A School With a Mid-Eastern Flair

The Eretz Alliance School may be small, but its lineage is long and distinguished. Eretz Alliance, which occupies a brand-new campus in Tarzana, opened this fall with 36 students enrolled in its nursery school and kindergarten classes. Ultimately the $7 million building will house students through the fifth grade. An adjoining middle school is now on the drawing board.

One attraction of the new school is its relatively low tuition. The cost to kindergarten parents is $4,800, all-inclusive. No membership fees or building fund donations are required. This is partly because Eretz Alliance gets support from the Alliance Israelite Universelle, an international network that has championed Jewish education for almost 140 years.

The Alliance Israelite was founded in Paris in 1860. Its first goal was to provide educational opportunities for Jews suffering from political oppression. To this end, it established prestigious school systems throughout North Africa and the Middle East. At one time, a large number of Iran’s political and economic leaders, Jews and non-Jews alike, were products of Alliance schools. Today there are 65 Alliance schools in such far-flung locales as Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, Belgium, Israel and France. Alliance also helps underwrite both the Touro College of Jewish Studies in Moscow and the Anne Frank School in Budapest. Though Alliance schools have long existed in Canada, the Tarzana school is the first to surface in the United States.

The other partner in this venture is the Eretz Cultural Center, spiritual home base for many of L.A’s Iranian Jews. The center was founded in 1980 by Iranian Americans, who first built a synagogue, then a Hebrew school and an early childhood center. Finally, wanting a day school for their children, they dedicated part of their property to this purpose, erecting a 20,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility. The link with Alliance Israelite is a natural one, because many older members of the Iranian community attended Alliance schools in their homeland. One such is Dr. Joseph Hakimi who by day serves as the director of Judaic Studies and the Middle School at Sinai Akiba Academy.

Though most of its current students come from Iranian households, Eretz Alliance emphatically calls itself a “community school,” which welcomes Jewish children of all backgrounds. School Director Batsheva Spector, a veteran educator with advanced degrees to her credit, was born in Israel and reared in the United States. She concedes that there’s a Middle Eastern flavor to the school, because of its Iranian connection: “They definitely have a dream. This is their dream.”

But English is the language of choice for all teachers and staff. Instruction may make use of Alliance-supplied materials and methods, but it is based on California’s state educational frameworks. Spector also promises a strong focus on Israel, and Hebrew as a living language. In keeping with the Alliance tradition, many on the current board hope that one day upper-graders will have the option of studying French as well.

The board’s Executive Director Michael Rad is an example of Iranian enthusiasm for this project, and for Jewish education in general. When his own children attended first Kadima Academy and then Milken Community High School, Rad became active on the school board at each institution. But because he worships at the Eretz Cultural Center, he felt compelled to take on the burdens of the new school as well. Of himself and the other current board members, he says, “We call ourselves the pioneers, until the board is run by the parents.”

Ayala Farnoush was born in Iran, where her parents once attended Alliance schools. Now she’s the office manager at Eretz Alliance, and her son is a kindergartner. Farnoush speaks of her community’s pride in the pristine facility: “We were expecting it to be built for a couple of years. We were so excited.” Her son may not know that he’s making history, but he’s happy to be a student there. Says Farnoush, “Every morning he asks me if he goes to school today.”