On a brisk autumn afternoon, gaggles of girls in hooded sweatshirts and uniform skirts sit on asphalt eating salads out of Gladware and pizza out of foil.
There is ample room at the new picnic tables, but old habits die hard, and the girls are making themselves at home in Yeshiva University of Los Angeles' (YULA) new state-of-the-art, architecturally stunning girls high school.
As is a teenager's prerogative, the girls remain oblivious to the momentousness of this occasion, 25 years in the making.
"The girls finally have a real school," said Alan Gindi, a father of five daughters who shepherded the project from campaign to completion.
It is not just the $6.5 million, fully wired facility with a gym, two science labs, an art room, a computer center, a student lounge and an auditorium that makes Gindi say that.
In the past four years, the school has, for the first time, acquired a micro-involved lay board that, in concert with the new head of school it hired three years ago, souped up the curriculum, added special programs and classes and raised the standards of excellence at the 190-girl school.
"We wanted to create an environment where a girl can excel at whatever it is she wants to be involved in, whether it is sports, or science or studying Torah or doing mitzvot [charitable deeds]," said Gindi, who with his father, Jack Gindi, runs the Jack E. and Rachel Gindi Foundation.
Whether the 11-person board saved a foundering school or merely brought an already-excellent school up a few notches is a matter of debate, but what is clear is the girls can, for the first time, take pride in a campus and a curriculum that attests to the seriousness with which the Modern Orthodox community takes educating its girls.
The 26,000-square-foot building at the soon-to-be dedicated Gindi Campus wraps around a landscaped courtyard, anchored by an atrium-like library and technology center. Throughout the facility, which can accommodate up to 250 students, light streams in through windows and skylights, illuminating the lavender and sage walls that create a feminine but not girly ambience. There are surprisingly few right angles, and rounded corners and curved windows give the place a fluidity that has worked well since the girls moved in last month.
YULA, whose parent corporation has since changed its name to Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YoLA), was founded by Rabbi Marvin Hier soon after he established the Simon Wiesenthal Center. YoLA and the Wiesenthal Center have since split into separate entities, but remain closely connected under the leadership of Hier and Rabbi Meyer May, who are respectively the dean and executive director of both.
The girls school first met in the basement classrooms at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard near Beverly Glen (full disclosure: I was one of those girls). In 1991, the girls school moved to the current location, a 13,000-square-foot former private high school.
The boys school, adjacent to the Museum of Tolerance, completed a $12.6 million facelift in 2002 on a 50,000-square-foot facility.
"The girls school was viewed as the stepsister of the entire organizational structure, and no one was stepping up to the plate.... It was ripe for community involvement," said David Rubin, a board member who decided to join the effort to revamp YULA rather than start a girls high school at Yeshivat Yavneh, an option he and others explored seriously.
May rejects that notion, saying the school was in the capable hands of administrators and educators hired and supervised by himself and Hier. Hier and May are both board members.
"I think it is unfair to the administrators who preceded the lay board to say 'now that we have a lay board we have achieved excellence,' The school has been excellent for a long time, because we have outstanding kids, and that didn't start in the last three to five years," said May, adding that he is tremendously appreciative of the improvements the board has achieved.
Gindi said that decisions took too long to get all the way up the ladder to Hier and May, causing frustration within the school.
One of Gindi's stipulations in putting a board together and raising the funds was that control of the school -- from setting the vision to managing operations -- be transferred to the board. The agreement also allows for the board to eventually take over financial management of the school.
One of the first actions of the board was to search for a female head of school.
In 2002, Chanah Zauderer, an educator who had headed the Manhattan High School for Girls, brought to YULA her expertise in envisioning a systematic and comprehensive curriculum.
Together with the board and the parents' education committee, Zauderer worked to strengthen Judaic studies by giving it equal time with general studies. She infused the curriculum with more classes, such as art, music, modern Israeli history and a leadership seminar.
Last year's Zauderer intensified the Jewish law component by introducing source books with relevant halachic texts from the Bible through the Talmud and contemporary religious responsa.
"When the dinim [Jewish law] teacher gets up and lectures it makes him the almighty holder of knowledge," Zauderer said. "We want to encourage the girls to look for the sources themselves and for them to see firsthand that every halacha has its basis in text."
It is a subtle but not insignificant change for a school that has not taught girls Talmud, adhering to traditional models of gender-specific education (see sidebar).
Zauderer is strict about enforcing the dress code, but at the same time she and the board are paying more attention to whether teachers, who often come from more right-wing communities than the student body, respect the girls' religious milieu. The board has also seen to it that teachers no longer try to sway the girls to exclusively right-wing post-high school programs in Israel, but try to find the right fit for each girl.
All of these changes are ways of trying to ensure that YULA stays true to its mission of being a Modern Orthodox school, with a wide community base. Keeping that base will mean ongoing community involvement, a key to the school's success.
"The accomplishment here is we are taking something that was institutionalized and bringing it back to the community," Rubin said. "I think a group of lay people really fought for what the kids need and what the community needs, and I think the community feels we were right, and the YULA system feels we were right and hopefully this will be a benchmark for other of these types of projects."
The Gindi Campus of Yeshiva University High School will be dedicated on Sunday, Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. at 1619 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 203-0755. For information about YULA's 25th anniversary reunion on Dec. 26, call (310) 203-3189 or e-mail email@example.com.
You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at firstname.lastname@example.org or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.
Advances in Teaching Girls Talmud
By introducing more rabbinic texts into the Jewish law curriculum at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) , head of school Chanah Zauderer seems to be both following a trend and creating new realities for Los Angeles' Modern Orthodox community.
What YULA expects of its incoming students can have a trickle-down effect on the elementary schools, just as the knowledge that ninth-graders come in with can influence what YULA teaches.
For years, most Orthodox schools in Los Angeles followed a strict traditionalist approach of not teaching girls Mishna or Gemara, oral law texts that stayed in the purview of male study halls. While East Coast schools and schools in Israel began introducing Talmud into the girls curriculum in the 1970s, Los Angeles stuck to traditional models of emphasizing Bible and giving girls practical, bottom-line dos and don'ts of Jewish law.
The basic halachic consideration of whether or not girls are permitted to study Talmud has, over the years, become muddied by a political overlay, with ultra-traditional rabbis wanting to stave off any hint of feminist inroads in the Orthodox community.
The issue became a focal point in the fight to stop the opening about a decade ago of Shalhevet, a coed Modern Orthodox high school with a gender-blind curriculum.
Today, several Modern Orthodox schools have begun to quietly introduce more halachic texts into the girls' curriculum.
At Yeshivat Yavneh, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin has been trying to infuse more balance in the curriculum, giving boys more exposure to Bible and girls more access to halachic sources, while still retaining the traditional areas of emphasis.
"It seems to me counterproductive to deny girls access to Talmud," said Korobkin, who last year introduced a two-day a week oral law class, where seventh- and eighth-grade girls study topical areas of Jewish law in the Talmud.
At Maimonides Academy, principal Rabbi Karmi Gross recently introduced a curriculum where girls study practical Jewish law by tracing it through the halachic sources, including Mishna and Gemara.
The biggest change is occurring at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, now in his second year as headmaster, introduced a Mishna program for fourth- through sixth-graders where girls and boys have identical curricula.
For now, while the seventh- and eighth-grade boys study Talmud, the girls pursue a halacha tract similar to that at Yavneh and Maimonides, but Sufrin plans to reevaluate that once the Mishna program is firmly established.
Sufrin believes that the study of oral law enhances ones' ability to learn Bible or any Jewish text, and that all study of oral law has practical application, whether it is directly or through bettering the ethical and intellectual make-up of a student.
"Our students have to be able to realize that limud HaTorah [studying Torah] is as exciting as any other subject," he said. "We've got to be able to broaden their horizons with the wealth and richness of Judaism through their ability to learn all of the texts available to klal Yisrael [all of Israel]." -- JGF