Tichon helps teens continue Jewish learning


Knowledge and learning have always been cornerstones of a Jewish understanding of the world but Judaic education today faces unprecedented challenges.

“More Jews today know who the mother of Jesus was than who the mother of Moses was,” said Rabbi Michael Rovinsky.


Rovinsky, 45, is part of a small group of local individuals working to change that. He is educational director of Tichon, a Judaic studies program that helps Jewish high school students to discover more about the principles, ideas and philosophies that define their faith.

The program, now in its fifth year, generally attracts two or three dozen students, according to Rovinsky, who said 28 have joined for this session. Each school year consists of two semesters which run from September through May. Classes meet at the Central Agency for Jewish Education and are offered during three-hour blocks on Sundays in hour-long segments. Since two classes are offered every hour, students are given a choice of the subjects in which they’d like to enroll.

“The purpose of Tichon is to provide an intensive, concrete Judaic studies program, where Jewish teens can engage in textual and non-textual Judaic works, including the Talmud, Jewish philosophy and Jewish history in meaningful ways,” said Rovinsky, who has been with the program since the beginning. “It’s using original sources. It’s not fluff. We’re not about fluff and just coming together and having a good time.”

Not that they don’t.

“The kids have a blast,” said Rovinsky, who noted that feedback from the students often includes commentary like “How come we’ve never done this before?” to “Can we have more than one class a week?”

Ofira Melnick remembers when her son Lior, one of the program’s earliest students, would come home from classes.

“Every Sunday when he came home, he was just beaming, telling us how much he learned about Jewish history,” she said. “When he had to write a paper in his high school, which was not a Jewish high school, he chose to write on a Jewish theme and he was able to contact [his teacher] Rabbi [Yonason] Goldson and ask him questions.”

Today, Melnick’s younger son, Nitai, is enrolled in Tichon, while Ofira teaches classes for the program and her husband Jeffrey remains on the steering committee. The Melnicks, who attend Traditional Congregation, have been involved in Tichon from its inception, which began when they were exploring educational options for Lior. Part of the idea was to truly engage children in Jewish learning and connect them to Jewish life.

“Kids get involved in college. They get involved with their synagogue locally,” Jeffrey Melnick said. “All of those things are fulfilling to watch and observe.”

He noted that the program has become popular enough that this year it has expanded to include 8th- graders as well as the traditional audience of high school students.

“Another thing that kids really like is that we mix the grades up so younger kids are there with older kids,” he said. “It allows them to meet people outside of their own synagogue, their own grade level and their own school.”

Josh Aroesty, 15, a tenth-grader at Ladue High School, said the program has allowed him to continue his Jewish education. This is his second year at Tichon.

“I really like it,” said Aroesty, whose family are members of Shaare Zedek. “I came from Solomon Schechter Day School and now that I’m in high school, I don’t really have the opportunity to do a whole lot of Jewish education anymore, so it’s really great to be able to meet on Sunday mornings and spend a couple of hours really being able to study Torah and Judaism.”

Aroesty said that his studies in Ofira Melnick’s Modern Hebrew class have helped him to understand the connections between languages and even made his Spanish classes at Ladue more interesting. Meanwhile, his Torah study class, with Rabbi Asher Yablok, has given him an opportunity to see parallels with issues contemporary families face.

“We’ve been learning about Jacob, Esau and all the different Patriarchs and it was really interesting to talk to Rabbi Yablok about the relationship between Jacob and Esau and how it is still apparent in the relationships that people have with their siblings today,” he said.

Rachel Shilcrat, 15, another Tichon student in her second year, also finds knowledge she can apply daily. Shilcrat’s father, Stewart, was also among the program’s founders and her brother, Micah, attended the program before she did.

“We covered (Jewish) laws on finding, such as if you find a lost dog. How do you handle that?” said Rachel, a 10th-grader at Crossroads College Preparatory School, whose family attends Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. “That happens all the time. This is the Jewish way of what you should do. How long should you put up signs for? Should you take it for yourself? It’s finding Jewish things that you do in your everyday life.”

That’s really the key, said Rovinsky. The program aims make Judaic textual study applicable to the lives of the next generation.

“When I look at the question of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what does that mean from a Jewish perspective? What is happiness? Is it money? Is it any of the other things that society says will buy happiness or is it something deeper? What does Judaism say about that?” Rovinsky said. “We’re taking the last half of the book of Genesis and looking at the different stories inside the text and analyzing what messages are they teaching us in the 21st Century?”

Rovinsky stresses that Tichon, which means “high school” in Hebrew, is not meant to compete with or replace the education a student receives from a Jewish high school.

Instead, the program is designed to supplement the educational needs of Jewish teens who attend public or private high schools outside the Jewish community.

Students can also earn high school credit for some Tichon courses.

Rovinsky also noted that classes are meant to be accessible to students regardless of their Judaic educational background and Tichon welcomes participants from all streams of Judaism. He said that while it is classroom-style learning, interaction is a big part of the program. There is even a yearly trip to New York set for February.

It’s not just lecture,” he said. “The students are engaged in dialogue, discussion and debate.”

Tichon is supported by both donors and tuition, which starts at $280 for the minimum two hours for which a student must sign up. Rovinsky notes, however, that tuition is need-based and no students are turned away.

“By educating these kids, we make sure they will have a greater understanding and appreciation of their heritage and that will enhance their excitement, battle their apathy and fight assimilation,” he said.

For more information, call 314-498-6279 or send email to [email protected]