Anything but Old School

There are some pretty big indicators that Ohr Eliyahu Academy, one of the city’s youngest day schools, has secured a solid foothold in the Los Angeles Jewish educational landscape.

The elementary school recently purchased the 4.5-acre Culver City public-school campus it has occupied for four years, putting a $500,000 down payment on the $1.4 million property. That didn’t come easily for a school that just last year barely met payroll.

Graduates of the 15-year-old school are beginning to filter into the city’s high schools, bolstering Ohr Eliyahu’s reputation for academic rigor and a value-oriented curriculum.

For school administrators, however, success is measured in smaller steps. For example, the school has added a second first-grade class this year, boasts Malca Schwarzmer, Jewish studies principal. And, she adds, the drama, arts and gymnastics programs have blossomed, the Sunday-morning parenting classes have attracted dozens of parents from outside the school, and the music department hopes to get keyboards soon.

Ohr Eliyahu’s mission to weigh every nuance of every program, to tailor each aspect of the curriculum to all 160 students’ specific needs — from Tanach to tumbling to Twain — has helped make it one of the most eclectic schools in town. It also may be one of the reasons the school has been slow to make it onto the roster of established Orthodox day schools in Los Angeles, despite the fact that it has won several educational awards in both Jewish and secular areas.

“It takes awhile for people to understand the school and to take it seriously. People like to put a school into a box, and we have defied that,” says Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, the school’s principal.

On the surface, the school appears to fall within the ultra-Orthodox realm, with long skirts and black hats prevailing among teachers and many parents, and most graduates attending Bais Yaakov or right-wing boy’s yeshiva programs.

But just beyond the veil of rigid traditionalism, their hovers an artsy, touchy-feely, New Age psychology that touches all of the school’s programs. Creativity and the arts hold an important place not only in classes for those subjects but in all lesson plans. It is not uncommon, for instance, for students to act out their interpretation of a Bible portion, or for a math class to include some hands-on construction project.

“If you just create an atmosphere allowing ideas to percolate through, every child knows, ‘I can contribute, I am important here,'” Schwarzmer says.

The fact that secular subjects hold as important a place as Jewish studies is another indication that this is no ordinary ultra-Orthodox school, where subjects such as literature and history might be treated as necessary annoyances.

Add that to the fact that all Judaic classes are taught exclusively in Hebrew from first grade on, and that the State of Israel is valued as an important part of Jewish identity, and you have the makings of a school that eludes established categories.

School administrators and parents are happy to occupy their post in Jewish no-man’s land. Even the location is off the beaten path. The sprawling, verdant campus that Ohr Eliyahu has occupied since it moved from its native Venice four years ago is perched comfortably in Culver City’s scenic Blair Hills area. Just off La Cienega Boulevard, the school is accessible to, but not part of, Los Angeles’ Orthodox centers of Fairfax, Pico-Robertson and the Valley.

For Goldberg, creating a model rather than following one keeps the school on its toes; it challenges not only current educational trends but the very notion of schools.

“All schools are by definition imperfect. If kids were supposed to be educated in schools, Moshe would have built one. It took us 2,000 years to decline to the point where kids go to school with a bunch of other kids rather than having individual teachers,” says Goldberg, who will cap enrollment at 250 to keep the school from becoming a “factory.”

Ohr Eliyahu’s philosophy of individualized attention is most easily demonstrated at the extremes. At one end of the spectrum is the enrichment program, in which gifted students are pulled from class for a few hours a week. At the other end is the inclusion program. Ohr Eliyahu employs a specialist and several specially trained classroom aides to help pupils with physical and mental disabilities be part of a regular class.

Average students as well are afforded special attention, with teachers and aides constantly challenging themselves to identify and react to the students’ strengths and weaknesses.

What comes out of this mix is an uncommonly satisfied parent body. Many mothers and fathers have acquired a starry-eyed loyalty; they sound as if they are reading from a brochure when they describe school.

Schwarzmer says the parents are reacting to what they hear from their children.

“Kids here actually like to go to school,” she says. “We actually manage to get across to children that learning is fun.”

For Goldberg, having a parent and student body so invested in the school is what makes the place thrive.

“We don’t say you have to live in a particular neighborhood, daven in a particular shul, wear a particular yarmulke,” Goldberg says. ” You just have to love Torah and want to grow, and want to be a stakeholder here.”

Ohr Eliyahu’s Sunday-morning program of gymnastics and music for kids, and Torah and parenting classes for adults is open to the public. Please call (310) 559-3330 for more information.