People insist that there's no such thing as a free lunch. But HaShalom, a small Sephardic Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area, is offering local public school children exactly that. When students in grades K-8 arrive at HaShalom at the end of their secular school day, they enjoy a hot meal, courtesy of Haifa Restaurant. And along with the food, they receive, absolutely free, classes in Hebrew and Jewish tradition.
The co-principals of this one-of-a-kind Hebrew school are Rabbi Hagay Batzri and his wife, Luna. Both grew up in Jerusalem, where Luna trained as a teacher. The goal of the Batzris is to provide Hebrew and religious instruction for Jewish youngsters whose parents cannot -- or choose not to -- send them to day schools. With the help of a congregant honoring his father's memory, they have so far established four twice-a-week classes catering to different age groups. The school has been in existence only since November, but it has already attracted 72 students. Another 30 are on a waiting list until additional class levels can be organized.
The students at HaShalom come from a variety of Jewish backgrounds, with many tracing their roots to Morocco, Iran, Russia, and even Mexico. Luna Batzri explains that "most of them are not religious." Nonetheless they are highly responsive to what they are learning: "They're sitting with their mouths open. This is their history, and they love to hear it. They want to know where they are coming from." As the children discover traditional Jewish practice, the Batzris avoid embarrassing those who are not observant at home. "Our way is the way of love," Luna Batzri said. But they firmly convey to their class of eighth-grade boys that bar mitzvah is a fitting time to choose a Jewish lifestyle.
HaShalom has received so many inquiries from Valley parents that the Batzris are now committed to founding a second branch of their school somewhere in the mid-Valley, beginning this fall. Another goal is a new bat mitzvah class in which 12-year-old girls can learn the traditions of Jewish womanhood. Rabbi Batzri would like to see HaShalom start a nationwide trend: "I hope this will motivate other congregations across the United States to make a revolution in Jewish education. [By establishing free Hebrew schools,] we can save a lot of public school children who are getting lost."
For more information, call HaShalom Congregation at (310) 652-9014.