April 9, 2009
Man With Seventy Children
I can see why a Jewish day school would reject a Jewish child. It could be that the kid has special needs the school is not equipped to deal with, or the parents cannot afford the tuition, or the kid had poor grades in a previous school or simply has a bad attitude.
What school would want to diminish its “brand” by accepting every applicant? Part of what a school sells is the “quality” of its student base and member families. This helps attract more such students and families, which helps boost fundraising and enables the hiring of a quality staff.
So, screening and qualifying applicants is the normal and reasonable thing to do. What is not normal is to accept every Jewish family that knocks on your door.
I visited such a school the other day. It’s called Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy.
This is a small Jewish day school in West Hollywood that was founded 20 years ago by the current dean of the school, Rabbi Rubin Huttler. Since its inception, the school has been utterly incapable of looking a Jewish parent in the eye and saying, “Sorry, we can’t take your child.”
How can a school survive with such a radical, all-embracing policy?
I don’t know if I have a good answer. I can only tell you what I saw after I hung out at the school with students, teachers, volunteers and the principal of the school since 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh.
I’ve known the rabbi for many years. Every time I see him, he seems to have another story of “a Jewish child in need.” On the morning I was there, he seemed unusually perturbed. He had recently been shown legal papers from a divorced father who now has full legal and physical custody of his three daughters, two of whom attend Etz Jacob. They are two of Rabbi Harrosh’s best students.
The issue was that while the mother of the girls is a practicing Jew, the father is a Baha’i Muslim. The rabbi was troubled by the possibility that the father might take the girls out of the school — and he was worried about how they would spend their Shabbats and Jewish holidays. The rabbi asked the father, who is respectful of the school, if he could take the girls into his own home for the Pesach holiday, and he was waiting anxiously to hear back.
Sitting in his office, which is located right near the reception area, the rabbi talked about his students as if he knew each one intimately. He knew their individual stories, their personalities, their gifts and the obstacles they each had to overcome.
It struck me, while listening to Rabbi Harrosh talk about his students, that his school is not just one that hates to say no, but one that goes out of its way to say yes.
Take the story of a rebellious 11-year-old Russian boy who refused to leave his room for months. No school would take him. The mother called Rabbi Harrosh, who ended up spending hours alone with the boy, making him feel accepted and gently convincing him that the school was worth a try. The boy became one of the top students at Etz Jacob and is now at Shalhevet High School.
There is a quiet dignity to the school, as if the students are a mirror reflection of Rabbi Harrosh. All 70 students wear uniforms, and they stand up when an adult enters a classroom. This didn’t surprise me, because I knew about the school’s reputation for teaching good midot (manners).
What did surprise me were some of their innovative teaching techniques. How do you get students to be more interested in the parsha of the week? At Etz Jacob, they use thematic songs that connect to the individual parsha. Teacher Zahava Rubanowitz was playing one of those songs when I popped into her class.
“Thanks to these songs,” she told me, “my students remember the ideas behind the parshas 10 or 15 years later.”
In an English class, a teacher asks his students to “bring an idea” they would like to explore with other students. In a literature class, a teacher challenges his students to go deeper into one of my favorite stories, “The Necklace,” by Guy de Maupassant.
Throughout the halls, you see some of your tax dollars at work: private tutors provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District giving one-on-one sessions to students who need extra help. They are there because Rabbi Harrosh did his homework on the rights of the school to get state help, and he pestered the state endlessly to get it.
At a recent fundraiser, the school highlighted the success of some of their alumni: a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a psychology major at UCLA, an owner of a mortgage company, among many others.
But there’s a sobering side to the Etz Jacob story. Because many of the parents cannot afford tuition, each year the school must raise about 80 percent of its annual budget from outside sources. And I can tell you from personal experience that Rabbi Harrosh’s forte is not fundraising. He’s good at giving, not asking. I saw the pain on his face when he talked about the anxiety of meeting payroll.
So a group of friends of Etz Jacob have come up with a clever plan: find 613 people in the community to commit to $26 a month on an ongoing basis. Because it’s such a reasonable figure, they hope to attract many givers who will share in the mitzvah of keeping this courageous school going (if you want to help, visit perutzetzjacob.org).
As I drove away from the school toward the flashy signs of sushi bars and beauty salons, I thought about what motivates someone like Rabbi Harrosh. It would be so much easier to reject poor families so that he wouldn’t have to constantly struggle to meet payroll.
He must know all this, but maybe he just can’t help himself. Maybe for him, turning down a Jewish child would be like turning down his own child.