Jewish Journal

New faces in town as two Orthodox schools debut

by Daniella Wexler

Posted on Aug. 16, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Two new Orthodox day schools -- a preschool and a high school -- are scheduled to debut this year in Los Angeles, enhancing the Jewish educational landscape with nuanced curricula and sophisticated schooling methodologies.

Ohr Letzion will begin as a preschool dedicated to individualized study and proficiency in Hebrew language. Classrooms will be led by one teacher for about every five students, providing an intimate atmosphere where school leaders hope to meet each student's particular needs.

Bnos Devorah high school, which opened with just nine freshmen girls, will offer a college preparatory curriculum combined with challenging Judaic courses in a religiously devout atmosphere.

The two new schools are supplementing an already rich environment of Orthodox educational options in Los Angeles. Last year, more than 5,600 students were enrolled in kindergarten through high school in 21 Orthodox day schools affiliated with the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE). Those numbers have nearly doubled over the past 20 years; 11 BJE-affiliated Orthodox day schools had almost 2,700 students for the academic year of 1986-1987.

The increase can be attributed both to demographic and sociological factors, according to Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE. There has been a significant jump in the number of students as the children and grandchildren of baby boomers reach school age, Graff said. Jews immigrating to Los Angeles, particularly of Iranian descent, have also increased the number of both students and schools.

Graff also believes that more families are opting for a day school education.

"Jewish day school participation has become ubiquitous among self-identified Orthodox Jews," he said.

It is also becoming more specialized.

Forty preschoolers are signed up for Ohr Letzion, with families attracted to a commitment to teaching classes in Hebrew and incorporating individualized, attentive study. The school is based on the vision of its founder, Rabbi David Toledano, spiritual leader of Ohr Letzion synagogue in Beverly Hills, who will serve as the rosh yeshiva (Judaic headmaster).

A full year of hard work stands behind this project, including renovation of space rented from Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard.

The secular studies program will be headed by early childhood director Leat Silvera, and will incorporate home-schooling techniques fostering individualized study to "fit a curriculum to a child, not a child to a curriculum," Silvera explained.

Silvera envisioned a typical classroom with children independently engaged in interactive activities stationed around the classroom, led by a couple of instructors, while the teacher meets with students one-on-one to focus on more challenging content.

Both Toledano and Silvera assert that dual-curriculum day schools striving to cover ambitious secular and Judaic curricula are in a constant battle with time, and that Ohr Letzion's efficient approach can help alleviate this dilemma.

Teachers will cater their instruction directly to the each student's individual needs, eliminating the time that is wasted teaching the same material to students who comprehend at different levels. Additionally, students' background in Hebrew (fluency is expected by first grade) will allow them to plunge deeper into and cover more Judaic texts, rather than racking their brains to define the words.

"If you speak, read and play with [Hebrew], it will be yours," Silvera explained.

Starting in preschool, "circle time" and recess/playing time will ideally be conducted in Hebrew, and when the school expands beyond preschool, all Judaic classes will be taught in Hebrew. One-on-one learning will be implemented for reading, writing and math, as well as a mentorship program for social studies and science.

For Judaic studies, the school will employ the "Zilberman Method," which advocates learning Torah in the order that it was written. Students will learn the Torah, then the Mishnah, then the Gemara, then later rabbinic texts, each one building on the former.

Extra-curricular activities will include music, gymnastics, and sand artists. Beginning in late fall, a Hebrew ulpan for parents will be available, one instrument in an effort to "link together the home, school, child and community," Silvera said.

Though it will initially consist of a preschool for 2- to 4-year-olds, the school plans to add another grade each year through the final year of high school.

The tuition for Ohr Letzion ranges from $3,600 for part-time students to $10,000 for full-time students. The school is offering substantial financial aid.

Financial support for the project comes from philanthropists in the community, including the school's president, Ezra Anzaruth, and vice president, Jack Abramoff (CEO of House of Taylor Jewelry). Guiding the administration in launching the school is Temple Isaiah preschool director Tamar Andrews, who will serve as Ohr Letzion's preschool consultant.

Adding more variety to high school selection for Orthodox girls, Bnos Devorah High School will open on Sept. 4. The school will rent space from Etz Jacob Congregation on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue.

A group of parents from the community hungered for a school that would be run with a religiously dedicated Torah outlook, but would also succeed in training girls to pursue higher education by affording them serious instruction in secular studies, said the school's founder and head of school Shulamith May, who had taught at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills since 1978.

"There was a niche that needed to be filled in L.A..... I was asked to fill that niche and I felt that I could contribute and help build L.A.," May said. "It's a symptom of growth ... there are more multifaceted people all looking for something new."

Although many perceive the new high school as falling somewhere between the Modern Orthodox YULA High School and the more religiously conservative Bais Yaakov, May asserts that the school will embody "the best of Bais Yaakov and the best of YULA."

According to May, Torah hashkafa, or outlook, will run the school, but the school will also provide a strong secular education for the girls, which will enable them to "make educated and intelligent decisions about their future."

Girls at Bnos Devorah will be encouraged to attend religious seminaries in Israel after they graduate, but they can also feel comfortable advancing to secular forms of higher education.As of now, nine freshmen are enrolled, and the school will accommodate a 10th grade if the need arises. While the majority of the girls are graduates of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, the girls are also coming from Or Eliyahu, Toras Emes and Netan Eli.

The school initially began as a project of Touro College of Los Angeles, and was going to operate on Touro's Campus in West Hollywood, but Bnos Devorah has since become an independent endeavor.

The Etz Jacob building contains a sizeable social hall with a stage and a small women-only gym in its basement, Vista Fitness, that will provide the girls with equipment for physical fitness once or twice a week. A rabbinical advisory board will assist with halachic/hashkafic decisions.

May, a widely respected educator, is nostalgic about her 30 years at Hillel, a Modern Orthodox day school, but she is excited about advancing to high school.

"There is a certain relationship you develop with a high school girl that lasts into their adulthood," she said. "In elementary school you plant seeds and hope you make an impression; in high school you make an impression."

Although the schools differ in many respects, both the administrations of Ohr Letzion and Bnos Devorah share a common goal of positive Jewish education, and are enthusiastic to witness the fruits of their labor. And when asked if he has encountered any opposition to Ohr Letzion's pioneering approach, Toledano teasingly replies, "We're still looking for some."

For information on Ohr Letzion, contact Maya Busani, Business Manager, at (310) 556-3311.

For information on Bnos Devorah, contact Shulamith May at shulamithymay@yahoo.com.

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