Beyond the Classroom and Themselves

How does a school become a community? For 215 students at MilkenCommunity High School, it all began with a trip out of town.

Milken, affiliated with Stephen S. Wise Temple, kicks off itsschool year by sending students and faculty on a three-day Shabbaton.Under the majestic oaks of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in SimiValley, participants schmooze and discuss, laugh and pray. The notionof a school retreat is partly geared toward demonstrating to youngpeople that education can be fun. But the “school as summer camp”approach also allows for the molding of diverse personalities into aproductive whole.

For its 140 upper-grade students, Milken invites a prominentthinker to serve as scholar-in-residence. This year’s 11th- and12th-graders were challenged by the presence of Arthur Waskow, apioneer in the Jewish Renewal movement. At a separate Shabbaton forthe younger students, camp-type activities (crafts, sports, folkdancing) coexisted with thoughtful programming that was meant as alead-in to the High Holiday season.

I caught up with the lower-graders on Thursday evening, justbefore dinner. The morning’s downpour had hardly dampened theirspirits. Like 14- and 15-year-olds everywhere, they were full ofgiggles, shrieks and jokes; no one seemed to stay put for more thanfive minutes at a time.

As part of their community-service requirement, Milken Highstudents devote up to 30 hours per year serving those in need, suchas at a food bank (above) or nursing home (right).

This early in the Shabbaton (and this early in the school year), Ifelt little sense of a common thread binding these youngsterstogether. The meal-time prayers were chanted in lackluster fashion,with some kids mumbling the words, others sitting silent.Participation in the post-meal sing-along varied widely. True, anumber of teens belted out the Hebrew songs; one particularlyanimated young lady even drew the new head of school, Dr. RennieWrubel, into an energetic dance routine. But at many tables sat kidswho seemed to be on another planet.

The same lack of common focus marked the brief evening service,held on a hilltop as daylight waned. An inner circle of students andfaculty members prayed with conviction, but they were surrounded bykids busy chatting, doing strange things with their chewing gum, andotherwise goofing off. Although a faculty rabbi gently spoke of thisas a time for making spiritual connections, it was clear that, formost students, spirituality was not a priority matter.

The fact that some of these teens are new to Milken (and a few ofthem brand-new to Jewish education) may explain their lack of basicdecorum. I’m told that Milken’s upper-graders are much betterequipped to handle serious communal moments such as this one. But thestudents I saw seemed unwilling to be serious about much of anything.

So I was not prepared for the remainder of the evening. After somewould-be humorous speeches by candidates running for ninth-grade rep,the students watched a play, staged by a dozen Milken upper-graders.”Rations” was created by an organization called LIFE (“Love IsFeeding Everyone”) as a way for young people to address the needs ofthe hungry within our society. In one vignette, a teen-aged boy triesdesperately to conceal from his affluent classmates the fact that hesurvives on food stamps. Other characters include impoverished elderstrying to retain their dignity, and a young single mother poignantlybegging for advice on how to feed her child. The play ends in acacophony of voices, representing the homeless on any city streetcorner. One voice belongs to a woman, formerly middle-class, whotells her listeners that “one day you’re laid off, your husbandleaves, your kid is put in public school.” Her final words arehaunting: “I’m keeping a spot on this corner warm for you and yourfamily.”

The lower-grade Milken students, so fidgety earlier, watched withrapt attention. Though they declined a post-play group discussion,the extent to which “Rations” moved them seemed clear in what tookplace next. They were offered the choice of four activities tobenefit the needy: recording childrens stories, making yarn dolls,creating greeting cards for the hospital-bound, or meeting withfaculty to develop a long-range plan of action. To my surprise, morethan 40 of them bypassed the fun of the craft projects to debate,with deep earnestness, what they could do to help the less fortunatein our midst.

Suggestions ranged from the practical to the visionary. One girl,whose cousin has a brain tumor, campaigned to collect pull-tabs fromsoda cans to benefit Ronald McDonald House. A boy wearing saggingpants and a long chain endorsed the idea of moving the widely ignoredschool tzedakah box next to the campus vending machines. Someone saidthat discards from school lunches could be collected daily anddistributed to the hungry. Or maybe food could be prepared bystudents and circulated throughout the city in a Milken Meal Truck.One boy voiced the vague hope that he and his classmates might”interact with the unfortunate and see how they live.” He furthersaid, “I know tzedakah should be anonymous, but, for our sakes, weought to see who they are.”

During their high school years, these students will have manyopportunities for such interaction. As part of Milken’s carefullydevised community-service requirement, they will devote up to 30hours per year of their own time to serving those in need. My hunchis that they will take up these responsibilities gladly — and withcreative fervor.

It’s easy to look at Milken students as children of privilege.Though administrators emphasize that many Milken-ites attend thepricey school on scholarship, we tend to think of them, in theircitadel high on Mulholland Drive, as far removed from the woes ofcommon folk. So it’s refreshing to see that, even in a sylvan retreatin Simi Valley, they can be moved to do something for the people ofLos Angeles.

Of course, throwing out ideas at a round-table discussion is notthe same as putting them into practice. But the students’ awakenedconsciousness, when combined with the Milken focus on taking socialresponsibility into one’s own hands, should go a long way towardestablishing a community of caring.