After 20+ years, enhancing identity still core of Hebrew High

Hebrew High students (L-R) Shane Weinstein, Ariel Nadler and Ben Bressler celebrate Purim 2011 with a hamantashen break. (Courtesy Hebrew High)

Sharon Glassberg was a member of Tucson’s second Hebrew High graduating class in 1980. Thirty years later, as director of the Coalition for Jewish Education at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, she’s the principal of Hebrew High. The evening program’s main goal is still the same, to enhance teens’ Jewish identity by putting them in a Jewish context, says Glassberg, but today “Judaism has to be part of who they are, not separate.” For example, she says, “if they’re musicians they now have a way to express that Jewishly by joining Hebrew High’s Klezmer band.

The Jewish supplement to Tucson’s secular high schools was established in 1979 as a collaboration between Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Anshei Israel. At that time, the Jewish Community Council, the precursor to the Federation, administered Hebrew High.

Sharon Glassberg, current principal, was a member of Hebrew High’s class of 1980. Top row (L-R): Jordan Simon, Leslie Ann Gordon, George Dworin. Middle row: Sandra Brownstein, Marlene Meshel, Glassberg, Anna Vogel. Bottom row: Harry Wolin, Jeff Julius, Marci Shrager, Naomi Lippel; Shifrette Cohen, school director and Stephen Dickstein, board chairman (Arizona Jewish Post archives)

Around 30 teens attended Hebrew High when Glassberg was a student. The program’s highest enrollment was 164 students in 2002-03. In addition to the increase in students since 1979, the curriculum has also expanded.

“We give Jewish high school students a place to come and explore various and diverse topics,” says Bryan Davis, Hebrew High program coordinator and youth and Holocaust education coordinator at the Federation. Davis designs Hebrew High’s curriculum and hires teachers. Davis and Glassberg work together to market the classes to Jewish teens, offering interesting ways “to be Jews as individuals and be part of the Tucson Jewish community,” says Davis. “Jewish teens may enter a black hole after B’nai Mitzvah. Maybe in college they rediscover their Judaism. Hebrew High is a community wide program to help keep them connected.”

Teens may attend Hebrew High whether or not they’re affiliated with a Tucson congregation. Beyond involvement in their own congregations, Jewish youth groups or interaction with Jewish friends, notes Davis, teens have the opportunity to engage socially with newfound Jewish peers.

This year, classes will be held on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. at Congregation Anshei Israel, 5550 E. Fifth St. Classes range from the spiritual, such as Jewish meditation taught by Jordan Hill, a storyteller and Tucson Hebrew Academy middle school teacher, to Jewish civics taught by Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash.

Jewish civics — a class in which teens learn to express themselves as Jewish voters — is a prerequisite for participation in the Panim el Panim program in Washington, D.C., when Hebrew High students get to lobby members of the Arizona Congressional delegation, says Glassberg. This is the second year Louchheim will be teaching the Jewish civics class, which is open to all Hebrew High 10th through 12th graders. “He liked the curriculum so much that it doubles as his confirmation class for Or Chadash,” Glassberg adds. Other congregational confirmation classes are also held at Hebrew High.

“A Commitment to Remember,” which pairs students with Holocaust survivors, will be taught again by Sheila Wilensky, AJP assistant editor and former high school/college teacher, this time as a year-long class. The program “helps students find their place in history so that the legacy of the survivors never disappears,” Glassberg told the AJP.

In other classes, “we also ground them in their own local Jewish history by taking students to the Jewish History Museum every year,” says Glassberg. “We welcome questioning, which we’ve always done as part of our heritage. This year, Rabbi Billy [Lewkowicz] will teach a “Jewgle” [read: Google] class. It’ll be very reminiscent of Talmudic back and forth dynamic discussion.”

The 2012 March of the Living trip that will take place from April 15 to 19 is another opportunity for Hebrew High students, who may submit their applications to Glassberg. The Federation sponsors the trip every other year. Eight to 13 Tucson teens usually participate as part of around 40 from the western region, notes Glassberg, the region’s coordinator. A prerequisite for the trip to Poland and Israel is a second-semester class at Hebrew High called “March of the Living,” taught by Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim.

Registration for this school year’s Hebrew High classes will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 6 p.m. for new students and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. for returning students in Congregation Anshei Israel’s Cantor Falkow Lounge. Pizza will be served. Placement exams will be given at registration for new Hebrew for credit students.

For more information on the March of the Living or any Hebrew High classes, contact Sharon Glassberg at 577-9393, ext. 122 or sglassberg@jfsa.org.

This article is the first of an occasional series on local Jewish education. AJP Assistant Editor Sheila Wilensky may be reached at 319-1112, ext. 110 or swilensky@azjewishpost.com.