October 16, 2018

New study options attracting students to Hebrew High

Established in 1949 as a Jewish community school at Boyle Heights’ Menorah Center, Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS) boasts such notable alumni as state Sen. Ben Allen and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamenir-Reznik. 

But after decades of serving as a traditional part-time supplementary school with Hebrew language and text study courses offered on Sunday and during the week, the school has embarked on major changes.

In an effort to broaden the school’s reach and address plateauing enrollment figures, Head of School Amittai Benami has led the charge to diversify the school’s course offerings, the platforms on which it offers them and expand the school’s partnership with local Jewish institutions. 

“The school is going through a transformation,” Benami said. “We’ve been around since 1949. We were the city’s first supplemental Jewish high school before the day schools emerged. This isn’t the first time the school has had to transform itself. We’ve always tried to be in touch with community needs.”

In recent years, enrollment has been hovering around 120 students in grades 7-12. Compare that to 2005, when there were 475 students attending, according to a Journal article at the time. Benami attributes the gradual dip to the proliferation of day school options and economic factors that caused the school to scale down considerably. 

The word Benami finds himself repeating often is “choice,” but it’s about more than all the other choices offered to local students in the form of reputable day schools and Israel teen engagement programs. With so many students challenged to find spare time, his goal is for LAHHS to provide students with choices in scheduling as well as content. 

“We’re trying to accommodate students’ chaotic schedules. We’ve started expanding and giving more options. We’re adding choices in coursework,” he said. “Community collaboration and choice are my guiding principles.”

Straying from a one-size-fits-all approach, the school now provides three different programs. Students can attend “full time” (Sundays and one weekday); one weekday only and online; or part time (Sunday only). All three include Hebrew language courses that are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, fulfilling most students’ high school foreign language requirements.

Weekday classes are at Pressman Academy on La Cienega Boulevard, Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills and Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita. On Sundays, all participants meet at Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks. 

Full-time students also take part in weekend Shabbaton retreats, headed by Benami, as well as an exchange program with teenagers from a high school in Tel Aviv. The School Twinning Program is sponsored and subsidized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Benami also has launched a joint effort with Chabad of Northridge to offer Hebrew language courses for local teens and a Hebrew extension program at Adat Ari El in Valley Village that operates in conjunction with the congregation’s existing confirmation program. 

With enrollment up 20 percent since last year, currently standing at 150 students across the school’s programs, Benami is seeing signs that changes implemented over the last two years in the school’s approach are working. 

Benami, who is now in his third year with LAHHS, said that all of these options are critical — both for the community and for individual student success. 

“I don’t feel in competition with any other program or day school. There are more than enough teenagers to go around,” Benami said. “I believe wholeheartedly that different students have different needs and should have different programs available to them. There should be even more Jewish programs out there available and we’re always looking to expand and reach new students who have different needs and want different things.” 

For LAHHS parent and board member Debbie Posner, who has two sons from Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies enrolled in the program, the advent of online coursework has allowed her younger son to continue at LAHHS despite ongoing extracurricular commitments at his secular school. 

“My younger son plays basketball and it often conflicts with his Hebrew class,” she said. “In the past, I don’t know how they would have accommodated but now he’s able to access materials online, allowing for him to make up things he misses. If he didn’t have that option, he wouldn’t be able to stay in an accredited program. He would have had to make the decision — Hebrew or basketball.” 

Another point of focus for Benami has been to revamp the Israel education curriculum. New courses on topics like Hebrew slang, Israeli music and Israeli television shows have been a hit with students, he said. 

Other courses include a general Israel education seminar, hosted by Sivan Zakai of American Jewish University, and a Zionist Advocacy Public Speaking class. In the latter, guest speakers have included Erica Solomon of AIPAC, and Omer Hit, president of UCLA’s pro-Israel advocacy group, Bruins for Israel. 

Based on discussions with local organizations such as the Israeli American Council, Benami said he has homed in on and attempted to address a growing community concern — students feeling equipped and comfortable to talk about Israel issues on college campuses. 

“We are constantly looking for ways to prepare students to have positive views and relationships with things pertaining to Israel, and not just politically,” Benami said. “We want to prepare them so that they know what is going on, so they can develop their own perspectives and become familiar so that when they get to campus, they know what issues are being raised.”

Gil Graff, executive director at Builders of Jewish Education, hailed the continued evolution of LAHHS. 

“It’s key to meet the learner’s interests within the framework of the life space of teens, and LAHHS has, for more than 60 years, offered tremendous opportunities to thousands of alumni,” Graff said. “It has a continuing place in the array of Jewish educational opportunities and is to be commended for looking to meet learners where they are and adapt to the needs and interests of today’s learners.”