By Scott Fox
A girls’ high school catering to Orthodox Jews in the little town of Bricelyn, Minnesota, population 340. Sounds crazy, no? On the surface, The Minnesota Girls Academy (MGA) seems unusual for several reasons, which could be a reason for its lack of success. The school opened in 2009, but was forced to shut down earlier this year after running out of money to operate. Yet it is a needed resource for a community that is sometimes unnoticed.
People sometimes assume that due to their devout nature, teens in Orthodox Jewish communities in places like Borough Park, Brooklyn, do not succumb to self-destructive behavior like abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting themselves, or suffering from eating disorders. Teens facing emotional and/or behavioral challenges, also known as at-risk teenagers, are not only just as prevalent in Orthodox communities but have become a growing problem there recent years. A New York Times article from April featured rabbinic leaders confronting a growing of number of teenage girls in their community dealing with eating disorders.
MGA, also known as the Miryam Ghermezian Academy, was devoted to putting the lives of at-risk teenage girls on the right track. Its student body was entirely composed of girls from Orthodox communities in the U.S., U.K. and Israel. The school was the first Jewish-run therapeutic boarding school in the U.S.
“In the non-Jewish world, there have been programs running for troubled teens for a long time,” Rabbi A.Y. Weinberg, founder and director of the school, explained. “That left a need for Jewish troubled teens that are searching for some sort of spirituality, which they will not get in a non-Jewish program.”
Going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there have been Jewish groups, such as local Jewish Family Service organizations across the country, devoted to helping troubled children. However, there had not been a year-round Jewish therapeutic boarding school before MGA.
Why Bricelyn? Weinberg was surprisingly nonchalant in discussing the seemingly unlikely selection of a town 90 miles from the nearest Jewish community (Rochester).
“We came across a vacant public high school with the right price and right location,” he said. “Rural Minnesota is not a problem. Twin Cities Poultry distributes kosher meat and products throughout the Midwest.”
One factor that likely helped Weinberg pick Minnesota was that the company run by the school’s largest benefactor, Don Ghermezian, helped create and currently owns the Mall of America in the suburbs of Minneapolis. MGA has used the Mall of America for fundraising and to educate the girls on life skills and professional experiences. Weinberg also said it is not uncommon for therapeutic boarding schools to be placed in remote areas.
Bricelyn turned out to be a welcoming community for the Jewish educational center that took over the community’s old public school (Bricelyn has become too small for its own school; the nearest public school is in nearby Wells). The local school district helped set up an online-based program for the girls to take classes in English subjects. and has also employed several local residents as dorm staff and cooks. Many of the town’s residents attended the school’s dedication ceremony in 2009 to show their support. Students were also involved in the community by volunteering at local hospitals, schools, and senior centers.
After 19 years spent serving as Midwest Regional Director of National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox teen group, Weinberg founded MGA’s parent program, Project Extreme, in 2001 when he saw an unfulfilled need in his community for the teens that required the most help. Project Extreme began as a summer camp that took Orthodox Jewish boys and girls whose behavior was alienating themselves from their loved ones and community out to the Canadian Rockies. The program, based out of Long Island, soon introduced weekend and holiday retreats in upstate New York, character-building “Nights on the Town”, and a helpline to provide year-round service.
Starting a full-time school was the next logical extension of the program’s reach. Advertising itself as “kosher, therapeutic, residential setting,” the school opened its doors in 2009 as a year-round facility with a student body of 15. It closed last September. For now, the school is on hold until a source of outside funding can be discovered.
One could argue that the school’s downfall was its extensive commitment to its students. MGA had ten staff members for its 15 students. Each student’s individualized treatment was overseen by a clinician, program director, assistant program director, program nurse and academic administrator. According to Weinberg, the cost of caring for each student is $75,000 a year. Since each student’s parents are required to only pay what they can afford, much of that $75,000 for each student needs to come from fundraising. Weinberg has so far explored several avenues, including state and federal governments, in search of funding, with no luck.
While it was open, the school was able to attract girls primarily through word-of-mouth in Orthodox communities. Though Project Extreme’s programs are run by Orthodox Jews, separated by gender, and have a solely Orthodox clientele, the program is open to teenagers from all backgrounds and hopes to attract Jews from other denominations in the future. Students at MGA were not required to adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle beyond keeping kashrut and observing Shabbat.
One especially helpful aspect of MGA and Project Extreme is their requirement that all of its staff sign a social contract stating that they will maintain contact with each teen that they work with into adulthood.
“It’s a necessity,” Weinberg explained. “If you run a program, the impact needs to last. If we follow up, the impact lasts or we send them to another program where they need to go to. We need to be there to pick up the pieces when they slip. There’s nothing like helping (these kids). You’re basically saving their life.”