S.F. high-school chavurah is now the cool thing to do

A gaggle of teens is pressing sweet dough into triangles for hamantaschen — post-Purim.

Welcome to the San Francisco High School Havurah.

Now drawing near the close of its first year, the Jewish community high school — open to students in grades 9-12, regardless of synagogue affiliation — boasts 175 participants.

Every Monday night from 6 to 8 p.m., hip girls in `70s platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans, and boys in oversized overalls and backwards baseball caps meet at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for bagels, shmear and shmoozing.

And learning.

Tenth-grade students attend one hour of required confirmation studies. Occupying the second hour, and both hours for nonconfirmation students, is a choice of nearly two dozen classes.

Class titles range from the heady "Cults and Messianic Movements" and "Midrash and Storytelling" to the popular "Jewish Sexuality Studies" and "Jewish Identity in Film."

The chavurah (study group) is a joint effort between the Bureau of Jewish Education and San Francisco congregations Beth Sholom, Emanu-El and Sherith Israel.

Each of the congregations forfeited its own high-school program to form a larger teen community. Each year a different congregation hosts the chavurah.

"There is a sacrifice. But what we've gotten in exchange is well worth it," said Beth Sholom's Rabbi Alan Lew.

"We don't have as many hours with our own kids. And there's a generality of ideas that students are exposed to rather than learning from a specific [Conservative or Reform] point of view.

"However, this is a tremendous opportunity to counter the inertia of Jewish life. And that is worth a great deal," Lew said. "The kids are dating. They're drifting. Now they're amazed there's all these other Jews their age. They're forming a sense of community, which is really exciting."

Amanda Kruger, a tenth-grade student at Emanu-El, agreed.

"I live in Alameda so I don't meet a lot of Jews. But I've made bonds I couldn't otherwise make," she said. "I want to come and learn — mostly because of the people."

Traditionally Bay Area students meet their peers for the first time during the BJE-sponsored Summer in Israel Youth Program trip. However, Jeremy Frank, a tenth grader at Beth Sholom, noted, "This way, with the chavurah, we meet everyone before we go. I prefer this."

In addition to weekly classes the chavurah has hosted two weekend retreats as well as "Israel After Dark" — an evening of Israeli food, music, art, dancing and information; an environmental awareness program; and speakers who tell the youngsters about Hillel and Jewish involvement on college campuses.

All of this, along with snacks, is included in the $240 annual tuition. Synagogues subsidize $65 per student; families pay the remaining $175.

Funded in part by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the San Francisco chavurah "is the cheapest high-school program in the country," said Yael Lazar-Paley, director of the BJE Teen Initiative.

And it has grown in less than a year. The program began last fall with 135 students. Enrolled teens recruited 40 others.

"It's become the cool thing to do. I've even received calls from non-Jewish kids who wanted to know if they could come," Lazar-Paley said.

An anonymous survey conducted by the BJE affirms the chavurah's popularity. Student-written comments ranged from "I actually like it…shhhh," and "I hoped to make a lot of new friends, and I have," to "It's cool."

What's the downside?

"Something besides bagels PLEASE!!" one student commented, while another wrote that the classrooms' "chairs could be bigger."

For next year, students will help remedy the flaws by assisting in the creation of the program and in recruitment.

"The teen years are when we lose Jews," Lazar-Paley said. "We're trying to give teens a chance to express themselves and create a program they will go for."