New Modern Orthodox high school optimistic after launch

Rabbi Moshe Shulman teaches a class at Yeshivat Kadimah High School. Private religious schools in Missouri could benefit from a proposed tax credit program. Photo: Lisa Mandel

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

About six weeks into the academic school year, the founders of Yeshivat Kadimah in Olivette say they are happy with results in this new Modern Orthodox school and laud its innovative curriculum. Eleven students are currently enrolled.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel and Jimmy Fendelman, board chairman, the founders have faced and overcome several daunting challenges.

Among them was starting Aug. 26 in five classrooms and an administrative office rented from Epstein Hebrew Academy on a one-year lease. A decision to open the school in the first place was only finalized in June, which left precious little time to sort out all the details. 

Another challenge was finding qualified teachers in both Judaic and general studies. 

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Shulman is head of school as well as supervisor and primary teacher of Judaic studies.

For the general studies side of the curriculum, Shulman, Fendelman and others turned to Brad Heger, who holds a doctorate in education and signed a two-year contract with the Yeshivat Kadimah board. Heger, a Roman Catholic, has a long history in local secondary education, including 18 years at Ladue Horton Watkins High School as an English teacher and administrator and six years at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington, Mo.

He said he is comfortable helping to set up a new Jewish high school.

“Being in an Orthodox school, since it’s a faith-based school, is not that much different from what I have done before,” Heger said.

He’s also learned a few things about Jewish worship and ritual.

“I have found out what davening is,” Heger said. “I now know what it takes to make a minyan.” He added that one reason he was asked to sign on as education director was because “I have a lot of contacts.”

Fendelman said that a board member Sima Oberlander knew Heger, which helped to persuade him to take a leading role. 

Another lay leader who helped ready the new school is Jeff Kopolow, president of the Ladue School Board. He played a central role in setting up MU High School, the website that Kadimah uses for its general studies courses. Kopolow taught in Ladue schools for nearly 40 years and also has many contacts in secondary education the Kadimah board could tap.

Creating a model for growth

The effort to create a Modern Orthodox high school had been percolating in small circles for quite a while but was publically announced in the Jewish Light June 19. The new eight-member board wanted to design a Jewish high school that will attract families seeking options other than existing area Jewish schools or public or private secular schools.

The founders of Kadimah expect the student body to be drawn primarily from two congregations, Young Israel and U City Shul, both in University City. Tuition is $16,000 a year, which is competitive with area private and parochial schools. Classes this school year end June 1. 

The board had hoped for nine students the first year, so enrollment of 11 was a pleasant surprise. Next school year Shulman hopes five to six students will be enrolled in ninth grade, which would broaden the base of entering students.

“If we could reach 50 [for the entire high school] that would be huge,” Shulman said, noting that reaching that number will likely take several years.

He was unsure just how many potential Modern Orthodox students live in the St. Louis area. He has said he was concerned that parents were enrolling their children in public schools when they could be learning more about Judaism in a high-quality Jewish school.

“We have learned how desperately Jewish schools are needed in this country,” Shulman said. “There is growing alienation of Jewish teens. The point is to be a big tent.”

Board members said they didn’t advertise or twist arms to find students for the fall term. “We didn’t have to sell this to anybody,” said Fendelman. “They came to us.”

Shulman agree: “We were very careful not to solicit.”

When asked about the impact of Yeshivat Kadimah, Rabbi Gabriel Munk, principal of Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School said, “we all decided not to make comments about each other so I am going to stick with that.” 

Block Yeshiva currently has 20 girls and 12 boys enrolled, which is down from last year, when it had 27 girls and 15 boys. The girls school is located in Olivette and the boys school in Creve Coeur.

Rabbis at Missouri Torah Institute in Chesterfield also said they had no comment on the addition of Yeshiva Kadimah to Jewish high schools here.

Desiring a fresh approach

Shulman, Fendelman and others say they do not want to further divide the Orthodox community by creating another high school. Rather, they say, they want to attract bring more students – and their parents – with what they believe is a fresh approach to Jewish subjects and general education that well prepares graduates for college.

Meeting that goal meant putting in place a strong curriculum that emphasizes Jewish studies as well as general education courses such as English, history, mathematics and the sciences. To surmount these obstacles, school leaders have turned to the riches of the Internet.

“Kadimah is definitely a radical departure in education,” said Fendelman. “We also have differentiated instruction because some students need more help than others.”

For instance, twice a week, the six boys and five girls sit in separate classrooms and take instruction from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, founder of the Tenach Study Center, and Smadar Goldstein, of Jerusalem EdTech Solutions. 

Both are Skyped from Israel.

For general studies, the same subjects that high school students all across Missouri must take to graduate, students and their instructors turn to MU High School, an Internet site (http://muhigh.missouri.edu) set up by the University of Missouri to help families and schools that do not attend traditional high schools, whether public, private or parochial.

On Fridays, the students usually go on field trips with a teacher. Recent excursions have included the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Science Center to see the IMAX movie “Jerusalem.”

While students may receive basic instruction from the Internet, whether based in Missouri or Israel, a qualified teacher is in the classroom to explain subjects and answer questions. 

At this point, the teachers, including part time, outnumber the students. A total of 17 teachers are instructing the 11 students, which includes 13 general studies instructors who work with students as they delve into topics provided by MU High, which Fendelman said is quite rigorous.

Shulman, Fendelman and others involved in Yeshivat Kadimah are too diplomatic and aware of possible discord in the Orthodox community to state openly why they believed it was necessary to create a new high school. But they did stress that they wanted to create a fresh approach to Judaic and general studies.

Perhaps one answer lies in the comments of a 16-year-old junior who has attended classes at Epstein as well as a public school in University City, and she went to Block Yeshiva for her freshman and sophomore years.

Asked how she likes Yeshivat Kadimah, she said: “It’s a happier place to be.”