On a recent Thursday afternoon at the New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, 20 students fill the biology lab to hear a guest speaker discuss cryogenics. Next door, another 14 teenagers sit in a semicircle as their English teacher describes their next chapter in Homer's "The Odyssey." Down the hall, four students in the beginning Hebrew classes learned the Hebrew names for other languages.
In other words, NCJHS -- or "New Jew," as the students call it -- is pretty much like any other high school, only on a much smaller scale.
Located at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, NCJHS opened its first year with 40 students, offering a curriculum split 30/70 between Jewish and secular studies -- with an integration between the two.
During the school's grand opening ceremony on Sept. 17, Head of School Bruce Powell outlined NCJHS' mission: to be a place "where students take advanced placement kindness, where science and math are the grand tools in tikkun olam ... and where the precious legacy that resides in the souls of our children is nurtured, one mind at a time."
A respected educator in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Powell's holistic approach can be seen in everything from the curriculum to the weekly schedule. For example, the school has a kehillah where students and teachers gather after lunch several days each week for 40 minutes of Jewish song or Israeli dancing.
"Judaism, when given to students only through text and history, can become very dry," Powell said. "You need both the cognitive and the affective, the intellectual and the spiritual."
Spiritually speaking, NCJHS bills itself as non-denominatinal. While over the last decade much of the Jewish community has been moving both to the left and the right, creators of NCJHS hope it will fill a middle ground between the more traditional Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and the Reform-leaning Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air.
The process began three years ago, when a group of Los Angeles parents and community leaders decided they needed an option between the Orthodox and Reform schools. They joined a group of parents whose children were attending Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge, who were interested in starting a high school. The two parties merged to form the initial board of directors for what would become NCJHS.
Schools feeding into the new high school include Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills; Heschel Day School in Northridge and its Agoura sibling, Heschel West; plus three synagogue day schools: Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Hillel.
The mix makes for some interesting arrangements. In order to accommodate students from many different schools, a flexible schedule was key, said Rabbi David Vorspan, the NCJHS Jewish studies director and official rabbi-in-residence.
It also makes for a varied student body. "We have kids who have been home-schooled; we have kids who come from public school programs," Vorspan said. "We have kids who did not know an alef from a bet when they came in, and kids who were involved in heavy text study when they were in day school. So we have had to create a program that could meet everybody's needs."
The NCJHS offers three levels of Hebrew, from basic to advanced, and several tiers of other academic classes such as English and math. There are also innovative electives, like American Sign Language (made possible by a donation from Shirley and Aaron Kotler in memory of deaf relatives), computer science and art classes that take advantage of the Milken's gallery.
Like any Jewish private school, the cost of Jewish education at NCJHS does not come cheap. Tuition for the 2002-2003 school year is $17,500 -- not including the application fee, textbooks and other costs such as school trips that can add another $1,825 or more. Financial assistance is available, and there is a nice perk: once enrolled, students and their entire families automatically become members of the West Valley Jewish Community Center.
In addition, the students get to use the 10,000-square-foot gym and a swimming pool on the $4.5 million Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex which opened in 1999.
Although only enrolled for a few weeks, on this hot Thursday afternoon, the students seem comfortable in their new and somewhat quirky environment, where one is as likely -- while going from one class to another -- to encounter a group of tots from the JCC's preschool as to run into a fellow student. Elan Feldman, 15, of Woodland Hills was at Heschel for four years and chose the New Community Jewish High School after looking over the descriptions of the teachers and classes.
"My parents said I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted to go as long as I could get good grades," he says. "Dr. Powell was at Milken and my brother went there and it was good. I liked the idea of starting a new school. I want to start something new, be a pioneer."
Feldman says that going to a small school is both challenging and interesting. "It's nice that I know most of the people that are going here," he says. "It is kind of small and I might like a bigger environment, but the people are so great it makes up for it."
Talya Vogel, 14, comes to NCJHS from Kadima, which she attended since kindergarten. Like Feldman, she chose the school over nearby academic decathlon-winning El Camino Real High School.
"I preferred to come here," she says. "I think the people you meet influence who you are and I would rather be with people more like me. The classes are great, the teachers are great and the faculty makes the school."
Vogel says that some of her friends are considering switching back to public school after this first year. "They just came here to experiment with it. Some of them might go to El Camino or even switch to Milken, just because they are bigger schools. But, I think this is exciting. We are what will start everything, what will be remembered."
As for the future, Powell and the board are in the process of looking for a site on which to build the school when it outgrows the current facility -- although the intention is to keep NCJHS a small and user-friendly school.
"I would like to see the school be 100 students per grade," Powell told The Journal. "I believe that is the ideal size for a high school. A lot of research has been done now on high schools showing schools of 250 to 400 are optimum. They are able to offer the programs that are necessary yet maintain the smallness so no child is missed."