December 7, 2006
The school with no name
It's been there for six years, teaching Talmud, geometry, social studies and pretty much everything you'd expect to see in an Orthodox Jewish high school, including P.E.
In the business of advertising and marketing, they love the word "branding" -- the idea of creating a powerful brand name that will be on everyone's lips. In the world of Orthodox Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, there are some prominent brand names on everyone's lips, like, for example, YULA and Shalhevet.
Natan Eli is not one of them.
If YULA is the equivalent of Cedars-Sinai, then Natan Eli is the L.A. Free Clinic.
When I asked the principal of the school what distinguished Natan Eli from other Orthodox high schools, he repeated several times that they never turn anybody down.
Can you imagine making that your marketing strategy? We take everyone? Even if you don't have a penny! Even if you just spent two years in a place for juvenile delinquents! All we ask is that you be Jewish and that you want a Jewish education.
This may not be brilliant marketing, but it's the brand of Natan Eli, where I am now sitting in the principal's office, and where I meet a boy named Chaim.
This is Chaim's first year at Natan Eli. (The boys' names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Last year, he was at a boot camp near Palm Springs. He's never met his father, who stayed behind in Teheran when his mother came to Los Angeles with his brother and two sisters more than a decade ago. While he was there, his mother had some personal health issues and returned to Teheran. Chaim heard about this from a relative. When I ask Chaim if he misses his parents, he says, "When I think about them."
When I ask him when that is, he says, "At night, before I sleep."
Chaim sleeps at the house of his guardian, a man called Eli who Chaim thinks is a "rabbi and taxi driver." They go to synagogue together on Shabbat. Chaim, who doesn't talk much, says that he likes to pray because it means that "God is watching after me."
Right now, Chaim's mind is on their basketball game Monday night.
I also get to meet David, a short kid with dark, olive skin who also drops by the principal's office.
Unlike Chaim, David, whose family moved to Los Angeles this year from New York, is a walking bundle of adrenalin. His words run into each other as he tries to tell me how much he loves the school. I'm able to note two things: One, he loves being able to walk right into the principal's office anytime he's in a bind ("I could never do that in my old school"), and two, he loves the afternoon field trips, when the school occasionally takes all 30 boys (it's a small school) on outings like barbecues or bowling.
While I was schmoozing with David, and the principal's assistant was running to 7-11 to get creamer for my coffee, Jack walked in.
Jack is a 6-foot-3 version of James Dean. If the school was coed, Jack would probably be quite busy with activities not much related to algebra or Gemara.
As it is, Jack, who was in one of the better-known Jewish high schools last year (and not doing very well; he says he's doing better this year), is also preoccupied with their basketball game on Monday night. When I ask him if his team is as good as YULA's (which I hear has a really good team), he says, with a look of disappointment, that they don't play in their league, but that he would love to play them in an exhibition.
Everyone in the room, including the principal, agrees that that would be a great idea; maybe even having a round-robin tournament with Shalhevet.
In the hallway of this small, plain-looking building, I run into Ben, whose parents I've known for many years. I can't hide my surprise at seeing him, because I'm guilty of stereotyping, and sweet, quiet Ben never struck me as the kind of boy I'd see in a "tough guy" school. I know Ben well enough to explain my surprise, and he knows me well enough to gently explain some things to me.
What I get from Ben is not quite the hopeful spin of the grown-ups at the school -- "just as good as any other school, but with more personal attention because of our smaller classes" -- but it's also not what I expected.
Ben explains that he got into one of the "better schools," but that he prefers the camaraderie at Natan Eli. He tells me that the school (he's been there for a couple of years) is not just for tough kids or troubled teens, and that it's really "cleaned up" this year. He says the motivational speakers and psychologists that come regularly have helped. The learning can be intense, but the school doesn't overwork them, so he has more time for outside interests, like art.
He also loves that they let the boys go out for lunch.
The principal calls this a privilege, not a right. The school's approach, when it comes to influencing behavior, is not to punish, but to withhold privileges. Get out of line, and you get to spend your lunch time in a drab waiting room with empty vending machines, instead of hanging with the buddies at Jeff's Gourmet.
While the subject of lunch is being discussed, David, the New York boy, jumps from his chair and starts talking about the toaster. The toaster? He explains that in his old school, they also served free bagels in the morning, but that here, at Natan Eli, you can toast the bagels. This one fact -- the toaster -- seems to light up the room. Even the principal, Rabbi Rafi, is almost giddy when he tells me how popular the toaster has been with the boys this year.
The rabbi knows that it'll take more than a toaster for Natan Eli to make a name for itself, but he also knows that he's got a whole bunch of other names that come first, like Ben, Jack, David and Chaim.