For the past three years, in meetings that often go toward midnight, a handful of local parents, educators and community leaders have been coming together to plan Los Angeles' next non-Orthodox Jewish high school.
Now it has come to pass. Late last month, the Core Group, as the parents call themselves, announced the September 2002 opening of the New Community Jewish High School in the West Valley.
Against a background of world tragedy and looming recession, organizers see the school as a sign of communal growth and vibrancy. "The Jewish community is moving westward," said school co-chair Howard Farber. "There are enough spaces at our elementary schools, like Kadima, Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom, Heschel, and so on, but there are not enough Jewish school spaces for our graduates. Milken [Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple] is great, and they have been wonderful to us. But our community needs more schools."
Instead of hand-wringing over the limited number of non-Orthodox Jewish high schools, concerned parents devoted hours to starting a new one. "It is an incredible group of people," Farber said. "When we sit in meetings, there's not one person who wants to leave early, or cut it short. There is a level of energy and creativity and cooperation that is just nice to see."
The energy paid off. Elana Rimmon Zimmerman, who works as program director at Valley Beth Shalom and is the mother of two children in day schools, co-chairs the group with Farber. "I always think the opportunity to be part of something new is exciting," Zimmerman said. "How often during our lives do we get to be part of something at the very beginning?"
While they have no permanent site yet, the school will use the Bernard Milken Campus in the West Valley as its temporary location when it opens next fall.
From their office suite in Tarzana, school planners are sending out brochures to spread the word. They have consulted with a consortium of San Fernando and Conejo Valley day school principals -- administrators whose own student populations will be key feeder schools to the new campus. They have three open houses scheduled for this fall and winter, and are offering a tuition discount to families of the very first group of freshman, the Class of 2006.
School planners are reluctant to quote exact rates, emphasizing instead that significant assistance will be available.
Even in stronger economies, tuition has been a major challenge facing parents and day school administrators. The New Community School organizers say their approach to it was guided by a bedrock commitment to Jewish education. "A Jewish school should not be a commodity," Powell said. "It should not be a luxury item -- you can afford it, you buy it. It should be like a birthright, a community entitlement. What that means, ultimately, is that every family who wants a Jewish education for their child should be able to have one. We have a two-page brochure for families that goes over our tuition assistance policies. We want to be able to accept people who cannot afford to pay the full price. That's why endowment is so important. That is our central challenge."
The Core Group may be pioneers of a sort, building a 9th through 12th-grade school from scratch, but taken together, they are not lacking for established contacts or professional support. Both Farber and Zimmerman have a long record of involvement in local Jewish community organizations. "This is hardly a case of some parents getting together and with no experience, deciding they're going to start a school," Zimmerman said. "We are hardly neophytes. We have some of the most professional and experienced people participating as our guides, every step of the way."
The group consults with a 30-member rabbinical cabinet composed of local pulpit rabbis. They're assisted by the AVI CHAI Foundation, The Jewish Federation Council, the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), and other organizations. The connections run deep: Farber's mother, Janet, is president of the BJE, and his father, Jake, is the incoming chairman of the board of The Jewish Federation. Farber himself is a graduate of the Wexner Fellows Program.
The new school's National Advisory Board includes historian-author Deborah Lipstadt, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Rabbi Daniel Landes, the director of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Still, even with the impressive roster, there will be parents who are skittish about the prospect of placing their student in the first class of a new school, preferring instead to wait out the first few years until a school becomes a tried and tested commodity. To those who hesitate, Farber says the answer is simple: Dr. Bruce Powell.
Powell is well-known in education circles as a committed and experienced educator at the high school level and as someone who can bring a considerable resume along to meetings with parents and potential donors. After heading up the general studies department at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles, Powell ran the school at Stephen S. Wise, which later became Milken High School. After a successful 10-year stint as head of school at Milken, where three of his own children graduated, he has continued as an educator and consultant, working closely with Jewish high school start-ups nationwide. At a time when most Jewish institutions across the board are suffering from an acute shortage of qualified Jewish educators and administrators, the new school is given a considerable boost with Powell as the head administrator.
Under his direction, the school's four-year curriculum will offer courses in Jewish ethics, text and Hebrew language, along with a slate of Advanced Placement classes, (chemistry, music theory, macroeconomics, etc.), and a host of arts and multicultural electives like drama, dance, African American Studies and Modern Israeli Literature.
Why a Jewish High School?
In an interview with The Journal, Powell crystallized the philosophy of a school whose founders have already devoted, in Zimmerman's words, "countless hours" to discussing vision, purpose and moral education component.
"I'm the last person to sit here and say that Jewish school is some kind of all-purpose panacea," Powell said. "Nothing is. But it's critical that our children know who they are, not just to enrich our homes, but to connect with the fabric of the country.
"We have this incredible treasure of a heritage sitting there, and our kids can't access it or participate in it if they're ignorant of it. We say things like 'Jewish continuity,' but these are empty phrases if there is no content. Why perpetuate something if you don't know what it's about? Jews have made a unique contribution to the world and to this country, a contribution grounded specifically in Judaism. The founding forefathers of this country knew Torah. There was a time when to be admitted to Harvard, a student had to know Latin, Greek and biblical Hebrew. Half the world uses our book as a basis for their civilization, and we don't read it enough."
Most of the faculty for the school is already lined up, Powell said -- this despite what experts say is a severe shortage of Jewish educators nationwide. Powell acknowledged the shortage, but found ways to work around it. "We just have to think creatively," he said. "There are pulpit rabbis, for example, with a deep background in Judaica, who might take a small cut in salary if it meant having Shabbats and holidays off in order to have a life with their families. There are veteran educators who are excited by the prospect of being in on something from the beginning."
That excitement is palpable speaking with Farber, Powell and others involved in the project. What began as an idea will soon be another part of the city's growing Jewish-education system, another institution to make good on one generation's promise to the next. Powell is certain that alone will draw parents and students to join the endeavor.
"There is a tremendous appeal in truly being a founder of something," Powell said. "Parents who will be with us from the outset have that this opportunity, and so do the students. It's a tremendous opportunity for kids to blossom and to lead."
The New Community Jewish High School will be holding open houses on Nov. 14, Nov. 19 and Dec. 2, at the Bernard Milken campus, 15580 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For reservations or additional information, call (818) 344-9672.