorker, Aharon Kessler, who was brought to Pittsburgh in 1951 by the United Jewish Federation to start a bureau of Jewish education.
“That didn’t work out,” said Ed Frim, executive director of the Agency for Jewish Learning. “Instead of that, he had this vision.”
That vision was to provide Jewish educational opportunities to teens who would otherwise have nowhere to join together to learn Hebrew, Jewish philosophy, history and literature.
“When he got here, he found that there was no post bar mitzva education,” said Penina Kessler Lieber, the daughter of Aharon Kessler. “Kids just dropped out. He felt it was important that as kids began secondary school, they continued their Jewish education.”
Lieber remembers the first classes as just a “handful of kids,” sitting around the dining room table in her childhood home in Squirrel Hill on Sunday mornings. By 1953, Kessler had founded his school, the College of Jewish Studies, a three-day a week program of Hebrew high school, according to Frim, which also included a teacher-training component.
“The school started to grow very nicely, and in its prime, it attracted kids from many parts of town,” Lieber said. “It grew through a steady progression to about 300 students, and it was funded by the [United Jewish] Federation. It was a beneficiary agency.”
It was a serious, academic program, and Kessler brought in Jewish scholars from across the country to speak at its convocations and graduations, Lieber recalled.
“He even brought teachers from Israel to write the curriculum,” she said.
For a while, the program was held at Carnegie Mellon University. It eventually moved to Community Day School, and classes are now held on the campus of Chatham University, said Frim.
“The program has certainly evolved,” he continued. “It started out as an academic approach at the beginning. The Conservative congregations were the mainstay over the years … but the world changed and the needs and desires of our students and families have evolved. The Hebrew has remained a constant, but the program is much more according to the kids’ interests.”
The program has evolved into “not just a school,” Frim said, “but a set of opportunities. We have satellite programs at Beth El, and Ohav Shalom and Rodef Shalom. We have a choir. All these different kinds of opportunities to try to do things that synagogues can’t do on their own.”
While the number of teens enrolled in the school has declined — Frim said there are now only about 140 students — the group that remains is a contingent of dedicated “leaders.”
“There is a committed core,” Frim said. “It really is the group of kids that are leaders now, and that I say will be leaders in the future.”
These are the kids who are wholeheartedly involved in Jewish life.
“If there is a BBYO convention and a USY convention on the same weekend, we can’t have school, but that’s a good thing,” Frim said.
“The program is still going strong,” he continued. “The Jewish Federation has been incredibly supportive. And [the effect] goes beyond the kids who are in the program. They are leadership kids who go out and do other things.”
The celebration will feature singing by J-Site’s choir, HaZamir, a video prepared by current J-Site students, and the introduction of the organization’s new alumni association.
“We are honoring alumni,” said Beth Goldstein, director of teen education at the AJL. “And we will be honoring our graduating seniors and welcoming them into our new alumni association, the Lomdim Association, which we are unveiling at the celebration.”
The Lomdim Association will provide learning opportunities for alumni of the College of Jewish Studies, SAJS, and J-Site, Goldstein said.
Kessler’s great-grandsons, Zach and Alex Smolar, of Fox Chapel, currently attend J-Site, and will be participating at the celebration.
“It’s amazing, not just about how many ages are coming to the event, but there are three or four generations,” Goldstein said. “It’s really exciting to see how that history and commitment, from generation to generation, plays out.”
Lieber thinks her father would be pleased with how his school has evolved.
“It was an interesting period of time,” she said of the early years of the College of Jewish Studies. “My father created something out of nothing. And it still continues, although in a different form, with support from the Jewish community, and I think he would be very proud of it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)