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Jewish Journal

Heschel’s ‘Visionary’ Principal Retiring

by Jane Ulman

May 22, 2003 | 8:00 pm

"You always have to wait for Shirley," the receptionist at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School announces to the people congregated in the office.

Inside, Shirley Levine, the school's founder and head, confers with her assistant. She meets briefly with three teachers who have interrupted with an urgent student matter and apologetically fields several phone calls.

Between appointments, Levine attempts to straighten the stacks of papers covering her desk and glances at the nearby security monitor that continually scans the school parking lot and entrance. Behind her the shelves overflow with books, student art, gifts from appreciative parents and awards.

Clearly, nothing indicates Levine is retiring at the end of July.

But on Sunday evening, May 18, more than 400 people gathered at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to honor her 32 years of service to Heschel. The tributes flowed copiously and wholeheartedly, hailing her as fabulous, inspirational, dedicated and visionary.

But, as Levine herself teaches the students, actions speak louder than words.

Thus, a bigger tribute to Levine's success is the fact that Heschel alumni are now enrolling their own children in the school.

A bigger tribute is the fact that many Heschel teachers and staff remain at the school for 10, 20 and even -- in the case of kindergarten teacher Lee Shaw and Admissions Director Doritt Diamond -- 31 years. And that former Heschel students Larry Kligman and Mayan Benami teach there.

And a bigger tribute is the fact that the synagogues that rented classroom space to Heschel during its early peripatetic years -- Stephen S. Wise, Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Hillel -- now host day schools of their own, validating Levine's belief in the importance of a combined Jewish and general studies education.

Heschel began when a group of parents in the San Fernando Valley, under the leadership of Mark and Ellie Lainer, sought to establish a community Jewish day school, a novel idea in Los Angeles, but not in Mexico City where Mark Lainer had grown up. The group tapped Levine, then a full-time consultant with the Los Angeles schools, for advice. "It soon became clear that Shirley was the person to head up the school," Mark Lainer said.

Heschel opened a year later, in fall 1972, with three kindergartens on three synagogue campuses, with about 50 children combined. It added a grade each year, with Levine writing, implementing and constantly perfecting the curriculum.

Today, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, with nearly 500 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, sits on a three-and-a-half-acre site in Northridge. And Levine is still diligently working to improve the school.

"The times have changed dramatically since 1972," said Doug Williams, board of directors president for the past five years and a Heschel parent, "but Shirley has maintained the integrity of her original program."

And that program aims to give children an exemplary and integrated general studies and Judaic education, with an emphasis on accommodating the individual learner. "Shirley's mark on education is understanding that one size does not fit all," said Rabbi Jan Goldstein, who served as Heschel's rabbi-in-residence for 20 years.

Levine also believes that teaching should be developmentally appropriate as well as experiential, personally involving the child in thinking, problem solving and creative activities.

"The thing I'm most proud of is how we treat kids. We respect them and we teach them to respect themselves," she said.

There are parents who disagree with Levine. Many would like to see school uniforms. Others object to calling teachers by their first names. But all agree that she always has the children's best interests -- educationally, developmentally and Judaically -- at heart.

In their best interests, she believes, is the need to transmit Judaism as a vibrant way of life -- and a responsible one, requiring students to perform tikkun olam, to make a difference in the world.

She also sees a need for students to meet and reach out to other cultures.

"Once you learn who you are, you can accept the beauty of other cultures," she said.

She is especially proud of the third-grade exchange program with the Navajo Indians in Arizona that began in 1980 and incorporates pairing up Navajo and Jewish pen pals who learn about the other's way of life and visit each other's school.

But not in the students' best interests are the changes she has witnessed over the years. She worries about the media's negative impact on children and the rise in learning difficulties. She believes parents are busier now, spending less time with their children, relegating certain parenting tasks to teachers and struggling with increased tuition costs.

Levine herself grew up in a labor Zionist family with immigrant parents. As a young girl in Cleveland and then Los Angeles, she attended cheder, where she learned to read and write Yiddish so she could communicate with her grandparents living in Poland.

She credits her parents with giving her a deep respect for the dignity of every human being and a love of learning. Her father often reminded her, "You can lose wealth, you can lose everything, but you can't lose your education."

And Levine has dedicated her life to transmitting that respect and love of learning to hundreds of Heschel Day School students.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, "What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people."

Luisa Latham, who served as Heschel's director of Judaic studies for 25 years, elaborated.

"Shirley Levine is the quintessential text person," she said. "You can really read out of her actions, out of the passion she has, what it means to be an educator."

And what will this "quintessential text person" do upon retirement?

"I haven't made any commitments yet," Levine said. "But whatever it is, I will be available to Heschel always and forever."

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