Housed in a Merion Station mansion just 15 minutes from Center City, Kohelet Yeshiva High School hums with talent and activity. In the span of just a couple of weeks in March, the Modern Orthodox high school, which serves boys and girls from the Delaware Valley region, hosted a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Day with panels of speakers and hands-on activities; welcomed Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of England who spoke to students and then to 450 community members; and opened doors to one of their popular Café evenings featuring student musicians, slam poets, and visual artists. The school also brought in musician and composer Forrest Kinney — the sought after teacher who is the personal pianist for Bill and Melinda Gates — to run workshops on creativity and improvisation. All that was in addition to an ongoing series of evening classes for the community in the school’s spacious Beit Midrash, where by day students pray, study Talmud, and gather for Town Hall meetings to discuss moral dilemmas and current events.
Kohelet students seem to know they are fortunate to have this array of programming. “Kohelet is really unique in that it provides a wide variety of opportunities for our development in areas from personal religious growth to arts and athletics,” says junior Miryl Hilibrand, the captain of the girls softball team and a visual artist.
What’s hard to understand is how they have time to take advantage of it all, given their demanding course loads, including not only college preparatory classes in English, math, history, and science but also a full Judaic Studies curriculum, encompassing serious Torah and Talmud study using primary sources, Jewish history, and Hebrew language. Students seem to to thrive on the opportunities, though, and develop skills to manage their busy lives.
“I make schedules and prioritize,” says junior Tali Weg, who is involved in the school’s Model UN team, the Israel Advocacy club, and student government. Like quite a few other students, Weg crosses the river every morning from Cherry Hill, New Jersey to attend the school. “I like everything I do, so it’s worth it!”
This rich programming in both religious and secular areas grew from the school’s commitment to Torah U’Madda, the concept that Jewish life and Torah knowledge are enriched by a full understanding of sciences, humanities, and arts — and vice versa. The programming also responds to the interests of the talented and diverse student body. This year, for example, Kohelet junior Noah Notis qualified as a finalist in the national Chidon HaTanach (Bible knowledge competition), senior Justin Joffe became an EMT, and student musicians and artists were invited to perform and exhibit in local venues. Seniors were also accepted at an impressive array of colleges including Columbia, Princeton, Yeshiva University, Brandeis, University of Pennsylvania, NYU, University of Maryland, and Barnard. Equally important to the school, top Israeli yeshiva and midrasha programs offered spots to Kohelet students for a year of post-graduate study.
In reflecting on his peers, senior Shimshon Dicker comments, “I think the crazy thing is we have so many talented kids in such a small school. Plus, it’s a really warm, welcoming environment. Even when I was a freshman, I was friends with people from all grades.”
Head of School Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl, who holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, a doctorate in near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University, and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, is new to Kohelet this year. He agrees with Dicker’s assessment of the student body. When he first arrived at Kohelet, what struck him most was the exceptional quality of the students and the different ways they had been given to shine. “From Ivy-League caliber budding scholars to Torah learners of remarkable distinction, breathtaking artists to musical virtuosos, athletes and poets, actors and activists, the school was brimming with talent in a way that I’d never quite seen before.”
That talent comes from diverse communities in the region, including Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Lower Merion, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. While local students walk to school, those coming from further board buses, some riding for more than an hour in each direction. Thanks to a generous financial aid policy, the school never turns away a family for economic reasons and works to assist its students find support to attend yeshiva and midrasha programs in Israel as well as North American universities.
As for future plans, Rabbi Perl is not content to let the school rest on its laurels. He outlines an ambitious agenda, including seeking dual accreditation from both the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools and introducing some changes to the scope and sequence of the curriculum. Most importantly, though, he talks about the things that are the essence of the school. “The initiatives we introduced this year regarding the creation of school-wide culture of respect and a faculty-wide culture of reflective growth-oriented practice, are among the elements we anticipate expanding and enhancing next year. Most significantly, though, we hope to place our students, their voices, and their passion at the very center of plans to grow and strengthen this most unique place of learning.” Given those students, it promises to be quite a place indeed.
— by Hannah Lee
The United States has the second largest Jewish population in the world, yet we alone have no unifying Orthodox religious hierarchical structure. Other nations with communities of over 100,000 Jews have Chief Rabbis — Israel, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Italy — while others have informal hierarchy, such as in Australia. Here in the United States, the local rabbi reports to the synagogue board and the Jewish day school headmaster reports to the school board. We have no national chief rabbi to ensure proper halachic supervision and unification of policies across the board in Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Michael Broyde, Dayan (judge) of the Beit Din of America (the Rabbinical court for Orthodox Jewry) and professor of law at Emory University while speaking at a Hanukkah program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School on Sunday.
More after the jump.
Rabbi Broyde spoke about two of the many perspectives on the Hanukkah story to portray the poles of rabbinic authority in this country. One is that the Hellenists infringed on our religious freedom. “If only they had left us alone, we would not have had to wage war against them.” Another is that the Hellenists were wrong and rabbinic Jews had to force them to do what is right.
American Orthodoxy has been created in the image of America’s ethos of independent thinking. In his lifetime, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was the leading halachic authority for Orthodox Jewry in North America. However, he repeatedly declined the title of Chief Rabbi and his writings, such as Responsa Igrot Moshe, reflected his position against organized hierarchy — a tradition that dates back to the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu or the Vilna Gaon, who died in 1797) and the Aruch HaShulhan (Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, who died in 1908). Reb Moshe, as he was known, was fearless and autonomous, who refused to defer to other rabbinic authorities. He exhorted Jews to study and learn for themselves. We are to think and decide for ourselves.
R. Feinstein even considered it acceptable for modern-day halachic authorities to argue with some of the Rishonim, the influential Rabbis and Poskim (jurists) who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries, when they have strong proofs and firm analytic foundations. In tumultuous times, two things tend to happen:
- novel situations arise and
- historical answers no longer seem to work.
So, we need new answers to modern-day problems. An example that R. Feinstein cites from the Talmud [Maharatz Chayot, Gittin 56a] was about unblemished sacrifices, where Rabbi Zecharya was figuratively blamed for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) because he remained silent on the matter, out of respect or fear of his peers. When one has a particular, even unpopular, understanding of Halacha, one is not permitted to remain silent.
Do we learn from the historic rabbis and follow their rulings? It’s okay to do differently, says Rabbi Broyde, elaborating on Rabbi Feinstein. As the Rishonim are no longer living, we cannot run a community on auto-pilot. God cannot ask us to be right all the time, only that we try our best to follow a halachic process. For example, whereas the Ashkenazim follow the halachic rulings of the Tosefot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud), the Sephardim follow the halachic opinions of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204). These traditions cannot both be right, but it is our adherence to the legal process, not the result that matters to Orthodox Jewry.
The model for a God-fearing community is a body of laws that are consistent with the sources that bind us. R. Feinstein was very concerned that Jews follow secular law, Dina D’Malchuta Dina. Whereas the Jews in Hungary, for instance, lived in an unjust society seeking to exploit them, and resorted to cheating the government of taxes as necessary to survive, American Jews live in a just society and, thus we have the full obligation to comply with all local and national laws.
During the Q&A session afterward the official presentation, R. Broyde made it clear that sometimes rabbinic decisions are made for the communal good, and not because of halachic requirements. One issue raised by audience members was about the plight of agunot, “chained” women who are not given a get, bill of divorce, by their estranged husbands which results in the women being unable to remarry. “This is a political issue, as there is already a halachic solution,” said R. Broyde, because there is the prenuptial agreement that binds the couple to rabbinic arbitration by a beit din in case of marital disputes. Then the question became: “What about women who do not have one?” The prenuptial agreement has been in use for 25 years, he said. “What if the women had not been counseled by the rabbi to obtain one?” Using the analogy of people who ride motorcycles recklessly without wearing safety helmets, Rabbi Broyde declared, “We cannot expend community resources to clean up after a marital disaster.” And he added: “Communities get the rabbis they deserve… and members can always choose to move to where there is a better rabbi.” Alas for the aggrieved agunot in our communities, even with a prenuptial agreement, the obstacle for most get disputes remains in its enforcement. The secular courts do not give support to any rabbinical court ruling. Would a Chief Rabbinate make a difference for our agunot?
Rabbi Broyde claimed that the communities that have a chief rabbinate have political and social virtues, citing statistics from the United Kingdom: 3/4 of all Jews attend Jewish day school, higher rates of affiliation, and a lower rate of intermarriage. However, I remain unconvinced by this argument and Rabbi Broyde’s hope for a Chief Rabbinate of the United States seems an unlikely outcome in this “land of the free.”