Derech Emunah: A place for girls to grow into themselves

For families who wanted their daughters to have an Orthodox Jewish high school education in a single-gender setting, Derech Emunah was founded in 2012. Now in its third year, the school boasts a small student body of 10 students who take classes together in a multi-age classroom format focused on interdisciplinary, collaborative, college-preparatory learning.

In addition to daily Judaic studies that focus on meaningful Torah study and a commitment to Jewish life, students are steeped in a robust humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum. Through these classes, they study writing, literature, current events, history, and public speaking, and benefit from access to a science lab at Seattle University.

“That’s the greatest challenge we have — to reach every girl on her level all the time,” said Rabbi Shaul Engelsberg, who moved to Seattle from Michigan last year to serve as principal of the school. But Derech Emunah rises to that challenge, he said, working with students on an individual basis to both help students struggling with material and to create more rigorous academic pursuits for accelerated learners. As part of its educational package, Derech Emunah provides each student with a school-issued tablet computer to use in class and at home to do research and complete assignments.

Derech Emunah prioritizes college preparatory interdisciplinary education, asking its students to connect what they’re learning in any given moment to what they have learned previously, in both their Judaic and general classes. To have fun with this, students can earn hot buttons for each connection they make between subjects and lessons. While the original incentive was for the girls to redeem the hot buttons for a gift certificate to a local coffee shop, Rabbi Engelsberg joked that no one has taken him up on that offer yet — the buttons themselves have become the prize.

“In theory, they’re supposed to cash in these hot buttons for a gift card,” he said. “But to date, no one’s come to me to cash anything in. It’s a source of pride to them to make those connections and earn the hot button.”

In addition to incentivizing interdisciplinary learning, Derech Emunah also values experiential learning for its students, taking them on field trips three to four times a semester to explore local industry and environment around the Puget Sound. Field trips last semester included the Tolt Yarn and Wool Shop in Carnation, where the girls learned about the family-owned store’s business model, and the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, where they learned about the salmon’s breeding and spawning cycle.

“These trips are meant to put the seeds into their minds of what they would like to do, and how they can contribute to our area and society at large,” said Rabbi Engelsberg.

The girls are also encouraged to have fun with art and exercise, with weekly excursions to the neighboring School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) and Miller School of Art in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Jeffrey Alhadeff, who serves as board director for Derech Emunah, has two daughters enrolled at the school. He said that Sima, a sophomore, and Elisheva, a freshman, find tremendous joy in the special activities provided by Derech Emunah, and especially in their academic successes at school.

“The kids are really challenged,” said Alhadeff of Derech Emunah’s programs. “They have a great sense of accomplishment at being able to meet that challenge.”

That sense of accomplishment is important for young Jewish women, especially in the Seattle area, where prior to Derech Emunah’s founding in 2012, no school existed to serve them (the Menachem Mendel Seattle Cheder in Seattle’s north end has a girls’ high school that serves a somewhat different population. That school is not operating this year). In fact, many families were sending their daughters out of Seattle — to places as far away as British Columbia, California, and Georgia — to get the Orthodox Jewish education at a single-gender school that Derech Emunah now provides.

Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth and his wife Miriam faced that dilemma as their daughter Chana approached high school age.

“We were looking for a girls’ high school that strives for excellence in both general and Jewish studies,” Meyers said. “Until Derech Emunah opened its doors, we were in a quandary: How do we provide Chana with the ideal double-curriculum education while still guaranteeing her the nurturing atmosphere here at home, in Seattle?”

Chana is now a freshman at Derech Emunah, and Rabbi Meyers said the school’s homey feeling, dedicated teachers, and excellence in both Judaic and general studies have been among the highlights of Chana’s educational experience.

“A single-gender environment helps students discover themselves and have a strong sense of self-confidence during their formative high school years,” said Alhadeff.

Now that Derech Emunah is up and running, families in the Greater Seattle area no longer have to seek that environment elsewhere.

This piece originally appeared on The Jewish Sound.

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