For East Bay teens, Midrasha is cool thing

Based on the word "midrash" — a story that expands on a Torah portion — Midrasha is a place for learning. In the East Bay, it's four places of learning — in Berkeley, Fremont, Oakland and Walnut Creek.

Midrasha "is the cool thing to do," says Tama Goodman, director of teen services for the East Bay federation's Center for Jewish Living and Learning and director of the day-to-day operations of Midrasha. Teens "see a very vibrant, exciting, dynamic scene and that scene is Jewish."

The program picks up where b'nai mitzvah leave off, continuing through 12th grade — beyond confirmation. Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and supported by all 23 East Bay synagogues, Midrasha includes weekly classes, four weekend retreats, an Israel trip, community service and lots of socializing.

For the students, Midrasha provides a Jewish community that they don't get at their secular high schools. Some commute from as far away as Antioch, Danville and Castro Valley to attend classes.

"I don't have many Jewish friends at high school," says Adam Felson who estimates there are about 30 Jews out of a student body of 2,000 at Castro Valley High School.

"I wanted to make sure I had friends who are Jewish. I feel really comfortable with them. When you have Jewish friends you have a lot in common."

Felson, who graduated from Midrasha and public high school this year, will attend the University of Arizona, a school he chose in part because of its large Jewish population.

The Midrasha's schools share a core curriculum provided by the CJLL but design their own electives ranging from Hebrew to Holocaust studies, art to meditation and food to poetry.

With 700 students and a track record of nearly 30 years, it's the second largest such program in the country and is a model for other teen programs, according to Rabbi Glenn Karonsky, executive director of the federation's CJLL. Only Miami Beach's program has more students.

"We get calls all the time from around the country — Los Angeles, Detroit, San Antonio, San Francisco," says Goodman. "We offer as much help as we can. [We give them] our curriculum, invite them to come and look at our program, and spend time on the phone with them."

So why is this Midrasha different from other teen programs?

"It's extremely user-friendly," says Elaine Bachrach, director of the Contra Costa and Oakland Midrasha. "There are three different time slots. Kids can and do move from school to school as their schedules and friends change."

The program and its students have also received local and national honors. For the second year in a row, Contra Costa Midrasha received the distinguished school program award from the Juvenile Justice Commission of Contra Costa County. Every year except one, a Midrasha student has received a prestigious Bronfman fellowship, one of 25 such awards given nationally.

In addition, the programs "have gone to great lengths to accommodate the most observant students and staff and still be accessible to secular and more liberal components of the Jewish community," says Bachrach. Teens in classes and on retreats also are asked to do "something that the general Jewish community doesn't do very well and that's pray together."

On the weekend retreats, the food is kosher, buses leave early enough on Friday to arrive before sundown and Shabbat is observed. The students create a communal Shabbat experience by writing their own prayers.

Perhaps the biggest component of the program's success is the unqualified support it receives from all of the East Bay synagogues, from Renewal to Orthodox.

"There is a remarkable sense of cooperation," says Karonsky. "It's a conscious decision to focus on this age population to ensure Jewish continuity."

All the synagogues do their share by contributing money, people power and facilities.

Last year, parents of graduating seniors established a Midrasha social action fund to help finance community service projects like lunches at shelters or dinners at Hillel.

The Jewish community supports Midrasha through donations to the Friends of Jewish Education. Last year, the Friends raised about $50,000.

Diane Bernbaum, who has directed the Berkeley Midrasha for the past 17 years, has witnessed the program's expansion.

When she started, only two schools existed, in Berkeley and Fremont. Many synagogues offered their own post-b'nai mitzvah classes, which culminated in confirmation. While all students had the option to continue their post-confirmation Jewish studies in Berkeley, few did.

Eleven years ago, the Contra Costa program was added and three years later, Oakland. Eventually all the East Bay synagogues, with the exception of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, stopped hosting their own confirmation classes.

Since 1996, all four Midrasha schools have continued through the 12th grade. This year's graduating class of 68 was the largest ever, almost twice as large as last year's.

"I think [Midrasha's popularity] spread by word of mouth, both by the students and the parents," says Bernbaum, whose 191 students in 1997-98 included 24 unaffiliated teens.

In a recent survey of Midrasha students, Bernbaum says, the majority reported that they expect to maintain more observant homes than the ones in which they were raised.

Midrasha has given her children a solid foundation, says Adrienne Miller the mother of two Midrasha graduates and former member of the Berkeley Midrasha board.

"They can answer questions that I know I couldn't answer when I went off to college. I grew up and only knew about Conservative Judaism," she said.

Miller's son, Ari, who graduated from Berkeley Midrasha in 1994, returned last year to teach in the program.

Like Adrienne Miller, many parents are playing catch-up, trying to keep pace with their children's Jewish education. Midrasha is addressing that problem with the Adult Academy, which offers a variety of courses on Judaism as well as subjects dealing with teen issues.

For the Jewish community, there are other benefits as well.

"There should be as many people here tonight as there are at Kol Nidre to witness these young adults who chose to continue their Jewish education through the 12th grade," Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland's Temple Sinai said at the recent Midrasha graduation ceremony. "It is young people like those sitting here on the bimah who ensure the future of Judaism."