ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — Rachel Naparstek, an Israeli soldier, told 121 students at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies in Englewood: “They sell ‘Mein Kampf’ at every street corner in Cairo.”
She spoke about having to hide her Jewish identity there. For the first time in her life.
“I had to protect myself,” she told the Sunday assembly.
Her talk brought the students face to face with the reality of the Jewish experience in the modern world.
So do all the classes at the high school, a five-year program based in Ridgewood that meets at The Moriah School in Englewood.
The school, formed in 1973, is bucking the national trend of declining enrollment at Jewish high school programs.
In Bergen, enrollment has risen 46 percent over the last year.
Students come to the school from all over the county though a third are from Fair Lawn, home to a large Russian Jewish population.
They take classes with titles such as “Facing History,” “It Always Sounds Better in Yiddish” and “Deadly Conflicts in the Bible.”
Then there’s “Netflix and Jews II” and “Muggles, Magic, and Matzah Balls,” which is about Judaism meeting Harry Potter.
“Because of this place, I really love being Jewish,” said Cameryn Bolkin of Tenafly, “and I love being able to say I’m a Jew and I believe in the Jewish philosophies.”
She didn’t feel the same about Hebrew school when she was younger. To hear her tell it, the place just about put her to sleep.
But she, and other students, agree that the Bergen County School of Jewish Studies rocks. It’s relevant, cool, and interactive, they say, and the faculty can’t be beat.
Students are quick to answer that it’s the new principal: Fred Nagler of Teaneck, a longtime mathematics teacher and Hebrew school administrator.
Nagler’s formula is simple: he hires highly qualified teachers and asks them what they’re passionate about teaching.
“The magic is that students choose the classes they’re interested in,” he said. “Teachers choose what they’re interested in, and wow.”
In addition to stimulating classwork, students say the school helps them make new friends as they learn about their culture.
“Because we’re pluralistic, you can be in class with people who are much more observant and people who are non-believing,” said David Stack of Franklin Lakes, who attends with his twin brother, Walter.
He said the classes center on what concerns them all: the Jewish value system in the modern world.
Ben London of Washington Township appreciates the opportunities outside the classrooms, too.
Two years ago, as part of the youth leadership program, he went to Israel on an exchange program.
“I’m still in touch with people I met in that program,” he said. “When I go to Israel, I stay in people’s homes and when they come here, they stay at my house.”
For more information on the school, write Nagler at firstname.lastname@example.org.