Home Featured Jewish Learning Shul offers free Hebrew school, Torah High enrolment up

Shul offers free Hebrew school, Torah High enrolment up

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Preschoolers celebrate Shabbat at Robbins Hebrew Academy.
Preschoolers celebrate Shabbat at Robbins Hebrew Academy

For many parents who may have been priced out of the Jewish day school system but haven’t given up on their commitment to offering their children Jewish programming, there are a number of options in the GTA to consider.

The newest program is one offered at Shaar Shalom Synagogue that launched in September. It’s a free after-school Jewish learning program called Atid, available only to members of the shul.

Run by Shaar Shalom’s rebbetzin Bettina Schwarzman, a graduate of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s education program with more than 20 years’ teaching experience, the program teaches children from age five to bar and bat mitzvah about Israel, Jewish holidays, Jewish values and Hebrew.

Shaar Shalom spiritual leader Rabbi Steven Schwarzman said he hopes the fact the program is free for shul members will encourage people to join the congregation.

“I designed it this way, because Shaar Shalom used to have a Hebrew school up until a few years before I came. From what I’m told, a lot of people sent their kids to the school and it was a great school, but they never joined the shul, and it was not financially sustainable under that model,” Rabbi Schwarzman explained.

“And I’m a big believer of giving people reasons to join a shul. While I’m a big believer in day schools… because they are the best in Jewish education, it doesn’t work for everybody – certainly financially it doesn’t work for every family.”

He said the program, which is available four days a week and so far has attracted seven kids, isn’t meant as an alternative to day school, but rather as “a Conservative Jewish education in a flexible environment in terms of logistics, but with wonderful content.”

For high school students, Torah High, an after-school Jewish program that is an Ontario Ministry of Education-inspected private school offering Jewish studies courses for credit, is gaining momentum.

Rabbi Glen Black, Torah High’s director of education, said enrolment for the program jumped by about 25 per cent this year to 400 students.

Rabbi Black said there are a number of reasons for this increase in enrolment to the program, which costs $599 per course.

He attributes some of the success to Einat Enbar, director of marketing and communications, who helped with recruitment.

“The second reason is that the way we’ve done recruitment is less about marketing and more about word of mouth. Working with students who are currently with us, getting them to share that. Much of the recruitment has been done by the parents,” Rabbi Black said, adding that parents will host information sessions for their friends.

“Based on some focus groups and market research we’ve been conducting… we’ve been able to come up with courses that students want, like Jewish leadership courses, Israel advocacy courses, even business courses.”

He said most of the new students have enrolled in courses that weren’t being offered last year.

Although he’s happy to offer a Jewish studies program for students who attend public school, he said it’s no substitute for a full-day Jewish private school.

“This is really for the kid who is interested to learn more, but don’t have it as part of their full-day experience… we only want to be an alternative to nothing… Torah High is for parents who say, ‘I don’t want to send my kids to CHAT, but I don’t want my kids to have nothing.’ Torah High is the answer.”

But for parents considering Jewish day school, Robbins Hebrew Academy (RHA) head of school Claire Sumerlus hopes the fact that RHA is now the only Jewish school in Ontario to receive accreditation from the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) will convince parents of the added benefit of choosing RHA, where enrolment currently stands at 360 students.

“It’s been a long process – a five-year planning process for us. We had a national case evaluation committee come to RHA and they evaluate pretty much every aspect of the school based on 11 specific case standards. Those standards cover everything – admissions, development, alumni, school community, academics, the financial statements, governance – you name it, it’s covered,” Sumerlus said.

“For me, being accredited means that we’ve reached the pinnacle of excellence and the curriculum is on par with the best in the world. It means we’re accountable to it. We can all say that we’re great, but we’ve had a team of experts from the greatest schools in Canada come through and see that we are and that we meet the standards.”

The Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) was established in 1981 as a national network for member schools supporting collaborative initiatives in leadership, education, management and governance.

“Of course I want people to know about it. It differentiates us in a totally different way.”