The board members, the 800 students on bleachers, the officials from the Bureau of Jewish Education and private foundations -- they had come to Milken Community High School to hear Gen. Shaul Mofaz, minster of transportation and deputy prime minister of the state of Israel.
Mofaz, as it turns out, was a decoy. The surprise honoree was Wrubel herself, who received the Milken Family Foundation's Jewish Educator Award for her work as Milken's head of school for the last 10 years.
"I just have one question," a stunned but composed Wrubel asked when she was finally able to lift herself off her seat. "Is that really Mofaz?" (It was.)
The annual Jewish Educator Awards, with a $10,000 prize, is awarded in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) to five Los Angeles day school teachers or administrators annually.
"I want to recognize and celebrate a person whose intelligence, whose leadership, whose commitment and compassion have made a profound difference in our community, a person who has positively impacted thousands of young people's lives," said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which gave the naming gift and maintains close ties to the high school.
As Milken stood at the dais to announce the award, Wrubel wondered why he was talking about appreciating excellence in education, when the assembly was about Israel. Colleagues whispered that perhaps the digression was to recognize the school as a whole, since Wrubel surmised that he couldn't be presenting a Jewish Educator Award, because she would have been informed of that.
Then Milken asked for "the envelope." The school orchestra went into a drum roll and an audible wave of anticipation passed among the students. When he announced that Dr. Rennie Wrubel was the recipient of a Jewish Educator Award, Wrubel slumped in her seat, open mouthed -- and the gym exploded.
That kind of reaction, and its ripple effect through the wider community, is what Milken Foundation officials are going for with the dramatic presentation of the awards.
"The surprise element evolved as the best way to get everyone's attention and to make it most memorable to the students and to other people in the room," said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation. "We're trying to get the community behind teaching, behind educators, and trying to get kids to understand that educators are recognized and appreciated and that kids should consider this as a profession."
Sandler and a caravan of BJE and Milken Foundation officials presented the four other awards in one packed day in late October. Videos of those emotional assemblies will form the centerpiece of an awards luncheon in Bel Air on Dec. 14.
At Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, second- and third-grade teacher Beverly Yachzel received her award in an intimate gathering of the student body and teachers at the small school.
Tami Rosenfeld, a fourth-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, didn't know her family was hiding out in the back of the sanctuary for the occasion.
Rabbi Simcha Frankel, a teacher at Cheder Menachem Elementary School in Los Angeles, at first demurred from coming to the stage, but the cheering boys coaxed him up. Bluma Drebin, Bible department chair and teacher of mathematics at the YULA girls' high school, elicited whoops and hollers from the girls.
But even by the Milken Foundation's standards, the ruse around Wrubel's ceremony was unusual.
The elaborate scheming behind the assembly was the work of Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the parent organization for Milken Community High School.
Benjamin arranged for Consul General Ehud Danoch to come to the school, under the pretense of recognizing the school's ambitious new Tiferet Israel Program, where 40 tenth graders will go to Israel for four months this winter and spring.
Then, three days before the assembly, Benjamin got a call from Mofaz saying he would be in town.
She jumped at the chance, and pulled off the last-minute schedule change for Mofaz to speak to the students.
Mofaz and Danoch both addressed the students, congratulating them on their continued commitment to fostering the bond between Israeli and American teens.
For several years, Milken Community High School has participated in an exchange program with its sister school in Tel Aviv, sending delegations each year to live with families. This year a larger delegation will live in dorms, continue their Milken education and learn Jewish history and heritage both in the classroom and on field trips to the places they learn about.
In 11th and 12th grade, the same group of students will continue to have special classes aimed at teaching them to be advocates for Israel, and they will become part of the Israeli Consulate's speaker's bureau.
The fact that the assembly honoring Wrubel ended up being so focused on Israel was appropriate, Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise, said, since one of Wrubel's strongest passions is for connecting the kids to Israel.
For information on the awards visit www.mff.org.
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