In NCSY Maimonidies Scholars Program, Yeshiva Teens Pair With Public School Peers
The Maimonides Scholars Program, an innovative initiative now in progress under the auspices of the OU’s West Coast NCSY and its public school offshoot, the Jewish Student Union (JSU), is bringing the atmosphere of higher education – in which young scholars receive fellowships to continue their work -- to Los Angeles area high school students, both boys and girls, with each participant receiving $10 a week for the ten-week program.
The scholars were chosen from the ranks of NCSYers attending yeshiva high schools and JSU public high school students, with the objective being the sharing of knowledge between advanced students and their peers who are just beginning their journey into Jewish texts. There are 12 pairs of boys and six of girls participating.
The Maimonides Scholars program originated from Jewish Awareness America (JAAM), established by Rabbi Avraham Jacobowitz of Detroit. With Rabbi Jacobowitz’s permission, it has now been adopted in Los Angeles.
According to Rabbi Effie Goldberg, Director of West Coast NCSY and JSU, “The Maimonides Scholars program is a fellowship program that pairs public and yeshiva students to learn Torah. They learn together for one hour a week, for ten weeks, and study from a Torah text of their choice. As motivation, each scholar is paid $100 for the cycle, on a weekly basis. They are learning as independent pairs and are monitored through weekly follow-ups by the program director, Josh Horwitz, Director of Junior NCSY.” The tenth and final week, he said, will see all the pairs coming together to learn, followed by a celebratory restaurant dinner and siyum (an event marking the conclusion of a cycle of Torah study) to be held Sunday, April 29 at Shilo’s Restaurant on West Pico Boulevard.
The pairs get together in the yeshiva, synagogue, or the home of one of the scholars – with the pairs choosing the site. The fellowships come from contributions from private donors.
The objective of the program, Rabbi Goldberg said, is “to increase the amount of Torah learning among public school students and to instill among Jewish day school and yeshiva students the idea of sharing their Torah knowledge with others their age who do not have as much knowledge. Another goal is to close the divide between the yeshiva and the secular world through the Torah that was created for all Jews to have access to.”
As one participant wrote to program director Horwitz in the early going, "Hi Josh, we had our first meeting with the person you arranged for me. It went really well; he’s a really nice guy. We learned awesome. We’re looking forward to more times. I wanted to thank you for the opportunity.”
“There is a lot of excitement among the pioneering students,” Rabbi Goldberg said. He has witnessed this enthusiasm in person, having learned with each of the groups. “It’s truly beautiful to see these two different worlds come together and join forces with one main focus, the Torah,” he declared.
JSU was created five years ago in Los Angeles by Rabbi Steven Burg, then West Coast NCSY Regional Director and now National Director of NCSY. Rabbi Burg realized that Christian clubs had received permission to use public high school facilities for after-school programs that were attracting Jewish students. Thus was born the idea of JSU, to give Jewish students clubs of their own. Under Rabbi Burg’s direction the idea has spread throughout the country, but Los Angeles remains the leading focus of JSU.
JSU clubs are found at Agoura High School, High Tech High, Calabasas High School, Chatsworth High School, Cleveland High School, El Camino High School, Granada Hills Charter High School, Grant High School, Hamilton High School, John Marshall High School, LACES (YJS), Mira Loma High School, North Hollywood High School, Pacific Palisades Charter High School, Piedmont High School, Santa Monica High School, Skyline High School, Taft High School, Van Nuys High School, Venice High School, and Westlake High School.
JSU sends advisors to the schools on a weekly basis to discuss the essentials of Judaism in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, to answer students’ questions, and to share pizza with them. The motto of the program seems to be, “Give them pizza, and they will come.”
They do, in large numbers. From these groups, JSU advisors recommended students from their clubs they considered to be receptive to be Maimonides Scholars. “The yeshiva students who were chosen tend to be leaders in NCSY and/or have shown a strong desire for Torah learning as well as a working knowledge of basic Torah learning skills,” explained Rabbi Goldberg. “The pairs were matched based on location and personalities. We tried to match two students who live close to each other so the weekly meeting is convenient. We also tried to make sure that the pair will have complementary personalities so that they enjoy learning together.”
A second cycle is set to begin at the start of the next school year. “We plan to double the amount of scholars in the next cycle and to create an established and attractive program for years to come,” Rabbi Goldberg declared.