February 28, 2008
L.A.‘s Jewish high schools are all over the map
"Each school has many positives, but we're looking for the right fit for Yael," said her mother, Dina Glouberman. "Some are more religious, some are more academically strong, some are more philosophically and religiously where we are."
Adding more complexity to the decision, all of the Jewish schools Yael has applied to are undergoing changes of leadership next year. Milken, Shalhevet and YULA Girls expect to be under new heads of school, and a new head started at YULA Boys High School this year, as well. By the time Yael's three younger siblings enter high school, Los Angeles' Jewish upper schools may well have morphed yet again. Over the past five years, three new schools have been founded, and one is in the planning stages, as parent activists try to marshal resources to found a nondenominational Jewish community high school on the Westside.
In the early 1980s, when Dina and her husband Michael were applying to Los Angeles Jewish high schools, there was only one choice -- YULA (then known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles).
The Los Angeles Jewish community has expanded and matured since then, and its high school scene now offers nuanced choices with differences in overall philosophy, academic approach, religious level and social atmosphere.
Because of that range, a steadily growing number of families with teens are opting for Jewish immersion.
In 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken. Today, more than 2,600 teens attend 14 Jewish high schools in the Los Angeles area, with 1,000 students in two community schools. In addition to those in the Los Angeles area, a Chabad yeshiva in Long Beach has 55 students, and the trans-denominational Tarbut V'Torah in Irvine has 155 students. More teens in Los Angeles are now enrolled in full-time Jewish education than in supplementary Jewish education.
"It is my sense that there are more Jews who are choosing private education, and if there are Jewish schools which are offering an excellent education along with a solid commitment to values and a Jewish connection, then these are very serious options to be considered," said Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles.
Across the country, the number of community high schools -- nondenominational schools serving the entire spectrum of Jewish affiliation -- has exploded.
In 1980 there were 10 community high schools in North America; today, there are nearly 40. According to recent studies, an estimated one-third of teens enrolled in a non-Orthodox high school did not attend a Jewish day elementary or middle school.
As competition has increased among all private secondary schools, the educational bar has been raised, and schools have been able to define their philosophies and educational approaches in more specific ways. At the same time, schools are seeing more crossover, with Orthodox students applying in increasing numbers to community schools, and Conservative students finding themselves in Orthodox schools.
Los Angeles has become a national leader in creating schools of excellence: Milken Community High School, with 600 students in ninth through 12th grade (the school also has a middle school), is the largest interdenominational Jewish high school in the country; New Community Jewish High School (New Jew) has in its five years of existence become the third largest, with close to 400 students. The robustness of Los Angeles' high school spectrum means that students who emerge from this total immersion in Jewish life will send ripples throughout the community.
"The reason why these schools are so important is that they are educating, in the most intensive way, the next generation of people who are going to populate the active and involved Jewish community -- not all of them as leaders, but as the people who are knowledgeable about what Judaism brings to one's life," said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a national advocacy and resource group. "The impact the graduates of these schools can have on a community is very powerful."
Seventeen years worth of Milken alumni are already populating Jewish organizations around the country and providing leadership to the Los Angeles Jewish community, said Jason Ablin, who will take over in July when Rennie Wrubel retires after 10 years as Milken's head of school.
During Wrubel's tenure, Milken turned on its head the model of a struggling Jewish school.
Milken was founded in 1990 when Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple, of which the school is a part, offered to pick up the pieces of a community high school that had been foundering since the 1980s. A gift from Michael Milken paid for the $30 million Mulholland Drive campus that opened in 1998, boasting of high technology (photo), science labs, theater and sports facilities and a recording studio. The luxurious setting, along with sophisticated marketing and alumni who became articulate and accomplished spokespeople, put Milken -- and Jewish education -- on the map for many people who might not have otherwise considered it.
Ablin plans to continue building both academic excellence and the culture of Jewish values, and to broaden the range of the school.
"Part of my goal is to expand the notion of pluralism on both ends of the spectru," Ablin said. I want to make sure this place is accessible to families who sent their kids to public or secular private [lower] school and all of a sudden are interested in a Jewish education. And on the other hand, I want to make sure our community is represented by a traditional voice that can help us expand the definition of what it means to practice Judaism."
New Jew has attracted students from Orthodox to Reform to those who don't identify with any denomination, partially because of its location in the West Valley, where it is one of the only Jewish high schools, and partly because it has tailored its program to the needs of the students. With an intimate atmosphere that empowers students to achieve, both academically and in their particular areas of interest, the school has grown from 40 ninth-graders in its first year to 400 today. Students at the school have founded more than 35 clubs, ranging from a weekly philosophy club to a new group aimed at creating a relationship with the Latino community.