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Training for a trade

by Evan Henerson

December 12, 2012 | 1:55 pm

Welding student Meir Bernath.  Photo courtesy of the Jewish Educational Trade School

Welding student Meir Bernath. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Educational Trade School

For the first time in his life, Reuven Zulauf is making lists — the type of lists that can never truly be completely checked off. 

“Every morning, I go outside and I play an inspirational song — we call it a nigun — a song that touches your soul, inspirational music,” said Zulauf, a sandy-haired 17-year-old from Brooklyn who would probably prefer to be anywhere but cooped up in a rabbi’s office talking about lists. 

“I play the same song every day. I go outside in the sun, and I say, ‘What are you going to accomplish today? What are you going to work on to be, like, a better person?’ ”

Zulauf began thinking about these things last year when he started at his new school, the Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS) in Granada Hills. 

For the last seven years, JETS has allowed students who might not prosper in a traditional yeshiva system to earn their high school diploma or pursue an equivalency certificate while training for a vocational trade, such as automotive or aircraft repair, plumbing, construction, electrical wiring or computer graphics. 

The curriculum at this “yeshiva trade school,” which boards 50 of its 90 male pupils, includes Judaic studies. JETS life also reserves plenty of time for extracurricular activities, such as martial arts, weight training, music and lifeguarding.

Many of the students at JETS — young men between the ages of 16 and 21 — are like Zulauf and have neither a high school degree nor the ability to study for hours on end at a traditional yeshiva. Until they find an educational setting that meets their needs, they bounce from school to school; often educators and family members can’t figure out what to do with them.  

Now the school has plans to expand. Founder and director Rabbi Mayer Schmukler expects JETS to break ground on a $15 million campus expansion midway through 2013. It will include the construction of dorms, a multipurpose room, 21 classrooms and a pool. In addition to having the space to accommodate 300 students, JETS will open what Schmukler says will be a first-of-its-kind kosher culinary school. Farther down the line, JETS hopes to open a nursing school and open up a division for girls. 

The completed campus will boost the current square footage from 15,000 to more than 92,000 and will develop a land parcel adjacent to what once was home to the North Valley Jewish Community Center, site of a deadly shooting in 1999. 

The irony is not lost on Schmukler. 

“We have taken that terrible act and made something so positive out of it,” the rabbi said. “The kids who have succeeded, the parents and uncles and aunts, tell us, ‘Wow! You should see my kid. You should see my nephew. He’s doing amazing!’ ”  

Count Zulauf among the ranks of JETS success stories. He has developed a passion for numbers and an interest in business and is set to enroll at Los Angeles ORT College. Having failed his GED exam twice, he’s about to try for a third time. 

“This time I’m really going to do it,” he said.

Of this, the JETS leaders are certain.

“We’re very proud of Reuven. He’s changed so much,” said Rabbi Naftali Smith, co-principal who directs the academic, vocational and extracurricular curricula at JETS. “We try to have a support system for each kid so that each kid paves a career path that works for them.”

“In today’s society, there’s a major demand for kids who are not going to go to yeshiva, for kids who are not going to be lawyers or doctors,” Schmukler added. “[These kids] are falling through the cracks. If you go to a high school, you don’t find anybody trying to sell a kid to go to trade school.”  

Several of the vocational classes are held off  campus in such places as the Van Nuys Airport and the North Valley Occupational Center-Aviation Center in Mission Hills. Businessmen and entrepreneurs frequently come to campus to lecture. 

Schmukler often cites the proverb, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” Even if the students are not destined to become surgeons or attorneys, the fact that they’re training for a trade arms them for life in the real world. 

In other words, JETS is teaching them to fish. 

“Let’s go back a couple of years even in Jewish history. There’s nothing wrong with being a tailor or a shoemaker,” Schmukler said. “The idea that everybody has to be a lawyer or an accountant has changed. We have so many kids who cannot do that. We have so many kids who are becoming tradesmen and are making a living. Even if the economy is bad, people still need a plumber. They still need an electrician.” 

Underlying the training is the notion of fostering success, which increases a student’s self-confidence and appreciation of his own worth. JETS doesn’t measure achievement in a student’s GPA; the teachers want the students to find their niche, recognize something they’re good at and do it well, according to Schmukler. 

“The most important thing is these kids learn to love themselves,” he said. “Once that happens, it’s like magic. The rest happens all by itself.”

Students have arrived at the school with little to no direction and gone on to become contractors, insurance agents, Realtors and paramedics. More want to come. 

JETS, which started seven years ago with seven students, now has a waiting list of nearly 200. 

“If we had the space, we could have 300 kids who would come tomorrow,” Schmukler said, “because a school like this does not exist anywhere else in the world.” 

On a late Wednesday afternoon, just before Thanksgiving, Schmukler could be found strolling the grounds of JETS, poking into classrooms and greeting students — usually with a hug and a, “How are you?” Schmukler knows all the students personally and makes a point of hanging out with them, sometimes late into the evening, talking or playing music. 

“When things get hard, the pleasure is to go and spend time with the kids and really see the effect we’re having on them, and it all becomes worth it,” he said. 

He shares the credit for JETS’ success with his staff, including co-principals Smith, who had co-founded a similar school in Canada, and Rabbi Mendy Seewald, who coordinates the school’s yeshiva program and Judaic studies. 

The staff, he says, are talented and dedicated, fully aware that their directive is to care for and nurture their charges. When counselors ask Schmukler what is expected of them, he tells them that if a kid has not had dinner, their counselor is expected to break into the kitchen at midnight and prepare an omelet. 

But won’t that act get the counselor in trouble?

“Oh yeah, they’re going to get into major trouble,” Schmukler said. “But the kid is going to know you went on the line for him because he didn’t eat dinner. Then you know you have him.”

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