October 24, 2002
Do Jewish Schools Make Good Neighbors?
Every Jewish school should have a neighbor like Scott Meller of Feldmar Watch & Clock Center.
The Pico-Robertson business, which has been around for over 40 years, is located directly across from the Chabad educational institutions on Pico Boulevard (Bais Chana School for Girls, Bais Rebbe Junior High and Bais Chaya Muska Elementary School). "They're great," said Meller, whose family owns Feldmar. "It's nice because the whole area is affected by the fact that the schools are there. It brings people to the neighborhood so the property value increases. They're good as neighbors."
Meller doesn't bat an eye when discussing the big hole in the ground across the street -- otherwise known as the future Bais Sonya Gutte campus -- where an additional school building is under construction. When it's completed, it will house the high school, junior high and elementary students, as well as the children at the Gan Israel/Garden Preschool, whose facility is down the street. Traffic is a concern, Meller conceded, but on the whole he wasn't bothered.
"We've always had a nice relationship with the neighborhood," said Rabbi Danny Yiftach, the school's administrator. When local residents expressed worries about traffic and parking, they decided to build two subterranean floors in the new building for extra parking, Yiftach said.
Local schools are anything but a deterrent for those interested in the community, said Meredith Michen of Landmark Realtors, which services the Pico-Robertson area. "Most of the people who move to that area think it's a good thing to have the schools there," said Michen, adding that Pico-Robertson real estate prices are affected by demand, not by the schools in the area.
But not all Jewish schools are as fortunate. For Jewish parents, who often seek out a particular neighborhood just to be closer to a day school to send their children, sometimes there is such a thing as too close. Issues such as construction, noise, traffic, parking and environmental concerns cause residents to wonder: do Jewish schools make good neighbors?
Currently, the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West campus sits on a rented hillside property in Agoura Hills. In a plan to expand the school, Heschel West purchased 70 acres off of Chesboro Road in Agoura Hills five years ago. Throughout the permit process, the school board received concern from local residents who live in an area known for its open space and semirural environment.
Jess Thomas, president of the Old Agoura Hills Homeowners Association, is opposed to the project, because he said that the scope of the project has increased over time. "They said they were going to build a smaller school in the back of the canyon and away from the homes and the number of students they were talking about didn't seem like a problem," he said. Because of the large number of additional students, Thomas feels that the amount of traffic will overwhelm the streets' capacity in the surrounding area.
"We've put a fair amount of time into addressing the neighbors' concerns," said Brian Greenberg, Heschel West's school board chairman. Greenberg plans to stagger school hours so as not to overlap with traffic from other local schools. In addition, Heschel West has changed their proposed placement of the new school's entryway three times to accommodate the neighbors' preferences.
Over in West Hills, the New Community Jewish High School opened its doors this September inside the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Center. Head of School Dr. Bruce Powell, who was responsible for opening both Yeshiva University Los Angeles High School and Milken Community High School, said that local residents were supportive.
Powell, who owns a consulting company, Jewish School Management, which helps open Jewish schools around the country, is only too familiar with neighborhood complaints. "Neighbors see the word 'school' and think the [students] are going to be rowdy like any other high school kids," said Powell, who has broken up only two fights in his 23 years in the field. "First of all, [these students are] at a Jewish school. They care about education. We've got ninth-graders here taking 10 classes. They're serious, college-bound kids." Powell feels the school has a responsibility to educate the neighborhood as such.
Before Yavneh Hebrew Academy moved into their Hancock Park neighborhood four years ago, finding a home in the former Whittier Law School building on Third Street, locals filed lawsuits with worries of noise and traffic -- but that was then. "Our neighbors have thanked us," said Headmaster Rabbi Moshe Dear, who attributes the positive relationship to mutual cooperation. Making accommodations like quiet hours and rules for carpooling to ease traffic problems has earned Yavneh respect.
While there are some people who feel that living near a school is a drawback to community living, others find a sense of security in education. Ira Sherak, 32, said that when he decides to purchase a house in Los Angeles someday, he does not want to live within a one-block radius of a public high school. When it comes to Jewish institutions, the Brentwood renter is less wary. "A Jewish school is a private school, so you know it's not that bad," said the New Jersey native. "[The students] are not generally hanging out and looking for trouble."
Above all, local Jewish educators seem to agree that developing good neighbor relationships means practicing what one preaches. "As a Jewish school we want to teach good values and mitzvot," Dear said. "And part of that means we should be good neighbors."
Heschel West's administrators expressed similar sentiments. "Our philosophy is commitment to Jewish learning and internalizing Judaic values. Part of our community outreach is to go out in the community and befriend them," said principal Jan Saltsman. Greenberg agreeed. "My sense is that since we're a religious school, we're going to be more sensitive to being good neighbors."