Jill Sherman's high school years are anything but carefree. Last year an older classmate, who talked openly about his anti-Semitic attitudes, tried to ignite her clothes with a self-described "Jew burner." Physically, Sherman was unhurt by the attack with a cigarette lighter.
But the lingering trauma from last year's incident was evident in Sherman's response before leaving for Anaheim's Esperanza High School on Sept. 11. The cautious 17-year-old confided she intended to defy a school ban on cell phones that day by tucking one in a book bag. Better to risk school discipline than risk lacking a lifeline for help if there are reprisals against Jews, the 11th-grader told her mother. "Somehow, it's going to be Israel's fault," the teen predicted.
Even before the terrorists struck U.S. soil, teens in Orange County, like their peers elsewhere in the country, already attended campuses sobered by harsh realities. A rash of school shootings in recent years means students here regularly practice a lockdown drill for a new school emergency: someone on campus armed with a gun.
Like parents elsewhere, the county's Jewish parents struggle to inject a spiritual dimension into their children's complex lives, a whirl of sports, arts, social engagements and ever escalating academic demands.
"Today, parents and children have too many choices," said Margalit Moskowitz, education director for about 50 children who attend Temple Beth Emet, a Conservative congregation in Anaheim. "We're fighting for the child's time. If they have to make a choice, religious school is not the first choice.
"The world has changed; the secular world is very important to be successful," explained Moskowitz, who three decades ago supervised 300 youth in after-school Hebrew classes. Today, Beth Emet's congregation is aging as the county's population surges south, drawn to new towns carved atop the coastal foothills.
The county's 800-square-mile sprawl splinters the estimated 100,000 Jews who live here between 33 cities and 27 synagogues. With the Jewish community yet to reach a critical mass in most neighborhoods, parents' resolve to connect their children with their faith is easily undermined.
"It's very easy in a place like Orange County to completely assimilate," said Jay Lewis, assistant director of Costa Mesa's Bureau of Jewish Education, which provides countywide religious instruction for 175 ninth-graders and organizes retreats, leadership groups and social activities for teens. "Kids are thirsting for a connection," Lewis said, "but it doesn't exist anywhere here, not just for Jews."
Some working parents find the logistics of religious activities so much of a challenge they have forsaken it altogether. "It doesn't make me feel less guilty," said Ellen Pickler Harris, a Laguna Beach stockbroker.
She and her husband, Ron, have two sons, Graham, 10, and Ryland, 14, who both are involved in time-consuming, extracurricular activities. As it is, the family frequently relies on friends for assistance with their sons' transportation needs, but have yet to make similar arrangements for synagogue attendance. "I don't want my kids to go into a temple and have it be a foreign place," Harris said. "As a working parent, it's hard to work it in."
Given the distances within the county, integrating Jewish activities into the lives of over-scheduled children often is subordinated, particularly among the county's many interfaith families, like the Harrises, where parents are unequally committed to raising Jewish children.
Some interfaith couples rely on visits with family and friends, where Jewish holidays are celebrated, to strengthen their children's bonds to Judaism. "To make that social connection helps," said Kathy Selevan, who attended Catholic mass regularly, growing up in Boston. She and her husband, James, eventually joined a Reform congregation, Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, as the oldest of their three boys neared bar-mitzvah age.
"I felt the kids needed some spirituality in their life," said Selevan, adding that her husband would have opposed church attendance. Even so, she regrets the family regularly skips lighting Friday night candles together. "There's usually a baseball game."
Unlike Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles -- where public schools close for major Jewish holidays, businesses close regularly in observance of Shabbat and residents walk to neighborhood shuls -- signs of Jewish life in Orange County are harder to detect outside temple walls. As far as eating kosher in Orange County, O.C. Kosher Market in Tustin and PJ Bernstein's in Laguna Niguel are two of the handful of eateries scattered throughout the county.
"The Jewish community is so spread out, you have to make a conscious effort to be connected," said Toby Spiegal, an Irvine claims examiner and divorced mother of a 7-year-old son. Two years ago, she organized a single-parents' group through the county's Jewish Community Center, where she serves as a director. The group's functions, such as Doheny Beach picnics or ice-skating, often also include a Jewish holiday celebration at a member's home. For many members who are unwilling to join a synagogue and are not observant in their own home, the singles group is their child's only exposure to Jewish practices. "If you're not affiliated, you're not taking part in anything," Spiegal said.
Where the county's Jewish life is flourishing is at three Jewish day schools attended by about 1,000 children. Building expansion is under way or recently completed at each. The largest is Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah. It anchors the western corner of a planned mega-campus for the county's Jewish agencies, which is to include relocating the current JCC from its present digs in an airport commercial district.
The state-of-the-art school has 511 students who receive daily lessons in Hebrew and Jewish studies alongside an academic curriculum based on state standards. Its cafeteria is kosher and mezuzot line each classroom doorway. But the private school also hosts dances and a cheerleading squad, and fields a basketball team.
While a "normal" school is what most parents seek, Tarbut's Jewishness is what appealed to the Greene sisters, Rachael, 17, and Lisa, 16. After visiting the school during visits to their grandmother, the Greenes enrolled their daughters earlier this month, after the family relocated from Topeka, Kan. "I don't think I'd established a strong sense of Judaism until we moved to Kansas," said the girls' mother, Jane Greene, who attended a Los Angeles public high school where 75 percent of the students were Jewish. In Kansas, Greene was dismayed when a request for matzah was met by a grocer's blank look, and when school tennis tournaments were held on Yom Kippur. "I took it all for granted," she said.
Day schools offer another protection from more subtle outside slights. "A lot of negatives are out the window here," said Cherille Berman, Tarbut's librarian and mother of Glenda, a 17-year-old Tarbut student.
Smallness means there is less competition among students for leadership roles, such as yearbook editor or playwright, and the small group of parents is easy to get to know, Berman said. "When my daughter has social arrangements, I don't have any worries."
The county's Jewish Diaspora is a mixed blessing, depending on one's viewpoint.
Jill Sherman's mother, Barbara, worries about her battle-scarred daughter dealing with teachers and students who question her absence during holidays.
Others see being a minority in Orange County as no different from the Jewish experience throughout much of the world. Lee Drucker, a musician and performer who lives in Laguna Beach with his wife, Deborah, said the couple rejected enrolling their children, Sadie, 9, and Justin, 11, in a Jewish day school. "To put them into such a protected bubble doesn't prepare them for reality," Drucker said.
Some parents take the view that their children's Jewish heritage is a liberating gift that will nurture character.
"What you can give your children is permission to be different," said Rita Conn, a semi-retired marriage and family therapist, who resides in Laguna Beach with her husband, Howard, and their two children, Elliot, 15, and Lisa, 12. The couple consciously create Jewish community within their art-filled home by inviting other Jewish families to share holiday and Shabbat dinners.
"Creative thought comes from being able to stand up for your own values," Conn added. "It's a virtue to be different from the mainstream." (See page 32 for Jewish resources in Orange County.)