A Jewish high school in Palo Alto is looking to China for new recruits


(J. Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — A Jewish High school in Palo Alto, California, isn’t just thinking outside the box when it comes to student recruitment. It’s thinking outside the continent.

After years of opening its doors to non-Jewish applicants — like most other Jewish day schools in the Bay Area — Kehillah Jewish High School is now actively recruiting students from mainland China.

The pluralistic Jewish school, founded in 1999, launched its new international program on Feb. 26. The original plan was to recruit students from both Israel and China, said David Weiner, the school’s admissions director. But after Oct. 7 and with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, he felt that it was too difficult to travel to Israel for meetings. So China became the goal for the 2024-2025 school year, although Kehillah does have a partnership with Givat Haviva in Israel and is exploring student exchanges with them.

“China has been, for years, a robust market for foreign students,” said Weiner, the main force behind the project. “A lot of them are looking to come to the United States for high school.”

Kehillah is eager to welcome them, he said.

One-third of the school’s student population of 200 is already non-Jewish, he pointed out, many of them Chinese American. Their numbers have been growing in recent years, Weiner said.

“We are a Jewish school,” he said this week, “but we want our school to reflect the world’s diversity.”

The mainland Chinese students would also pay full tuition, slightly above $62,000 for the 2024-2025 academic year, in addition to an “international fee” to help support recruitment efforts and support the students academically, emotionally and socially once they are in the U.S. Currently, Weiner says, 30 to 35% of Kehillah students receive financial aid.

Last year, Kehillah began offering Chinese as one of its foreign languages, alongside Spanish, Latin and Hebrew, which is not required. So there are students of all backgrounds who will already have some knowledge of Chinese to greet the new arrivals.

Also on hand to welcome them is the school’s Chinese-language teacher, Hope Tsai, a Taiwan native who will be in charge of acclimating the students from China to American culture.

Weiner and Tsai visited China from March 1 to 10 and already have four applicants.

In the city of Suzhou, they met with leaders of the Mountain Kingston Bilingual School, to explore a partnership whereby students from Kehillah and from Suzhou would attend each other’s schools for a summer or semester. 

In Shanghai, long known as China’s “international city,” and Shenzhen, a major center for technology, Weiner and Tsai met with parents of prospective students and educators interested in facilitating foreign study. These students would come to Kehillah for their entire high-school education, living with host families.

Tsai said that she is very much looking forward to working with the students from China. She immigrated to the United States 18 years ago, already a seasoned teacher of Chinese as a second language, and has been teaching Mandarin in the U.S. since 2007.

Her language classes at Kehillah meet daily, she said, and the students who choose to take Chinese are very diverse. Some are from Chinese American families, some are from Jewish families and some are Latino, already conversant in Spanish.

“It’s good for them to know a third language to get into college,” she said. Her own 12-year-old daughter has been learning Spanish in school since kindergarten, and Tsai said the girl’s Spanish is better than the Mandarin she learned informally at home.

“The more languages you learn, the more active your brain is,” she said.

Tsai and Weiner both believe that Chinese American, and now Chinese, parents naturally gravitate to Kehillah and other Jewish day schools because the two cultures share many common values, notably a strong commitment to education.

Weiner added, “Shanghai was one of the only ports open to Jews during World War II. Many Chinese know about this history and have positive impressions about Jews as a result.”

They both said that Jews are admired in Chinese culture, although some Jews might wince to hear why.

“We think Jews are very smart and very rich,” Tsai said.

Indeed, Chinese-language books purporting to uncover the secrets to Jewish success are popular in China as well as in Taiwan. On Tsai’s most recent trip to Taiwan last year, she picked up a Chinese-language “introduction to the Talmud,” the multivolume compendium of rabbinic discourses and debates about Jewish law, practice and philosophy, which she is currently devouring.

“Talmud is very popular in China — how to use it in education and investing,” she said.

In her mini-course for introducing the new arrivals to American culture, the first thing she’ll teach is how to greet people. Tsai recalled that when she first came to the U.S., every time someone said, “Hi, how are you?” she would launch into a detailed description of her health and state of mind.

“I’ll teach them to just say, ‘Hi, I’m fine,’ and go on their way,” she said.

A version of this story originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California and is reprinted with permission.

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