North Carolina Boarding School Seeks To Bridge Religious Divides

By Jennifer Siegel

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
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Greensboro, N.C. - On a recent Friday evening at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C., Jewish teenagers and their teachers were attending not one but two separate Sabbath eve services. At a student-led Orthodox minyan held in a dormitory common room, plastic chairs were arranged in neat rows and divided into sections for men and women by a folding wooden mehitzah. In another dorm, at a Reform service, worshippers sat in a giant semicircle, their singing accompanied by tambourines and electronic keyboards. The school’s principal, Gary Grandon, strummed an amplified acoustic guitar.

The evening was one small part of a unique experiment unfolding at the American Hebrew Academy, America’s only pluralistic Jewish boarding school. Opened in 2001, with a $150 million gift from Greensboro insurer Maurice “Chico” Sabbah, since deceased, the school has quickly grown into a magnet for underserved Jewish communities from around the country and a place for Jewish teenagers to explore their religious identities.

Exploration does not always take place in denominationally segregated quarters. Megan Roberts, one of a dozen recent college graduates serving as a resident fellow at the school, described a lunch recently shared by a group of students. “We had literally an Orthodox Jew who grew up K through eight in Chabad, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi, and someone who got bat mitzvahed but whose Jewish education was minimal,” she said. “They were ordering, and one of the girls got something that is not kosher, and other two chose to be kosher, and there they were in the middle of Subway, having a conversation about why I do this, and this is what it means to me.”

At its founding, the mission of the American Hebrew Academy — or “A-ha,” as it is informally called by campus insiders — was simply “to be a school for children who didn’t have all the options,” said executive director Glenn Drew, Sabbah’s nephew. While Greensboro had a thriving Jewish community, with one of the country’s highest per capita federation giving rates and a community day school through the eighth grade, it lacked a Jewish high school. Realizing that the Greensboro community would never be large enough to sustain one on its own, school founders instead devised a boarding school geared toward Jewish families outside such major centers as New York and Los Angeles.

Sited on a 100-acre, leafy campus, with modern, Jerusalem stone buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Aaron Green, AHA aims to be an elite prep school with a haimish soul. The school has many of the bells and whistles that appeal to academic comparison shoppers — a laptop for every student, an Olympic-size pool, a lake — but it also has a family feel. Students live in small dormitories in groups of 15, each with its own fellow and a set of “house parents” drawn from the faculty and administration. Teachers eat lunch with students, and on Friday nights matzo ball soup and brisket are passed family style around tables covered with white tablecloths.

With required courses in Hebrew language, Jewish history and biblical interpretation, religion is integrated into the academic life of the school, but students are given a wide berth in developing their own styles of religious observance.

It’s a “cushioned place to experiment,” marketing director Jonathan Livnat said. The school requires a baseline of religious participation — students must attend Sabbath services eight weeks out of every 12-week trimester and egalitarian weekday services one week out of every six — but does not encourage any one set of beliefs or practices. Students attend services at several local congregations, and the school itself hosts the only daily Orthodox minyan in Greensboro, which has come to serve the wider community, as well as Reform and Conservative services. Alternative Saturday options, such as “bibliodrama” and current event discussions, are also offered.

One of the surprises in running the school, Drew said, is that AHA increasingly draws students from large cities who are looking for another option in Jewish education.

The schools early days were beset by some financial turbulence. Sabbah’s aviation reinsurance company, Fortress Re, had reinsured the hijacked 9/11 planes and was sued for fraud after the attacks, but the case was settled a few years ago

This year alone, $2 million has been raised for the construction of a synagogue on campus, while enrollment at the school continues to grow.

This year, AHA’s 133 students came from roughly 28 states and 10 countries. According to one informal survey, about 40% consider themselves Conservative, with the rest split between Orthodox and Reform. But given all the options with which to experiment, many of AHA’s teenagers willingly choose to add “spiritual development” to their high school to-do lists.

Student Harry Epstein proudly wears a Star of David necklace he bought for himself on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street during the school’s study abroad program in Israel. As one of a handful of Jewish students at the exclusive McCallie School in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., the lanky, sandy-haired junior had the feeling that “there was something bigger out there that I was missing.”

“No one gave me [a Star of David],” Epstein said, meditating on his reasons for attending AHA. “I sort of felt the same way about my Jewish education: No one gave it to me, so I had to get it myself.”

Several students who spoke with the Forward said it is common for students to experiment religiously, and that they occasionally find themselves more, or less, ritually observant than their parents.

“I don’t have to follow in my parents’ footsteps; I can raise my kids as religious or not religious as I want to,” said sophomore Hannah Silverstein, who was raised in Greensboro’s Reform community and is still figuring out “what I am,” though she has stopped eating pork and shellfish. At the other end of the spectrum is Shoshana O’Brien, who was raised Orthodox in Albany, N.Y., but currently finds herself drawn to Reform Judaism, in part because it stresses picking “what is spiritually meaningful to you.” Her mother, she admits, is “not very pleased.”

Junior Ilam Rozen, who hails from Mexico City and will bring a half-dozen American students home with him this summer, believes that the religious openness of the school has created an atmosphere of “acceptance” rather than mere toleration. The openness, he says, has strengthened students commitment to the notion of Jewish peoplehood.

“Judaism is Zionism,” Rozen said. “There is really a sense of nationalism. It’s a common factor that we all share.”

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