The Reform movement is ending its standalone semester-in-Israel program amid declining enrollment


((JEWISH REVIEW)) — The Reform movement is folding its high school program in Israel into a larger, nondenominational program, in an effort to cut costs and streamline operations amid declining enrollment.

Starting this fall, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Heller High program, in which high school students spend a semester studying in Israel, will merge with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.

Heller High will move from Kibbutz Tzuba outside of Jerusalem to the Muss campus near Tel Aviv and will become a specialized track in the Muss program, with its students joining other Muss participants for secular studies. The Heller students will continue to live together in a dormitory, take their own Jewish studies classes and celebrate holidays together.

“We don’t think there’s a Reform Jewish way to teach calculus or a Reform Jewish way to clean the dormitories or a Reform Jewish way to make vegan meals in the dining hall,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ’s president, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But we are very committed to the way in which we teach Jewish history, Israel history, the way we engage with our students around holidays, the way that we travel through a country and build even stronger alliances with the Reform movement there.”

About Muss, Jacobs added, “That was completely obvious to them and completely comfortable for them, that we continue this history.”

The decision to merge Heller and Muss, announced last week, is the latest in a string of changes to Reform movement programs serving teens, some of which may have reduced the pipeline of high schoolers interested in a movement-run Israel semester. In 2018, the movement announced it would shutter Kutz Camp, which had a focus on teen leadership, and also announced changes to immersive programs focused on volunteering and social justice. Early in the pandemic, amid payroll cuts across the Jewish nonprofit world and beyond, it dramatically scaled back staffing for NFTY, the Reform youth movement. Last year, it said it would hire again in each of the movement’s 19 regions, but only on a part-time basis. Last week, NFTY announced a listening tour to “guide the direction of the next phase of our movement.”

The merger also comes amid widespread efforts to cut costs within the Reform movement. A decade ago, URJ sold half of its New York headquarters, and last year, Hebrew Union College decided to end its rabbinical training program in Cincinnati, where it was founded nearly 150 years ago, because of declining enrollment. In 2020, according to the Forward, Jacobs floated the idea of merging part of URJ’s operations with those of other denominations, which are experiencing similar struggles. Both Conservative rabbinical schools, in New York and Los Angeles, have shrunk their campuses or put them up for sale, for example.

“Religious life is changing. The nature of congregations are changing, not just in the Jewish community and not just in the Reform community — across all religious lines,” Jacobs said. “And out of those changes sometimes come new creativity and new approaches.”

Founded in 1961, Heller High has enrolled students for a semester in high school, most often during their sophomore or junior years. According to the program’s website, it has historically had roughly 100 students each year, split between two semesters. But this year, there were just 58 — 18 in the fall and 40 in the spring.

Mira Schoenberg, who attended Heller High as a junior in the fall of 2022, found out about Heller’s overhaul from a group chat with her classmates from the program. “I’m actually really sad about it,” she said.

“It’s just kind of, I would say, disappointing to know that nobody else is going to have the same experience that we did, and that we were one of the last groups of people to actually go on Kibbutz Tzuba,” she said. “They’re really losing a specific safe space and a space where all of us are coming from different backgrounds, but having the shared Reform Judaism of our everyday practices.”

Kibbutz Tzuba, just west of Jerusalem, was the home of URJ’s Heller High program for 22 years. (Courtesy Robin Kulwin)

Jacobs declined to share specific details about Heller’s budget but acknowledged that cutting spending was part of what motivated the decision. Merging with Muss, he said, allows Heller to focus on Jewish studies and “our ability to deliver the core aspects of the program.”

“It’s going to be cost-effective for both Muss and for Heller High because the cost of the general studies is a very significant cost,” he said. “And to deliver it at excellence is, of course, a commitment.”

One group that will likely be hurt by the new partnership is Heller’s faculty, some of whom may no longer have jobs in the fall. Jacobs said that Heller’s faculty are “very beloved to us” and that conversations are ongoing between Muss and Heller High regarding the teachers’ employment. Keeping some of the faculty on for next year, he said, is “certainly very possible.”

The program is also in the midst of hiring a new director.

“We are hopeful and those details are getting worked out because they’re important details,” Jacobs added. “These are important people and as the Muss people look at our program, they’ve been quite impressed by the level of our faculty.”

Adding Heller to its campus will not constitute a shift in direction for Muss, which frequently shares its space with other high school programs. Some American, European and Australian Jewish high schools have their students spend part of their year there.

“Muss and Heller High have long traditions of connecting teens to Judaism and Israel,” Steve Kutno, head of Alexander Muss High School in Israel, said in a statement last Wednesday. “This partnership allows us to grow the impact we offer students through high quality accredited coursework, independent living opportunities, and personal relationships that shape memories that last a lifetime.”

Talia Rapaport, who attended both programs and returned from Heller High in May, said she hopes that moving Heller onto the Muss campus will create a bigger community of students. Future Heller students won’t be able to enjoy the intimacy of Kibbutz Tzuba, she said, but she’s excited that they will be able to live and study with a larger group.

“A lot of the time, I noticed the differences and I noticed what’s good about each program, I noticed what’s not so great about each program,” said Rapaport, who lives in North Carolina. “And I think that them being on the same campus will really help them notice those differences and maybe make both programs better. So I think they can learn from each other.”