Teens today are so busy and overloaded with homework, extracurricular activities and job commitments, it’s difficult for them to find a free night. But somehow, more than 100 area teens manage to squeeze in a few extra hours each week to attend a Jewish community high school program in West Hartford.
Yachad: Greater Hartford Jewish Community High School offers a wide range of programs for Jewish teens in grades 8-12. Students attend classes on Monday nights at or Sunday mornings at the , both in West Hartford.
“We inspire our teens to become passionate Jewish leaders and active participants in the Jewish community,” said Heather Fiedler, Yachad executive director. “We instill in them a love for all that Judaism represents.”
“As parents, we are obligated to make the best choices for our children, so that they have a deep connection to their Jewish roots and heritage. That is why I sent my children to Yachad,” said Martin Melnick in a promotional video on Yachad’s website.
Top educators in the area teach the courses, which range from the popular cooking class “Edible Judaism” led by Carrie Berman (and this year sponsored by the ) to “Hot Topics,” this year led by Rabbi Shimmy Trencher, and “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” taught by Avon High School teacher Stuart Abrams.
An especially successful program is the Teen Leadership and Philanthropy Institute, a two-year program headed by Rabbi Steven Chatinover and Cyral Sheldon. In this program, students learn first-hand about charitable giving, engage in community service projects and then allocate funds to community agencies. The idea is to help build tomorrow’s philanthropic leaders, according to Yachad’s program guide.
Yachad has been operating for several years under different leadership, but its programs continue to grow and evolve. Last year, the newly-appointed Fiedler and the board of directors, led by president Mel Simon and board chair Debbie Shoflick, implemented new programming.
“Yachad Central” is not only held in the fall and spring semesters on Monday evenings, but this year includes the option of mini-courses if a student can’t commit to a full semester. “Yachad WOW!” (Without Walls) is offered at different times and in different venues. There is also an ongoing "East of the River Program" which meets at Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor on selected Sunday evenings.
With a goal of “meeting kids where they are,” Fiedler said, Yachad WOW will also offer a one-day Jewish heritage bus trip to New York City, a program on Jewish environmentalism this fall, and “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing,” which will meet monthly at teens’ homes.
The “January Term” is a three-week period for which students select classes based on a theme. This year’s theme is “Judaism and the Arts,” with courses offered on music, photography, theater and visual arts.
“We believe Jewish education is incredibly important, and we make it accessible for every Jewish teen,” added Fiedler, who also teaches fifth grade and is Judaic Studies coordinator at the in West Hartford.
Another aspect of the program – which is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford – is to build a community of Jewish teenagers, “learning and exploring, socializing, connecting and having fun together… b’yachad,” added Fiedler. (The word “Yachad” in Hebrew means “together.”)
The social element is a huge attraction for high schoolers. (Students are divided into sections: Grade 8; Junior Division, Grades 9-10; and Senior Division, grades 11-12.) Yachad is a place where Jewish teens can connect with friends from other towns besides West Hartford such as Avon, Simsbury, Farmington, Newington, Glastonbury, Manchester and South Windsor. There are before-class dinners, break-time snacks and after-school ice cream sales. Last year, 115 teens from the Greater Hartford area were enrolled, and Fiedler expects about the same number this year.
For Penina Beede, who has attended Yachad since 8th grade and is a rising junior at the , Yachad provides her with a great place to see her friends from middle school, her youth group (of which she is Connecticut regional president) and her synagogue. (Her mom, Rabbi Debra Cantor, just became spiritual leader of from Newington and Bloomfield/West Hartford).
“Yachad’s classes are fun and exciting. I am glad I go,” said Beede.
Yachad is sponsoring a screening of the compelling film,”Race to Nowhere,” on Monday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m., an event which is free and open to the public. The award-winning film explores the lives of over-programmed students, burned-out educators and worried parents.
“We feel strongly we need to open these types of conversations,” explained Fiedler, who said there will be a panel discussion with educators after the film.
Throughout the year, Yachad sponsors speakers and co-sponsors events such as the Jewish film festival and Jewish book festival with the .
There are fees for classes and programs, but the registration fee will be waived for those who register by Sept. 6. Contact Yachad, 2626 Albany Avenue, West Hartford, 860-236-5611, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.yachad.net.