Why would thousands of secular Jewish teenagers gladly give up their afterschool chill time for two-and-a-half hours of Hebrew school?
Try easy high school credits, unlimited kosher pizza and a chance to win a Mazda3.
Call it incentive; call it bait—Torah High is working.
The brainchild of Rabbi Glenn Black, CEO of NCSY Canada, Torah High, launched in 2003, continues to excite public high school students across North America about being Jewish. In a teen-engaging, nonthreatening setting, Torah High students are taking Jewish philosophy, ethics, history, Hebrew language and creative arts while earning high school or college credit. Currently, Torah High is found in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and Vancouver in Canada, as well as in Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and Minneapolis (Miami and Edmonton, Canada are in the works).
Students also get to ask any question they’ve ever had about Judaism.
“Before attending Torah High, I had no idea what being Jewish meant to me,” says Binah (nee Nicole) Gruz, from Thornhill, Ontario. “I was sixteen and didn’t have much direction; I felt no real purpose. Today, being Jewish is the most important thing in my life.” Gruz, now twenty-two, has been studying at a seminary in Israel since graduating high school.
At Torah High, students don’t just learn about Judaism—they live it. Participation in “Jewish-life experiences” translates into more credit hours. “With scores of Jewish learning hours, plus time spent at NCSY Shabbatonim and Purim celebrations, you’ve got the makings of a life-transforming experience,” says Rabbi Black.
Add some good food to the afterschool mix and you’ve captivated teens, body and soul. Fresh bagels, doughnuts, cereal and plenty of chocolate make up the tantalizing fare at Torah High Chicago. Weekly classes are held either at Starbucks or a local kosher restaurant. The program in Seattle offers teens coveted internships at major local tech startup companies, along with basic training in coding, accounting and finance.
In an effort to attract Canada’s unaffiliated youth, Rabbi Black uses a creative marketing approach, running advertisements in movie theaters, on highway billboards and city buses. But, he reports, the most effective marketing tool continues to be word of mouth. Since its inception, 4,500 credits have been issued and more than 500,00 Torah hours have been learned at the Toronto program alone. Rabbi Black attributes Torah High’s rising popularity to its “dynamic NCSY-trained teachers.”
“I challenged the rabbis at Torah High,” says Matan Hazanov, twenty-three, who attended Torah High as a teen and who just returned to Ontario after studying at Yeshivas Aish HaTorah in Yerushalayim. “I asked them: ‘How can we know that God exists? Why would He allow His people to suffer? What about the divisions within the Jewish community here and in Israel? Why keep Shabbat? Why is keeping kosher significant?’ They didn’t look down on me because I wasn’t religious, which surprised me. They were open to my questions. It gave me the motivation to continue.”
After attending a few classes, it wasn’t just for the credit anymore. “I enjoyed the learning,” says Hazanov.
A few years back, Rabbi Black also started reaching out to Torah High parents, offering parent/teen workshops where families discuss Jewish topics of interest and community Shabbatons. He also began linking Torah High families with observant families for Shabbat seudot. “Engaging both generations is a healthier kiruv approach,” asserts Rabbi Black. “The parents become an active part of their children’s Jewish growth process.”