Program for St. Louis Jewish teens ends after enrollment decline

Teens take part in a 2013 JOLT event. File photo

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Jewish Federation of St. Louis has decided to discontinue its afterschool education program for teens because of declining enrollment in recent years, leaders say.

The Jewish Opportunities and Learning For Teens (JOLT) program offered courses such as Jews in the News, Texting with Rabbis and Strong Teens Stronger Relationships to students from 8th to 12th grade. 

But enrollment had dropped from an average of about 60 students a trimester at the start of the program eight years ago to less than 20 last school year, according to Cyndee Levy, director of the Center for Jewish Learning

The cancellation of the program is the latest example of the difficulties Jewish organizations face in getting post-bar and bat mitzvah-age students to participate in supplemental Jewish education.

For example, in Philadelphia, the Gratz Jewish Community High School announced last year that it was closing much of its afterschool program because enrollment had dropped by more than 60 percent since 2006 and “was no longer financially feasible,” according to the Jewish Exponent. A Jewish supplementary school program in Connecticut closed after 10 years in 2014. 

ADVERTISEMENT
St. Louis Speakers Series ad


Ending JOLT doesn’t mean Federation will no longer offer educational opportunities for teens. Levy said the organization is brainstorming other initiatives, though it doesn’t yet have specifics about programming.

“For me, it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “I think sometimes programs, even when they are really great, run their course and don’t fit the needs of the population in quite the same way as when they originally began. I don’t see it as a negative thing; it’s a way of creating a lot of space for innovation and new thinking.”

The JOLT program replaced Jewish Community High School in 2008. Rather than having two semesters each year, the new program offered three eight-week trimesters, along with four-week courses.

But students still had other time commitments to sports, theater and other extra curricular activities and “when the homework load was really high” they often had to make the choice between Jewish youth groups and JOLT, Levy said.

“I think that teenagers have become busier, and for a teen to commit to a trimester becomes challenging,” said Andy Schwebel, director of experiential education at Congregation B’nai Amoona, who also taught JOLT classes including Wizardry of Judaism, which brought together the “Harry Potter” book series and religion.

Schwebel, who taught for seven years, described the program as “discussion-based rather than teacher vs. student learning.”

“It was like a family. A lot of the students came for dinner and we were able to sit with them and find out about their weeks,” he said. But he also emphasized that the end of the JOLT program could be a positive. 

“The exciting part is that it brings the community together as a think tank about what’s appealing to the teen population,” Schwebel said.

Some students and parents said they would have continued to participate in JOLT.

Harry Rubin, an incoming senior at Clayton High School, had taken classes for three years, including the Jews in the News course taught by Jewish Light Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Bob Cohn.

“Every week we always had a good discussion about the news,” said Rubin. “I enjoyed seeing the people there and it was a nice break from school and homework.”

But he also noticed that fewer students were attending and said he was not surprised by the news.

Nancy Lisker, the director of the St. Louis chapter of American Jewish Committee, said she understands the budgetary constraints that Jewish organizations face. But even with declining enrollment, “oftentimes we need to, at a great cost, address smaller but still worthwhile minorities.”

For Lisker’s son and daughter, the JOLT classes educated “them on American Jewish cinema, on the Holocaust experience. These are things that are important and are not necessarily covered by other organizations.”

She said that ad-hoc programming and one-time events would not fill the void left by JOLT. “Kids need consistency,” she said.

“Everybody, most importantly those who are involved in Jewish organizations understand and know about administrative reorganization,” she said. “But we are really looking forward to contributing and working with Federation for a creative solution.”

Whatever programs Federation starts to offer, students say there are classes they will miss.

Paige Krug, who now attends University of Kansas, said the Jews in the News class was one of the primary experiences that inspired her to visit Israel. 

Cohn “encouraged us to talk about different topics, not just a bombing or shooting but positive things in Israel, so we all came out thinking that Israel was a positive place and learned to love Israel,” Krug said.

And a class on empowering young women taught by Lisa Deutsch, a social worker, provided a “very safe space where everyone felt comfortable.” But Krug also stopped attending after her junior year. 

Federation plans to start offering new teen programming in the fall, Levy said.