February 28, 2008
L.A.‘s Jewish high schools are all over the map
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Powell says these student initiatives, as well as classroom learning and interpersonal relationships, all occur in a context of Jewish values.
"We engage students in the conversation that says, 'Here you have this powerful general education; use it carefully. Use it looking through a Jewish-values lens, whether it is a discussion of abortion or end-of-life issues or creating weaponry or cloning," Powell said.
The ability to engage in analytic thinking and to take ownership of ideas is a hallmark of quality Jewish schools of any denomination and one of the reasons more parents are turning to these schools to help raise their children, Powell said.
Powell was also founding principal of Milken and the first general studies principal of YULA, and he has served as a consultant for emerging high schools around the country.
Last fall, when a group of parents started to seriously discuss establishing a pluralistic high school on the Westside, they turned to Powell and New Jew's lay leaders for informal advice.
Attorneys Jeffrey Abrams and his wife, Michele Breslauer, hosted a meeting at their home in December for more than 50 parents, educators and community leaders.
"We have a true, heartfelt belief in a Klal Yisrael model that has a depth of Jewish learning so that a kid who has never gone to day school can actually study the Talmud and so an Orthodox kids who is versed in Talmud can express Judaism in a true and respectful way through a tikkun olam," Abrams said.
Abrams and Breslauer already have half the 12 families they are looking for to commit to the formidable work needed to establish a school -- from donating the seed money to doing the extensive legwork. Their family foundation, the Samuel and Helene Soreff Foundation, will put up the first seven-figure gift.
They plan to determine by the end of the summer if the resources and demand warrant going forward. Abrams assumes a two-year start-up window, with the school potentially opening in a rented facility by 2010 or 2011.
But all schools will have to work harder to maintain their numbers in a few years. A nationwide demographic drop in the number of school-age children is approaching high school age, according to Graff. Currently in Los Angeles, there are about 5,000 Jewish kids in any specific grade level of high school. Within a few years, that number will dip to 4,000.
Another concern is the pool of Jewish educators, and especially administrators, whose numbers haven't yet caught up with a national explosion in Jewish high schools. While a growing number of 20-somethings are studying Jewish education -- aided by new programs -- there is a dearth of experienced principals.
"Around the country, leadership is the No. 1 issue," said Milken incoming head of school, Jason Ablin, who for eight years was Milken's director of general and integrated studies. "Last year, I got 12 phone calls about jobs back East, and one in L.A. There was a kind of desperation."
The academic and co-curricular excellence achieved by schools like Milken and New Jew has raised standards in centrist Orthodox schools. Although they target different communities, there is increasing overlap, and the community schools have demonstrated what Jewish schools can achieve.
But constraints are stronger in Orthodox schools, which have longer days and divide their schedule equally between a college-prep secular curriculum and Judaic studies. The schools expect adherence to dress and behavior codes set by standards of Jewish law.
Schools are often defined by the subtleties of what is included in the curriculum and the delineation of behavioral codes.
Shalhevet, on Fairfax Avenue, holds a proactively Modern Orthodox position in its faculty and administration, with girls and boys sharing the same curriculum and a strong commitment to both Israel and America. All manner of questioning and creativity is encouraged, and the arts and student-led groups feature prominently in the school's profile.
The school is confident that vision will be carried forth by its new head of school, Rabbi Elchanon Weinbach, who previously was Judaic studies director at a boys yeshiva in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Weinbach succeeds visionary founder and head of school, Jerry Friedman, who is retiring this year.
Friedman, a businessman who later in life went to Harvard to study education, founded Shalhevet in 1992 based on a philosophy of encouraging kids' moral development by allowing them to democratically determine their own program.
The school grew rapidly -- from 24 students in rented rooms at the Westside Jewish Community Center in 1992 to 140 students by the time the school purchased a building near Carthay Circle in 1999. That same year it opened a middle school and in 2006 added an elementary school.
Today, Shalhevet's board is trying to catch up with the school's rapid expansion, solidifying both the infrastructure and fundraising, according to executive board member Steven Tabak.
Tabak hopes Weinbach, who will also serve as Judaic studies principal, will help the school shore up its Judaic studies curriculum.
While Shalhevet was initially seen as a challenge to the more established YULA, both schools agree the competition forced them to strengthen their curricula and allowed them to define themselves more clearly -- Shalhevet as progressive, YULA as hewing more closely to traditional educational conventions.
YULA, in Pico-Robertson, is in the process of hiring a new principal for its girls school, and, this year, students and parents of the boys school say they are pleased with new head of school, Rabbi Heshy Glass, who was principal of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in New York. There are currently 190 boys and 175 girls enrolled at YULA, which was founded in 1977 as part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. YULA succeeded the disintegrating Rambam High School, which was founded in 1954 as the first Jewish high school in Los Angeles.