After 20 years of trying to fill the educational gap for Jewish students between their b’nai mitzvah and college, Shoresh Hebrew High School will close next month.
The school’s board announced the closure May 6. Neal J. Meiselman, president of the Shoresh board, cited dwindling enrollment and funding as the reasons the school, which emphasized intellectual, text-based Jewish study, will not reopen in the fall. About 21 students in grades eight to 12 were enrolled this year. The school, unaffiliated with any Jewish movement or organization, met on Sundays at the Bender Jewish Community
Center of Greater Washington, in Rockille.
The decision to close was finalized at the start of 2019.
But this is not where the story ends.
Many Shoresh board members are affiliated with Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase, which had been Shoresh’s meeting place for most of its existence.
Last December, board members spoke to the synagogue’s cantor and education director, Hinda Eisen Labovitz, about starting a Shoresh-like high school program.
“I didn’t think twice to say yes,” said Labovitz, who began meeting with Shoresh families in March.
The new program, called Tzohar, will begin on Sept. 13. Enrollment is open, at OhrKodesh.Wixsite.com/Tzohar. Tuition ranges from $765 to $1,650, according to the program’s website.
Labovitz said she doesn’t know how many students the program will ultimately attract.
In addition to text study, Tzohar will offer a “moot beit din,” or moot court. Local afterschool program Moed, which also meets at Ohr Kodesh, will offer Hebrew instruction.
Rabbi Saul Oresky was one of two original teachers when Shoresh opened in 1999. “It’s a wonderful teaching environment. My kids were active and came up with great questions,” said Oresky, who is rabbi of Mishkan Torah Synagogue in Greenbelt.
“I would hang outside the open door listening to what debates they had,” said Meiselman, who was one of the school’s founders. “One student said they were happy to leave the class angry. It meant their ideas were challenged and their opinions strengthened.”
Dwindling enrollment was one reason Shoresh’s leaders decided to close the school.
“You can’t have those great discussions with just three kids in the room,” said Meiselman. “When you go down to 21 students, and you can’t combine seniors and eighth graders, the first problem is educational — that we have really drifted below critical mass.”
The second issue was financial. “Fewer students mean lower revenue,” Meiselman said. Shoresh held fundraisers, but “there was never enough support from the organized Jewish community.”
When enrollment dwindled to 30, there were enough funds to pay teachers, but not a school director. So board members took on the director’s responsibilities.
Finally, the board used non-tuition funds to hire a director in a last attempt to save the school. However, the new director was not able to increase enrollment, Meiselman said.
“It’s really a tragedy, very much a shame,” Oresky said.
“I will miss the community of Jewish learners,” said Tamara Halle, a board member whose son will graduate with Shoresh’s last class. “We developed an incredible community.”
Shoresh will hold a graduation and school closing ceremony over Zoom on June 7 at 7 p.m. To receive the link, email [email protected].
Carolyn Conte is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.