If Fred Nagler — the head of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies from 1982 to 2010, and the “new” principal since this spring — represents continuity in the life of the school, his commitment to continuity goes way beyond that.
Indeed, Mr. Nagler said, Jewish continuity is the school’s ultimate goal.
There’s been far less continuity in the school’s location. Since it was founded in 1974, it has had four homes. “We started at Frisch until they moved,” Mr. Nagler said. “Then we were at the Bergen Community College-Hackensack campus, and then at Ma’ayanot. We’re at Moriah in Englewood now, though our offices are in the Temple Israel basement in Ridgewood.”
When members of the community — including former ADL head Abe Foxman, Mr. Nagler said — decided to get a school together, Mr. Nagler was a teacher at Temple Israel, tutoring a handful of post-bar-mitzvah-age students. The regional school — bringing together teenagers from local congregations — started with 160 kids the first year, “but by 1982 the population dwindled to less than 30, and it contemplated closing,” he said. By then, Mr. Nagler was principal of Temple Israel’s school, but it was clear that the synagogue no longer could afford to maintain that position.
“So we made a shidduch,” he said. “If BCHSJS opened, I would be principal.” It did open, and he remained principal for 28 years. It was a good run, but eventually he tired of it, handing the reins over to principal Bess Adler in 2010.
“I left and taught at Bergen Community College for five years,” Mr. Nagler said. “I was semi-retired when Bess left in February. They needed someone who knew the school to finish the year. I said I would do it until the summer. I wanted to go back to college, but they couldn’t find anyone.
“And I’m still here.”
The school lucked out. According to a recent statement, “In contrast to national trends … BCHSJS kicked off its new school year with a significant increase in student enrollment. Taking into account the number of students who graduated in 2016, the number of students retained and new students added this fall, BCHSJS experienced a 45.8 percent student increase.”
Citing a 2013 report in e-jewishphilanthropy noting that “the number of teens in supplemental Jewish schools is at a dangerously low level,” the BCHSJS statement went on to say that “While significant in and of itself, it is particularly notable in light of enrollment declines in other post bar/bat mitzvah Jewish educational programs.”
“We are pleased and grateful for this increase in our student body, but it doesn’t come as a surprise,” Mr. Nagler said. “BCHSJS is designed to be relevant to Jewish young people, and they have become some of the best ambassadors to attract other students.” Students come from all over Bergen County — and, Mr. Nagler added, others come from New Rochelle, Pearl River, Princeton, and New York City.
Mr. Nagler attributes much of the school’s success to “fantastic teachers. All have at one time, or still do, hold full-time positions as teachers. They’re all experts in what they’re teaching and love to be with teens.” Most schools, he said, look for the best teachers and say, “‘Here’s the curriculum.’ I sit down with each teacher and say, ‘What’s your passion? What’s your expertise?’ They teach what they want, and the students can choose what they want to study as an elective.”
“We combine everything,” he said, adding that most other programs are either completely academic or are structured to mimic youth groups. Every Sunday morning, BCHSJS students attend three 50-minute classes. In addition, community service opportunities are offered throughout the year. “We have four major collection drives — school supplies for Mitzvah Day, a Chanukah gift drive, a clothing drive for Yad Leah, and Passover food for Tomchei Shabbos,” Mr. Nagler said. “Students volunteer in New Orleans with Habitat and at the Daughters of Miriam. There are many opportunities to learn and to do.”
Those are the educational and community service components of the school’s program. “The third part is purely social,” Mr. Nagler said. “Students socialize with other Jewish kids. The first day for eighth graders, we take them bowling. The teachers come too, to meet their kids. This October we went to an escape room, where people work together to solve a problem.” Students also have gone to see “Fiddler on the Roof” and visited Six Flags Great Adventure. Twice a year, the school arranges a Shabbaton.
The school also offers a young leadership class, a program of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. High school sophomores and juniors — mostly from BCHSJS but from other schools as well — have the opportunity to establish relationships with Israeli students via Skype and participate in educational discussions. In addition to learning leadership skills, they also get to host their Israeli counterparts when they visit the United States, and they may participate in a trip to Israel.
The program has other benefits as well, Mr. Nagler said. Juniors and seniors can take advantage of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Middle College Program and earn up to six college credits while taking classes at BCHSJS. The school sends transcripts to colleges. “It’s impressive to a college,” he said. “It’s a co-curricular activity. They may have done well in public school, but they’ve also come on Sunday mornings.”
And why does this all work? “We’re pluralistic,” Mr. Nagler said. “We’re open for everybody — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, or non-affiliated. We’re a true melting pot, a model for the community. Most students don’t know each other’s affiliation.” (As it happens, most of the school’s students are Conservative, and a large number of them come from Fair Lawn.)
“Putting all of this together makes a community for Jewish teens and a safe place for them to be, to feel comfortable, and to give their own opinion,” Mr. Nagler concluded. “That’s why they stay.”
Eve Bolkin of Tenafly, whose 17-year-old daughter Camryn, a senior at Tenafly High School, has attended BCHSJS for four years, said, “I was lucky to find out about it. Our own synagogue has a program, but not one she found challenging enough.” In fact, she said, she would have sent her older daughter as well if she had known about it then.
BCHSJS “offers many different things for different students,” Ms. Bolkin said. “I love that they offer classes that are really intellectually stimulating. She has found a number of teachers — especially one or two — that she loves, and she follows them.”
One of her daughter’s favorites is “a kind of philosophy class. It’s very engaging and she learns something every time she goes. She has a taste of what it must be like in college.” Indeed, last year, Camryn chose to take one class for college credit.
While her daughter has made a number of friends at the school, what she really loves are the classes, Ms. Bolkin said. “They learn a lot about the Jewish point of view on a particular issue” and how the secular world views it as well. “It always circles back to how it impacts us as Jews.”
Ms. Bolkin acknowledged that Camryn’s attendance at the school “was not posed as a question: ‘Do you want to go?’’’ Rather, given her mother’s belief in the importance of post b’nai mitzvah education, “It was, ‘You are doing it. Which program do you want to go to?’
“As a parent, I’m committed to her learning more about Judaism,” she said, adding that she would warmly encourage other parents to send their children to a post-bar/bat mitzvah program. “Some parents are far too passive about this,” she said. “The whole point of a bar mitzvah is that it begins education and learning.” If you don’t provide education after that, “the kid doesn’t know what being Jewish is.”
But in addition, she said, “beyond whether it helps a kid feel more connected, it makes the kid a more interesting child. You are learning an awful lot about the world, more than you do just in high school. You’re becoming a more well-rounded, interesting human being.”
Sima and Stuart Alper of Fair Lawn also are strong believers in continuing Jewish education. One of their children, now in college, attended BCHSJS, while their son, Adam, a junior in high school, has been at the Jewish regional school for four years.
“There really was no other option,” the Alpers said. “As Conservative Jews, we wanted to follow through on giving them a Jewish education. Both of our children were losing touch with their Hebrew school friends. We wanted them to keep a Jewish connection and get something out of the courses.
“We feel that it’s very important, whether they know it or not. They gain something from it. They develop a common bond that will probably be more meaningful when they’re older. They’ll appreciate it more as they mature.”
Also, they said, when it came to college applications, having both the leadership training and the experience of attending an extra-curricular program “showed the colleges their commitment. It made a difference.”
Jessica Baer, a senior at Fair Lawn High School, has attended BCHSJS since eighth grade. Her older sister went there as well.
“I love the opportunity to be there,” Jessica said. Pre-bat mitzvah education “gives you a baseline, but doesn’t allow you to look at Judaism from different angles. At BCHSJS you can take different classes based on interests outside of Judaism and tie them in.” For example, she said, you can look at the issue of medical ethics through the lens of the Talmud. “We’re looking at medical ethics and seeing how Judaism responds to them,” she said.
As a student interested in social action, Jessica said, “there are amazing opportunities outside of class,” such as working with Habitat in New Orleans, studying leadership skills, and going to Israel. “I do a lot of community service outside school,” she said. “When I do it with the school, it gives a different perspective.
“I’ve encouraged all my cousins to go,” she said. “I tell them that it gives you a different perspective, challenges your views, and provides a lot of Jewish role models. You pick your classes based on the teacher — you find your favorite teacher and end up following them. They’re not hiding in the classroom; they want to interact. It’s an amazing environment.”
For more information about the school, go to www.bchsjs.org.