Innovating the Israeli classroom

Imagine a revolutionary classroom for kids with attention and learning disorders: bouncy chairs made from yoga balls, distraction-free décor, walled-off cubicles, desks on wheels and a touch of the outdoors.

Only there’s no need to imagine it, now that the unique “Yes I Can!” classroom opened this year at Darca High School in Kiryat Malachi (literally “City of Angels,” named for the Los Angeles Jewish community that helped develop the Israeli town). If it proves to be a good working model, the Darca network will implement this Israeli innovation in its 24 other high schools serving the socioeconomic periphery of the country.

“The students already report that it is much easier for them to study and concentrate in the new classroom, thanks to the clean design — no notice boards, posters, accessories, decorations, etc. — [than it is] in a regular classroom,” Principal Michal Hazan said. “This helps to create a calm atmosphere and minimize distractions. The three enclosed workstations for individual study also help in isolating students from the noise made by their classmates, as well as from visual interferences.”

Architect Lior Ben-Sheetrit, 32, chose the design details and furnishings for the 645-square-foot room after extensively observing the 55 students and talking with them and their teachers about the difficulties they experience in a standard setting.

“For example, the students explained that it is very hard for them to sit on regular chairs and concentrate, while the teachers said that the students keep moving and shifting during classes,” Hazan said. “Thus, the chairs made of yoga balls within a frame were designed to channel the students’ energy and give it an outlet.”

Inspired by watching some of the kids play the popular video game Minecraft — in which players break and build with blocks to create imaginative structures — the architect decided to incorporate simple geometric shapes and a “green wall” of vegetation to resemble the game’s environment.

Ben-Sheetrit was working with a nearly $13,000 budget provided by donors, including Israel-based insurance and finance company Harel, Kol Israel Haverim and the Rashi Foundation. The Darca network was established five years ago by the Rashi Foundation and KIAH with the support of the Education Ministry, and was joined in 2014 by the United States-based Youth Renewal Fund.

“As a network, Darca joined forces in this project with Kol Israel Haverim and Harel insurance company to experiment with different ways of dealing with challenges teachers face,” Darca CEO Gil Pereg said.

He explained that Darca takes over poorly performing schools and brings in new management and leadership from excellent schools throughout Israel to work with the existing staff. The 700-student junior-senior high school in Kiryat Malachi became part of the network two years ago.

“In Kiryat Malachi, we also built the kids a new library, and we’ve added more teaching hours and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] instruction, and new innovations like the Yes I Can! classroom,” Pereg said.

“Some of these ideas we find from other places around the globe because we see ourselves as a laboratory for experimental solutions to the challenges of education in the 21st century. The [Yes I Can!] classroom is an example of Israeli design innovation, and in our Ashkelon and Bat Yam schools we’ve done something similar in the English language classrooms.”

However, he said, “In the end, it’s not about computers and walls, but about changing the way these kids see themselves,” noting that Darca schools are experiencing a huge rise in the number of students earning academic diplomas and considering higher education.

Pereg added that Darca emphasizes involving parents in the educational journey. “What we do with the kids often has a direct effect on [the] functioning of the entire family,” he said.

Hazan said parents of kids with ADHD and learning disabilities are “very excited both about the idea of creating a special class and about its beautiful realization.”

But nobody is as excited as the students themselves, Hazan added. 

“They greatly appreciate the efforts that were made for their benefit, and feel that the concept was developed with much respect for their needs and wishes and with the aim of creating a welcoming and aesthetic learning environment.”

Bar-Ilan student kicked out of class for not wearing yarmulke

A Bar-Ilan University Talmud professor kicked a male student out of his class for not wearing a yarmulke.

The incident reportedly occurred last week and later came to light on the Bar-Ilan Facebook page. A complaint posted omn the page over the weekend by a classmate and the stream of comments following it were removed on Tuesday but then circulated by screenshot.

“How is it possible that a lecturer tells a student to get out of class for not wearing a kipa, and the university backs that teacher?”  the student wrote on the Facebook page.

The university responded that all students signed a form at the time of enrollment that they agreed to wear mandatory head coverings in basic Judaism courses. Not all professors strictly enforce the rule.

“The obligation to wear a yarmulke in classes pertaining to religious texts is meant to respect the institution's Jewish tradition and values. According to the university guidelines, students are obligated to wear a yarmulke in Judaism classes,” according to the university's official response.

New group for school and shul rabbis addresses shared issues

A new group of Orthodox day school principals and pulpit rabbis on Los Angeles’ Westside began meeting a few months ago to work through issues that overlap the classroom and the synagogue.

Since December, a group of 10 rabbis has discussed issues ranging from bar and bat mitzvah decorum to serving kids with learning or behavioral differences.

“Usually what happens is pulpit rabbis and day school principals rarely talk to each other, and it shouldn’t be that way, because we share the same community — the congregants are going to the schools — and we share so many issues. If we just talk to each other and try to brainstorm and become a think tank, everyone would benefit,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who started the Shuls/Schools Coalition (SSC) in December.

The rabbis meet about every six weeks for 90 minutes, addressing a previously agreed-upon topic. The host rabbi provides lunch, the only cost SSC incurs.

So far, participants include Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai-David Judea; Steven Weil, Beth Jacob; Daniel Korobkin, Kehillat Yavneh; Nachum Kosofsky, Shaarei Tefila; Moises Benzaquen, Magen David; Boruch Sufrin, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy; Karmi Gross, Maimonides Academy; Moshe Dear, Yeshivat Yavneh; and Shuki Gabbai, Shalhevet.

At the first meeting in December, the rabbis addressed the problem of kids running wild in shuls when they attend a bar mitzvah. The rabbis agreed to visit the schools so the kids would have a familiar face associated with the shul. They also agreed to appoint adults to keep decorum and make the experience more spiritually meaningful for the young guests.

At the next three meetings, the rabbis devoted all their time to addressing communal responsibility for children who aren’t served by a standard day school curriculum. The issue arose because Kol Hanearim, a two-year-old program to serve emotionally and behaviorally challenged kids in day schools, was in deep financial trouble.

The rabbis decided to examine different models and assess what the best solution is for Los Angeles, an ongoing process. They have pulled the Bureau of Jewish Education and non-Orthodox day schools into the discussion.

The next meeting will look at how to make prayer a more meaningful experience both in school and in synagogue, a long-term problem Muskin sees among many of his adult congregants who graduated from day schools.

“Something is desperately wrong, and this is a synagogue-school problem. It’s an issue that crosses the line between the school and shul, and we’ve got to figure out ways to fix it,” Muskin said.

When Xmas Enters the Classroom


Five days a week during this holiday period, Jodi Braverman sits in a room that conjures up images of the North Pole. The walls are covered with pictures of jolly old St. Nick, and not one, but two miniature Christmas trees serve as obstacles to the seating area. From time to time, Yuletide carols serve as background music.

The holiday scene seems like something right out of a department store lineup to see Santa. However, for Braverman, it’s called education. The room is in Ulysses S. Grant High School in Valley Glen and the class is — well, Braverman pleaded the Fifth.

“I sit next to another Jewish kid in the class, and we make comments to each other,” Braverman, 16, said with a note of annoyance in her voice.

While the high school junior is not outraged by the overt display, she does find it off-putting.

“The teacher says the trees aren’t Christmas symbols, they’re just something that’s been adopted over the years,” the student said. “We feel like it is a Christmas symbol. We don’t see the need for it.”

But rather than rocking the boat, Braverman plans to ride it out.

“I don’t want to get on the teacher’s bad side,” the Sherman Oaks resident said. “It’s just for the month, I guess.”

At a time when some schools around the country are being challenged over their Christmas celebrations, the plight of Jewish students who attend public school during the holiday season has become more significant than ever.

Bill O’Reilly, host of “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News Channel and a national radio program, angered some Jewish lawmakers and organizational leaders on Dec. 3 when he suggested that a Jewish radio caller angry that Christmas is celebrated in public schools should “go to Israel.” When the Anti-Defamation League demanded an appology, the host responded by calling its national director, Abraham Foxman, “a nut.”

And while a high school in Maplewood, N.J., recently was forbidden to play Christmas songs at its holiday concert, and the words “Merry Christmas” were removed from a popular holiday tune in Chicago’s public schools, the domination of Christmas over Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Ramadan is still rampant in the public school arena. While the country continues to redefine separation of church and state, Jewish students — recognizing that Chanukah is a minor holiday in Judaism — are finding ways to cope during December.

Perhaps the reason Braverman isn’t too worked up about her daily dose of Dec. 25 is because, like many Jewish children in public schools across the Southland, she’s got her Jewish bases covered. She is the secretary of the school’s Jewish club, president of her Jewish youth group chapter and most of her friends are Jewish.

Like Braverman, Danielle Roth, a senior at LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies) feels that her school’s tendency to favor Christmas over Chanukah and the other holidays is obvious. Roth said that any recognition of the winter holidays seems to emphasize Christmas the most — even down to the holiday candygrams students can purchase.

“The school wants to recognize all of the holidays, but if the candygrams are decorated with a little bear or something, the bear is wearing a Santa hat,” Roth explained. “The spirit of the whole thing is very Christmas-like.”

Roth’s salvation is the Jewish Student Union (called Young Jewish Scholars at LACES), a national, not-for-profit organization that facilitates weekly club meetings in public schools. Roth is the Jewish Student Union (JSU) regional president.

Club meetings take place weekly during the school lunch hour and include speakers from Jewish organizations and discussions on timely topics for Jews. The club also offers activities outside of school, celebrations and other events.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, JSU was founded two and a half years ago and is funded by the Gindi Family Fund and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Currently, JSU has chapters at 17 public high schools in the greater Los Angeles area (except LACES, which is a magnet). In addition, JSU has chapters in New Jersey, as well as several affiliated clubs elsewhere in the nation.

JSU was created after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that school districts must give student Bible clubs the same access to public schools for meetings that they give to other community groups.

Before JSU came to LACES during Roth’s sophomore year, Judaism was an out-of-school experience for her.

“I got my Jewishness in Hebrew school, but I felt something was missing,” Roth said. “I felt weird that I couldn’t have that at school.”

Because most public schools do not have a JSU chapter, some students rely on outside organizations for a dose of Judaism. Courtney Korb, 16, a Burbank High School junior, is president of her B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) chapter, which is part of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.

“I can count all the Jews at my school on two hands,” the Burbank resident said. “But my teachers are respectful of the fact that I’m Jewish and I celebrate Chanukah.”

Korb does not hesitate to reveal that Christmas is everywhere at her school but seems resigned to that fact.

“I’ve become used to it,” she said. “I kind of see that it’s not going to change, but if I ever have a problem with it, I could always talk to a teacher or a Jewish friend at school or one of my AZA [Aleph Zadik Aleph] or BBG friends.”

While older Jewish students find ways to combat the December dilemma, the fact that Christmas is king in school is not lost on the younger set. Taylor Gottbetter, a second-grader at Welby Way Elementary School in West Hills, spoke about making a menorah at school for a lesson on Chanukah. But in the same breath, he noted that his classroom calendar “is decorated with the most famous holiday in December — Christmas.”

Taylor is not alone in his realization and acceptance of the situation.

“At my school, we don’t celebrate Chanukah, and there are no Chanukah decorations, only Christmas decorations,” said Gal Dimond, a third-grader at Sherman Oaks Elementary School. “But it’s OK for me. I don’t care.”

Jacob Hanna, 13, a seventh-grader at Portola Middle School in Tarzana, had an improved holiday experience after he moved from a school with a smaller Jewish population.

“At my other school, there were only like 10 kids who were Jewish, and the teachers might say, ‘Oh, Chanukah’s this week, now back to our lesson,'” said Hanna, who added that his former classmates often made fun of Judaism because they didn’t know anything about it. “No one really cared [about Chanukah]. At my new school, they actually know about the holiday.”

But it is the high school set that seemed most moved by the Christmas conundrum.

“If there was going to be a big Christmas tree at school this year, I’d make the Jewish Club put up a big menorah,” said Matt Pinchak, a senior at Agoura High School.

While Pinchak described his school as respectful when it comes to the December holidays, he is not afraid to speak up for Chanukah and Judaism if necessary.

“If anyone’s going to make a big deal [if Chanukah is not equally recognized at school], it’s me, and the school knows it,” said the 17-year-old, who wears a yarmulke to school each day.

As a member of the Madrigal Singers, a prestigious choir at Beverly Hills High School, Maya Lasry doesn’t mind singing Christmas carols.

“It’s pretty music,” the junior said. “I don’t have to necessarily believe in what I’m singing. I just do it because I love it.”

In fact, singing Christmas songs has become a Jewish bonding experience for Lasry, because many of her fellow Madrigals are Jewish and speak Hebrew. Lasry and her friends often help the choir conductor pronounce the Hebrew words in the Chanukah songs.

To assist public schools in dealing with the December holidays without favoring one religion over another, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) provides public schools and government institutions in Southern California with materials and information on how to keep public recognition of the December holidays constitutionally permissible.

While society sorts out separation of church and state and what constitutes a religious celebration, there is no question that many local children still take pride in celebrating Chanukah.

“I like that Chanukah and the Jewish holidays aren’t commercialized,” Braverman said. “We still remember the religious factor and not the ‘Hallmark’ aspect. The story behind the holiday isn’t lost of the years.”

For more information about the Jewish Student Union, visit For more information about the Anti-Defamation League, visit

ADL Offers Schools Holiday Guidelines

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Contributing Writer

To assist public schools in dealing with the December holidays without favoring one religion over another, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) provides schools and government institutions in Southern California with materials and information on what is constitutionally permissible.

The materials highlight the difference between practicing and teaching religion, offer guidelines for holiday assemblies at which religious themes or music may be performed, advise on appropriate holiday symbols for decorations, suggest appropriate holiday activities and explain what is permissible to be displayed on public property.

An ADL guide for Jewish parents deals with similar issues.

“The goal is to facilitate joyful celebration of the season’s holidays in a constitutionally appropriate manner,” said Amanda Susskind, ADL Pacific Southwest regional director. “No child of any faith should feel excluded or ostracized by holiday programming taking place in a public school.”

In addition to a synopsis of the legal and technical issues available online and in print, the ADL has materials to help children deal with cultural differences inevitably highlighted in December.

“December Blues” is a chapter in “What Would You Do?” a book produced by the ADL’s Dream Dialogue group of teenagers. The book, used by facilitators in libraries and schools, challenges elementary school students to play out scenarios in which one person or another feels left out.

For information or to order materials, visit or call (310) 446-8000. — SSR

The Blow by Blow on Shofarim

Yossi Mizrachi stood in front of a class of second-graders at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy with a dark, ridged, 4-foot-long buffalo horn in his hand.

"Can we use this for a shofar?" he asked the class, who started cooing in awe at the enormous horn.

"The buffalo is a kosher animal," Mizrachi said, before taking the horn and putting it over his shoulder so it looked like a shofar musket. "But did you ever see a rabbi carrying a shofar that looked like this to shul?"

Mizrachi was at Harkham Hillel with his colleague, Alti Burston, to teach the second-graders how to make shofars. The two men, both in their early 20s, have been traveling all over California for the past couple of weeks with a mobile shofar factory, stopping in different classrooms and synagogues to give people a chance to make their own shofars for Rosh Hashanah.

A shofar is a hollowed-out animal horn, that has a hole pierced through the cartilage end. When air is forced through the shofar, it acts as an instrument of sorts, emitting a plaintive wail. By controlling the amount of air going through the shofar, the wail can be manipulated to create different sounds.

Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a mitzvah from the Torah, and, as Mizrachi told the class, the reason we blow it is because it acts as a spiritual "alarm clock," reminding us to wake up and to repent.

While most of the shofars being blown in synagogues are slick and shiny factory processed ram’s horns, the coarse prototypes produced in this makeshift factory (sponsored by Chabad Youth Programs) are just as kosher, and create a sound that is as sharp and clear.

In the classroom, Mizrachi and Burston use a display of pictures of different horned animals and two stuffed sheep busts on loan from the Museum of Natural History to tell the class which animals can and can’t be used to make a shofar. Animals like giraffes and deer are out because the protrusions on the top of their heads are not actually horns but ossicones (for giraffes) and antlers (deer). However, the kudu — an African animal with a long curly horn that Sephardic communities prefer to use as their shofar — the ram, the gemsbok and the ibex, all have the rounded horns that can be used as a shofar.

Despite its impressive size, the buffalo horn, it turns out, is not permissible to use as a shofar, because the buffalo is from the cow family. As Mizrachi explained to the class, we tend to steer clear of cow-related shofars because we don’t want to remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf on the day we are hoping to get into His good graces.

"The significance of the shofar being curved means that sometimes we take our will, and we don’t do only what we want to do, but we do what Hashem wants us to do," Mizrachi said. "We bend our will to do what Hashem wants."

To make the shofar, Mizrachi took a ram’s horn, which unlike the light yellow shofars seen in synagogues, was a blackish gray, and called for a strong volunteer from the class. A student named Amanda stood up to the challenge, and with Mizrachi assisting her, used a pair of pliers to extract the bone inside the wide end of the horn. The class gave her a round of applause.

Mizrachi called for more volunteers who took turns sanding down the horn with sand paper. Mizrachi then took a piece of plastic and stuck it through the wide end of the horn to measure for cartilage, noting where the cartilage began. He handed the shofar to Burston, who used a little saw to cut through the cartilage.

Then the drilling began. Mizrachi dressed Avi, another student, in safety goggles and a helmet, and together they held the electric drill, using the cone bit to create the mouthpiece on the shofar. With a great flourish, Mizrachi blew through the hole, ostensibly to see if it had gone all the way through. A cloud of keratin (the substance ram’s horns/shofars are made of) dust filled the air and the class clapped wildly.

Apparently, the hole had gone all the way through. Burston then used a mechanical sander to smooth out the rough edges, and the shofar was sprayed with varnish and left to dry.

Burston then taught the class on how to blow a shofar. He held his middle finger and his index finger together, and used them to cover three quarters of his lips.

"People think that you have to blow, but you really have to go like this," said Mizrachi, before forcing the air through the opening in his lip. Without the shofar at his lips, it sounded something like a whoopee cushion. With the shofar, it sounded religiously melodic.

Right at the Start

It’s not only that children are killing children. There’s also the fact, chronicled in such publications as U.S. News & World Report, that cheating is up in classrooms across the nation. No wonder educators of all stripes are pondering what it takes to teach ethics to their students.

Because children’s behavior is molded at an early age, it was fitting that the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), in planning its 20th annual Early Childhood Spring Institute, chose as its theme “Educating An Ethical Child in the 21st Century.” On March 6, nearly 1,100 Jewish preschool teachers joined 80 parents of young children to explore the Jewish side of moral education.