In the Valley suburb of West Hills, a small bit of history is being made: It's home to the first and only all-Jewish lacrosse team at any school in the country. The sport's newest fans are the ninth-grade boys at the New Community Jewish High School (NCJH).
When history teacher Neil Kramer signed on as part of the new faculty, he doubted he'd have a chance to coach the sport at a small start-up school.
"But remarkably, out of the 20 boys we had, 16 of them signed up," he told The Journal.
Lacrosse is just one example of this kind of can-do enthusiasm at NCJH (or "New Jew," as it has been dubbed), which is headed by educator Bruce Powell and currently housed at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus.
One hears a lot about this adventurousness of spirit during a visit to the "New Jew" campus.
After years working at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, Milken Community High School and as a national consultant, Powell said of his student body, "These kids are unique. Many of them could have gotten into any private school they wanted to, but they chose to come do something completely new. This is a lively, gutsy class. The idea that they could be pioneers, this really appealed to them."
Powell said that a girl came to his office to request a photography elective. "I said, 'Fine, what are you going to do about it?' She handed me a sheet with a dozen names she had collected of other interested kids."
Now they have photographer Bill Aron as a faculty member for spring semester.
Students share the feeling.
Shira Shane said that the kids are great, and they're from "all different backgrounds," but what she liked most about her new school is the teachers, because the students are close with them and the teachers provide unique learning experiences.
"In honors' biology we went to the UCLA Medical Center. I had never really thought in-depth about science before. I didn't know I'd be any good at it. Now I love it," Shane said.
Powell said a supportive board was critical for attracting an exceptional faculty. Twenty-something wunderkind Lisa Ansell, a Harvard graduate who heads up the language department, is fluent in Hebrew, French, Spanish and three Arabic dialects, and is proficient in Farsi, Russian, Portuguese and Turkish.
Kramer holds a doctorate in history and has wide-ranging experience at exclusive private schools and Jewish communal institutions.
Rabbi David Vorspan, the Jewish studies director and "rabbi-in-residence," has an impressive track record as both a pulpit rabbi and an academic. The rest of the faculty is equally seasoned.
Like the students, the teachers seem jazzed about building a fresh school from scratch. During a recent class discussion, kids expressed impatience with homelessness, declaring that they didn't understand how anyone could be unable to get off the street. The next day, Vorspan brought in a homeless -- and Jewish -- mother and son he was acquainted with to speak to the kids about their struggles. The students were riveted. After that visit, the kids flooded the school with donated items they wanted to pass along to the family.
"One boy came up to me," Powell said, "and told me, 'I have $65 dollars that is just burning a hole in my pocket. I really want to give it to them.'"
This is a unique chance to have an effect on the students, Vorspan said. "We see each other every day. They come to my house for Shabbat dinner. I have the real opportunity to be a role model."
Sina Monjazeb, the school's athletic director, came from the public school system. "Until now, I have never been in a job where I feel guilty coming to work every day because it's such a pleasure, but that's how much I love it here," he said. "We don't stop teaching values when we get to the playing field."
Kramer praised his fellow faculty members as inspired by common values, vision and a high degree of "kid-centeredness," noting that "I've never seen anything like it before in the 26 years I've been doing this." Too often, he said, parents mistakenly look at the wrong things, like the flashiness of the campus, the number of AP courses, or how many "greeters in cashmere and pearls are posted at the door [during open house]. School is about the humans," he said. "Look at the faculty."
His advice to parents is to avoid the list of stock questions that he dismisses as "catalog information," and instead, to ask teachers the kind of things that will prompt a story.
Teacher morale is one measure of success. Powell will continue to augment his staff, and is adding a college adviser next year. Another test is retaining students and attracting new ones. Here, too, results are positive. With the first class of 40 heading into 10th grade, a new class of ninth-graders will double the population next September. Ultimately, Powell said, he'd like the school to top out at a maximum of 400 kids, 100 students per grade.
But growth, he insists, will not be at the expense of the school's soul.
"The beauty of starting a school is that you put together a good culture from the get-go, and then you don't become complacent," he said. Part of that culture is a strong values education, or what Powell likes to call "Advanced Placement kindness." Another part is not turning away families who can't afford the full tuition.
West Hills parent Bob Goldrich is a case in point. He and his wife originally dismissed private high school for their son, Michael, as out of their financial range.
"We were going to move to the El Camino Real school district," Goldrich said. "But they made it affordable for us to send our son here, and now I can't imagine him anywhere else."