February 28, 2008
L.A.‘s Jewish high schools are all over the map
Yael Glouberman, an eighth-grader at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, is awaiting admission letters from four very different high schools: Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox coed school; Milken, a pluralistic Jewish school; YULA (Yeshiva of Los Angeles) Girls High School, an Orthodox school; and a top secular independent school.|
"Each school has many positives, but we're looking for the right fit for Yael," said her mother, Dina Glouberman. "Some are more religious, some are more academically strong, some are more philosophically and religiously where we are."
Adding more complexity to the decision, all of the Jewish schools Yael has applied to are undergoing changes of leadership next year. Milken, Shalhevet and YULA Girls expect to be under new heads of school, and a new head started at YULA Boys High School this year, as well. By the time Yael's three younger siblings enter high school, Los Angeles' Jewish upper schools may well have morphed yet again. Over the past five years, three new schools have been founded, and one is in the planning stages, as parent activists try to marshal resources to found a nondenominational Jewish community high school on the Westside.
In the early 1980s, when Dina and her husband Michael were applying to Los Angeles Jewish high schools, there was only one choice -- YULA (then known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles).
The Los Angeles Jewish community has expanded and matured since then, and its high school scene now offers nuanced choices with differences in overall philosophy, academic approach, religious level and social atmosphere.
Because of that range, a steadily growing number of families with teens are opting for Jewish immersion.
In 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken. Today, more than 2,600 teens attend 14 Jewish high schools in the Los Angeles area, with 1,000 students in two community schools. In addition to those in the Los Angeles area, a Chabad yeshiva in Long Beach has 55 students, and the trans-denominational Tarbut V'Torah in Irvine has 155 students. More teens in Los Angeles are now enrolled in full-time Jewish education than in supplementary Jewish education.
"It is my sense that there are more Jews who are choosing private education, and if there are Jewish schools which are offering an excellent education along with a solid commitment to values and a Jewish connection, then these are very serious options to be considered," said Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles.
Across the country, the number of community high schools -- nondenominational schools serving the entire spectrum of Jewish affiliation -- has exploded.
In 1980 there were 10 community high schools in North America; today, there are nearly 40. According to recent studies, an estimated one-third of teens enrolled in a non-Orthodox high school did not attend a Jewish day elementary or middle school.
As competition has increased among all private secondary schools, the educational bar has been raised, and schools have been able to define their philosophies and educational approaches in more specific ways. At the same time, schools are seeing more crossover, with Orthodox students applying in increasing numbers to community schools, and Conservative students finding themselves in Orthodox schools.
Los Angeles has become a national leader in creating schools of excellence: Milken Community High School, with 600 students in ninth through 12th grade (the school also has a middle school), is the largest interdenominational Jewish high school in the country; New Community Jewish High School (New Jew) has in its five years of existence become the third largest, with close to 400 students. The robustness of Los Angeles' high school spectrum means that students who emerge from this total immersion in Jewish life will send ripples throughout the community.
"The reason why these schools are so important is that they are educating, in the most intensive way, the next generation of people who are going to populate the active and involved Jewish community -- not all of them as leaders, but as the people who are knowledgeable about what Judaism brings to one's life," said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a national advocacy and resource group. "The impact the graduates of these schools can have on a community is very powerful."
Seventeen years worth of Milken alumni are already populating Jewish organizations around the country and providing leadership to the Los Angeles Jewish community, said Jason Ablin, who will take over in July when Rennie Wrubel retires after 10 years as Milken's head of school.
During Wrubel's tenure, Milken turned on its head the model of a struggling Jewish school.
Milken was founded in 1990 when Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple, of which the school is a part, offered to pick up the pieces of a community high school that had been foundering since the 1980s. A gift from Michael Milken paid for the $30 million Mulholland Drive campus that opened in 1998, boasting of high technology (photo), science labs, theater and sports facilities and a recording studio. The luxurious setting, along with sophisticated marketing and alumni who became articulate and accomplished spokespeople, put Milken -- and Jewish education -- on the map for many people who might not have otherwise considered it.
Ablin plans to continue building both academic excellence and the culture of Jewish values, and to broaden the range of the school.
"Part of my goal is to expand the notion of pluralism on both ends of the spectru," Ablin said. I want to make sure this place is accessible to families who sent their kids to public or secular private [lower] school and all of a sudden are interested in a Jewish education. And on the other hand, I want to make sure our community is represented by a traditional voice that can help us expand the definition of what it means to practice Judaism."
New Jew has attracted students from Orthodox to Reform to those who don't identify with any denomination, partially because of its location in the West Valley, where it is one of the only Jewish high schools, and partly because it has tailored its program to the needs of the students. With an intimate atmosphere that empowers students to achieve, both academically and in their particular areas of interest, the school has grown from 40 ninth-graders in its first year to 400 today. Students at the school have founded more than 35 clubs, ranging from a weekly philosophy club to a new group aimed at creating a relationship with the Latino community. Powell says these student initiatives, as well as classroom learning and interpersonal relationships, all occur in a context of Jewish values.
"We engage students in the conversation that says, 'Here you have this powerful general education; use it carefully. Use it looking through a Jewish-values lens, whether it is a discussion of abortion or end-of-life issues or creating weaponry or cloning," Powell said.
The ability to engage in analytic thinking and to take ownership of ideas is a hallmark of quality Jewish schools of any denomination and one of the reasons more parents are turning to these schools to help raise their children, Powell said.
Powell was also founding principal of Milken and the first general studies principal of YULA, and he has served as a consultant for emerging high schools around the country.
Last fall, when a group of parents started to seriously discuss establishing a pluralistic high school on the Westside, they turned to Powell and New Jew's lay leaders for informal advice.
Attorneys Jeffrey Abrams and his wife, Michele Breslauer, hosted a meeting at their home in December for more than 50 parents, educators and community leaders.
"We have a true, heartfelt belief in a Klal Yisrael model that has a depth of Jewish learning so that a kid who has never gone to day school can actually study the Talmud and so an Orthodox kids who is versed in Talmud can express Judaism in a true and respectful way through a tikkun olam," Abrams said.
Abrams and Breslauer already have half the 12 families they are looking for to commit to the formidable work needed to establish a school -- from donating the seed money to doing the extensive legwork. Their family foundation, the Samuel and Helene Soreff Foundation, will put up the first seven-figure gift.
They plan to determine by the end of the summer if the resources and demand warrant going forward. Abrams assumes a two-year start-up window, with the school potentially opening in a rented facility by 2010 or 2011.
But all schools will have to work harder to maintain their numbers in a few years. A nationwide demographic drop in the number of school-age children is approaching high school age, according to Graff. Currently in Los Angeles, there are about 5,000 Jewish kids in any specific grade level of high school. Within a few years, that number will dip to 4,000.
Another concern is the pool of Jewish educators, and especially administrators, whose numbers haven't yet caught up with a national explosion in Jewish high schools. While a growing number of 20-somethings are studying Jewish education -- aided by new programs -- there is a dearth of experienced principals.
"Around the country, leadership is the No. 1 issue," said Milken incoming head of school, Jason Ablin, who for eight years was Milken's director of general and integrated studies. "Last year, I got 12 phone calls about jobs back East, and one in L.A. There was a kind of desperation."
The academic and co-curricular excellence achieved by schools like Milken and New Jew has raised standards in centrist Orthodox schools. Although they target different communities, there is increasing overlap, and the community schools have demonstrated what Jewish schools can achieve.
But constraints are stronger in Orthodox schools, which have longer days and divide their schedule equally between a college-prep secular curriculum and Judaic studies. The schools expect adherence to dress and behavior codes set by standards of Jewish law.
Schools are often defined by the subtleties of what is included in the curriculum and the delineation of behavioral codes.
Shalhevet, on Fairfax Avenue, holds a proactively Modern Orthodox position in its faculty and administration, with girls and boys sharing the same curriculum and a strong commitment to both Israel and America. All manner of questioning and creativity is encouraged, and the arts and student-led groups feature prominently in the school's profile.
The school is confident that vision will be carried forth by its new head of school, Rabbi Elchanon Weinbach, who previously was Judaic studies director at a boys yeshiva in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Weinbach succeeds visionary founder and head of school, Jerry Friedman, who is retiring this year.
Friedman, a businessman who later in life went to Harvard to study education, founded Shalhevet in 1992 based on a philosophy of encouraging kids' moral development by allowing them to democratically determine their own program.
The school grew rapidly -- from 24 students in rented rooms at the Westside Jewish Community Center in 1992 to 140 students by the time the school purchased a building near Carthay Circle in 1999. That same year it opened a middle school and in 2006 added an elementary school.
Today, Shalhevet's board is trying to catch up with the school's rapid expansion, solidifying both the infrastructure and fundraising, according to executive board member Steven Tabak.
Tabak hopes Weinbach, who will also serve as Judaic studies principal, will help the school shore up its Judaic studies curriculum.
While Shalhevet was initially seen as a challenge to the more established YULA, both schools agree the competition forced them to strengthen their curricula and allowed them to define themselves more clearly -- Shalhevet as progressive, YULA as hewing more closely to traditional educational conventions.
YULA, in Pico-Robertson, is in the process of hiring a new principal for its girls school, and, this year, students and parents of the boys school say they are pleased with new head of school, Rabbi Heshy Glass, who was principal of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in New York. There are currently 190 boys and 175 girls enrolled at YULA, which was founded in 1977 as part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. YULA succeeded the disintegrating Rambam High School, which was founded in 1954 as the first Jewish high school in Los Angeles. In the last five years, both the girls and boys campuses have been rebuilt.
Glass, who studied in yeshiva and at Harvard, says he is working to further strengthen both the secular and Judaic academic programs, while creating an atmosphere of holiness of time, place, and people -- a triad he brings up regularly when he interacts with the boys and rabbis.
He is also making some subtle changes, such as sanctioning participation in coed youth groups and helping the rabbis appreciate the world the boys live in.
Alan Gindi, president of the girls school, said negotiations are in the final stages with a new principal, who looks forward to building an educational and philosophical vision together with Glass.
Gindi says the new principal, whose name has not yet been publicized, will continue to implement cutting-edge educational opportunities for the girls, building on the strong school spirit fostered by Rabbi Yosef Furman, who is leaving this year.
On the right edge of the centrist Orthodox spectrum, Valley Torah High School attracts a Modern Orthodox community with its college-prep curriculum, but does not define itself as "modern," according to principal Rabbi Avrohom Sutlburger.
The school opened in 1986 with 20 boys and is now up to 170 boys, and 85 girls study on a separate campus. The boys school has already outgrown the Valley Village campus it built six years ago and there are plans for another expansion.
About 40 percent of the students come from the city, attracted by the intimacy of the school and the care teachers and administrators give to the entire student, Stulberger says.
"We see our objective and mission much beyond being a college preparatory high school," Stulberger said. "It's much more about calling the kids to get inspired to a lifelong commitment to Torah."
Even in the most conservative portion of the Orthodox community, new schools have increased competition by filling in the spaces -- religious, academic, social -- between well-established schools.
Three new schools broke long-held barriers by setting up strictly Orthodox, college-prep curricula that have pulled students from both ultra-Orthodox and centrist Orthodox middle schools.
Seven years ago, Stulberger created another branch of Valley Torah, Ner Aryeh, to serve families who wanted their boys to be able to become lawyers or businessmen but also wanted a serious yeshiva atmosphere.
Schools that call themselves "yeshivish," black hat or ultra-Orthodox are distinguished by the longer hours spent on Judaic studies, usually including regular late-night study, and the mandated dress code of jackets and black hats for boys and long sleeves, long skirts and stockings for girls. Schools are open on American holidays and are generally not Zionist. Behavior in and out of school is strictly regulated -- no mingling with the opposite sex is sanctioned, even after school.
For a time, students looking for that atmosphere had to sacrifice a college-prep course.
Rabbi Shalom Tendler, former head of YULA, founded Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok in 2006 with 12 boys in the ninth grade. This year, he has 31 in the ninth and 10th grade and already has more than 15 applications for next year. In a small rented building on Pico and Crescent Heights boulevards, the boys spend long hours on Talmud study in addition to four hours a day on secular subjects.
"We have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of happiness and joy in the school without compromising a strong structure and a sense of discipline," Tendler said.
A similar philosophy governs Bnos Devorah, which opened in a Beverly Boulevard synagogue this year with nine girls. Head of school and founder Shulamith May says the school is meeting its goal of providing a warm environment, college-prep secular classes, serious Torah study and an emphasis on character development.
The atmosphere is slightly different at Bais Yaakov School for Girls, which has been the main girls high school serving the ultra-Orthodox for the past 41 years. There, while secular studies are strong, graduates are encouraged to consult with a rabbi to determine if college is an appropriate choice following post-high school seminary in Israel or New York. Behavior outside of school is strictly monitored, from what girls wear to whom they hang out with.
The school puts a premium on chesed, charitable deeds. High-spirited warmth is central to the culture of the school.
Over the past few years, Bais Yaakov has been on a steady trajectory of growth, from 220 girls eight years ago to 300 today, during which time the school moved from its small building on La Brea into the large building on Beverly Boulevard that used to house Yavneh Hebrew Academy.
Families who send their daughters to Bais Yaakov are most likely to send their sons to Yeshiva Gedolah, which has about 100 boys. That school is currently expanding its campus on Olympic Boulevard and Cochran Avenue to include a parking garage, dining room, science lab and classrooms to accommodate a new post-high school program.
The hours are long for the boys -- Sunday through Wednesday, 7:30 a.m. to 9:15 p.m., with an hour off for dinner. Thursday they're at school until 10:15 p.m., and they get out early on Friday to prepare for Shabbat.
Yeshiva Gedolah has grown over the last few years, mainly because as the school improved, parents opted not to send their boys away to yeshivas in Denver, Chicago or on the East Coast. While many parents still send their boys away, others have found that out-of-town experience closer to home.
Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles, a boarding school on a scenic 8.5 acres in Calabasas, opened 11 years ago and today has 61 students, mostly from California but also from such yeshiva-rich areas as Monsey and Brooklyn, as well.
"It's an intense place with a lot of warmth. Usually those two things don't mix," founding principal Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman said.
This month, the school will dedicate its second building -- a dining hall -- and has plans for new dorms, staff residences, a library and a gym.
Another 150 boys are at Yeshiva Ohr Elchanon Chabad, and 90 girls at Bais Chana, both high schools of the Chabad movement. The schools serve mostly the children of Chabad rabbis from around California, and have dorms to accommodate students from as far away as Australia. The accredited schools are looked at as a training ground for future Chabad service, from teaching in Chabad schools to building Jewish outposts in remote communities, according to Rabbi Aron Begun, who has been head of the girls school since it opened in 1996. Bais Chana is finishing up plans to begin work on a new facility on Pico Boulevard, just across the street from the elementary and preschool building.
A few blocks away, Ohr Haemet, with 44 girls, offers an intimate environment where students get individualized attention.
Still, some students don't feel right in any of these schools. The Hancock Park-based organization, Aish Tamid, opened Pardes Academy for boys, an outdoor experience/Torah study/high school diploma option near the Grove.
The program started with seven boys last year and has 14 this year. Pardes has a social worker on staff and has contracted out with an educational service to teach classes and guide the kids through a course of independent study toward earning an LAUSD diploma or a high school equivalency exam.
"These kids need smaller classrooms, more individualized attention, and a personal rebbe or counselor they can talk to," founder Avi Lebovic said.
Pardes is attracting students from Orthodox elementary schools across the spectrum.
Like other schools that have arisen to fill in gaps -- whether on the Orthodox spectrum, or among community schools -- Pardes is pushing aside long-held denominational boundaries in favor of a clearly defined educational approach that appeals to specific student needs.
And that, says Elkin of the umbrella organization PEJE, is how competition leads to a more robust community of students.
"Schools have to find what they are, and they have to embrace a mission and promulgate that mission, making sure they are getting their message out very clearly," Elkin said. "Having options encourages -- and in some cases forces -- everyone to sharpen their blades.
For more information on any of these schools contact the Bureau of Jewish Education's Concierges for Jewish Education at (323) 761-8616 or (818) 464-3391.