As he watched his students play basketball, Rabbi Yochanan Stepen's eyes lit up.
"I felt like I was at Staples Center watching the Lakers play, and I was sitting next to Jack Nicholson," Stepen told them.
"That excited the kids, because names from the news make it relevant," Stepen told The Journal.
Stepen's knack for keeping up with the times is what has connected him to Emek Hebrew Academy students the last 31 years. Now, as he retires, there will be a role reversal, and Stepen will soon fulfill a lifelong dream of moving to Jerusalem with his wife, where he will become a yeshiva student.
Stepen will leave a double-legacy as both a pioneer of Jewish education and Jewish life in the San Fernando Valley.
"To walk the streets of Valley Village with Rabbi Stepen, he seems to know everyone and takes an interest in everyone's well-being," said Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles (BJE). "One doesn't think of that area without his presence."
Stepen, who won the BJE Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Award in 1992, started his teaching career while he was still in his teens. He fondly recalled running his own Talmud Torah out of his parents' basement in Chicago, while attending Roosevelt University at night.
Forty-seven years ago, Stepen headed for Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a pediatric heart surgeon. He taught to support himself and eventually sacrificed his medical career for the love of Torah.
Stepen taught at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills for 10 years. During that time, he met his wife, Chana, an artist. When the two spent time in Israel together, the experience solidified the educator's future aspirations.
"I became more and more engrossed in my learning," he remembered. "I realized that teaching Torah was the most important thing in the world."
After working with Hillel, Stepen became head of school at Bais Yaacov and then finally settled in at Emek for over three decades. Under his leadership, Emek -- which was using a borrowed house on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood for its six students -- quickly grew.
The school purchased and refurbished the Chandler property, which now houses Emek's preschool. In 1995, Emek expanded into a new state-of-the-art campus on Magnolia Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.
Stepen's willingness to accommodate families who don't always have the means to pay for a Jewish education has earned him a mixed reputation. "We do put up with criticism for that, because sometimes people think that will hurt the school," said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, Emek development director. However, Eidlitz credits Stepen for keeping the school financially solid at all times.
Stepen will continue to be involved with Emek when he returns to Los Angeles for two months each year. In his absence, Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, a 35-year veteran of Jewish education, who was at YULA Girls' School, will step in as Emek's new dean this fall.
"I don't view it as taking over," said Strajcher of his new position. "I view it as becoming part of a partnership to move the school to its next level of contribution to the community."
Stepen gets emotional when discussing his impending move to Israel in August. As he paused to collect himself, the live pictures of students in the school's hallways and gym automatically updated themselves on his desktop computer monitor. He glanced at the children on the screen.
"I've always been a student, but now I'll devote most of my day to being a student," he said, smiling at the images of the lives he's touched. "I have to practice what I preach."