February 3, 2005
What’s Next for Shalhevet?
The Orthodox day school beefs up its Judaic studies and re-examines governance after a few hard years.
Sitting at the back of a large multipurpose room packed full of students and staff at Shalhevet's weekly town hall meeting, Jerry Friedman is kvelling at a level usually reserved for grandparents at a bar mitzvah.
Someone taps him on the shoulder, and Friedman reluctantly excuses himself to take a phone call.
A half-hour later, back in his office, he says that during the interval he nailed a $500,000 donation. It's good news for a hand-to-mouth school that for the past few years has suffered an enrollment and fundraising slump.
Despite its fair share of controversy and assaults on its reputation, the school Friedman founded 13 years ago has established itself as an innovative, liberal Modern Orthodox high school with high academic standards, where kids for the most part really love the school.
Now, as it reaches the traditional age of maturity, Shalhevet is working hard to ensure its continuity, as it determines what role the man who gave birth to and still controls the school should play.
Friedman's silver convertible Jaguar, parked right at the school's front doors, sports "SHLHVT" vanity plates. He has been the head of school, the president of the board, the executive director and the main fundraiser -- and he has never drawn a salary.
Friedman acknowledges that for the good of the school, he must allow others to take over critical tasks. This year, the school hired an executive director for the first time, taking all operational and financial issues out of Friedman's lap. An active lay board has taken shape, and a nominating committee will soon tap a president so that Friedman can vacate that position as well. He says he will focus all of his energies on the educational and moral development of the students and, of course, still have his hand in some fundraising.
But whether those changes will be enough, and just how far Friedman is willing to pull back, could play a role in determining how the school faces some of the biggest challenges in its short history.
This year's ninth-grade class represented the lowest number of applicants the school has received since it became firmly established. While there are between 50 and 60 students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, there are only 36 ninth-graders, and that number represents a significantly higher percentage of acceptances out of the total pool of applicants than in previous years.
Quality and quantity among applicants has improved for next year, according to Beatrice Levavi, director of admissions.
Friedman attributes the dip to years worth of communal lashon harah, or slandering. Shalhevet challenges local religious norms by being a coeducational yeshiva where girls learn Gemara, and some segments of the Orthodox community have been maligning the school since before it opened.
Teachers at the Orthodox feeder schools have actively discouraged students from going to Shalhevet. Parents and students report of hearing a teacher at a day school call Shalhevet girls "sluts," and of getting the heart-to-heart from concerned teachers when a student professes interest in Shalhevet. One parent said his daughter's eighth-grade mentor refused to write a recommendation when she wanted to go to Shalhevet, and others report transcripts being withheld.
All of this has put Shalhevet constantly on the defensive, but more telling than the communal bad-mouthing is the fact that former Shalhevet supporters have defected. A number of younger siblings of Shalhevet students have gone instead to YULA, a more traditional Orthodox yeshiva and Shalhevet's primary competition.
How did a school that nearly everyone agrees fills a much-needed niche for a more open-minded Modern Orthodox education, and has been quite successful in secular academics, lose so many supporters -- both in terms of donors and students?
Families who spoke to The Journal strongly support the school's vision and philosophy from the nonjudgmental Modern Orthodoxy to the passionate Zionism to the focus on moral development where kids participate in democratic decision making. They said that their kids came out with a sense of confidence and respect for intellectual curiosity.
But, they said, the school was run so sloppily at every level that disorganization and flakiness dominated the operations and even some academic aspects of the school (most parents spoke on condition of anonymity, since some have students at school).
"What frustrated a lot of parents was that this was the only school with a mission we believed in, but the problems overwhelmed the mission," said one father who sent a child to YULA after other children were already at Shalhevet.
Just how much of the disorganization can be attributed to Friedman's omnipresence -- and his reputed abrasiveness -- is a matter of opinion. Friedman admits that operations suffered because he was spread too thin, and that he lacks the diplomacy sometimes necessary to stroke the egos of parents and big donors.
"After 13 years I've made a dozen or so enemies, but I've always been consistent on principles," he said. "I understood that if we are building a school based on morality and ethics, then the greatest hypocrisy would be to say, 'write a check and I'll do what you want.'"
Several parents question whether the current changes are enough, as long as Friedman remains head of school.
"As a personal achievement for Jerry and in filling a community niche it is remarkable," said one former parent, who is a prominent community leader. "But it is an institution dominated by one individual who can't seem to let go or create an organizational structure that allows it to be a normal place. That is really the issue. Everything else is small. Everything else would fall into place if it were allowed to develop in a natural way."
Friedman, a successful real estate developer and philanthropist, got his doctorate from Harvard when he was 50 with a thesis focusing on the moral development of day school kids. He came back to Los Angeles and poured millions of his own money into creating Shalhevet.
Students are passionate about the school.
"There are so many terrible rumors, but nobody sees how amazing Shalhevet is from the inside. Kids come to school, and they are happy and love being at Shalhevet," said Sarah Honig, an 11th-grader who started an external-affairs committee to counter community badmouthing. She points to the plethora of opportunities in the arts and social action, and the mutual respect and caring among teachers and students.
"Certainly it's not perfect and lots of kooky things go on in the school, but it really is a vibrant community where a lot of wonderful things happen," said senior Leor Hackel, who plans to spend next year in yeshiva in Israel and then to go to Yale, were he got in early admission.
After so many parents complained -- or just left -- Shalhevet has worked to tame the atmosphere of a free-for-all, where classes were often canceled, rules were loose and changed often, and Judaic studies weren't taken seriously, according to parents and students interviewed.
Two years ago, Friedman instructed general studies principal Sam Gomberg to tighten things up, and students and staff admit it took a while to find the right balance between having a disciplined atmosphere and maintaining the commitment to a democracy in which students play a role.
Judaic studies are also being beefed up, with more advanced classes, more Gemara and more demands in existing classes. The school is searching for a rosh yeshiva to end the revolving door of Israeli rabbis who have traditionally filled the position for two- or three-year stints.
Administrators acknowledge that admissions had gotten out of hand in the past few years, with Friedman not wanting to turn away students who might not get a Jewish education otherwise. He acknowledges that he let in students who were unqualified and handed out scholarships with little or no system.
This year Levavi, who has been on the administrative staff for seven years and is the mother of four Shalhevet graduates and two current students, is being very selective in admissions.
"We're interviewing amazing kids," she said. "I have every belief that we are going to have a remarkable ninth grade next year."
New structures are also being implemented to tighten tuition collection and how scholarships are awarded. For years the school ran at a deficit and fundraising was a frantic pursuit, born out of starting out undercapitalized and then straining to buy the $6.8 million Westside Hospital building on Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in 1999.
Four months ago, Ken Milman, who had been head of the collections department for IDT Telecommunications, was hired as executive director to put the house in order.
"If you come in and see stacks of bills not getting paid and check requests sitting there and teachers wanting books and things not getting fulfilled on time, it is a matter of putting in business processes to solve those problems," said Milman, who handles all nonacademic operations and reports directly to the board, not to Friedman.
Friedman and others hope that empowering a lay board of 22 people -- larger and more diverse than the school has ever had -- will help take the focus off Friedman and put it back on the school.
"It is part of the maturation of the school that after some period of time the person who really is the school starts looking to others to take over responsibility, while maintaining the basic reasons for why the school was set up," said Marc Rohatiner, a board member who has had three daughters at Shalhevet. "This is not a model that can survive as the school grows, where there is one person responsible for all aspects. There has to be checks and balances, formally and informally, and Jerry recognizes that because he is the one who initiated this."