An Advocate for Jewish Interests in L.A.’s Diverse Public Schools

What’s the place of Jewish life in the multiethnic mixing bowl of the Los Angeles public schools? It’s a complex question in a district where young people from Mexican, Central American, African American, Armenian, Persian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Syrian homes, among others, bring their traditions, religions, sensitivities and prejudices to the classroom and school yard. 

I hadn’t given it much thought until I talked to Elizabeth J. Abramowitz, president of the Association of Jewish Educators and principal of Fairburn Elementary School. She made a good point: “If the Jewish kids are coming back to the public schools, we need them to be aware of their culture and be proud of it.”

In a Jewish day school, they’re immersed in it. In public school, they’re on their own in a world where 73 percent of students are Latino, 10 percent are African American, and the rest are from a variety of ethnic groups.

The association is composed of Jewish teachers, administrators, psychologists, nurses, clerical workers and other Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) workers. It’s just one of several such ethnically oriented groups — among the others are ones for Asian Pacific, Armenian American, Mexican American and African American employees.

Years ago, few educators worried about cultural identity. As one of the few — sometimes the only — Jewish kid in my San Francisco Bay Area elementary school, I unquestioningly took my place in the Christmas carol chorus line. The only limitation placed on my participation was that one of my teachers told me to lip synch because I couldn’t carry a tune.

My feelings about the Christmas celebrations in my school were mixed. I didn’t believe in Christ. Furthermore, I was aware that his birth and death were observed in my grandparents’ native Russia and Romania with vicious pogroms against the Jews. On the other hand, I envied my friends for their great times on Christmas, a holiday unobserved in my house.

The insensitivity — or maybe it was prejudice — toward Jews and their beliefs was typical of educators’ attitudes in that era. In Los Angeles, insensitivity to and ignorance of minority cultures was intense in heavily Latino East Los Angeles and South Los Angeles schools. Veterans of those days still talk of young people shunted off to shop classes instead of being put on a college- prep track. 

Students and parents rebelled. The most notable act was the student uprising centered at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles in the 1970s. Such protests, combined with a growing appreciation for the nation’s varied cultures, helped spur staff members and students to form organizations promoting the interests of their ethnic groups.

The Association of Jewish Educators is not big. “A minority of the minority,” Abramowitz called it. She had been teaching and administering in the LAUSD for 13 years before hearing of the organization 12 years ago.

The association intervenes when it thinks Jews are being pushed around or ignored.

“I get calls from people who believe their observances [of holidays] create hardships for them on their campuses,” she said. Specifically, training sessions are sometimes scheduled for the Sabbath. “Just recently,” she said, “a professional development day scheduled for Yom Kippur in year-round schools was rescheduled for a later date.”

Most important, the association is strengthening a Jewish voice on campuses by encouraging formation of Jewish student clubs. “We can’t afford for them to go through the system and learn about every culture but their own,” Abramowitz said. These clubs may be the only contact with Jewish life for some of the students. The Jewish clubs also try to make non-Jews aware of the Jewish life. Young Jews, she said, must be prepared to carry their values into a non-Jewish world.

When the Holocaust comes up, they talk about its meaning. They discuss Israel. They exhibit Jewish pride.

This can be challenging. The Los Angeles schools are a marketplace of cultures, each shouting out for attention and respect. 

Jewish club members are encouraged to work with other student ethnic groups on campuses. They encounter fellow students who have never met a Jew. An Armenian American student may ask, “What about our genocide?” They meet people raised by anti-Semitic parents. They’ll have to figure it out. That’s one of the great advantages of a public school. It approximates life, unsheltered from the world.

Participation in these activities is considered a plus when Jewish students apply for the $2,000 college scholarships offered by the Association of Jewish Educators.

That’s not a big scholarship, considering rising college costs.  The association would like to do more, but compared to better-known Jewish Los Angeles organizations, it doesn’t have much fundraising firepower.

On May 23, the association is holding a $50-a-plate lunch to finance the scholarships. It’s a small price for a big cause. You can buy a ticket — or tickets — from the Association of Jewish Educators, 15030 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403. For $2,000, you can finance a scholarship; for $500 to $1,000, a partial scholarship.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).