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.