Courses in the films of Woody Allen or the Jewish roots of the humor of Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman; instruction on how to build a makom kodesh from scratch, using natural resources; and the opportunity to study just how and why the Jews came to America.
This clearly is not your older brother’s J-SITE.
Carolyn Gerecht, the Agency for Jewish Learning’s new director of teen learning and overseer of J-SITE, has just revamped the Jewish educational experience for teens in Pittsburgh.
And what she is offering just may be a game-changer.
“We’re trying new things, and we’ll see how the community responds to them,” Gerecht said. “But we’re offering something really great.”
Gerecht, who served as the youth director at Congregation Beth Shalom for three years, recently returned from a year studying Jewish experiential education at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as well as participating in Yeshiva University’s certificate in experiential Jewish education. Gerecht was the first joint participant in these two initiatives, a pilot funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation with sponsorship from the AJL and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Carolyn is taking J-SITE in an amazing direction,” said Tal Perel, the new director of J-SITE’s Hebrew program. “Carolyn has a special connection to the teens. She is really motivated, and it’s really contagious.”
It is Gerecht’s aim to offer a wide variety of classes and other learning opportunities that are interesting to teens while providing them with flexibility in terms of scheduling. To that end, J-SITE is now on a trimester rather than semester schedule allowing students the opportunity to take more classes, and the option of enrolling for one, two or all three terms, depending on their personal scheduling needs.
Gerecht has worked hard to assemble an accomplished roll of educators, which includes several longtime favorite teachers as well as some new ones who are eager to help breathe new life into the program.
“We have some new professional staff in place,” Gerecht said. “And they are really, really excited and gung ho.”
The faculty includes longtime J-SITE teacher Steve Kroser, who will continue to teach the popular eighth-grade core course; Rabbis Aaron Bisno and Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom; and Benji Berlow, director of Jewish student life at Carnegie Mellon University, who will be teaching a course in song leading.
The location of J-SITE has changed, and classes now will be held at Rodef Shalom, where the AJL is also headquartered.
Students in eighth through 12th grade have the option of choosing from a wide array of Judaics classes on Sunday mornings; students interested in taking Hebrew will attend classes on both Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
Perel is geared up to launch this year’s Hebrew program, she said, and has added several new dimensions to the curriculum.
“Our emphasis will be on Hebrew for everyday use,” Perel said, adding that students will engage in activities such as cooking, sports and creating a Hebrew newspaper in addition to following the NETA program, which J-SITE has used for several years.
The Hebrew staff includes new faculty as well as some teachers who have taught at J-SITE in the past.
“They are all amazing, and very creative,” Perel said. “They are eager to teach and very alive.”
Gerecht has extended the length of each class to 90 minutes, allowing for students to choose to enroll in either one or two classes on Sunday mornings, from 9 a.m. to noon.
In addition to J-SITE classes, teens will have the opportunity to participate in programs around the city through partnerships with Repair the World, the Holocaust Center and the University of Pittsburgh Jewish Studies program.
Teens will also benefit from some special J-SITE sponsored events, Gerecht said.
“Since we’ve moved to a trimester system this year and since teens will have the opportunity to participate in programs all around the city, we’ll be taking advantage of the opportunity to keep momentum high and build a strong J-SITE community by piloting two special J-SITE events, in November and February, on Sunday morning in lieu of classes those days,” she said. “These events will be created with both our teen and faculty imagination and input. They might be panel discussions, food festivals, you name it.”
South Hills teens who wish to attend J-SITE classes will be provided with transportation to Rodef Shalom if enough enroll, Gerecht said. Just four years ago, there were 40 South Hills teens who attended J-SITE; last year, there were only three.
But J-SITE is partnering with the South Hills Jewish community in the establishment of a Monday night Judaics program to be held in the South Hills.
“We have been providing consultation for that program,” Gerecht said, “and we will promote it.” The South Hills class will be held on Mondays, so that students will be free to attend J-SITE classes on Sundays and Wednesdays as well, with no conflicts.
Gerecht hopes to increase J-SITE’s enrollment, which has been in decline in recent years, following a national trend among supplementary Jewish educational programs for teens.
“We’re offering classes that teens would be extremely interested in,” she said. “And we have top-quality teachers who are interesting and educationally stimulating. I’m really excited to put some big changes in place and I’m very grateful for the support of the community for this new initiative.”
J-SITE will host an open house for teens and their parents on Monday, Aug. 25, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Contact Carolyn Gerecht at 412-521-1101, ext. 3204 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.