March 3, 2005
A Shalhevet Response
"What's Next for Shalhevet?" by Julie Gruenbaum Fax appeared in these pages on Feb. 4. Reactions of Shalhevet
parents, faculty, students, alumni, administrators and, indeed, even its rivals, have ranged from rage and outrage to tears and dismay.
From the beginning of the article where Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet's founder and the owner of a Jaguar with "vanity plates," "kvells" in a weekly school town hall meeting -- Why does he kvell? What transpired in Town Hall to give him such pride? -- and then leaves to "nail" a donation, the stage is set.
Shalhevet, like all Jewish schools, is forced to raise funds in order to survive. But fundraising isn't the least bit sexy: it is arduous, time-consuming and, more often than not, frustrating. "Nailing a donor," on the other hand, with its implication of something less than savory, is. And what of the Jaguar? Is Friedman better defined by the car he drives or by the fleet of such vehicles he could have purchased with the support he has given Shalhevet and other Jewish organizations throughout the years? Would there be comfort in having our philanthropists live humbly?
The article departs from Friedman and goes on to repeat a vulgar, slanderous term that had been used by a teacher in a feeder school to describe Shalhevet's young women. The initial use of this slur constituted lashon harah (gossip); its gratuitous repetition in the body of the article constitutes not only lashon harah, but rechilus (slander) as well. It was this that elicited tears from many of our seventh- and eighth-grade girls and outrage from their high school counterparts. And while, as the article states, "a number of younger siblings of Shalhevet graduates have gone ... to YULA," a number of younger siblings of YULA graduates are in attendance at Shalhevet.
The article proceeds to quote or paraphrase dissatisfied parents, all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity. What of the many satisfied parents who would gladly have allowed their names to appear? What of the parents who are elated that their children have found their voice, their love for Israel and their moral compass at Shalhevet? What of the parents of Shalhevet alumni whose children are in Israeli yeshivot or living as Jews on elite campuses throughout the United States? The parents of Shalhevet students who are recognized not only for their grades, but for their contributions to the community? The parents whose children write about Shalhevet in their graduate school applications? And what of the parents who have the vision and independence to be sending their younger children to Shalhevet next year and the year after that and the year after that?
Shalhevet is not perfect. Only 13 years old, the school is learning, and sometimes hurting, from its mistakes. Admissions criteria are more stringent and the financial aid process has been codified to meet the standards of other schools in the Los Angeles Jewish school system. We have changed our policy of relying upon Israeli rebbeyim, whose terms are necessarily limited in order to hire a permanent head of Judaic studies who will grow over time with the school. And Friedman, recognizing the increasing complexity of the school he founded, is seeking to share its governance with others who will perpetuate his superb vision. But Shalhevet has never been a "free-for-all." Nor did Yale-bound senior Leor Hackel, chair of the school's agenda committee, feel that he was fairly treated when, after an extensive interview, only a glib joke that he made toward the end was quoted in the article.
It would seem that Shalhevet should be inured to slights from The Jewish Journal. Several years ago, when the school dealt openly with a group of students who had used drugs, The Journal covered the school's heroic responses fairly, but failed to recognize its leadership role in developing a plan of action for all schools in the Bureau of Jewish Education. All schools -- were they to be honest -- must deal with substance abuse among their students. Nevertheless, despite Shalhevet's mature, professional response to the incident, The Journal predisposed readers to expect something else entirely by the article's title -- "Scandal" -- scrolled across the cover in smoke. When, at the height of the Intifada, Shalhevet students spent their summer in Israel performing chesed (acts of loving kindness) with victims of terrorism, the caption under their photograph identified them as YULA students. Most recently, although Shalhevet students have mounted a major fundraising campaign to assist victims of genocide in the Sudan and even brought an escaped Sudanese slave to address the school community, other schools' efforts were extolled in The Journal. Shalhevet's were not.
Last week in the school's town hall meeting, a student aptly stated that this paper is far more "Journal" than "Jewish" in its treatment of Shalhevet. This community needs The Jewish Journal; we need it to report fairly, objectively and Jewishly.
The bad news is that good news doesn't sell papers. Sensationalized articles do. The good news is that Shalhevet is alive and well and ever changing for the better.
Editor's Note: The balanced portrayal of the school as put forth in the article gave a fair picture of the many positive attributes of the school and its students, the challenges facing the school and the actions it is taking to meet those challenges. Our intention was never to hurt or offend Shalhevet students, and we apologize if any students, parents or administrators took accurate reports of these inane and widely known comments as anything other than a sorry reflection on their originators. The Jewish Journal and Julie Gruenbaum Fax continue to believe that Shalhevet is a vital and valued part of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Beatrice Levavi is director of admissions for Shalhevet.