For many, the teenage years tend to be the most formative of a person’s life. During that time, what people learn, do, whom they meet and become involved with will very likely affect their character and virtues for the rest of their lives. A home-schooled child is likely to grow up reclusive, while a public-schooled child is likely to become more outgoing. Many, if not all, parents recognize this; many, if not all, extracurricular activities and programs take this idea into account. For Orange County Jewish parents seeking to keep their teens interested in Judaism as they progress through such an important stage of life, Chabad of Mission Viejo has many answers, among them the ever-popular Hebrew High program.
“In our Hebrew High program, students learn the Hebrew language,” explained Rabbi Zalman Marcus. “They also receive high school or college credit for doing the program.”
The aim of the program is to guide teenagers — Jewish and non-Jewish — towards the kind of fluency where they may write and communicate in Hebrew. The accommodation of the Chabad’s Hebrew High classes ranges from beginner to advanced, so even those who wish to muscle up on their Hebrew may enroll without the class being too easy.
“Our teaching staff is really great,” Rabbi Marcus says. “Nurturing, caring, and they’re Israeli themselves. They have great credentials. Once of our main teachers even teaches at UC Irvine.”
UCI students who have taken Hebrew at the university will know that the rabbi is referring to Racheli Morris, a kindhearted Israeli who currently serves as UCI’s sole Hebrew teacher. Past students of Morris will testify that her apparent dedication to Israel and the Hebrew language seem to be the motivating factors of her job, rather than the paychecks. Her students tend to enter the beginner class unsure of what to expect in the language and emerge from her advanced level holding conversations with each other in Hebrew and making plans to visit Israel. Many students end up keeping in correspondence with her even after completing her class.
“Our teaching staff makes it fun,” Rabbi Marcus said of the Hebrew High program. “We take the students to Israeli restaurants, so they can get a feeling for what Israel is like. We play Hebrew games as well. I asked the students who finished the program last year to rate it on a scale of one to ten. They all rated it either a nine or ten, so we can see that they’re enjoying it. We’re happy about that.”
The Hebrew High groups are “small and intimate,” as Rabbi Marcus put it, depending on the enrollment size of each class. Some students are from Jewish day schools, others have no Hebrew background, and others wish to learn the language so they can take their SATs in Hebrew. Between the three locations offering Hebrew High in Mission Viejo, Los Alamitos, and Yorba Linda, the total enrollment of the Hebrew High program sits at around 100 students,
For parents not entirely interested in the Hebrew High program but still intent on finding opportunities for their children to learn about their Jewish heritage, the Mission Viejo Chabad also offers a variety of other programs.
One of the more popular programs, CTeen, currently caters to 8th and 9th grade students and is planned to encompass 10th graders next year. A twice-a-month program, CTeen incorporates learning and social activities as well as engaging students in activities that benefit others, such as helping the victims of the Haiti quake or those at senior centers. CTeen also occasionally functions in tandem with another program named the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). JLI addresses a number of different hot topics for Jewish teenagers and has a current national enrollment of over 1,000 students. One class of the program, titled “MySpace: YourSpace,” teaches teens about their responsibility to themselves and others. It helps them learn how much of other people’s lives is their business. Another such program, titled “Welcome to Hollywood,” discusses how Hollywood values contrast with Jewish values, how they coincide, and what students can learn from both. Inspired by the increasingly unorthodox nature of modern media, this program incorporates video clips of various movies in order to run its activities and classes. Other programs include one that deals with moral questions — such as risking one’s life to save another’s — as well as “Israel 3D.” Israel 3D helps students formulate a 3D picture of Israel, its people, places, and history. As Israel is always in the news these days, this is one program many parents will want to consider.
“[The teenage years] are very important in a person’s life,” Rabbi Marcus explained. “Our demographic around here is very small, only two to three percent of the population. So it’s a critical time for people to learn about their Jewish roots. Children who do so through our programs develop a great foundation by the time they go off to college. A lot of them come back to thank us, because they benefited tremendously from it.”
The rabbi added, “Regardless of religion, temple affiliation, knowledge of Hebrew, political affiliation or otherwise, our programs are for everyone and anyone.”
It can be very easy for people to lose track of their faith growing up in a secular society such as ours. The programs that the Mission Viejo Chabad offers are designed to help Jewish children strengthen their connections with each other and build a formidable sense of identity. Not only do they develop a better sense of Jewish values, but they also get a head start in Hebrew and learn about morals.
“We are very proud we have a Hebrew school,” Rabbi Marcus concluded. “And we are very thrilled about the attention rate we are seeing in the children. They don’t feel like [our programs] are a chore; they get excited about them. They see them as a privilege. It’s thrilling to see that excitement in children.”
Parents interested in more information can find it on the Mission Viejo Chabad’s website at www.chabadofmv.com.
There are also Hebrew Highs in Yorba Linda (www.ocjewish.com) and Cypress (www.jewishcypress.com).