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Milken school, Stephen S. Wise Temple severing ties

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 25, 2011 | 6:16 pm

Milken Community High School, Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, CA

Milken Community High School, Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, CA

Milken Community High School and Stephen S. Wise Temple are severing ties, both institutions announced on March 25.

In what both say is a fully amicable agreement, the board of Milken, a pluralistic school that also includes a middle school, and the board of the Reform synagogue, which founded the high school in 1990, each voted unanimously on Feb. 24 to approve the separation. The change will take effect July 1, 2012.

The announcement was made at Milken to the school’s approximately 150-member staff and faculty. The school’s 750 enrolled students and their parents received an e-mail with the news the same day. The news will also be published in the synagogue bulletin.

Making Milken independent is a move that will allow each institution to focus on its core mission. Representatives for Milken hope that the change will help the school attract new donors and board members.

Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, likened the relationship between the 46-year-old, 2,800-member temple and the 20-year-old school to that of a parent and child.

“Parents give birth to their children and nurture their growth with love and with direction and with values,” Herscher said. “But once those children have grown up, they need to create a vision for their own future.”

Herscher said he does not expect the school’s mission to change, nor for this decision to impact the synagogue financially. Milken’s students, parents and faculty, he said, are unlikely to see a change in the school’s operations. Even the planned change of the school’s name is minimal — from the Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple to the Milken Community High School at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Nonetheless, the discussions began nearly a year ago based on the belief that the change was essential for the two institutions to continue to grow.

“There have always been discussions about the benefits and challenges associated with the close relationship,” said Ken Gross, a longtime member of the boards of both the temple and school. Gross is the father of three Milken graduates and is Stephen S. Wise’s immediate past president. He said the decision to separate would benefit both institutions.

“I am hopeful that members of the Jewish community of Los Angeles who might’ve hesitated to support the high school financially might now choose to participate,” Gross said.

For Milken, whose annual budget is approximately $25 million, the benefits to independence go beyond the level of individual philanthropists. Milken Head of School Jason Ablin said that certain foundations that support independent schools will not award grants to those affiliated with religious institutions. “There are significant opportunities to raise much more substantial dollars, particularly for the endowment, for the future,” Ablin said. “That wasn’t possible before.”

Stephen S. Wise, which will continue to house its elementary school on its site, sits across the 405 Freeway from Milken and will also now be able to focus on strengthening its own base of support. “There’s a lot of work to be done on both sides of the 405 in endowment fundraising,” Herscher said.

Rabbi Uri Herscher, president of the Skirball Cultural Center and brother of Eli Herscher, was brought into the planning process about six months ago as a facilitator. He was joined in the task by Peter Lowy, managing director of the Westfield Group and a major supporter of numerous Jewish community groups, including this newspaper’s parent company, TRIBE Media Corp. They helped the two institutions create a plan to unravel themselves from one another “without divisiveness or rancor,” Uri Herscher said.

Uri Herscher said he is confident the separation will be conducted in a way that is consistent with Jewish values.

“There is a time to let go of that which you’ve created,” Uri Herscher said. “But while you’re letting go of that which you’ve created, you hold onto a bridge between the two institutions — and that is a Jewish bridge.”

Deciding what connections will remain between these two very large, very interconnected institutions will involve a lot of work over the coming 15 months.

Today, Stephen S. Wise owns the 10-acre Milken campus. Ten of the 28 current Milken board members also sit on the Stephen S. Wise board. The Milken swim team practices in the Stephen S. Wise pool. A handful of key staff members have joint responsibilities at Milken and Stephen S. Wise, including Metuka Benjamin, the synagogue’s director of education. Forty-five percent of Milken students are graduates of the Stephen S. Wise Temple elementary school.

One connection that will not change is that rising seventh-graders coming out of the synagogue’s elementary school will still be able to transition into Milken, provided they meet the school’s standards of behavior and academics. In addition, Eli Herscher didn’t expect to see the online connection between school and synagogue to change. “I wouldn’t see a reason for the link between our Web site and theirs [Milken’s] to disappear,” he said. “The temple has a significant interest in seeing the kids who graduate from our elementary school continue their Jewish education through high school.”

Leon Janks is a longtime member of the Milken board, a parent of two graduates of the school, and he also serves on the board of TRIBE Media Corp. Janks called the separation a “win-win” and praised Eli Herscher for his “forward thinking about where the school is now and what is needed to operate an independent school in the future.”

“This was not a business transaction,” said Janks, the managing partner of Green Hasson Janks, a prominent accounting firm. “This was a community transaction.”

Milken’s Ablin agreed. “I’m not going to say that this was without its moments of tension,” he said. “[But] this process has been a model of how Jews should be working together to make the Jewish community stronger as a whole.”

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