Jewish education for a two-figure tuition


Late one recent afternoon in Beverlywood, a first-grader named Ben was learning about the story of the golden calf. Not happy about what he was hearing, Ben asked his teacher, incredulously: “They made a new god?!”

Across the hall, eight fourth-graders were learning the Purim story, calling out as many characters as they could from the Megillah. One boy, Yagel, who wore a kippah and tzitzit, excitedly yelled out names in a perfect Israeli accent while correcting his fellow students’ “mis-annunciations.”

These scenes are noteworthy because they didn’t take place at any Sunday school, day school or yeshiva. They took place at Nagel Jewish Academy, a  daily after-school Orthodox program, which officials believe offers a solution to the problem of expensive tuition for private Jewish education.

Unlike a traditional day school, Nagel Jewish Academy, which has three locations, operates two hours a day Monday through Thursday, after public schools let out. It focuses exclusively on Jewish and Hebrew education and costs only $25 per month, per child, for supplies and snacks provided by the school. Its budget this year is $400,000, a 166 percent increase from the 2014-15 budget of $150,000, which was financed almost entirely by founder Levi Nagel. 

Nagel said he has wanted for years to create an academy serving Jewish children who attend public schools. He says thousands of Jewish parents who want to send their children to Jewish schools don’t, and that high tuitions have other negative impacts on Jewish families, particularly Orthodox ones. 

“Families have been shrinking. People are having much [fewer] kids now than they used to because of the cost of tuition,” Nagel said in a recent interview at Shiloh’s restaurant in Pico-Robertson. 

Betty Winn, director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), said annual K-8 tuition for the 37 private schools in L.A. within the BJE network range from $6,000 to $34,700, with a median tuition of $20,185. She also pointed out, though, that over half of families receive financial aid.

“So many of our schools really have extended the amount of need-based assistance that they give … so I think some of the families that are choosing other avenues may not have even explored the day school options,” she said. “I’m sure some have, but I’m also sure some haven’t.”

Nagel, 36, who is married and lives in the Hancock Park/La Brea area, knows all about the expense of Jewish education from personal experience. The financial manager — who was named No. 2 by business website On Wall Street in its 2015 list of top 40 advisers under 40 — pays $80,000 in annual tuition for his four young children to attend Jewish day school.

He opened Nagel Academy’s first location in September 2014 at the property owned by Chabad of Beverlywood. It has since expanded to two more locations — in Beverly Hills and Tarzana — serving a total of 265 students. They come from families with different levels of religious observance and range in age from 5 to 12 and grades kindergarten through sixth.

Nagel’s goal is for his schools’ students to be as well-versed in Judaism as students at any of the local Orthodox day schools. Its curriculum includes written and spoken Hebrew, the Jewish prayer book, the annual holidays and the weekly Torah portion. He said Nagel Academy is “still a little behind,” but argues that the two hours a day of Jewish studies students get at his schools isn’t much less than the proportion of each day spent on Jewish studies at day schools, where each day is split between Jewish and secular studies, not to mention things like lunch and physical education. 

At the school’s Tarzana location, which is provided rent-free by the Beith David Educational Center & Synagogue, more than 40 students were split up and learning in four different classes one recent afternoon. The class with fifth- and sixth-graders was learning in the synagogue’s spacious beit midrash, with five girls and one boy seated at a long table while the teacher walked her students through the Hebrew alphabet and vocabulary.

“Not only can I read this, I understand what it means!” exclaimed Eden, an 11-year-old girl whose sister, Lea, is in fourth grade and also attends Nagel Academy. 

Shlomo, an 11-year-old student in fifth grade, told the Journal that he attends Wilbur Avenue Elementary School during the day. He briefly tried another Hebrew school before his parents found Nagel Academy, which has helped him learn to read and write Hebrew words as long as four letters (so far). 

Elsewhere, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders were making their own tzedakah boxes and the second- and third-graders were playing a game of trivia about tzedakah (the theme of the week) and kashrut. 

“When do we give tzedakah?” the teacher asked one team.

After deliberating as a group, Team Tzedakah gave the correct answer: Jews traditionally make a donation every day before the morning prayer service.

In the main entrance hall of Beith David, Mahnaz Danyan, a Jewish woman from Iran, waited for school to let out at 4 p.m. Two of her children just enrolled at Nagel Academy. During the day, Melody, 11, attends Gaspar De Portola Middle School in Tarzana, and Michael, 9, goes to Nestle Elementary School.

“They need to know they’re Jewish. We were looking … everywhere, so we found out here are Hebrew classes,” Danyan said. “[Jewish day] school is perfect, but it’s expensive for us, so here is better.”

Yulia Edelshtein, who lives in Pico-Robertson with her husband and two children, enrolled her son Eli, 7, in Nagel Academy’s Beverlywood location when it opened in 2014; her daughter Ziona, 6, followed in kindergarten this year. During the day, both of them attend Canfield Elementary, a public school in Pico-Robertson with relatively high numbers of religious Jews. 

Edelshtein described herself and her Israeli husband as a “traditional, observant” family that observes Shabbat and keeps kosher. She said they would send their kids to Jewish day schools if they could afford it.

“We’re a young family and still building ourselves, so it would’ve been impossible for us to go to a private school,” Edelshtein said. “I really feel like it’s the best of both worlds — and I really love Canfield — to give the kids a secular education and a Hebrew education, and I feel that Nagel makes this possible.”

For parents like Lisa Arnold, Nagel Academy’s appeal isn’t just its affordability. The Beverlywood mother of three said that two of her children, Noah, 10, and Shaine, 8, have learning needs that local Jewish day schools haven’t been able to meet. So, for general education, her kids go to charter schools, and they use Nagel Academy for their Jewish education.

“What’s so unusual about it is the excitement and the joy for learning that’s showing itself,” Arnold said. “It’s not associated with school. It’s almost like a preferred activity if you’d drop your kid off at karate or dance.”

Is it possible that Nagel Academy could lead to an exodus of students from private Jewish schools to public alternatives? Nagel and the school’s head educational consultant, Rabbi Leibel Korf, said the answer is a resounding “no” and that it was never the intent. 

“The naysayers, before we started … they were saying, ‘Hey you’re going to take kids out of private schools and move [them] to public school,’ ” Nagel said. “The fact is every one of the kids came from public school. We didn’t take [them] from private school.”

Nagel cited one example in particular that he feels shows Nagel Academy is helping families that simply can’t afford private school, rather than giving parents an excuse to save money on tuition they’re already paying.  

“What was [a] little sad was the majority of the women dropping off their kids [at the Beverlywood site] are so religious that they cover their hair. But their kids did not know the Aleph Bet or know how to read Hebrew,” Nagel said, an indication, he feels, that their children only attend public school during the day because there’s no other option. 

Korf, who runs the Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, where Nagel attended before he moved in 2005, said the school exists because it’s needed. 

“The reality is so many children are not getting Jewish education because of the fact that people who would [otherwise] send [their children] to Jewish schools are not sending them. This is the fact,” Korf said during a recent interview at the school’s Beverlywood location. “We’re not creating an alternative for Jewish schools. We’re [responding to] a fact.”

That said, Korf suggested that nothing can completely substitute for a Jewish day school education, which is what his four kids receive at Cheder Menachem and Bais Chaya Mushka, which are Chabad boys and girls schools, respectively. 

“I’ll take the shirt and pants off me and I’ll sell my house and I’ll live in a small apartment,” Korf told the Journal. “You can’t send your kids to a public school and not jeopardize basic Jewish observances.”

Students at Nagel Academy in Beverly Hills. 

For their part, Nagel and his wife, Chaiky, send their four kids, ages 4 to 11, to Maimonides Academy. And while he said he’d rather send his kids to public school and Nagel Academy — and use the difference to sponsor more Jewish students at Nagel Academy — his wife insisted on private school.

“It’s a waste of money … but my wife has the final say,” Nagel said. 

Nagel Academy’s main expense is its teachers. Right now, there is only one full-time employee, and all of the 15 Orthodox teachers work on a part-time basis. Nagel approximates that one student costs about $1,250 per year, and he said he is working furiously to raise enough money to open three more locations for the 2016-17 academic year — in Westwood, Santa Monica and another in the San Fernando Valley.

He’s been pitching Nagel Academy to major local donors with the goal of each one sponsoring at least 100 kids a year. Nagel said philanthropist and entrepreneur Frank Menlo recently came on board, and businessmen and philanthropists Sam Nazarian and Shlomo Rechnitz have made pledges.

One way Nagel Academy keeps costs down is having a very low ceiling for rent expenses. The only location where it pays a usage fee is the Beverlywood location, which Nagel Academy Director Chana Leah Margolis said is “super-minimal rent.” Nagel added that, going forward, a condition of using any facility is that it’s provided rent-free.

“There are millions of square feet of empty Jewish real estate during those hours,” Nagel said, referring to the time of day Nagel Academy is operating. “So if it’s a community that needs it, they have to invite us in and give us a location for free. What we’re doing is paying for the teachers.”

He thinks Nagel Academy could grow to 1,000 to 2,000 students per year with enough word of mouth and enough fundraising, and he’s already talking about future locations in Brentwood, Los Feliz and even more throughout the Valley.

“We should, at a minimum, provide enough space for a thousand kids,” Nagel said. “We have the obligation to make it available.” 

Sukkah splendor


The sukkah in the backyard of Leat Silvera’s home in the Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles is up a little early this year. It’s not because she’s trying to get a jump on the holidays; it’s because she needs a place to look at her work — three large sukkah wall hangings that she designed herself. She’s just gotten the samples of her mass-produced versions on waterproof canvas back from China, and something about the color in one of them isn’t right. While it would likely be overlooked by anyone but Silvera, she’s not going to let it slide, so there’s more tweaking to do.

Silvera traces her aesthetic sense to growing up with her family in Los Angeles, particularly her father. For them, Sukkot was a special holiday, a time of joy and celebration, and it was in their tradition that Silvera got her start. She grew up in a traditional home, but when she was 12, her brother was tragically killed by a drunk driver, and her parents started going to Chabad. It was through Chabad that Silvera and her family drew closer to Judaism. “My father, who’s a contractor, liked to build these beautiful, elaborate wooden sukkahs in his backyard. And he would take the time to pleat these beautiful white sheets all the way around; it would take him days and days. One year, he ran out of the amount of sheets, and he just made a few walls flat, and I looked at them and I said, ‘Can I draw a picture on them?’ ”

Silvera’s father gave her permission to experiment. “A few sharpies later, I had a couple of designs on there, and they loved it,” said Silvera. Her family and their friends liked the designs so much that, according to Silvera, “the next year all the sukkah walls became flat, and I had to paint all the walls in the Sukkah.”

When Silvera went off to college at UCLA to study fine art, she left her sukkah-decorating days behind for a while. Her work at school — oil paintings focusing on realism — was completely different from the work she produces now. “These are whimsical,” she says, showing off the three sukkah wall hangings she’s made, “they’re much more bright and colorful.”

Silvera’s wall hangings are indeed colorful, and quite large, measuring 8 feet by 5 feet, and they are meant to transport the viewer to a peaceful, joyous place. One depicts a scene of rabbis dancing in the street with Torahs, another, a scenic view from a window ringed by pomegranates, and the third, a playful Jerusalem landscape.

“I had a lot of requests for doing the ushpizin,” said Silvera of the traditional welcoming of the seven exalted guests to the Sukkah, “and I did a lot of sketch work for it, and I worked it through and everything, but what ended up happening is that you didn’t capture a moment, you captured a lot of different moments, and to me that’s very distracting and almost disturbing as an artist, so I dropped it.” 

“What I like to do in general with art is just capture a moment in time, a moment of emotion that can pull you in,” said Silvera. To do this, she goes through numerous sketches before settling on moments that speak to her.

The process is a welcome one for Silvera, now in her 30s and the mother of four boys whom she home-schools. Silvera used to hide most of her paintings once they were completed, but now she sells them, and having them hanging in sukkahs around Los Angeles is a huge step for her. “Whatever anyone gets from that, even just a little bit of happiness, a little bit of joy, a little bit of that transportive feeling, that’s an incredible amount of fulfillment for me as an artist.”

Silvera started making her wall hangings for a wider audience last year. She’d painted the one of the rabbis dancing with the Torahs, and “decided I’d make about 50 copies and see what happens. The problem was, they came the morning before Sukkot.”

Undeterred by the late hour, Silvera pushed ahead with her plans to sell her pieces. “The morning of Sukkot I went to some close neighbor friends and said ‘I have them, what do you think?’ Not only did they buy them, but they called their mother-in-law, their best friend, and long story short, I sold maybe, that morning, 25 pieces.” Silvera was extremely pleased with the results. “I thought, OK, this is nice, this is something people want to have in their sukkahs. So I’ve created two more for this year; we’re selling all three of them this year, and hopefully people will enjoy them.” In addition to the dancing rabbis, there are lyrical images of Jerusalem, painted in soft washes of color.

Silvera currently sells her pieces at her Web site, leatsilvera.com, each priced $225, and she has also been trying other ways to get them noticed. “I’m trying to distribute them through shuls, through schools, Facebook, Pinterest, using whatever mediums I can through the Internet, but mostly I think it’s going to be word-of-mouth, because you can’t really tell what these look like until you see them in person.”

More than anything, Silvera feels lucky to be able to use her artistic talent to brighten one of her favorite holidays for others. “To me, it [Sukkot] is the apex of it all [the Holy Days season] and brings everybody together in such a wonderful way,” Silvera said. She sees how many of her friends want to make their sukkahs beautiful, but maybe don’t have the time or skill to pull it off.

“Maybe I can help. It’s almost like me coming into their sukkahs and helping paint a little mural to make it feel more beautiful for them.”

And since all three of her murals strongly evoke Israel, where she’s visited many times and to which she feels a strong connection, she feels like she’s bringing people closer to the Holy Land as well. “Sukkot is my favorite time in Israel. … I love seeing the apartment buildings where every balcony has a sukkah, and every staircase has a sukkah, and they’re just everywhere, and when you walk down the streets, you hear singing from outside, everyone has kind of removed themselves from that incubation or that secluded area of inside, and now everybody’s open and out and together.”

Trader Joe’s comes up against some tough cookies


Trader Joe’s got slammed last week by a combination of hysteria and hoarding by kosher bakers when word leaked out that its semisweet chocolate chips were going from pareve to dairy.

“It’s just really sad,” said Shana Fishman, a Beverlywood mother of four who stocked up on 20 bags of chocolate chips at the Trader Joe’s in West Hollywood last week. “It means that I’ll have to use bitter chocolate chips in my cookies, and it means that I’ll have to pay more for my chocolate chips.”

Trader Joe’s semisweet chocolate chips were widely valued as the best, most affordable non-dairy chocolate chips on the market. Until now they have borne an “OK pareve” designation, essential for kosher consumers who do not eat meat and dairy products in the same meal. But the supplier for Trader Joe’s has changed its production procedure, and the chips will now be designated as dairy by Brooklyn-based OK-Kosher Certification.

“We are meeting with Trader Joe’s and encouraging them to go back to the old protocol and get those chips back to pareve,” Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, director of public relations at the OK, said on May 21. “So far, there is no movement in that area, but we are working on it.”

Trader Joe’s released a statement last week defending its chocolate chips.

“The ingredients used in our semisweet chocolate chips have not changed, there are no dairy ingredients in the item, and the chips are made on equipment dedicated to non-dairy chocolate,” a company statement said.

But the chips are bagged on machinery that also bags milk chocolate chips, and the supplier recently switched from a wet to a dry cleaning regimen on the bagging machine. “These changes … triggered the need for an FDA regulated, dairy-related allergen statement, and this in turn brought about a change in the Kosher certification for our item — going from ‘Kosher Parve’ to ‘Kosher Dairy,’ ” the statement read.

An officer at OK Kosher Certification said supervising rabbis can no longer guarantee that no errant milk chocolate chips are included in the semisweet bags.

“Currently, the monitoring of the level of separation between pareve and dairy is no longer sufficient to meet the requirements of OK Pareve,” a statement released by the OK read.

As the news leaked out through mournful Facebook posts, kosher bakers — along with vegans and the lactose intolerant — flooded Trader Joe’s with an unprecedented barrage of calls and e-mails. A petition created on change.org had 4,100 signatures as of the middle of this week.

Trader Joe’s locations reported that consumers were buying 20, 80, even 170 bags at a time.

While many so-called “haimish” brands – Jewish companies that make only kosher foods — produce pareve chocolate chips, those chips are generally waxy and flavorless. The silky, rich Trader Joe’s morsels melt to perfect consistency in cookies and taste like actual chocolate. They are good enough to almost make up for the fact that kosher bakers have to forgo real butter in cookies they serve after a Shabbat lunch of grilled chicken, roasted vegetables and quinoa salad.

Chocolate manufacturing requires cocoa butter and cocoa, but those are expensive ingredients when not purchased in massive volumes. Small kosher brands know their consumers aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to produce premium chocolate chips, said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, director of the Kosher Information Bureau.

“They often can’t even legally call it chocolate. It’s ‘chocolate flavored,’ ” Eidlitz said.

Whole Foods carries Enjoy Life chocolate chips that are kosher pareve. They run $4.99 a bag, while the Trader Joe’s chips are $2.29 a bag. Kosher brands range between $2 and $4.

Some consumers were hoping the Trader Joe’s chips would be designated as the less restrictive DE, which stands for dairy equipment, signifying that the chips were manufactured on equipment also used for dairy.

But OK said the chips have to be considered actually dairy because milk chocolate chips could end up in the bags. Eidlitz said because the chips are complete units that do not fully dissolve into the other ingredients, the “one-sixtieth rule” that can be used to nullify trace amounts of dairy does not apply.

But Eidlitz is holding out hope. In 2006, Duncan Hines cake mixes went dairy, and consumer blowback brought the pareve label back. Same with Stella D’oro cookies, which in 2003 nixed a plan to switch to dairy after a kosher outcry.

A spokesman at the OK said the story is not over.

“We are working to rectify this issue with the manufacturer, and hopefully we will have good news soon,” the OK officer said.

On May 17, Trader Joe’s issued the following glimmer of hope: “We are evaluating our options and although we cannot guarantee a specific outcome at this time, we realize that for some of our customers this is an important issue.”