For the past couple of years, Rabbi Shimon Kashani has been concerned about Jewish education. While he saw several day schools in Los Angeles, he was worried that some students whose families couldn't afford the fees were opting for public schools, and therefore had limited options for Jewish education.
"I found that, for many reasons, it was difficult for some people to get a Jewish education, and my work here is to make it easier for people to get a Jewish education," said Kashani, who is the director of the Southern California Jewish Center.
So Kashani started Moses Hebrew Academy (MHA). Scheduled to open in the fall for kindergarteners through fourth-graders, MHA offers a lower-than-average tuition and generous scholarships, a new, multimillion-dollar campus, secular educational standards that Kashani said exceed Californian standards, extracurricular activities like scouting and ballet and, of course, a traditional Jewish education.
MHA hopes to appeal to families who have enrolled their children in public schools, families who can't afford tuition at other schools and families living in the Westwood/Santa Monica area who don't want to make the trip down to Hancock Park or Pico-Robertson in order to give their children a Jewish education.
Laurie Zimmet, MHA's principal, said the school is not Orthodox, but strongly traditional. According to Zimmet, the school will serve kosher food, pray from a traditional siddur and teach traditional texts like Torah, Prophets and Talmud. In other words, it will have all the trappings of an Orthodox school without the moniker, in an effort to appeal both to Orthodox parents and to parents with little Jewish background who would feel alienated by orthodoxy.
"We don't like labels," Zimmet said. "A Jew is a Jew. We are upfront with public school parents that the school has traditional Jewish values, and for students who aren't at the level yet [to learn those things] we will bring them to the higher level with individual attention."
Zimmet said that, so far, parents inquiring about the school have been attracted by the "pioneer's scholarship" a 50 percent discount on the $7,500 tuition, with further scholarships after that if needed.
"A lot of parents out there who are making six-figure incomes -- very successful adults -- and they are made to feel like they are poor schlubs because of the tuition these days," she said. "When you have two, or three or four children and you are paying $15,000 per kid, before the other fees -- like raffle tickets, or scrip -- just to pay for tuition you would need to make $100,000, and so you have people that are making well over $200,000 asking for scholarships."
According to Gil Graff, the director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), the average elementary school tuition is between $10,000 and $12,000, and 40 percent of students in schools are on need-based scholarships.
"It is unusual that a school would simply say off the bat, 'Anyone who applies to this school is excused from paying half the money,'" Graff said. "That said, there are many schools, who, on a needs determination basis, do give half tuition. I would also say nationally and locally it is not uncommon that a start-up school that has no track record and no accreditation [has a] pioneer discounts incentive program to try and develop an enrollment."
Zimmet said that the school could afford to give these tuition breaks because it already owns its $3 million Westwood campus, and will rely on Kashani's fund-raising abilities to make up the rest of the shortfall.
Kashani told The Journal that he plans on raising funds from "the wider community" and would make up the shortfall from his own pocket if need be.
However, the BJE told The Journal that most of the schools in Los Angeles are running at a loss and rely on the community to make up the gap between tuition and running costs.
"We have day schools that in the aggregate are spending $116 million to educate 9,600 students, and they are getting in tuition $87 million, which leaves a gap of approximately $29 million," Graff said. "There are people in Los Angeles who do respond to schools in terms of making funds available so that the school can accept children who are not in a position to pay the full tuition."
MHA is currently engaging in an aggressive marketing campaign to get the word out about the school. In addition to advertising in Jewish newspapers and parenting magazines, it is also distributing flyers in Jewish neighborhoods and sending out flyers with non-Jewish preschool newsletters, and outside of public preschools.
Dr. Phil Liff-Grieff, the associate director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, said there was a "significant need" in the community for a school with low-cost tuition.
"Generally we [are] seeing that the price of day schools is a serious impediment to many families and there is indeed a population that is not in public school by choice," he said. "Even in the Orthodox community, we do find families with kids in public schools, and it is those families that would be most responsive to [MHA's] marketing approach. There are families that tell me that even with the scholarship aid available to them [at other schools] tuition is too much."
MHA is preparing for 50 students in its inaugural year, and it expects that its classrooms will be coed until fourth grade.
"We are nervous about [being a pioneering school]" Zimmet said. "But we are way past the point of 'feeling our way along.' We own the property already, we have both our Judaic and English curriculums written already and we have a mission statement [of academic excellence] that we are going to stick to."
For more information about Moses Hebrew Academy call (310) 234-8300, or visit to www.mosesacademy.com .