Academy Wants to Ease Wallet Strain


For the past couple of years, Rabbi Shimon Kashani has been concerned about Jewish education. While he saw several day schools in Los Angeles, he was worried that some students whose families couldn’t afford the fees were opting for public schools, and therefore had limited options for Jewish education.

“I found that, for many reasons, it was difficult for some people to get a Jewish education, and my work here is to make it easier for people to get a Jewish education,” said Kashani, who is the director of the Southern California Jewish Center.

So Kashani started Moses Hebrew Academy (MHA). Scheduled to open in the fall for kindergarteners through fourth-graders, MHA offers a lower-than-average tuition and generous scholarships, a new, multimillion-dollar campus, secular educational standards that Kashani said exceed Californian standards, extracurricular activities like scouting and ballet and, of course, a traditional Jewish education.

MHA hopes to appeal to families who have enrolled their children in public schools, families who can’t afford tuition at other schools and families living in the Westwood/Santa Monica area who don’t want to make the trip down to Hancock Park or Pico-Robertson in order to give their children a Jewish education.

Laurie Zimmet, MHA’s principal, said the school is not Orthodox, but strongly traditional. According to Zimmet, the school will serve kosher food, pray from a traditional siddur and teach traditional texts like Torah, Prophets and Talmud. In other words, it will have all the trappings of an Orthodox school without the moniker, in an effort to appeal both to Orthodox parents and to parents with little Jewish background who would feel alienated by orthodoxy.

“We don’t like labels,” Zimmet said. “A Jew is a Jew. We are upfront with public school parents that the school has traditional Jewish values, and for students who aren’t at the level yet [to learn those things] we will bring them to the higher level with individual attention.”

Zimmet said that, so far, parents inquiring about the school have been attracted by the “pioneer’s scholarship” a 50 percent discount on the $7,500 tuition, with further scholarships after that if needed.

“A lot of parents out there who are making six-figure incomes — very successful adults — and they are made to feel like they are poor schlubs because of the tuition these days,” she said. “When you have two, or three or four children and you are paying $15,000 per kid, before the other fees — like raffle tickets, or scrip — just to pay for tuition you would need to make $100,000, and so you have people that are making well over $200,000 asking for scholarships.”

According to Gil Graff, the director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), the average elementary school tuition is between $10,000 and $12,000, and 40 percent of students in schools are on need-based scholarships.

“It is unusual that a school would simply say off the bat, ‘Anyone who applies to this school is excused from paying half the money,'” Graff said. “That said, there are many schools, who, on a needs determination basis, do give half tuition. I would also say nationally and locally it is not uncommon that a start-up school that has no track record and no accreditation [has a] pioneer discounts incentive program to try and develop an enrollment.”

Zimmet said that the school could afford to give these tuition breaks because it already owns its $3 million Westwood campus, and will rely on Kashani’s fund-raising abilities to make up the rest of the shortfall.

Kashani told The Journal that he plans on raising funds from “the wider community” and would make up the shortfall from his own pocket if need be.

However, the BJE told The Journal that most of the schools in Los Angeles are running at a loss and rely on the community to make up the gap between tuition and running costs.

“We have day schools that in the aggregate are spending $116 million to educate 9,600 students, and they are getting in tuition $87 million, which leaves a gap of approximately $29 million,” Graff said. “There are people in Los Angeles who do respond to schools in terms of making funds available so that the school can accept children who are not in a position to pay the full tuition.”

MHA is currently engaging in an aggressive marketing campaign to get the word out about the school. In addition to advertising in Jewish newspapers and parenting magazines, it is also distributing flyers in Jewish neighborhoods and sending out flyers with non-Jewish preschool newsletters, and outside of public preschools.

Dr. Phil Liff-Grieff, the associate director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, said there was a “significant need” in the community for a school with low-cost tuition.

“Generally we [are] seeing that the price of day schools is a serious impediment to many families and there is indeed a population that is not in public school by choice,” he said. “Even in the Orthodox community, we do find families with kids in public schools, and it is those families that would be most responsive to [MHA’s] marketing approach. There are families that tell me that even with the scholarship aid available to them [at other schools] tuition is too much.”

MHA is preparing for 50 students in its inaugural year, and it expects that its classrooms will be coed until fourth grade.

“We are nervous about [being a pioneering school]” Zimmet said. “But we are way past the point of ‘feeling our way along.’ We own the property already, we have both our Judaic and English curriculums written already and we have a mission statement [of academic excellence] that we are going to stick to.”

For more information about Moses Hebrew Academy call
(310) 234-8300, or visit to www.mosesacademy.com .

Lending a Hand at a Community Seder


I’m spending Passover in Chicago — home of the Cubs, the
Bears and the whole Davis mishpachah (family). Mom’s serving up chopped liver,
chicken soup, matzah balls, matzah kugel, gefilte fish — and those are just the
appetizers. We’ll drink wine, read the haggadah and belt out our never-ending
version of “Chad Gadya.”

It’ll be a feast of freedom, family and what else — food.
One of my favorite holidays, Pesach does more than bring loved ones together,
it brings us together with spirit.

As an L.A. transplant, I don’t always make it home for the
holiday. I’ve stayed in SoCal and sedered with friends, friend’s parents, even
my rabbi.

But the first year after my UCLA graduation, I found myself
sederless. My friends went home, Hillel was full and I couldn’t afford a
synagogue seder on my assistant’s salary. I couldn’t buy a box of matzah
without a coupon, let alone drop a Ben or two for a hard-boiled egg at a pricey
shul. I asked for a discount, but even half price was half too much.

I cried. I called my parents. I cried again. Spending
Passover alone was devastating. The story of Exodus seems far less sweet when
it’s just you and a jar of gefilte fish.

I’ve since learned that no one needs to go without a seder.
For 26 years, Jewish Family Service (JFS) has hosted community seders.
Sponsored by JFS’ Clarence Gerber Memorial Passover program and B’nai B’rith,
the events are a haven for people with few funds or far away families.

For just $3 a person, seniors, students, immigrants,
single-parent families, HIV/AIDS patients and anyone feeling lonely at the
holiday can attend seders at one of three sites.

Having been sederless once myself, I decided to lend a hand
at the Etz Jacob location last Sunday. Two-hundred-and-forty guests, mostly
seniors, arrived at noon. Alongside 30 other volunteers, I poured grape juice,
waited tables and most importantly, pointed out the bathrooms.

The Etz Jacob seder was just one of many L.A. community
seders open to seniors, immigrants, single parents, and those in need. JFS and
B’nai B’rith sponsored two additional pre-passover seders at Temple Beth Am and
Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus. The Jewish Single Parent Network held a
potluck seder on second night, USC Hillel held a free arts seder on April 8,
and The Workman’s Circle will conduct a seder in Russian, Yiddish and English
on April 11. Many synagogues also offered a match program, where host
congregants opened their own homes to those without a seder.

To ensure everyone felt welcome, the Etz Jacob seder was
conducted in Yiddish, Russian and English. Even the haggadahs were
multilingual.

At first, the guests seemed to listen more than participate.
But once we rounded Dayenu, those seniors let loose. They were singing and
clapping, even tapping their feet. Most seemed delighted by the afternoon.

“Such a mitzvah.” “Such big matzah balls.” “This cake’s so
good, I’m wrapping some up in my napkin for later.”

Still other guests did some kvetching. “The room’s too hot.”
“The water’s not cold.” “Where’s the tea?”

And I’m glad they did. To me, their complaints meant we
provided a seder that felt so much like home, our guests made themselves at
home. They felt comfortable enough to speak their minds.

While serving one table, I spilled a bowl of chicken soup.
It hit the floor, so technically no guests or polyester pantsuits were damaged.
Still, one man called me a “clumsy fool.” The woman next to him gave him a
nudge.

“It was an accident,” she said. “But maybe if she wasn’t so
skinny, it wouldn’t have happened.”

I couldn’t stop smiling. And not just because I suddenly
felt thin. I knew these guests were celebrating the holiday like they would
have at their own seder tables — sitting with friends, speaking in Yiddish,
kvelling about the rabbi, complaining about the heat and retelling the story of
Exodus as they had so many times before. It was no longer a charity seder in a
big ballroom, it was just their seder.

The Passover haggadah says, “Let all who are hungry enter
and eat, and all who are in distress come and celebrate the Passover.” It’s
nice to know that people in Los Angeles are doing more than just reading those
words. Â

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