On the first rainless Sunday morning in weeks, hundreds of Los Angeles teens have forfeited the chance to soak up the sun and opted to learn instead. In one classroom, a group analyzes the Jewish subplot in an episode of "Jack & Bobby," while down the hall others struggle over the meaning of a passage from Mishnah Baba Kama.
Nearly 500 eighth- through 12th-graders spend three hours every Sunday morning at Pierce College in Woodland Hills learning Hebrew, Torah, ethics and other Jewish topics through Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), a part-time religious school that offers curriculum to students who attend a public or a non-Jewish private school during the week. The majority of students attend an additional four hours of weeknight classes at one of eight community locations spanning from the South Bay to Santa Clarita.
Principal Bill Cohen is delighted that they've made that choice.
"There is more quality [Jewish] high school education than ever in the history of Los Angeles," he said, noting that non-Orthodox children now have multiple options for comprehensive post-bar mitzvah education, including Milken Community High School and the New Community Jewish High School. Although such options might seem to pose competition for the Conservative-affiliated LAHHS, the school's enrollment level has reached its highest point in 20 years. Ten years ago, 210 students chose to enroll, while today that number has jumped to 475.
Several factors account for the increase, but perhaps most notable is an influx of Jewish day school graduates. Despite a recent increase in Jewish high school enrollment, some graduates of private Jewish elementary and middle schools choose not to continue with Jewish high school. They cite such reasons as financial burden, a wish to gain broader horizons and a perception that going to a Jewish school might hurt college admissions odds.
Still, many wish to continue their Jewish education, and have turned to LAHHS to fulfill that role. Jewish day school graduates now account for 35 percent of the student body, up from about 10 percent just five years ago, according to Cohen.
To accommodate this new population, LAHHS made changes in its curriculum.
"A day school kid often comes in at a higher level, so we now offer more advanced courses, like more Talmud, Mishnah and Midrash," said Ardyth Sokoler, Judaic studies coordinator.
In addition, the school's five-level Hebrew program was expanded to nine levels.
LAHHS student Robin Broder attended elementary school at Valley Beth Shalom Day School, which concludes after sixth grade. Upon graduating, she switched to a public middle school for "a broader experience and larger classes." Now a senior at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Broder has been at LAHHS since eighth grade.
Although she knew she wanted a public school experience, "I decided I wanted to be as involved as my private day school friends in Judaic and Hebrew learning," she said.
Even with her background, Broder found the classes challenging and stimulating. She started at the fourth level of Hebrew and took part in a Judaic class designed for day school students that presented "new topics and more getting into the text."
Cohen noted that day schools have become increasingly receptive to Hebrew High as an option for graduates. Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills, said that among the school's graduates who go to public school, almost half opt for LAHHS.
"It's a great way to keep connected. The classes are challenging. They can keep up their Hebrew studies and take Hebrew for credit," she said.
Currently, eight school districts accept language credit from LAHHS, including Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Las Virgenes.
But students cite benefits beyond credits.
"We come to see friends we don't see and get a Jewish background we don't get in school," student Shelly Lurie said.
Cohen and the Hebrew High faculty understand that their students face many competing demands, and try to respond accordingly. "Teens are so overwhelmed right now ... The fact that we have kids coming seven hours a week is really a near miracle, in my opinion" he said.
The school adopted an "active learning" approach that emphasizes student participation and discourages pure lecturing. The faculty strive to make lessons contemporary and relevant.
"Most Jewish kids were taught in Sunday school that God is an old man on a throne with a long white beard.... They grow up with a silly picture of God that they can't relate to," said Mike Waterman, who teaches contemporary Jewish values. He has his students analyze differing views of God held by various rabbis in order to give the students "the ability to ask questions and come up with their own ideas."
Even a relatively dry portion of the Torah can be made palatable to today's teens. As one 10th-grader reported: "Last time we spent the whole class learning who we were not allowed to have sex with. That was a really fun class."
For more information on L.A. Hebrew High School, call (818) 901-8893 or visit www.lahhs.org.