Sinai Akiba Academy is being renamed in honor of donors Alice and Nahum Lainer. Photo courtesy of Sinai Akiba

Large gift will bring new name, tuition assistance to Sinai Akiba Academy


School officials at Sinai Akiba Academy in West Los Angeles are hailing a recently announced gift as “transformative,” something that will help ensure its future for years to come.

That future will feature a new name.

Beginning in the upcoming 2017-18 academic year, the school officially will be known as Alice and Nahum Lainer School in honor of the large donation — officials declined to disclose the exact amount — made by the Lainers, longtime supporters of the school who have sent three children, all now adults, as well as three grandchildren there.

“This is huge news,” said Head of School Sarah Shulkind. “I wrote to colleagues, other Jewish day school heads, that this is a win for all of us. It says that there’s a significant investment in Jewish schools being a critical part of Jewish continuity and Jewish sustainability in the future.”

Shulkind said the gift will help the school continue funding academic programs such as JSTEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math through a Jewish lens), as well as tuition assistance.

Nahum, a real estate developer, and his wife, Alice, live in Beverly Park. The Lainers were one of the first families to send their children to the school when it was still known as Akiba Academy. In the past, they’ve given generously to Jewish philanthropic causes such as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

In a joint public statement, the Lainers expressed their desire to encourage other families in the community to follow their lead.

“With this endowment gift, our goal is to ensure that more Jewish families have access to such a wonderful education,” they said. “We hope that our leadership will inspire our old friends, our new friends, the parents of today, and the whole community, to join us in donating to the financial stability and sustainability of a great and important place of learning and creativity, for generations to come.”

According to Shulkind, accessibility for Jewish families has been an issue of late in the world of private Jewish education, with many Jewish schools around the country experiencing dips in enrollment numbers or even shutting their doors after the 2008 recession. Shulkind said her school hasn’t seen a noticeable drop in enrollment, partly due to its widespread tuition assistance program.

“We give 30 percent of our kids tuition assistance,” Shulkind said. “I’m extremely proud of our commitment to our central mission: making the school accessible to any Jewish family seeking a quality Jewish education. In order to sustain that and to continue to grow the excellent academic programming we’re known for, we had to have this kind of endowment gift.”

The school, a Sinai Temple school that is a member of the Schechter Day School Network, opened in 1968. It now serves students from birth to eighth grade and has more than 600 students. Annual tuition for its lower school is $26,195; for the middle school, it is $29,480, according to its website.

In 2015, Shulkind and the school’s board passed a strategic financial plan to raise $40 million. When they thought about how to get there, the answer seemed obvious.

“We talked about families with a passion for Jewish education and philanthropy that had the interest and the capacity. The very first family on everyone’s mind was the Lainers,” she said.

Shulkind said the Lainers’ gift made up “a significant portion” of the school’s $40 million goal and that it already has helped raise interest in making contributions from other prominent philanthropic families tied to the school. She also referred to the Lainers’ donation as a “lead gift” in the school’s upcoming 50th anniversary fundraising campaign.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple reacted to the gift by saying, “We are grateful and blessed — and strengthened in our resolve to inspire the souls of our students.”

Gary Lainer, board chair of the school, and his wife, Lisa, have sent three children there. But in this case, he’s more than a school leader — he’s a proud son.

“I am grateful that our school has received such a consequential gift, a lead gift to begin our celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary, and I am excited that this gift will help secure the school’s future.”

Similar to actions taken by deToledo High School officials after its renaming from New Community Jewish High School in 2014, Shulkind said her school has hired a marketing firm to help with rebranding. By this fall, the school’s website and campus signage will reflect the name change, but it still may take some getting used to.

“There will be a transition time. You can’t just flip a switch,” she said. 

Nirit Bialer, an Israeli expat, speaks with seventh-graders in Berlin as part of the “Rent A Jew” program. Photo by Gregor Zielke

For questions about Jews, just ‘rent’ one for answers


The subject sat there, surrounded by 23 nursing students from the School of Health and Healthcare at the Alexianer St. Hedwig Hospital in the former Jewish quarter of eastern Berlin. They examined her as if she were an endangered species, ready to be dissected. Some had never encountered such an organism before. After all, in Germany, her type had been endangered for some time.

The center of curiosity was Juna Grossman, a 40-year-old Jewish woman born in the former East Berlin. Her grandparents survived the Holocaust, saved by a German family who hid them in southern Germany. With her long, dirty-blond braids and hazel eyes, she sat there, smiling and patient, ready to take questions, as a Jew “rented out” through a German-Jewish program called Rent a Jew.

With its controversial name, Rent a Jew both objectifies and at the same time humanizes what for many young Germans is a novelty: a living, modern Jewish person.

“It’s a bit ironic, but we thought we would embrace the irony in the situation,” said Alexander Rasumny, coordinator of Rent a Jew.

The name, he said, is a provocative description of a speaking bureau of Jews from all walks of German life who are available to German schools and institutions to educate non-Jews about Judaism and to dispel stereotypes and prejudices that have been linked to Jews for centuries.

“We were thinking how to try to change the image of Jews in Germany for the better, and we thought direct contact is the best way to do that,” Rasumny said.

Rasumny co-founded Rent a Jew in 2015 while working as a project manager for the European Janusz Korczak Academy, a Munich-based partner of the Jewish Agency for Israel that seeks to reinforce Jewish identity in German-speaking countries. Rent a Jew has conducted more than 30 sessions across Germany. The 50 to 60 Jewish participants represent a cross section of the German-Jewish population and undergo a screening and training process.

The Rent a Jew website explains its rationale this way: “Talk to us, not about us. We don’t give lectures on Jewish history or religion as experts but talk about what it’s like for us to be a Jew in Germany. Above all, we encourage people to ask questions and yes, voice those stereotypes like: Are all Jews rich? Do they control the media? Or are they really the chosen people? Most importantly, people can talk with Jews instead of only talking about them.”

Rent-A-Jew

Photo by Orit Arfa

Rent a Jew is not the first effort to market Jews playfully as a product. A 2013 exhibition on Judaism at the Jewish Museum in Berlin drew criticism when it exhibited “Jew in a Box,” in which alternating Jews sat in a display case to field questions from the public.

Dani Kranz, a Cologne-based anthropologist and expert in Israeli migration to Germany, applauds such tongue-in-cheek attempts to educate Germans about contemporary Jews and Judaism.

“I would say the mere attempt to represent oneself, to take charge, and to communicate as an individual Jew and individual human being is direly needed because Jews are exoticized,” Kranz said. “In some respects, it’s painful to see because it makes the assumed difference between Jews and non-Jews blatantly clear, but it should be addressed.”

And not only for Jews. Kranz, a German-born Jew, said the Arabs and Muslims in her social circle also encounter prejudices and misconceptions.

“There should also be a program for Rent a Muslim or Rent a Palestinian,” she said, although she conceded that the Shoah makes some Germans believe they must handle Jews with special gloves.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, half a million Jews lived in Germany, more than 150,000 of them in Berlin. While the 500,000 accounted for less than 1 percent of the country’s population at the time, many stood out as leaders in academia, banking, media, industry and business. Early 20th-century Berlin was home to some of Jewry’s leading minds, including Albert Einstein, philosopher Martin Buber and scholar Gershom Scholem. They built on a Jewish-German intellectual tradition started in the 18th century by celebrated philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

After the Nazi atrocities of World War II, fewer than 20,000 Jews remained in Germany, about 8,000 in Berlin. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the country’s Jewish population had grown to nearly 30,000.

After Germany’s official reunification in 1990, the new government welcomed Jews from the former Soviet Union to re-establish the community Hitler had decimated. Russian immigrants and their children, such as Rasumny, form the bulk of Germany’s Jewish population, which today stands at more than 100,000 — maybe as many as 200,000. (Precise numbers are elusive because the German government does not require citizens to reveal their religious affiliation, and the dogged question of “Who is a Jew?” further complicates an accurate count.)

According to Grossman, the Jew who visited the nursing students at Alexianer last month, most German students today do not learn the full history of Jewish life in Germany and, instead, focus on the attempted Nazi genocide.

“When you ask Germans what they think when they think of ‘Jews,’ you always have the Holocaust or the typical ‘black-hat Jew,’ ” Grossman told the Journal before her talk at the hospital. “That’s not the reality, is it?”

She said she believes Holocaust education is diminishing in some German curricula as instruction about this time period competes with that of the Cold War era.

Born under communism, which suppressed religious practice, Grossman “returned” to Judaism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, studying at the historic Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in the former East Berlin, led by a female rabbi and best known for its restored golden dome.

As a program speaker and blogger on Jewish life in Germany, Grossman invites questions from German students that don’t dwell on the Holocaust. In fact, she said, she looks forward to when the Holocaust plays less of a role in Jewish identity and perceptions in Germany so she can feel the ease and normalcy she felt as a Jew living in Boston for several years.

“Here, when you meet somebody not Jewish and you ‘out’ yourself as being Jewish, you get reactions like: ‘Oops, how do I behave now?’ ” she said. “It’s a strange glaze in the eyes, and sometimes they say something about their grandparents.”

Julia Engelhardt, a nursing instructor at Alexianer, heard about Rent a Jew on German television and immediately decided to try it for a class on world religions.

“We thought it would be good for them to know things they should or shouldn’t do if they have Jewish patients,” Engelhardt said before the class with Grossman.

Grossman began her session with an introduction about her German-Jewish background. Across from her on the wall was a statuette of Jesus on the cross; to her left, a model skeleton.

Students slowly raised their hands to ask questions about Jewish life and death, unrelated to the actual life and death of Jewry in the neighborhood of the hospital — a former Jewish quarter, something most students did not know.

Just a few blocks away, on Grosse Hamburger Street, is the memorial site for the Jewish Home for the Aging that the Nazis converted to an assembly camp for deporting 55,000 Berlin Jews. Behind it is the Jewish cemetery that dates back to 1672, where Mendelssohn was buried.

The class included some foreign students, including one from Poland who asked: “What do Jews do when someone dies?” Grossman explained burial and shivah mourning rituals.

“Why do Jews step on a glass cup at a Jewish wedding?” asked an African student. Grossman explained it commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

Grossman’s favorite question came from a German man to her left: “Do Jews believe in an afterlife?” She explained that Judaism differs from Christianity in its lack of emphasis on heaven and hell, although the student said he is comforted by the idea of a paradise in the next world.

“I liked it the most, as he was very respectful and just accepting my other view on things,” Grossman told the Journal. “That’s not really common for Christians, I mean for real active ones. Usually, they seek to convince you of their belief.”

Not all Rent a Jew sessions run so smoothly.

Nirit Bialer, founder of Habait (The Home), a Berlin-based organization that seeks to expose Germans to Israeli culture, was taken aback by some of the stereotypes and misconceptions she encountered from a seventh-grade class at a school in Neukölln, a Berlin district with a large immigrant population.

“There were a lot of kids there with Muslim backgrounds, kids with parents coming in from the Middle East,” Bialer said. “That was a different experience. A lot of politics involved; people confused ideas about Judaism, Israel. Everything was intermingled together. There were many facts they were not sure about.”

She recalled how one student asked if Hitler and the Zionists worked together, while another asked what the Palestinians did so wrong to the Jews.

“It was not an easy situation for me personally, since you are being pulled into the Middle East conflict when trying to talk to a class about Judaism,” Bialer said.

Her previous Rent a Jew appearance had occurred at an adult education class in which participants — curiously and courteously, she said — asked about her experience living in Berlin as an Israeli. Bialer represents a relatively new but significant component of Jewish life in Germany: Israeli expats, although the number of them living in Berlin is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000.

The turning point during the Neukölln session came when her fellow “rented” Jew, a Russian-born woman named Esther Knochenhauer, told the class that she works as a booking agent for German rappers.

“Some of the kids that were talking to her were like, ‘Wow. That’s a cool Jewish girl.’ ”

That’s when the ice broke and the class’ Jewish visitors truly were humanized.

Esther Knochenhauer, a Russian-born Jew who accompanied Nirit Bialer on her school visit in Berlin, writes on the classroom chalkboard. Photo by Gregor Zielke

Increasingly, the Rent a Jew program is bringing knowledge of Judaism to a population generally untouched by the Shoah: first generation and nonnative Germans.

“The students in Neukölln, now, demonstrated a pattern of seeing Jews only through the lens of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is not uncommon in migrant communities, particularly with an Arabic, but also Turkish, background,” Rent a Jew coordinator Rasumny said.

These communities initially encounter anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda at home, through Arab-language television or Islamic and Turkish nationalist youth organizations.

“So we have to reach them while they’re in the school and at least somewhat open to arguments,” Rasumny said. “The same goes for students who grow up in households with parents holding populist or far-right views. The number of such households should not be underestimated. And, of course, there also is a very distinct left-wing anti-Semitism, which is mostly Israel-related.”

A recent report from the German parliament found that 40 percent of Germans hold anti-Semitic views expressed by hostility toward the Jewish state. Most program participants, however, as with the Alexianer students, were apolitical and limited in knowledge.

Nursing students Elise Senst and Kate Kalhol, both 21, said they came out of the Alexianer session feeling intellectually enriched.

Both grew up in Brandenburg, one of Germany’s 16 federal states, on the outskirts of Berlin, and neither has Jewish friends. At first, they were confused by the program’s name, Rent a Jew. Kalhol had been to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, while Senst received general knowledge of Judaism as a youth. As third-generation Germans from the Nazi era, the Holocaust is not necessarily their immediate association with Jews.

“In my circle of friends, it [the Holocaust] is not even there,” Senst said, although her grandmother lived through the Nazi period and told her stories of Jews fleeing. “I have a couple of friends who did social work in Israel, but they didn’t go because of the Holocaust and that part of German history, but for the country itself. It’s there. We can’t forget about it, but it’s not on top anymore.”

Senst was most surprised to learn that Jewish identity is not dependent on belief in God, as Christianity is.

“I really enjoyed the communication, but the strange thing to me is that if you decided to believe in the Jewish religion, that all the following generations will be Jewish even if they don’t believe in it,” Senst said.

Kalhol said she is inclined to separate Judaism from Israel, while Senst associates Israel with the Jewish people. By showcasing both Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Rent a Jew seeks to discuss the distinction between Judaism as a religious identity and a national one.

“If I meet an Israeli, I’m going to ask what the country’s like, what life is like there, maybe I would also ask if he’s Jewish or what kind of religion he belongs to, but that’s another stereotype,” Kalhol said.

At Alexianer, Engelhardt, the nursing instructor, said she was pleased with the program, especially for clarifying differences between Jewish rituals and practices and those of other religions.

“For example, Juna [Grossman] said that if a Jew dies, don’t lay their hands like a cross the way Christians do, and this is a kind of sensitivity you could have also with other religions,” she said.

Engelhardt said Alexianer will be a repeat customer. She already has booked Grossman again, proving that the name of the program can succeed in challenging another stereotype: Jewish greed.

Rent a Jew Jews are “rented” for free.

Photo via WikiCommons

We need a poverty summit


If we can land a man on the moon, we can end poverty. The Jewish community has been grappling with the issue of the impoverished, the other, for thousands of years. We are taught that “There shall be no poor among you” and “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

Communal service networks have helped knit together organized Jewish communities for generations. Our ancestors, whether escaping Russian pogroms or surviving Nazi death camps, came to the United States in conditions of abject poverty, carrying our legacies with them. Social service efforts have helped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our own.

If any community has the history to help launch a “moon landing” to defeat poverty, it is ours. We can’t do it alone, nor should we, but we can convene our neighbors, our friends, our hearts and our intentions to do something unprecedented. We can bring together the minds and the expertise to craft a comprehensive plan to end poverty as has never been done before. We can harness the minds, the will and the resources that resulted in “one giant leap for mankind,” thereby marshaling the tools needed to affect the lives of the poor in the most far-reaching and profound way imaginable.

We must call a summit. The United States Poverty Summit would devote attention and resources unseen since Neil Armstrong made an entire country believe in itself when he stepped on the moon. Approaching the issue of poverty from a variety of disciplines, led by an array of experts, the summit will launch a national dialogue that can lead to a comprehensive plan to attack this suffering in all the many ways that are needed.

There is no single path into or out of poverty. Assembling experts from different fields who can talk to one another, interact with one another and make symbiotic their disparate approaches, is the way forward. The tools are there, the programs exist and the people with the knowledge are available.

We, as a community, can supply the key, otherwise missing, ingredient: the will. We can help cast aside gridlock. There is too much at stake, too many lives on the edge, to avoid the opportunity that can lead, together, to a historic societal change.

What shape would a weeklong poverty summit take? On Day One, an agenda will be set.  Days Two and Three will be spent in intensive group discussions, led by designated experts, with invited representatives from each represented community. On Day Four, each group will draft its own 10-point plan that can be implemented to alleviate the trauma of poverty from its perspective, and then, on Day Five, all of the groups will reconvene for a general convocation at which all of the plans will be reviewed and integrated. The result will be a week to define the concrete steps that will change the lives of the poor in a way never before attempted.

A number of key components need to be amassed. With apologies to all those inadvertently omitted, the summit has to begin with a community ready to lead and a designated leader to help bring so many diverse experts together. We are that community. 

The leader

For a generation, former Sen. and Vice President Joe Biden has been the conscience of our government’s policies affecting the most vulnerable. He authored the Violence Against Women Act, he championed numerous access-to-justice initiatives for the poor, and he oversaw the launch and growth of the national IMPACT Project, an unprecedented national pro bono program that has brought heightened legal services to the poor in 11 cities around the country. His experience, his insight, his moderation and his ability to reach across party lines make him the moderator, leader and voice of this effort.

The legal community

Acknowledging that lawyers are the unsung heroes in the battle against poverty, understanding that only the justice system can address the immediate needs of those most vulnerable, a number of key attorneys must be at the poverty summit. Expert attorneys in civil rights, poverty law, government funding, homelessness prevention and the pro bono delivery of legal services need to be part of the summit.

The advocacy community 

Understanding that without forceful and skilled advocates, no plan would be complete, several key voices need to lead one of the most crucial discussions. Leaders in children’s rights, authors addressing race and poverty, homeless community advocates, senior protection organizations, those involved in advancing the cause of affordable housing, and experts in making the welfare system work efficiently all need to be invited. 

The economics of poverty

Leading economists and academics have devoted their considerable scholarship to the economics of poverty. Tax experts, those who have worked around the world on issues of extreme poverty, and political leaders who have devoted significant thought and legislative efforts to combating poverty can be assembled to attend and advise. Professors, governors and lawmakers will bring a perspective and expertise needed to move forward with proficiency and influence. 

Politicians and the political system 

Not many elected officials have dared to discuss poverty and make it a critical part of our national discourse. The late Robert Kennedy, who served as a U.S. senator and attorney general, was the prototype but, sadly, few have claimed his mantle. Others, however, at various levels of government actively have tried to bring the issue into our political dialogue. Particular mayors, city attorneys, state legislators, governors, senators and Cabinet members have initiated legislation, used their bully pulpits, encouraged anti-poverty development, and should be a key part of this discussion. 

Homelessness advocates 

In various communities around the country, there are advocates who have devoted their lives to being immediate with those whose situations have forced them into life on the streets. These advocates take to the streets, literally, to know and understand the people who are living in this kind of poverty. They and others have launched on-the-ground projects that are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing and training the job-seekers. Invited to join these dedicated leaders will be representatives from the most effective on-the-ground organizations in the country, those who actively are engaged in innovative anti-poverty programming.

Literature   

Addressing the intersection of race and poverty has been assessed directly by a number of authors, to one degree or another. Their examinations and experiences will add to the summit discussion. They have addressed the impact that increased incarceration followed by difficult parole policies have on the cycle of poverty. They work with former convicts who find re-entry to be increasingly difficult as they are denied jobs, housing and voting rights. Others have written about the need for our communities to create more ways for the poor to earn decent wages. Still others have lived among the poor and written about the precarious poverty precipice over which families fall when they lose their homes.

Foundations/philanthropists

Well-funded private foundations, led by influential nonprofit and business pacesetters, have provided billions of dollars in grant-funding, goods and services to combat the trauma of poverty. A national network of community foundations is impacting low-income neighborhoods and programming on a daily basis. Bringing together private foundations, with collective resources and missions meant to make an impact, will be a part of this particular group. 

The business community

Individual philanthropists from the business community offer important leadership. Representatives from the banking, real estate, investment and entertainment industries bring a perspective, as well as resources and gravitas, needed to overcome the ways that established systems sometimes work against the interests of the poor. Bringing a business sensibility, an industrious approach to uplifting the needy, and crafting a strategy for private industry to pursue will be a critical part of the plan to be drafted.

Faith communities

Throughout the history of the United States, communities of faith have been the primary line of defense for the poor. The Jewish Federations of North America bring together a vast network of Jewish communal organizations that have been serving the poor on a nonsectarian basis for more than a century. Other religious groups have done similarly admirable work. They all need to be at this table and they all need to bring their constituencies with them. They collectively would bring to the summit a wide swath of experience and a deep pool of experts and volunteers.

Food insecurity

More than 42 million people in the U.S. live in households that are food insecure. (That figure is from the 2016 report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Organizations across the country are working and advocating for effective anti-hunger measures.

Education

Poverty is awash in generational cycles. Education is the single most important weapon in breaking through a historical, cyclical morass of lost hope. Secretaries of education, on the state and federal Cabinet levels, can lead this part of the discussion. Innovative educators from universities, public grade schools, support organizations and private funders would bring great experience and wisdom to the discussion. Leaders of teachers unions, private school professionals and carefully chosen elected school board representatives need to round out the list of participants.

There are many other groups whose participation and experience would be valuable additions to the summit. Union leaders, job-creation organizations, local governments, housing departments, builders, welfare advocates, mental health professionals, environmentalists who focus on the degradation of our low-income communities, medical personnel and community health organizations would be important contributors. The bottom line is that we have an occasion to address the overriding issue of our generation.

As leaders of a Jewish community that for generations has argued about, debated and taken action to help the impoverished among us, we have the will to address issues of poverty as never before. With the right people in the room, one week of uninterrupted focus is all we ask. It could change our nation forever. 


David A. Lash is the managing counsel of pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. To join him in this effort, email PovertyCon@jewishjournal.com.

Royce Hall at UCLA

Israelis to teach choreography, media arts at UCLA


UCLA students will have the opportunity this spring to study with two leading Israeli artists who combine science with the movement of bodies.

Choreographer Shahar Biniamini and media artist Daniel Landau are among 14 top Israeli artists coming to major U.S. universities during the current academic year, as part of the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artists Program.

Biniamini has danced with Batsheva — The Young Ensemble and Batsheva Dance Company during the past decade. Since leaving it in 2013, he continues to teach and produce the Batsheva repertoire around the world.

Biniamini is a teacher of the movement language Gaga, improvised dance developed by Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin that sometimes appears spastic, grotesque or even silly as a way to unlock thoughts and emotions.

Biniamini, 28, says he first became interested in dance when he was 17 years old, after seeing the Naharin-choreographed piece “Shalosh.”

“I remember the sensation I had. Not necessarily that I wanted to be a dancer, but I wanted to be part of that thing that I saw,” Biniamini said in an interview over tea at Melrose Umbrella Co.  “It came out of nowhere, and my life changed completely.”

The other visiting Israeli artist, Landau, studied music composition and new media at the Royal Conservatory in the Netherlands. His artistic installations examine the relationship between the body and technology, and he’ll work with students in the UCLA Department of Media Arts using virtual reality.

The Visiting Israeli Artists program is an initiative of the Israel Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based academic institute. The program was founded in 2008 to bring modern Israeli artists and cultural leaders to North America for residencies at cultural organizations and academic centers. Since the program began, there have been 68 residencies featuring 78 artists at colleges and universities.

“There are universities that we’re interested in bringing artists to, and sometimes that university wants to bring a specific artist or an artist in a certain field. And other times I meet an artist that has the talent and the teaching experience,” said Marge Goldwater, director of arts and cultural programs at the Israel Institute. “Sometimes I describe myself as a matchmaker.”

Soon after leaving Batsheva, Biniamini co-founded a research group, Tnuda, to explore the connection between science and movement. Composed of dancers, choreographers and scientists, it is based at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, a town south of Tel Aviv. He founded the group with Weizmann professor Atan Gross, who studies apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

“[Gross] sees a link between the process of dance, with bodies transferring information from one body to another, and it gives him inspiration for new directions in research on why cells commit suicide for the benefit of the whole unit,” Biniamini said.

As an independent dancer and artist, Biniamini choreographs new pieces for theaters and companies. In one piece, “Flat,” created for Frontier Danceland in Singapore, he covered one dancer with blue dots. In another,  “Yama,” he covered Japanese dancers with red dots.

“When I work with dancers, I like to see the body. I like to see the muscles, to see the body exposed,” he said. The idea was “to create a kind of uniform without disturbing the body.”

After working with UCLA students on an original choreographed piece this spring, he plans to work with GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Gothenburg, Sweden; followed by a collaboration with Gauthier Dance, an ensemble in Stuttgart, Germany; and a workshop in Italy’s Tuscany region.

Biniamini has also produced videos, installations and sculptures that have been presented in theaters, museums and galleries around the world.

“It’s always a running joke between us when we talk on the phone,” Goldwater said. “I say, ‘What continent am I talking to you on?’ ”

While in Los Angeles, Biniamini will also choreograph a new piece with former Batsheva dancer and artistic director Danielle Agami and her L.A.-based ensemble, Ate9 Dance Company.

Biniamini says his goal is to found a collective of choreographers and dancers and to continue bringing innovative dance to people all over the globe.

“It’s healthy, and it can save the world,” he said.

Landau, in addition to his artistic work, led the media studies department at Beit Berl Academic College near Tel Aviv from 2012 to 2016. At 43, he is a doctoral candidate at the Aalto Institute in Finland and a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya. At UCLA, Landau will work alongside Eddo Stern, a world-renowned game designer and director of the UCLA Game Lab.

Landau’s work has been featured at international venues, museums and festivals. He is the founder of “Oh-man, Oh-machine,” an art, science and technology platform that has included a conference, a laboratory and 36-hour-long “durational workshops” in which researchers, meeting in an
airplane hangar, talk about and experience the relationship between bodies and technology.

While in California, Landau will conduct a public lecture and performance at UCLA, Caltech and Stanford called “Time-Body Study,” which he describes as a “virtual reality experiment.”

“A person from the audience is invited on stage, and not only is he placed somewhere else, as virtual reality does, he is being re-embodied,” Landau said. “He finds himself in a body of a 7-year-old, a 40-year-old and an 80-year-old.”

The project, he said, is meant to show how virtual reality may change our relationship with our own bodies and how our “physical identity can be shifted into something else.”

Another of Landau’s areas of interest is post-humanism, which he describes as “an amazing philosophical framework to reconfigure this relationship between nature, humans and computers.”

One output of that interest is a short film about Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancerous cell lines have been used by researchers for decades to develop cures for various diseases.

Another of Landau’s projects is called “One Dimensional Man,” a theatrical piece that combines projections of faces onto masks with dancers performing alongside them.

There is a political component to his work as well. Landau contends that the goal to become a more connected society has resulted in a surveillance state, with major corporations controlling the flow of information online. The “power networks” at play in social and political structures remains a major theme of his work since returning to Israel in 2006, after studying and making art in The Hague, Netherlands, for a decade.

Living abroad for that long, Landau said, allowed him “to see different horizons which you just can’t from within Israeli society.”n

Photo courtesy of Facebook.

What’s wrong with Jews’ emphasis on intellect?


Question: In life, which is more overrated — looks or brains?

I would argue that it’s a tie.

But there is a difference. For better or for worse, valuing beauty is built-in to human nature. Notions of beauty may differ from culture to culture, but every culture values beauty. Tests done with infants show that even they are drawn to faces most adults deem beautiful.

But the valuing of intellect is much more of a cultural matter. And no culture values brain power more than Ashkenazi Jewish culture.

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this.

Take, for example, the famous Jewish joke about a birth notice: “Jacob and Sarah Birnbaum are proud to announce the birth of their son, Dr. David Birnbaum.”

Today, of course, the announcement would apply equally to a daughter.

Another example: I only exaggerate a bit when I tell audiences: “When you ask a Jew, ‘How are you?’ you will often receive this answer: ‘Great. My daughter is at Dartmouth.’ ”

Likewise, I tell audiences, “When a stranger recognizes me and approaches me — a somewhat frequent occurrence — unless the person is wearing a kippah, I have no way of knowing if the person is a Jew or a non-Jew. But there is often a giveaway: If the person tells me what college their son or daughter goes to, I know it’s a Jew.”

To demonstrate how cultural the Jewish preoccupation with the intellect is, the different reactions these lines receive from Jewish and non-Jewish audiences are telling. There is loud laughter in Jewish audiences but only a few chuckles from non-Jews.

Jews completely relate to what I said; to non-Jews it is just odd. Non-Jews rarely tell anyone, let alone a stranger, what college their kid goes to, no matter how prestigious. But for many American Jews, their meaning in life and social status are predicated on getting their child into a prestigious college.

Now, to be sure, this preoccupation with prestigious colleges is not only related to Jews’ valuing the intellect. It is at least as related to a preoccupation with professional success and the future earning power of their child. And, yes, ego. In Jewish life, what college one’s child attends is often seen as the single greatest proof of achievement as a parent.

This preoccupation begins at the birth of one’s children and grandchildren. Is there any Jew whose 2-year-old child or grandchild isn’t “brilliant”?

What’s wrong with all this preoccupation with brains?

First, it often overshadows the far more important trait of goodness. I am certain that for many Jewish (and, increasingly, non-Jewish) parents, their child’s brilliance is more important than his or her goodness. This is easily ascertainable: Compare how much time and effort parents spend working on their child’s moral character as opposed to their child’s intellect.

Here’s a test. Ask your child, no matter how young or how old, this question: What do you think I most want (or wanted) you to be — happy, smart, successful or good?

Here’s another test. Would you tell your high school-age son or daughter, “You need to know that I’d much rather have you attend a local state college than cheat on even one test and get into Stanford”?

And how many parents speak to others about their children’s intellectual achievements as compared with their goodness? Jewish parents who speak about how fine a person their child is usually are assumed to have a loser for a child.

The fact is, there is no correlation between intellect and goodness. In fact, a disproportionate number of intellectuals, in the 20th century and today, have been, to put it bluntly, moral idiots — and therefore disproportionately supported the greatest evils of their time. Almost all the support in the West for Soviet Communism came from intellectuals, not hard hats. Within Germany, the university was one of the most passionate pro-Nazi institutions. In America today, a Christian plumber is far more likely to support Israel than a Ph.D. in sociology, or in any other subject (including Judaic studies). And the number of bright, even “brilliant,” college students whose moral compass is broken is enormous.

Finally, intelligence not only is not as important as goodness, it is not nearly as important as common sense. A person of average intelligence with common sense will navigate life far better, by making far more intelligent decisions, than a brilliant person who lacks common sense. According to Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, in at least one important area — binge drinking and getting drunk — more intelligent people actually have less common sense. They do both more.

Parents who overemphasize brains to the detriment of other positive values, such as character, common sense and the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes (think of all the bright college students who need “safe spaces” because they can’t deal with speakers with whom they disagree) are doing long-term damage to their child. And, to return to my opening question about looks and brains, they are not doing their daughter any favor if they neglect looks. In real life, they matter, too. But you need common sense to acknowledge that.

‘I got my bearings on a community college campus’


As a youth I was not a model student in public school nor in Hebrew school.

But I was redeemed by education, at a community college. And now, more than 30 years later, as president of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) Board of Trustees, I am paying back the system that helped me get my bearings.

I won't beat around the bush: our community college system – the largest in the nation – now needs the help of voters, including Jewish voters who deeply value education, so LACCD can provide its 21st Century students with a 21st Century learning environment.

In order to achieve that goal I have been working day and night to make sure LACCD earns the voters' trust and allegiance so that on Nov. 8 they will support Measure CC.

Measure CC is a $3.3 billion bond measure and plan for funding the modernization of campus buildings and infrastructure at all nine LACCD campuses. Those campuses are East Los Angeles College, Los Angeles City College, Harbor College, Mission College, Pierce College, Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, Valley College, Southwest College and West Los Angeles College.

Measure CC will help LACCD complete an ambitious and much-needed overhaul of its facilities that began several years ago. Not a dime of Measure CC funding will be used to pay for the salaries or pensions of administrators, staff or faculty. It will all go into brick and mortar projects.

Measure CC will produce new job-training centers to better prepare students for good, local jobs as nurses, firefighters, law enforcement officers, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. It will pay for upgrading and building libraries, math and science labs and classrooms, and it will be used replace aging sewage and electrical systems. New buildings will be secure, safe and environmentally friendly.

Measure CC would result in a tax levy of about $75 a year on the average property valued at $500,000 (or about $15 for every $100,000 of assessed value), a small investment to ensure that tens of thousands of young men and women get a top-notch community college education to help them become productive citizens.

This is an exciting time for the LACCD.  

Last month, with encouragement from President Obama’s administration, Mayor Eric Garcetti teamed up with the LACCD Board of Trustees to announce a program to provide one-year of free tuition to Los Angeles Unified School District graduates who maintain good grades. The LA Promise Plan is our local version of President Obama’s national College Promise Plan, whose work is being guided by an advisory board, chaired by Jill Biden, the vice-president’s wife. I am honored to sit on this board myself.

LACCD students are among the most diverse in the nation. Eighty percent of our 200,000 students come from underserved communities. Fifty percent work part-time. Many are older workers seeking to train for new jobs. Others are military veterans, adjusting to civilian life. Some are displaced workers trying to get their feet on the ground.

Of course, very large numbers of LACCD students are recent high school graduates who are preparing to transfer to a four-year college or universities.

LACCD is a place of great, youthful hopes and aspirations. I love it.

It is significant that Mayor Garcetti, the LA Chamber of Commerce, BizFed, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, the LA County Democratic Party and the Los Angeles Times editorial board are already supporting Measure CC. They know an educated community is stable, civic-minded and productive.

I know first-hand that our community college system can work wonders.

After passing the state high school proficiency exam I enrolled at Pasadena Community College. Frankly I wasn’t well prepared for the academic rigors of college.  But my previous involvement in Jewish activities (as a teenager, I had been the Social Action Tikun Olum Vice President of the Far West Region United Synagogue and the youth co-chair of the Israel Walk Festival)  helped me find a place in the college’s social and political life.

After only a brief time on campus, I became deeply involved in student government. I was elected student body vice-president and served two terms as student trustee on PCC’s Board of Trustees. It changed my life. I had a mission. I had recognition, a purpose. After several years at PCC, I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree at Cal State Northridge. But I have never forgotten how my community college experiences were so transformative.

Now, I want to ensure that future generations of young people have the best opportunities to grow, excel and achieve their dreams. That’s why I strongly support Measure CC. I hope your readers will join me in this effort.


Scott Svonkin is President of the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and two children, and he and his family are active members of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.

The stories behind the team nicknames and mascots of Jewish high schools


Every high school with an athletics department has a nickname and a mascot for its teams. You see them represented on team jerseys, painted on courts and gym walls, and roaming the sidelines with a student inside a mascot costume, pumping up the crowd.

But how well do you know the mascots of local Jewish high schools? Shalhevet, Harkham-GAON Academy, YULA (boys and girls), Valley Torah (boys and girls), de Toledo and Milken Community Schools all have different mascots with different meanings. Here they are, along with some background about them provided by school officials. See if you can match the mascots to the schools (answers at bottom left):

Jaguars: The Jaguar was voted on by the school’s pioneering class. The decision was a teaching moment as it went against the vote of the head of school. His respect of the democratic process is evident as the Jaguar still stands as the mascot after all these years.

Panthers: The Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1979, and everyone liked their colors, black and yellow. The school baseball team used the Pirates’ caps, and the “P” on the hats was designated as the Panthers. The Panther’s fierceness and intensity serves as an example of how the school approaches athletics, learning and students’ growth as Jews.

Firehawks: The school name means “flame” in Hebrew. The Firehawk’s flames represent intensity and passion, and heat and friction, which is related to the school’s educational model — grappling with issues and approaching learning passionately.

Lions: With the strength, dignity and heart of a Lion, we go forth, B”H!

Wildcats: The Wildcat stands for strength, power and wisdom.

Wolfpack: The school’s website quotes Rudyard Kipling on its athletics home page: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”


A BDS survival guide


Students at UCLA’s iFEST celebrate Israel.

Most high school graduates who head off to college expect to be confronted with something new — new living quarters, new roommates, new classes and maybe even some cool (if overpriced) school merchandise. 

But Jewish students these days likely will experience something else, too: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

From groups holding Israel Apartheid Week activities on campus to formal votes by student groups in favor of divestment from Israel, the movement has become an in-your-face element of many of today’s colleges. This is especially true in the University of California system, where all but one of the campuses have voted to support BDS at some point in the past four years.

It can make for a hostile environment at times as tempers flare over passionately different ideologies pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether incoming Jewish students have a firm position on the issue or haven’t even thought about it, they should be ready to be in the middle of it. Here are some tips to help.

Brush up on your history

You may hear activists talk about Resolution 242 (the so-called “land-for-peace” resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1967) and the massacre of Deir Yassin (a 1948 attack on a Palestinian Arab village by Zionist paramilitary groups). If those terms are hazy or nonexistent in your memory, then it may be in your best interest to learn more about the conflict. Read, watch debates online and ask questions. 

This applies to everyone, since even those who do not intend to fight BDS should be prepared to form a position on the conflict and deal with the controversy. 

StandWithUs (SWU), a pro-Israel education organization based in Los Angeles that provides support and guidance to campus organizations opposing BDS efforts, has numerous resources for students to educate themselves on the conflict on its website, standwithus.com. But students should also seek other perspectives by following current events and talking to those in the middle of the conflict when possible, according to SWU Director of Research and Campus Strategy Max Samarov. 

“I encourage people to take classes on the conflict and to read news from many different perspectives,” he said. “The reality is that depending on the news source you read, you’re going to get a different bias or point of view, so what has helped me a lot was staying in touch with current events from a lot of different perspectives. Also, get to know Israelis and Palestinians and try to hear personal narratives.”

Talk through disagreements

Instead of trying to talk over the other side, try talking to them.

 “People, especially students, should always seek to gain more understanding,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. “Dialogue doesn’t equal agreement. But the alternative is fighting and narrow-mindedness, and the Jewish tradition rejects closing ourselves off from people who dissent. In fact, the very basis of our tradition, the Talmud, is based on the conversations between people who disagreed.” 

It’s important to educate the vast majority of students who don’t know much about the conflict. Even a casual dining hall conversation might make a big difference.  

Lerner added, however, that staunch supporters of BDS — such as members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — comprise only a small minority of students on campus and changing their minds teeters between difficult to impossible. 

 “Be strategic, don’t waste time yelling at people who can’t be convinced,” he said. “On our campus, there are only a handful of dedicated SJP members. With their allies, they might constitute a few hundred students. Focus instead on the other 29,800 students. When SJP does something that warrants a response, respond forcefully.” 

So while it’s OK to let criticism on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians slide, don’t sit idly by as debate about BDS blends into anti-Semitism or questions Israel’s right to exist.

“Where I would draw the line is when someone in SJP or someone who supports BDS comes from a place that’s malicious,” Samarov said. “Where they don’t believe Israel has the right to exist or Jewish people don’t have right to self-determination. That’s the important thing to establish from the get-go.”

Join Jewish groups on campus 

Get involved in the local Hillel or Chabad, as well as other Jewish or pro-Israel groups your campus offers. These groups help students maintain a connection to Judaism and Israel, and also are sources to combat anti-Israel sentiment. 

Rachel Quinn, president of Southern California Students for Israel (SCSI) at USC, encourages all Jews on campus to join for a variety of reasons. “It is a huge educational and leadership benefit,” she said. “It is fun and you can meet other Jewish students, and we are all working toward a common goal, which is education about and celebration of Israel.” 

At USC, Quinn plans pro-Israel events throughout the year, often coordinating with leaders of other ethnic clubs through the university’s International Student Assembly, and other pro-Israel groups on campus. She also tries to involve Jewish students with Israel advocacy through “whatever their strengths or interests may be.”

According to Quinn, SJP and BDS are not very active at USC, especially when compared with UC colleges. There was a fear last year that SJP would hold an apartheid wall on the week of Yom HaShoah, she said, but it didn’t happen. For SCSI, the goal is for these groups to remain mild, Quinn said, while developing good relations with groups like the Muslim Student Union. 

Other schools have their own pro-Israel groups — such as UCLA’s Bruins for Israel (BFI)  — as well as their own challenges. 

At UCLA, for example, two separate BDS resolutions have been brought to the Student Association Council, failing the first time and passing the second. The experience shifted BFI’s approach to adversity on campus, according to its president, junior Arielle Mokhtarzadeh. 

In countering the first resolution, she said, “[We] mobilized the community to lobby members of the council before the meeting, to make public comments the night of the meeting, and to remain united, strong and respectful after the meeting.”   

This approach left the Jewish community emotionally exhausted, Mokhtarzadeh said. When another BDS resolution was brought to the council a year later, BFI decided to use a more collaborative tactic rather than a divisive one, through different projects that brought both sides together. 

An Israel “apartheid wall” at UC IrvinePhotos courtesy of StandWithUs.

“We rededicated ourselves to our community, to our values,” she said. “We taught the community about how they could get involved with several projects and initiatives that were working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, in contrast to the BDS resolution, which was tearing our campus apart.” 

The pro-Israel group also dealt with a three-day Palestine Awareness Week, which included a panel with a sign reading “Zionism Is Racism.” During that span, BFI sought to ensure that Jewish students felt supported on campus and organized its own campaign titled #OneWishForPeace involving a social media campaign where students added banners to their profile pictures reading, “This Is What a Zionist Looks Like.”  

Look on the bright side

The Palestinian conflict is not the defining characteristic of Israel, nor should it be. Israel is a world leader in technology, cybersecurity, water, agriculture, and much more. For Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, lasering in on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians undermines all of the country’s accomplishments.

“When it comes to Israel, to focus only on the conflict and to allow that alone to define what Israel is and stands for completely misses the mark,” he said. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex and sensitive issue that needs to be addressed and resolved, but there is far more to Israel. Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East, the only country in the region that has true freedom of speech, freedom of press — vibrant and open media — freedom of religion, women’s and LGBT rights, rule of law, and regularly scheduled elections where all parties accept the outcome. 

“Israel stands for tolerance, equality and respect for all cultures. We are very proud of our people and their accomplishments and the many lifesaving discoveries that are being continuously achieved in the fields of medicine, high-tech and innovation, and more. To speak of Israel only within the context of the conflict is to give only a fraction of her true picture and story, which is so much more.”

No matter how you decide to approach the subject, much is at stake, according to Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the Israeli-American Council.

“BDS is pursuing an agenda that extends far beyond Israel and the Middle East conflict,” he said, adding that BDS propagates anti-Semitic stereotypes, spreads anti-American ideas, and targets Israeli and Jewish students who have nothing to do with politics. “This is why I believe that getting educated about BDS is mandatory for any Jewish student and why it’s important that we communicate to the broader American public how this affects every citizen of the U.S.” 

Nonetheless, openly advocating for Israel on campus is not dangerous or risky, according to Lerner. 

“There is a proliferation of scary videos and articles on Facebook which lead our community to believe the campuses are somehow dangerous for Jewish students, but those posts are often recycling a handful of truly offensive incidents which have occurred on campuses over the past five years,” he said.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that many actions taken in support of the BDS movement are purely symbolic. What matters, Mokhtarzadeh said, is how to respond as a community. 

“BDS passed on our campus, and, no, the sky did not come tumbling down,” she said. “UCLA did not divest, nor did the UC. And the pro-Israel community is stronger today than ever before. BDS cannot and will not define us.”  

Netanyahu opens school year with visit to Arab town


More than two million Israeli children headed to school for the 2016-2017 school year.

Thursday was the first day of school for most Israeli children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed students to their first day of school at Tamra Haemek public elementary school in Tamra, an Israeli Arab town in northern Israel.

The lawmakers were welcomed during an opening ceremony  by the school’s approximately 200 pupils in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Netanyahu told the students to listen to their teachers and to listen to their parents.

“I want you to learn – learn to write, learn to read, learn Hebrew, Arabic and English. I want you to learn mathematics. I want you to learn science. I want you to learn history – history of the Jewish People, the history of your public. I want you to learn the truth, and the truth says that we were destined to live together,” Netanyahu told the students according to his office.

“I want you to be doctors, scientists and writers, and be whatever you want to – and are able to – be. I want you to be loyal citizens, integrated into the State of Israel; this is your state,” he said.

Of the 2.2 million Israeli students who started school on Thursday, some 159,000 are entering first grade and 123,000 are entering their last year of high school.

There are some 180,000 educators working in the Israeli school system, including 9,000 who are teaching this year for the first time.

All in the family: Israeli teachers join Maimonides


Rabbi Shachar Naim is in his mid-30s, but this year marks the first time he ever left his native Israel. He has landed in Los Angeles, where he will be teaching classes at Gindi Maimonides Academy for the next two years, along with his wife, Zimrat. 

The Naims are shlichim l’hora’ah, or teaching emissaries; they live in a house in Pico-Robertson with their five children and teach grades 3, 6, 7 and 8. While Zimrat will focus on the chagim (holy days), Humash (Torah) and halachah (Jewish laws) with the elementary school students, Shachar’s cirriculum includes Mishnah and Gemara (study of Talmud, including rabbinical analysis). Both teachers are going to encourage students to learn about Israel and forge their own relationship with the Jewish state. 

“We want them to be connected to Israel, even though they are far away,” Shachar said. “They may not be living in the land, but it’s in their hearts.” 

According to Rabbi Aharon Wilk, principal at Maimonides, the school wanted to expand its Judaic studies program and looked to hire more teachers. He attended a job fair in the United States but found only applicants with backgrounds similar to his current staff. 

While there are already Israeli bnei akiva and bnot sherut (emissaries, also known as shlichim) at the school, who serve as associate teachers and teachers’ assistants, the Maimonides administrators had never before brought in Israeli educators whose job it was to teach about their culture. Wilk said when he found the Naims, at first it didn’t make sense to hire them. 

“It was so funny because they give you all these rules to find a good shaliach couple, and Rabbi Shachar goes against all the rules,” Wilk said. “They say try to get teachers who have done it before, so they’re accustomed to American culture. They should be a couple without kids, so you’re not taking on an enormous expense. The only time Rabbi Shachar was on a plane was when he was a paratrooper for the Israeli army, and they have five kids.”

However, after the Naims came to Los Angeles for a brief visit, Wilk knew he had found his new teachers. “He touched people with his smile and his middot (character). He knew 100 kids’ names in two days,” Wilk said of Shachar. “I said this is the guy they need. I thought that the Naims were going to lift up our school for the next number of years.” 

In Israel, Shachar works as an engineer and Zimrat is a teacher. Zimrat said they decided to take the positions in L.A. because they wished to give back to their people. “We thought that if we can do something else to contribute more to Am Yisrael, this would be a good way.”

So far, the Jews of L.A. have shown their appreciation for the Naims. The family arrived on July 27 to a fully furnished house and invitations. “We emailed the school and asked if anybody had furniture,” Wilk said. “Now we literally have enough furniture to fill three or four homes. Some parents gave them food or dishes. This creates a sense of community. It’s a unifying thing.”  

Though being here is nevertheless an adjustment, Shachar said he sees that “there is a very loving community here. They invite us for dinner and Shabbat. It’s very exciting.” 

Inviting shlichim to teach, whether young men and women fulfilling their national service duties or families just moving to Los Angeles, is a very common practice among Orthodox schools in L.A., according to Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations at Builders of Jewish Education. She said that doing this “really helps connect students to Israel and to Jewish life in Israel. The shlichim serve as role of models of Israeli Jewish life.” 

The Maimonides administration wanted to invite shlichim to their school because it promotes more authentic Torah learning. “In the Talmud, there is a saying that there is no Torah like the Torah of Israel,” Wilk said. “I think what that means is obviously the Torah comes out in Israel and the word of HaShem is in Yerushalayim.”

Since the students can’t go learn in Israel, bringing Israel to the students is the next best thing. “A lot of rabbis recall their studies in Israel as their best years of learning, and it makes them so passionate and inspired,” Wilk said. 

Personally, the Naims hope that their own children, who are 1, 5, 7, 10, and 12, will be motivated by their time in L.A. to serve the Jewish people, as well. “We told them they would be shlichim, too,” Shachar said. “They have a very big responsibility on their shoulders to be good examples of Jews who come from Israel. I think they can have a big impact on the students in Maimonides and in the neighborhood.”

Seeing and interacting with Jews here also will benefit their children, Zimrat said. “It’s a good experience to meet many kinds of Jews in different cultures. When you’re an adult, it gives you a wider point of view of the Jewish world, and you can make better decisions because of it.”

Though they will miss the comforts of home and their friends and family, the Naims said already they don’t feel like strangers here. “We feel like we belong here, and our kids are really enjoying it,” Zimrat said. “And when students from Maimonides visit Israel, they can come to our house, and we’d be happy to host them. We’re a big family.” 

Beyond connecting with Israel and delving deep into Torah learning, Wilk said his students can learn a crucial lesson about Judaism from the Naims. 

“I hope my students are going to see people who never left Eretz Yisra’el that stopped their lives at an important time, when they’re building the future for their family, to give back to the Jewish community,” he said. “Students will see that life isn’t just about you. You’re deeply connected with the Jewish community at large. I want them to see the Naims as role models. I think the Naims will teach the students to care a little more and always reach a little higher.” 

Israeli combat soldiers to receive full college scholarships


Israeli combat soldiers will receive full scholarships from the military to pursue a university degree or professional certification.

The scholarships will be funded by the Israel Defense Forces, as well as the Friends of the IDF and the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, the Israeli Hebrew daily Yediot Acharonot reported.

In a recent meeting, IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot asked Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to help him find the funds to offer such scholarships to only to combat soldiers, but to all soldiers after their service, according to Ynet, the English-language sister publication of Yediot.

Soldiers who are new immigrants, minorities or from disadvantaged families also will receive scholarships for higher education, according to the report.

The scholarships for combat soldiers are expected to cost about $60 million a year, and an additional $130 million a year if all released soldiers are included, according to the report.

A little coffee and a lot of talk


A handful of people sit around a table in a café in downtown Jerusalem – their espressos and lattes in front of them. They are chatting in Spanish – every few minutes laughter bubbles up from the table.

It looks like a group of friends meeting for coffee after work. But it is a meeting of Talk Café – a drop-in language learning program that aims to get people talking in whatever language they wish to speak more fluently – Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and German are all offered in Jerusalem.

“Talk Café is a way we found to allow people who know a language, either because they’ve lived in a country to know it from home, to improve in an informal way in a social setting,” Moshe Beigel, the founder of Talk Café told The Media Line. “It gives people the ability to talk without making a fool of themselves.”

Students pay $13 per class to Café Talk, as well as order at least a cup of coffee in the restaurant. The drop-in idea is to accommodate busy schedules, Beigel says. The restaurants benefit as well from customers in the slow periods of the late morning or early evening.

Each class starts with a sheet of vocabulary words about a certain topic. A recent Arabic class, for example, offered driving words including intersection and roundabout. Missing were the curse words that most Israelis already know in Arabic.

The “moderator” S., who asked not to use his name because he works for other NGO’s, is a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem, and has a BA and an MA from US universities. He says he enjoys helping students achieve more fluency in Arabic.

“To be honest, it’s exciting,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve always been fond of languages and once you learn the language you learn the culture. I am lucky to have a job to be able to facilitate learning about language and culture.” 

In Israel, while all Jewish students are supposed to study at least one year of Arabic, most do not learn much more than the alphabet. Some Israelis also see Arabic as the “language of the enemy” and prefer not to study it. While the Arabic group at Talk Café is usually small, it brings together people who would not usually meet, says founder Beigel.

“We’ve had American Muslims who know Arabic from the Qur’an but don’t speak it, coming to the class with a full hijab (a scarf covering their hair),” he said. “And we had someone who worked in Israeli intelligence, and someone else who is a settler (lives in the West Bank). They all sat down, had a plate of soup, and spoke Arabic together.

In the Spanish group, one woman is brushing up her Spanish for a job interview. In the German class, one woman is on her way to visit her daughter who lives in Berlin, and wants to be able to speak to her grandchildren.

It is, however, Hebrew, that has the most demand, with at least seven classes a week – three in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank community of Efrat, heavily populated by English speakers. Many of the students are immigrants to Israel from North America, and while the Israeli government will fund and pay for an “ulpan” or intensive Hebrew language course, many student say they have trouble speaking, even if they understand Hebrew well.

“Talk Cafe is not intimidating and that is the key for me,” Renee Atlas-Cohen, a lawyer and tour guide who moved to Israel from Chicago 14 years ago told The Media Line. “No one calls on you, subjects are fluid and therefore usually interesting. For a few hours after Talk Café I feel more confident speaking Hebrew and that is huge for me.”

The teachers, who are called moderators, say their biggest challenge is how to involve students with different language levels. Talk Café is not for beginners, and not for someone already fluent, but there is a large gap between someone who can speak a few sentences in Hebrew, and someone who speaks well, and just needs a little confidence.

“I teach Hebrew in other places as well and most places they teach grammar but students don’t get a chance to talk,” Talia Huss, a graduate student who teaches both Hebrew and Spanish at Talk Café told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to keep conversation at a level that is not too easy, but that involves everyone in the conversation.”

Beigel says that Talk Café was born of his own experience.

“I moved to Israel from England 35 years ago,” he said. “In English I sounded quite intelligent, but in Hebrew I sounded like a fool. The idea of Talk Café is that people can stop sounding like fools.”

Hasidic school in London reprimanded for not teaching about sexual orientation


A Hasidic school in London was reprimanded by Britain’s Office for Standards in Education for not teaching its students about sexual orientation.

The inspection report released last week praised the Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass in Stamford Hill for making strides in some areas, but it criticized the school for avoiding teaching subjects related to gender or sexuality.

“The school’s ethos is based on its founding principle of ‘unconditional adherence to the Shulcan Aruch (code of Jewish law).’ This means that pupils are shielded from learning about particular differences, such as sexual orientation,” the report said. “In practice, across the curriculum this means that the explicit teaching of all the protected characteristics, specifically those that relate to gender or sexuality, is avoided.”

Inspectors noted in the report that the school had made progress in literacy and numeracy schemes, although the planned revisions of science and physical education had yet to be implemented, and had improved its career guidance.

“The last inspection reported that the school failed to meet a number of the independent school standards relating to promoting pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Leaders have taken action towards addressing the unmet standards” in this area, it said.

The report said that students “continue to show respect towards themselves and to others in their community.”

It also said: “During visits to classrooms, pupils were observed discussing confidently respect for one another and for those of different faiths and religions.”

In May 2015, the Belz-run school said in a letter that allowing women to drive was against the Hasidic sect’s traditional rules of modesty and students would not be allowed to enter school if their mothers drove them there. The school later retracted the rule after Britain’s education secretary ordered an investigation.

Hebrew U jumps to No. 17 in ranking of top Asian universities


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem ranked No. 17 in a new ranking of Asian universities — the highest-rated Israeli university on the list.

The university’s placement in the 2016 Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings released Monday represented an eight-spot jump from the previous year.

The Hebrew University also was the highest-rated university in the Middle East.

“To emerge as Israel’s number one university and 17th across the entire continent of Asia is a major achievement and something to be celebrated,” said Times Higher Education Rankings Editor Phil Baty in a statement provided to The Hebrew University. “Hebrew University has shown particular strength in research impact – our analysis demonstrates that its research is pushing the boundaries of knowledge and is being cited globally.”

The ranking of Asia’s 200 top universities judges the institutions on the basis of 13 criteria, including teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

The National University of Singapore topped the list, followed by the same country’s Nanyang Technological University and Peking University in China.

Israel placed six universities among the top 100, making it the second-largest number from a Middle Eastern country behind Turkey with seven.

The other Israeli schools were Tel Aviv University, ranked No. 20; the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa (36); Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (67); Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (79), and the University of Haifa (87).

Day School lab stimulates ideas and empathy


On a recent Friday morning, 10 first-graders at Adat Ari El’s Labowe Family Day School in Valley Village were putting the finishing touches on some homemade canvas tote bags. There were hand-drawn pictures of polar bears alongside messages such as, “Don’t use plastic” and “Ride a bicycle.” 

But this wasn’t just another sweet art project about saving arctic animals from global warming. It was the culmination of a months-long course of study — one that started in the classroom and migrated to the school’s “think tank,” the first in a sequence of five colorful, beautifully designed rooms, each with a distinct purpose, in which pupils engage in hands-on creative study. 

Welcome to the Zebrack Design Lab. 

The lab, which opened in January, is the brainchild of Johannah Sohn, 35, a Phoenix native who this past fall became head of the K-6 day school, home to 108 students. She said the concept came to her after visiting the New York offices of Google this past summer through the Day School Leadership Training Institute run through the Jewish Theological Institute.

“I drew a lot of inspiration from that space,” she said. “I looked at tech company open-work spaces. I wanted to bring those elements [to Adat Ari El]. … If [kids] are going to have a job, they are going to have to navigate these types of work environments.

“I was thinking about universities,” Sohn added. “What does every elementary school parent want? They want [their child] to go to Harvard or Stanford. Why don’t we just make a little incubator here that is similar to these prestigious universities?” 

The lab itself is a bright series of rooms that begins with the think tank, where students are asked to consider a need or problem through a “lens of empathy.” On the polished concrete floor is a giant painting of a heart and the words “Start from the Heart.” 

“Education without purpose doesn’t stick,” said Sohn, a mother of three who previously served as the head of the Conservative temple’s religious school. “Why educate somebody to just know facts and not do anything with it? Part of what the Adat Ari El congregation’s philosophy is, is to make the world a better place. I wanted to make sure there is purpose to everything the kids are doing.”

So in this first room, for example, the first-graders honed in on the problem of polar bear population loss and formulated a driving question: What could they do to help the creatures? In the next room, the research cafe, they learned more about the animals and sat down with a scientist who taught them about the negative effects fossil fuels are having on the polar bear population.

In the development center, where ideas are put to paper, there is a 3-D printer, giant rolls of butcher paper and long work tables. Students decided they wanted to make drawings of polar bears, which would eventually be transferred to canvas bags to sell, with the profits going to a conservation group. Other students expressed interest in creating a public service announcement (PSA).

The penultimate and largest room, the innovation lab, is filled with art supplies, recycled boxes and electronics. This is where the kids are given a chance to create — in the case of the first-graders, building models of polar bears and adding additional detail and design elements to their bags. 

Finally, in the design processing room, the students recorded a PSA, singing a song they wrote. Lyrics included, “Polar bears are cute and fluffy / but that’s not why we care / The most important things they need / are ice floes and clean air!” 

Sohn’s vision for this space resonated with congregant Herb Zebrack, who has two grandchildren at the day school and who wanted to do something meaningful in memory of his late wife, Paulette. The president of Lithographix, a printing company, gave more than $250,000 to the school. This covered the cost of architectural and design plans — local designer Shayna Mordue consulted closely with Sohn on the project — furniture, equipment and other expenses. This summer, large windows will be installed, giving users a view from one room to the next. 

The lab occupies several formerly underutilized classrooms, a computer lab (which Sohn said was obsolete because every student in second grade and higher has a laptop or tablet), and the library, which was relocated.

Not every teacher and grade has used the lab extensively yet, although second-graders visited it during an extended study on transportation, eventually imagining and creating improved models of transportation for their parents. Still, Sohn hopes there will be multiple grades in the lab regularly in the future. 

“I think it’s beneficial for multiple ages to be in there at the same time, learning from one another,” she said. “Social constructivism at its finest.”

Adat Ari El Senior Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard said the space provides an opportunity to bring some powerful lessons to the Jewish tradition.

“I think Judaism, at its heart, is about being able to be creative. And the Zebrack Design Lab emphasizes a kind of openness and willingness to explore,” he said.

The lab is just one part of Sohn’s ultimate vision for the day school, albeit a significant one. She also wants to add a Hebrew cafe, a Judaic studies workshop and a math lab. She believes in the value of creating specific environments for a purpose and isn’t a huge fan of traditional classrooms. 

“My goal educationally is to create children who care about the world,” she said, “about the other, and have the tools to make a difference.”

Staff at new Karsh Center will reach out to community


What would you do if you were a volunteer at a social service center and one of the clients, unable to walk and without his or her own car, asked for a ride home? 

The question was one of many posed to the approximately 150 attendees at a volunteer orientation on March 13 for the new, 7,500-square-foot Karsh Family Social Service Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT), a facility opening onto Sixth Street that is part of the expansion of the synagogue’s Koreatown campus. 

The gathering was to prepare prospective volunteers for the April 4 “soft opening” of the Karsh Family Social Service Center, according to Liz Ross, director of the new Karsh Center at WBT.

“You’re not all here this morning for the bagels and lox. You’re here because you want to help,” she said, addressing a group assembled in the historic Reform temple’s Stalford Hall. 

The Karsh Center will provide free or low-cost dental, vision and mental health care, legal and literary assistance and bereavement counseling to the primarily non-Jewish, diverse community in the surrounding Koreatown area and to anyone in need. It represents a joint effort of philanthropic donors, a small Karsh Center staff, volunteers drawn from the temple’s membership and organizational community partners who can help provide professional services.

“I have been spending the last six-plus years, seven years, really envisioning this and taking it from an idea to a reality, so, the fact that the room is full today with 150 volunteers, prospective volunteers, the fact that the facility is built, there is paint on the walls, dental chairs in the dental clinic, I have to pinch myself sometimes,” WBT Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro, who is overseeing the services center alongside Ross, said in an interview Sunday. 

The center’s opening, along with the completion of the parking structure in which the center is housed, marks the realization of the second of WBT’s three-phase restoration and expansion of its Koreatown campus. The second phase also encompassed the renovation of two schools, the Erika J. Glazer Early Childhood Center and Brawerman Elementary School East. 

The first phase was the restoration, completed in 2013, of the temple’s historic Byzantine-Revival sanctuary on Wilshire Boulevard, and the third phase will be the construction of a 55,000-square-foot events complex.

As previously reported, the three-part project is projected to cost the temple more than $160 million. The cost of the Karsh Center was not immediately available.

The official opening of the Karsh Center will take place in the fall, Ross said, adding that the website for the center launches April 1.

The center houses three state-of-the-art dental chairs, an eye-exam room and eyeglasses dispensary, office space for attorneys, a waiting area, multipurpose room, administrative offices and an expanded WBT food pantry. The congregation had for years operated a food pantry out of a garage of the temple.

When Ross asked volunteers how they might respond to a client in need asking for a ride home, congregant Hedy Vanderfluit, drawing on her volunteer experience with the food pantry, said she would turn down the request. 

“I say, ‘no,’ ” she said. “It’s my boundary.”

That answer, according to Ross, was the correct one. The work of the volunteers will be vital toward ensuring the success of the center, but the center will be successful if, and only if, the type of care offered is consistent and professional.

“It’s about being a credible organization,” Ross said.

To that end, 11 social service organizations are partnering with WBT to offer services at the new center, among them the legal services agency Bet Tzedek, Our House — a bereavement support group — and the Korean Health, Education, Information and Research (KHEIR) Center. 

Ross said attracting organizations and volunteers with experience working with diverse populations is important: 52 percent of the Koreatown’s population is Latino; 25 percent is Caucasian; 18 percent is Asian; and 5 percent is African-American.

“Language is an issue, and cultural competency is an issue,” she said in an interview at her office, which is housed at the center.

Shapiro said he expects there to be 1,000 volunteer opportunities every year at the center. Some volunteers, such as Vanderfluit, who has worked as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching assistant for more than 20 years, are hoping to help immigrants preparing to take U.S. citizenship exams. 

More than 100 Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregants turned out last weekend for a Karsh Family Social Service Center volunteer orientation. 

Vanderfluit said her volunteering is an expression of her Judaism. 

“[I’m here] to follow what I’m taught through my studies of Torah,” she said in an interview Sunday at WBT. “We all need to serve each other.” 

Others who turned out for the orientation included Maggie Wunsch-Scott, a member of WBT for nearly 25 years.

“God’s not primarily my thing … [so] something like this lets me live my Jewishness,” Wunsch-Scott said.

Rabbi Shapiro, whose role at WBT focuses on social action and interfaith work, said the center is part of WBT’s mission to engage congregants who want to connect with Judaism and their congregation outside religious services. 

“We want to give back; we want to engage in social justice and service work because it makes us feel good, and we want to feel like we are doing something to help mend brokenness we see in our world, and that’s wonderful. But as Jews, it goes so much deeper than that, because as Jews it’s not just about doing it because it makes us feel good — as Jews it’s an obligation we have. 

“It may not be the liturgy of a prayer service that draws us into Jewish life; it may not be Kol Nidre that draws us into Jewish life; it may not be Torah study that draws us into Jewish life, but the opportunity to be of service and to participate in social service work in a Jewish context is just as valid a way to embrace Jewish life,” Shapiro said. “It is an opportunity to bring less affiliated, for lack of better word, Jews into Jewish life and into the synagogue.” 

School? There’s an app for that


In a certain well-known California valley, a school is utilizing burgeoning technology to keep parents connected to the classroom with the touch of a screen. If you guessed Silicon Valley, you’re just a few hundred miles off. 

The San Fernando Valley’s Kadima Day School in West Hills, with a student body of 275, offers a free app for families that includes a faculty directory, a school event calendar and links to information about Kadima’s Parent Teacher Organization. There are lunch-ordering options and even push notifications. For privacy reasons, full access requires login and password information provided by Kadima’s staff. 

The app, called “Kadima Day School,” is available for iOS or Android and can be found on iTunes or Google Play. So far, it’s been downloaded more than 275 times.

“We thought this would really help our families and allow them to communicate with teachers and staff more effectively,” said Michelle Starkman, the school’s admissions director. “I don’t think people realized they needed it until they got it.”

Although Kadima always had a website, the staff viewed it as more of a marketing tool than a user tool — its functionality catered more to prospective enrollees and their families rather than current ones. So the school started discussions about developing an app in the spring of 2014. After the decision was made to move forward with the project, it was completed in approximately two months and launched that summer, according to Starkman.

Kadima commissioned BlueTreeApps, a Denver-based company, to design the app and reimagine the school’s website, linking the two access points and making information shareable across both platforms. 

“There are a lot of companies out there that do this,” Starkman said. “We thought … how can we do this in a way that allows us to assume some ownership?”

Kadima’s website now is all WordPress based, a format Starkman knew her staff could maintain even without much Web experience. When Kadima updates its site, the new information is automatically transferred to the app as well.

Operating on a “shoestring budget,” Starkman said the design work by BlueTreeApps ran the school just upward of $1,000. Monthly maintenance is about $400. 

Evan Dechtman, owner and developer at BlueTreeApps, said Kadima is one of more than 100 schools nationwide the company serves — and that includes two Denver schools, attended by his own kids, that have apps. That gives him the perspective of a parent and user as well.

“It’s just a great benefit,” Dechtman said of school-focused apps. “Parents are so busy these days. Now they have a condensed version of Kadima Day’s world in their pocket.”

Dechtman believes that the age of parents using school websites and relying solely on their own calendars to keep track of what’s happening at school is going the way of the dodo. 

“It sounds funny, but going to a website is going to become passé in the next 10 years,” he said. “I have three kids at three schools. It’s a lot to manage. If I can go to one source for everything, it’s super helpful.” 

When asked about his favorite feature, the one he’s most proud of, Dechtman answered without hesitation. 

“Push notifications,” he said. “From our perspective, that’s our most killer feature. You can send out push notifications for everything, whether it’s a reminder about picture day, science fair, an emergency or any number of things.” 

Starkman isn’t aware of other local Jewish schools doing anything like this, though she admits there may be something in the works unbeknownst to her. Regardless, Dechtman said Kadima is at the forefront of this growing trend. 

“They’re definitely on the cutting edge. They’re a leader in that sense,” Dechtman said. 

Kadima parents such as Jackie Louk are grateful the school is thinking innovatively to make things easier on time-strapped parents. She has four kids, three of whom attend Kadima, which educates children through eighth grade. 

“When it first came out last summer, everyone was encouraged to download it. Now I use it all the time,” Louk said. “As much as I try to remember things, with four kids, working, life and doing everything a parent has to do, things always fall through the cracks.” 

She said she especially appreciates the role of push notifications. 

“It’s my second reminder — not in an annoying way. It makes sense and they’re not harassing,” Louk said. “This is simple and it’s not over the top.”

Funding Israel-U.S. collaborations in science since 1972


Eleazar Eskin helps scientists understand the genetic basis of human disease. His field of expertise — bioinformatics — involves creating algorithms and software to analyze genetic data — data entailing huge numbers of permutations. 

Since 2013, the associate professor of computer science and human genetics at UCLA has been receiving money from a grant to work with Eran Halperin, an associate professor at Tel Aviv University involved in the same field. 

“This is one of my best collaborations,” Eskin said. “It’s not just the two of us working together — the … grant lets our groups work together as well. Some of my students have visited Israel and [Halperin’s] have come here. This has taken our collaboration to the next level.”

The joint effort is made possible by the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), which promotes collaboration between American and Israeli researchers. The foundation was established in 1972, in an agreement signed by Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the time, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco. The BSF provides funding to research partnerships in such disciplines as physics, chemistry, biomedical science, behavioral science and computer science.

“The scope of BSF-generated papers and collaborations is staggering,” Eskin said. “It’s not that big of an organization, yet it has supported a huge amount of research and scientists.”

Since its inception, the BSF has awarded more than 5,000 research projects for a total of approximately $600 million — close to $16 million annually. California has among the highest number of recipients, with 151 currently active grants at institutions including Caltech, UCLA, USC, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley and Stanford. 

“The goals of the BSF are to promote collaborative research between U.S. and Israeli scientists in order to advance scientific progress and strengthen the ties between the two scientific communities,” Albert Teich, chairman of the BSF board of governors, said in an email. “Both countries stand to gain from this exchange of people and ideas.”

Based in Israel, the BSF is directed by a board of governors consisting of five American and five Israeli members, appointed by their respective governments. Funding comes from the annual interest earned on an endowment, to which both countries contribute to equally. (A similar fund for industrial research and development was founded in 1977, and one supporting agriculture was created in 1978.)  

Grants typically range between $150,000 and $200,000 and are paid over a period of two to four years. Applications undergo a rigorous peer-review process that involves scientists around the world. 

Forty-three researchers who received BSF funding have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Professors Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Irwin Rose of UC Irvine received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their joint discovery of the ubiquitin system for protein degradation, the mechanism by which the body disposes of dead and sick cells and replaces them with new ones. This research, which received five consecutive grants from the BSF beginning in 1979, helped spur development of Velcade, a drug used to treat bone cancer.  

The BSF focuses on basic research and young researchers. This approach is designed to assure “a pipeline of scientific talent for generations to come,” according to the foundation’s website.

“The BSF’s mission of supporting basic research is especially important to the development of science and technology, and, ultimately, to economic growth and human welfare,” said Teich, research professor of science, technology and international affairs at George Washington University. “Scientists often liken basic research to the ‘seed corn’ of science [because it] advances our understanding of nature and the physical and biological world. That understanding may not have immediate applications, but it can serve, often in unpredictable ways, as the knowledge base on which we draw for the solution of practical problems …” 

Governments, Teich said, may be reluctant to fund this type of research because its benefits may not be immediately obvious, might take a long time and are not guaranteed. BSF helps to fill this gap.

One example of BSF-funded basic research that led to a practical application involves the work of professors Shlomo Rozen of Tel Aviv University and Michael Welch of Washington University in St. Louis. They developed an isotope used for imaging with positron emission tomography (PET) — technology that was almost abandoned due to the lack of radioactive isotopes necessary for imaging. Rozen and Welch’s isotope was used for more than a decade.

Another project involves BSF-funded researchers Yariv Amnon of Caltech and Abraham Katzir of Tel Aviv University, who developed a sophisticated infrared optical fiber that helps land-based telescopes detect atmospheric characteristics of planets that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. NASA and the European Space Agency are using this technology to look for habitable planets outside our solar system.

Despite its successes, BSF has not seen an increase in its endowment since 1984, and the foundation is looking to collaborate with others wishing to fund specific projects.

The Los Angeles-based Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, for example, has partnered with BSF to supplement certain projects, including the collaboration between Eskin and Halperin. The BSF also initiated a series of joint funding programs with the National Science Foundation for projects involving chemistry, biology, brain research and computer science. 

“When the BSF was established in the 1970s, Israel was seen as the principal beneficiary of the relationship,” Teich said. “Today, as Israel has developed into a world power in science and technology, the connection to the U.S. is much more of a partnership, where both sides benefit and each learns from the other.” 

Teachers get a lesson in propaganda


Propaganda can come in many forms — even board games.

When local educators gathered Dec. 5 for a teaching workshop presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they were exposed to World War II-era posters, films, photographs and a disturbing board game from the 1930s called “Jews Out!”

The game had eerie resemblances to classics such as Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, mixed with unflattering cartoons of Jews. The goal of the game was to drive Jews out of Germany, and different spaces on the board showed images of Jewish businesses that needed to be eliminated.

Israel Bautista, who teaches at El Sereno Middle School, found the materials and discussion styles expanded his paradigm on how propaganda should be taught to younger students.

“It is a good critical analysis tool, because in today’s day and age, with teens being bombarded with images on social media and traditional media, everything is coming at them so quickly that kids need to critically look at those images rather than just be easily influenced,” he said. “It is important for them to put serious thought into what goes into the messages they are told on a daily basis.”

National Recording Service Adolf Hitler – Our Leader!” from the museum’s propaganda exhibition

The free event at the Los Angeles Central Library, “Connecting the Past and Present: A New Framework for Teaching Propaganda,” enabled about 50 attendees to explore content and themes from the museum’s traveling exhibition, “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” It is scheduled to run from March 10 to May 8 at the library and illustrates the Nazis’ use of the latest technologies and techniques to disseminate propaganda, among other things.

“State of Deception” is well-traveled, having been staged in Chicago; Phoenix; Cleveland; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; and Tulsa, Okla. After leaving L.A., it will move on to Austin, Texas; and New Orleans. 

“State of Deception” teacher workshop.

Classroom-ready teaching resources, previewed by those educators in attendance, will be made available to any teacher interested in integrating the innovative materials and teaching methods into their curriculum. Materials can be accessed and downloaded at

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.”

Skip college — embrace Judaism and learn a trade


The conventional profile of American Jews is that they tend to be highly educated and work in professions like medicine, finance, law and the academy.

Jews, of course, “value education,” as the trope about the “People of the Book” goes. And American Jews, since they started arriving in the United States, have pushed for their kids to get the best education as a means of guaranteeing a successful life.

It isn’t a Jewish value to be a doctor, lawyer or neuroscientist, however. Professional achievement isn’t the measure of Jewish success. And the higher education prescribed by Jewish tradition is not of the variant offered at American colleges. In fact, what Judaism has to say on matters of education and profession are quite different than the current American Jewish norm.

Given the realities of the job market — 12.2 percent unemployment for young workers and slowing economic growth — Judaism’s 2,700-year-old position may be extraordinarily relevant for young Jews today.

The most famous rabbinic declaration on education can be found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a). The passage enjoins Jewish parents to teach their children Torah and a trade, along with getting first-born sons circumcised, finding them a spouse and teaching them to swim.

Of course, this is not all our sages had to say on the matter of parenting: There are discussions about corporal punishment (if you have to do it at all use only a shoelace) and the importance of modeling good behavior (because other forms of advice are likely to be rejected). But this accounting of what parents owe their children is the backbone of Jewish wisdom on parental responsibility.

Lifelong Torah study — and not, say, the pursuit of an M.D. or a J.D. — represents the higher education to which all Jews are meant to commit. But why is a trade so important? The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the idea that a trade, like swimming, builds independence and self-sufficiency.

Later in that same Talmudic passage, there is a warning to parents who fail to provide their children with such tools: “Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob.” This is an amazing degree of seriousness — the rabbis are essentially saying that without independence there is ruin.

Centuries later, in 1912, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky took up the same cause, beating the drum for commerce and the trades, in large part because he believed the desire among young Russian Jews to move into the professions was contrary to Jewish tradition.

“For generations doing business was the pillar of Jewish life – why abandon it now?” says the main speaker in an article by Jabotinsky called “A Conversation.” “Back to the shop counter! Back to the stores, the banks, the stock exchange – not only to buying and selling, but to industry, to manufacture, to everything ‘practical.’”

In 2015, is such a message really relevant? After all, we hear a lot about how college has become indispensable. President Obama argues that everyone must have access to college, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competing proposals for making public universities tuition-free.

Yet, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report offers a surprising retort. The government says that currently there are 6 million more people with bachelor’s degrees than jobs available for them. So college today clearly isn’t the inexorable path to a good job that it once was.

Even those with jobs don’t have the type of employment that a college education once practically guaranteed. The Economic Policy Institute reports that among college graduates, the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent. (Underemployment means the “highly skilled…working in low paying [and low-skilled] jobs… and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time.”)

Difficulty finding a job isn’t the only reason to consider skipping college in favor of the trades: The vast majority of graduates are leaving school with huge loans and no clear path to repaying the debt. As reported by USA Today earlier this year, there are “40 million people across the United States who have monumental student debt” for a total outstanding debt burden of $1.2 trillion. CNN reports that between 2008 and 2014 — the recession years — student loans increased by 84 percent, “and are the only type of consumer debt not decreasing,” according to a study from Experian over the same time period.

These are staggering numbers and the impact is not merely in the area of employment. College debt and a challenging environment in which to get hired have led to a whole generation of young Americans who are delaying adulthood. Couples are renting instead of buying their first house, getting married older and many women are delaying having children until they have established themselves in the workforce, which is taking a decade or longer.

Of course, training to be a welder, a carpenter, electrician, plumber, HVAC specialist or franchise owner is not everyone’s professional fantasy. But here’s something to consider: It takes two fewer years to complete a trade school degree than it does an undergraduate college degree. So while the college student is racking up debt, the trade school grad would be earning on average $71,440 in the same amount of time, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

We are not quite at the point where Jewish mothers across the land will proudly introduce their kid as “my son, the plumber!” But going to college, incurring massive debt and spending years toiling to pay back your loans isn’t necessarily the perfect trajectory – or a Jewish value – either.

(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based writer whose first book, “No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting,” will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter and on Facebook.)

Program teaches parents to raise curious kids – Israeli style


Idis Arugeta used to come home from a long day of work and stick her toddler in front of the TV. But she said an Israeli-created home visitation program has changed the way she parents.

Now Arugeta said she sets aside one-on-one time to do things like read with her daughter — and it has paid off.

Her daughter has become “the best student,” Arugeta reported. “She knows everything.”

HIPPY, or Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, is designed to help low-income parents prepare their 3- to 5-year-old children to start school. Parents receive a weekly curriculum. They are given books on a schedule — every week or every other week — including a new book that teaches them how to become their child’s first teacher.

The program was started in Israel in 1969 to help immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East prepare for life in their new country. HIPPY, which still operates in its native country, came to the United States in 1980 via the National Council for Jewish Women’s Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Today there are 140 HIPPY sites in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

Locally, HIPPY partners with the Fairfax County public schools in Virginia, Enterprise Community Partners in Baltimore, and the Perry School Community Services Center and the Family Place, both in the District of Columbia.

More than 125 parents participate in HIPPY at the Family Place. The majority are Spanish speakers with little formal education in their native country, according to Haley Wiggins, executive director of the nonprofit.

“Lots of parents say, ‘I send my child to school to learn,’” Wiggins said.

HIPPY works to change that mindset, she said. Parents are shown how to make their children lifelong, eager students.

“We really work with the parents. We empower them to be role models,” Wiggins said.

While the curriculum emphasizes reading and math, there is also a week dedicated to germs and why showering and teeth brushing are important.

A typical HIPPY session happens in the parent’s home, though libraries and other public places are options as well. The home visitor explains the week’s curriculum and shows the parent what to do. During the hourlong visit, the home visitor also tells the parent about other services available. Many clients, said Wiggins, have no idea how many programs exist on the local and federal level to help people deal with the challenges of poverty.

HIPPY also sponsors monthly meetings for parents to get to know each other while learning. Some topics during recent meetings have included bullying, tax preparation and domestic violence prevention. The program is provided free to the families, with most of the funding coming from the federal government’s Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.

Linda Frank, chair of HIPPY USA’s board of trustees, spoke about the program like a proud parent.

“It really has become a passion for me,” she said.

To her, HIPPY is about much more than handing out books. Frank said parents learn the importance of being in contact with teachers, attending back-to-school nights and staying engaged with their child’s education.

Other skills that are taught to parents include how to get children to pay attention, take turns and sit quietly, she said.

Sonia Sorto, a HIPPY home visitor, said the program truly makes a difference. The parents often start out wary, she said, but quickly “most parents become really involved.”

Israel’s Christian schools reopen after month of strike


On Sept. 28, one of the longest academic strikes in Israel’s history finally came to an amicable close when students enrolled in Israel’s Christian school system belatedly began their school year after 27 days of protests by teachers, administrators, parents and students.

The 33,000 students, mostly Christian Arabs, attending 47 institutions across Israel returned to school one day after an agreement was inked between church leaders who administer ecclesiastical academics and Israel’s Ministry of Education. The deal reinstated $13.8 million that had been cut from the Christian school system’s allocation from the Israeli government last year, established a joint committee to set future government contributions and barred the schools from striking during the next two years.

While communication between government officials and school leaders remained open and positive throughout the closure, according to negotiators in the Joint Arab List who sat in on the discussions, some in the Christian community had hoped to ensure state funding for future years.

“It’s a mixed feeling,” said Yousef Jabareen, a representative with the Joint Arab List, the Arab alliance in the Knesset, and a father of three enrolled in Christian schools. Jabareen was among the thousands of parents left scrambling to find child care during the four weeks of the strike — many of them carted their children to their workplaces. During those weeks, Jabareen brought his youngest son with him to work at the Knesset, while another son assisted at a relative’s clothing store and spent “a lot of time on Facebook and watching television, unfortunately, nothing meaningful,” Jabareen said.

“On one hand, I appreciate the struggle the schools have initiated, and I appreciate their courage to keep the strike for almost one month. On the other hand, I feel some disappointment because I thought we could get a better agreement.”

Jabareen and other parents active on the strike committee had hoped the government would come up with a fixed amount for state contributions in the coming years. Under the new agreement, the amount will be determined jointly by school officials and the Ministry of Education over the next six months.

“I believe this agreement was built by establishing trust between the two sides, and hope it will lead to the strengthening of relations moving forward,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, praising the compromise reached by the schools and state.

“I wish the students and teachers much success for a productive and enjoyable year,” he added.

Days before classes were due to begin last month, the church-run schools announced that, in protest of budget cuts, they would not open their doors. School officials said the Ministry of Education had reduced state contributions from 64 percent of their operating cost to 29 percent over the past two years, and the schools no longer had the resources to educate. Because Israel’s Christian schools are a public-private enterprise, called “recognized non-official,” they are capped at receiving 75 percent of their budget from the state. The remainder of their funding comes from parent contributions, ranging from $650 to $1,300 per pupil annually.

Church leaders had originally asked the government for a total of $52.6 million. They said that amount would cover the full 75 percent maximum benefit from the state, and would match the grants given to recognized nonofficial Jewish schools.

“I look at myself, I am a hardworking person, I pay taxes,” said Leila Haddad, a gynecologist and mother with two daughters enrolled in a Christian school in Haifa, where more than 60 percent of Arab students attend Christian schools.

“I think that everyone is looking for equality and not more. We know that these are sort-of private schools, so we are not looking for 100 percent funding, but the same that other schools in our category receive,” she added.

“This 50 million NIS [$13.8 million] hardly does anything when you divide it by 33,000 students,” said Wissam Asmar, a graduate of the same school Haddad’s children attend, which was founded in the mid-1800s. Asmar is a lawyer and a father of three children who were out of school during the strike. “This is something that we will not accept. This will not solve the problem.”

Church officials who oversee the schools hail from the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant sects. Even so, the curriculums are often secular and noted for an emphasis on culture and civics. “They also exercise values and democracy, community, forgiveness, respecting the other, and being involved, being a caring citizen,” Jabareen said, adding, “I definitely credit my school for my career development.” In addition to serving as an elected official, Jabareen also holds a doctorate in law from Georgetown University.

In fact, Christian schools are regarded as outstanding performers in Israel’s fractured education system, serving, in addition to the Arab-Christian community, a number of Muslim and some Jewish children. Sixty-nine percent of students in Christian schools matriculate, compared to 27 percent of students from government-run Arab schools.

Four percent of Israel’s students are registered at Christian schools, yet among Arab students studying at Israeli universities, 39 percent graduated from the Christian system. What’s more, many graduates of these schools go on to become leaders in Israel’s professional class; alumni include doctors, lawyers and a staggering 89 percent of Arabs in the high-tech industry.

“I had the best education, I think. My school was one of the top schools in Israel,” said Aida Touma-Sliman, another Knesset member and graduate of a Christian school, also in Nazareth. “It’s not by chance that six our of 13 members of the Knesset [from the Joint Arab List] graduated from these schools.”

Brand-new labs, advanced equipment prep students for sci-tech careers


While Jewish day schools across Los Angeles have always tried to keep children and teens rooted in their ancient faith, new programs are now helping students develop the skills and creativity needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Over the past decade, secular and religious schools have adopted STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (which factors in arts) curriculums, integrating these previously disparate disciplines. These initiatives — customizable for grades K-12 — are based on the premise that the future success of today’s students depends on not only what they know, but also on how they use what they know. 

Yet this type of learning requires new classroom approaches — such as hands-on, project-based learning — as well as specialized facilities and equipment, such as advanced computers and 3-D printers. To meet these needs, many schools are creating “innovation labs” on their campuses.

YULA students working on a robotics project in the new YULA Genesis Innovation Lab. Photo by John Solano

Allison Sostchen, director of general studies at Gindi Maimonides Academy, said the school’s addition of an innovation lab has “been a complete game-changer, as it adds so much value and opportunity to our activities. For example … use of a 3-D printer to demonstrate principles of design, circuitry and basic programming; and use of digital storyboarding and ‘mindmaps’ as methods for integrating writing, research, and visualization of abstract concepts.”

Jewish values, such as compassion, are often integral to projects. At YULA Boys High School in West Los Angeles, students used a 3-D printer to create a prosthetic hand. And at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, middle-schoolers created and patented a Word Ring, a scanning device for sight-impaired people that converts text to audio. 

“Sure, there was science and math going on before [STEM and our innovation lab] came to our school,” said Larry Kligman, head of school at Heschel. “Yet when we embarked on this, we realized this was beyond ‘new.’ This inspiration came from the fact that we don’t know what jobs our kids will apply for 20 years from now. What we do know is that there will be a new set of skills they are going to need to be able to secure those jobs and thrive in them.”

At Milken Community Schools’ Saperstein Middle School, the STEAM department offers elective, extracurricular and co-curricular courses in design, robotics, programming and more. Milken’s high school has had four semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search; 16 students with patents or provisional patents on their Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge products; and 18 Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) students whose research at Milken has been published in scientific journals. 

Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, center, visits Milken Community Schools’ MAST classroom. Photo by Roger Kassebaum

Although there is great excitement about the prospect of pushing education into the 21st century, change does not come cheap. The process of procuring investors, grants, donations and other forms of financial support has been a learning experience for leadership at the schools.

“STEM requires both instructional support, financial support and time,” said Tami Weiser, head of school at Wise School, which goes from kindergarten through sixth grade. “I have a group of teachers and administrators who meet twice a week just for that integrating step. We discuss initiatives, planning STEM events, and making sure things get carried out in the different spaces.”

It cost $300,000 to develop Wise’s new innovation lab, which was made possible by a donation from the Tyberg family and is used by all the academic disciplines. The Moradi family donated $50,000 that went toward remodeling the science lab, and this academic year, the school also added a project studio, which integrates STEM with social studies and further bolsters the science program’s engineering component. 

At YULA, parents and lay leaders Sherri and Arnold Schlesinger approached the school about unifying existing STEM efforts into the Genesis Academy for Innovation, said Richard St. Laurent, general studies principal. Genesis provides STEM education for students at all levels, including those at YULA Girls High School, St. Laurent said. The centerpiece of Genesis is the innovation lab, a hub for a variety of programs.

YULA students working on engineering projects. Photo by John Solano  

YULA teacher Ian Arenas oversees Genesis, which opened in its current form this academic year, and he described some of the ways lab activities are enriching students’ education. 

“For example, a 3-D printer can be used to re-create Hellenistic architecture to document and preserve information. … Genesis Academy partners with corporations and organizations such as [after-school program] LA’s Best, the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) schools and the national Veterans Affairs office through a teaching and mentorship program, using the mobile science/innovation lab,” he said.

At Wise School, science teachers Alexandra Coatney and Mandy Bolkin are excited about how their initiatives came to life this year.

“Students are taking what they learn home with them,” Bolkin said. “They are loving our in-class projects and are taking advantage of opportunities to get more involved with their community, such as participating in Coastal Cleanup Day.” 

Seeing kids and teens in these labs, engaged in creation and invention, provides a palpable sense of how these investments are already paying off.

At Heschel, the newly remodeled Robotics Club space was packed with kids brushing up on their programming skills or preparing their entries for the upcoming First Lego League competition, where thousands of teams from around the world will be tasked with building robots that perform a particular job. This year’s competition focuses on trash and recycling. 

YULA students Eitan Tennenbaum, 17, and Benjamin Goldstein, 15, talked about the impact that their STEM education has had on them.

“The school already has computers we use every single day, [but] having a lab where you can express yourself with [things such as] 3-D printers and the Oculus Rift [a virtual reality device] really enhances the experience,” Eitan said.

“Learning how to use technology now … can help you when you’re finished with school to get a job,” Benjamin said. “It also teaches creativity and how to use your brain, and in the end, will help you succeed in anything. 

“[I’ve learned] that you can build anything with anything, and that your mind opens up when you walk into this room.” 

Program aims to improve Hebrew education by focusing on teachers


For years, many graduates of Jewish day schools around the world — and their parents — have expressed disappointment in their level of Hebrew proficiency despite years of Jewish education. 

To help solve that problem — and in the process afford Hebrew educators the same respect and status that tends to be given to other educators — Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles has partnered with Hebrew at the Center (HATC), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit of which I am the founding president. Dedicated to professionalizing Hebrew language instruction, we launched a multi-year program for L.A. day schools known as the Hebrew Language Proficiency Project, which, since 2011, has had an impact on 2,000 students, 65 teachers, and 27 Hebrew coordinators and lead teachers.

“BJE was committed to changing that paradigm and ensuring that Hebrew education in L.A. provided our students with the necessary, measurable skills. HATC was the perfect partner to accomplish this goal,” said Miriam Prum Hess, BJE director of donor and community relations. 

The problem, in many cases, is few Hebrew teachers receive degrees or training in how to actually teach a second language. Most schools employ Israelis or near-fluent Hebrew speakers who, having different careers in the past, found positions teaching Hebrew upon moving to the United States or a new community. 

The goal of this project has been to develop leadership in the day schools, maximize the students’ acquisition of Hebrew and their passion for it, and elevate the status of the language and the teachers in the community. 

Imagine how it feels to be a teacher responsible for teaching Hebrew, not knowing whether what you are doing is in fact succeeding, not knowing how to assess your students or whether the book you are using is right for the class, nor how to help a student who is struggling. Would we want our children’s math teachers to know how to add, subtract and multiply, but not to have studied to become teachers who can help our students?

HATC’s approach is based on years of research and the experience of Vardit Ringvald, director of the School of Hebrew at Middlebury College and co-founder of HATC, who has worked in many different settings where Hebrew was being taught. Through in-service work with educators on assessment-based, second-language teaching and learning strategies, HATC has been partnering with schools, camps, educational networks and agencies to provide systematic, professional development programs throughout North America and in Israel since 2007.

By developing school-based leaders among those already working in the field, there is the potential to create a ripple effect within a school among existing and future staff. The goal is to position schools to maintain a level of excellence even after HATC is no longer working with them. 

Another key aspect of the approach is to understand that language is not taught in a vacuum; language exists within a culture. So helping teachers identify the appropriate authentic materials that are used by native speakers — stories, books and songs, for example — and that will maximize the opportunities for students to use Hebrew in natural ways is all part of the approach. We see learning Hebrew as an opportunity to create a stronger connection to Israel and Jews worldwide and for developing the literacy that makes texts and prayer more accessible.  

One local participant reported in a feedback form that the program helped her better engage students: “I used to be happy when students could repeat the words or sentences they learned in class. Through the skills I’ve learned, I realize the importance of not just repeating, but helping students use the language creatively and apply the words they learned in real-life situations.”

Funding has come from multiple sources, including the Covenant Foundation and the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation. Local supporters are the Los Angeles Unified School District (recognizing the importance of having well-prepared language teachers), The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israeli-American Council, as well as each of the participating schools (see sidebar below).

These Los Angeles day schools have served as the pilot sites for what is called a “flip-learning” model that incorporates new technology to combine online and in-person workshops and mentoring. The first year introduces a new framework for thinking about Hebrew learning, best practices in language assessment and goal setting, and initiating community conversations about the potential impact of successful Hebrew language acquisition. Building on this theoretical and practical framework, “… the project continues to tailor to the specific needs of our diverse Los Angeles community, adapting to the needs of each cohort school, and developing Hebrew language educators skilled in providing continued expertise for many years to come,” said Janice Tytell, BJE’s director of continuing professional development.

It turns out that schools and teachers are willing to invest a lot of time and resources to ensure that their students maximize their Hebrew proficiency. In fact, as a result of the program, four of the L.A.-based participants decided to take their learning to the next level and enrolled in the Middlebury College master’s program for teaching Hebrew as a second language, which was developed by Ringvald. These educational leaders will provide Los Angeles with local expertise that can benefit all of Jewish education in the region.

Moving into year two of a second cohort of schools, participants say that the partnership already has changed the way they teach Hebrew, particularly by individualizing lessons. A participant reported, “Now I’m constantly thinking about … the child, and how I move this child forward.”

Using research conducted for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), schools can set expectations as to what level of fluency students can achieve in the four language skills: speaking, listening, writing and reading. ACTFL also has provided well-articulated levels of proficiency that help guide teachers in setting student learning goals and can be assessed using tools that are available in the field for evaluating student progress, confidence and accomplishment among students and teachers.

The results are exciting. In the words of Tamar Raff, director of Jewish studies at Valley Beth Shalom’s day school, a Cohort One participant: “We are moving the emphasis from Hebrew knowledge to Hebrew proficiency, from what students know to what students can do.”

Nine local schools are part of the Hebrew Language Proficiency Project:

Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School

Adat Ari El Day School

Kadima Day School

Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am

Shalhevet High School

Sinai Akiba Academy

Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School

Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School

YULA Girls High School 


For more information about the L.A. project, contact Janice Tytell at jtytell@bjela.org

Arnee Winshall is president, CEO and co-founder of Hebrew at the Center, Inc. (hebrewatthecenter.org), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit whose goal is to improve the teaching and learning of Hebrew. 

Ohr Moshe: Where students with special needs feel welcome


Daniel Lewkowicz travels more than an hour each way from his home on a moshav to the Ohr Moshe School in Beit Shemesh, almost 20 miles west of Jerusalem, but he doesn’t mind the commute. 

“This school is so good it’s worth the trip,” Lewkowicz, 16, said during a break from his studies at Ohr Moshe, a school for boys who, because of a wide range of learning disabilities such as dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, haven’t succeeded in traditional schools. “Here, I get to learn one-on-one, the staff is well-equipped and it’s fun. I’ve made friends. It’s very easy to make friends in this school.” 

The school, which began focusing on kids with learning disabilities five years ago, offers the kind of small classes (eight to 10 students) and individualized attention that most parents can only dream about. Its students come from new and veteran immigrant families from English-speaking countries, and instruction is in English and Hebrew. 

The semiprivate school, which is certified and partially funded by the Ministry of Education, offers a full range of secular and religious subjects. 

Daniel Lewkowicz, 16, doesn’t mind the long commute to Ohr Moshe, because the school is “so good it’s worth it,” he said. 

Rabbi Avi Lipman, Ohr Moshe’s principal, said his school provides a middle ground for seventh- to 12th-graders whose needs aren’t being met by either typical or special education frameworks. Israeli students with severe challenges have the benefit of specialized school programs with smaller classrooms, but those whose needs are relatively mild fall somewhere in between, he said.  

Before enrolling in Ohr Moshe, many of the school’s students were in special education frameworks or would qualify for one. And because most high-functioning special education students receive only vocational training, few complete their bagrut, or full matriculation certificate, the principal said.

“I have no problem with vocational training as long as it’s a choice,” Lipman said. “All too often, there is no choice.”  

Despite their learning disabilities, virtually all of the boys at Ohr Moshe study for and pass the matriculation exams necessary to attend a university thanks to smaller classes and intensive individualized attention, according to Lipman. Earning the matriculation certificate “keeps as many doors open as possible, both in terms of higher education and a career,” he said. “Nobody should be saying, ‘You have ADD, so you can only choose A and B.’ ” 

Lipman’s passion to help his students reach their fullest potential is rooted in his experience as a child with special needs growing up in an American-Jewish school. 

“I myself have dyslexia and ADHD, and in the middle of fourth grade, I was placed in a special education classroom. In the class were two severely autistic students, two students with Down syndrome” and others with significant developmental delays, he said. Although Lipman said he needed the kind of help not available in the school’s much larger mainstream classroom, the special education class was clearly not the place for him either.

“Our students are here not because they don’t need individualized assistance but because the kid next to them [in their special education class] may have had severe behavioral problems and was trying to set something on fire,” he said.  

Rabbi Chanan Fruchter, the school’s rosh yeshiva (religious head of school) who was born in New York and made aliyah with his family when he was 9, believes a school like Ohr Moshe is especially important to immigrant teens whose less-than-perfect grasp of Hebrew only adds to their learning challenges in the Israeli school system. 

“When a family makes aliyah and even one of its children isn’t fitting in, it throws the whole family into turmoil,” he said. “Some of our kids were born here, and others made aliyah relatively recently, but the ability to study in English or Hebrew is important to them.

“Some of our boys’ parents told us they made aliyah because they finally found the right place for their sons to study, something they said they didn’t always have back home,” Fruchter said, adding that North American-Jewish day schools and yeshivas are rarely equipped to provide classes for teens with mild-to-moderate learning challenges.  

In addition to its small classes, Ohr Moshe offers each student an individualized program of study based on his individual strengths and weaknesses. Classes are built around ability, not age or grade. A younger boy who is advanced in math or English, for example, will be put in a class suitable to his ability, regardless of his age. 

By studying at the right level, they succeed rather than feeling like failures, Lipman said. 

The school also helps the students develop the social skills needed to form friendships and thrive on and off campus.  

“In the past, many students felt like outsiders,” Lipman said. “They were excluded, and now they feel included.” 

Such was the case for Dovid Singer, whose family made aliyah four years ago. 

“It was my decision to come here. I suffered bad culture shock and felt rejected when we moved to [the settlement] Efrat and we couldn’t find anything English-speaking.”

Singer, nearly 15, said he felt welcome at Ohr Moshe the moment he walked in the door. 

“I was immediately bombarded by students who wanted to show me around. What I love is that the school is big enough so you can be with the people you want to be with but it’s not too big. I’m a lot more open than I used to be and I don’t get angry as fast as I used to.” 

Singer, who said he has “attention issues,” said his teachers give him room to explore. “It’s not stressful here. I really do try, and when I say I need help, I get it.” 

Lewkowicz said he appreciates the individualized attention he receives. 

“It’s hard for me to focus sometimes — I have ADHD — and the teachers go the extra mile to provide support. I like it here.”  

Darko Academy finds a home


On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen or so school-age children were working together with adults to unload chairs, tables, boxes of pens and papers, board games, globes and books — lots of books — from a moving truck. The items — and the children — had arrived at the new home of their school, Darko Learning Academy in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. 

The work was necessary, but it also was, as school principal and Judaic studies teacher Rabbi Aaron Parry put it, “a very Montessori thing to do.” After all, the Montessori method emphasizes cooperation, hands-on learning and practical life skills — and Darko bills itself as “L.A.’s only Jewish Montessori elementary school.”

Darko got its start about four years ago, though the Montessori label is a more recent addition. 

“The main driving force behind starting Darko was my own personal school experience,” explained founder Rabbi Shimon Shain, now the school’s director.

Although Shain, a Brooklyn native and father of five who lives in Beverlywood, was eager to learn as a child, he admits he “found it difficult to stay interested and focused.” He resisted the emphasis on testing and test scores. 

“When it was time for my son, who has many similar character traits as myself, to start elementary school, we decided to home-school him so that he does not go through a similar experience,” Shain said. “As we were home-schooling, other local families who liked our approach to education started asking us if they can join in. That is how our school was born and how the school got its name Darko, which comes from the famous teaching of Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon): ‘Chanoch lanaar al pi darko — Educate the child according to his way of learning.’ ”

Darko also is an acronym. It stands for Discipline, Articulation, Respect, Kindness and Optimism, the five character traits that the school aims to develop and refine in every student, according to its website.

After meeting the past year and a half in rented space at the Chabad Israel Center on Robertson Boulevard, the school had intended to move to a new, roomier site near Carthay Circle this fall. Construction delays, however, meant the school’s 20 students had to instead meet at a private residence for the first few days of school. That’s when school officials discovered that another site, nearly move-in ready, had opened up: the old Gindi Maimonides Academy location on Pico Boulevard, just east of Doheny Drive. (Maimonides has a new building a couple of miles to the north, near the Beverly Center.) They moved into the space, which they are renting, on Sept. 17. 

Parry, who taught at Irvine Hebrew Day School last year — he liked the work, not the commute — suggests it all may have been serendipitous. After all, now the school has a spacious location with a capacity to grow to more than 200 students.

Currently, the 20 students enrolled at Darko range in age from 5 to 13. “We are mainly elementary,” Shain said. “But we also have a few middle school students who spend part of their time mentoring our younger students.” The school doesn’t bill itself as Conservative or Orthodox, but according to Parry, students and families are all “Torah observant.”

Darko currently has 20 students, but its new location has the capacity for more than 200.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Montessori method, Parry said, adding, “It is not loose and casual.” 

Darko students, like kids at other Montessori schools, enjoy a fair amount of choice, but it is choice with limits. Each child has goals for the week they must complete in various areas including math, reading, writing, history and science. On any given day, though, they can decide what they want to dig into first, then they have another level of choice. If they are studying geography, they may choose to work with a puzzle map, a globe, a book, or even on the Internet. The teacher is there to observe and guide and sometimes do small group lessons. 

Students also do a lot of hands-on learning that emphasizes practical life skills. 

“Let’s say they are going to cook,” said Ruth Luckoff, the school’s director of general education. “They have to plan what they are going to cook, what are the ingredients they need. After that, they go to the store and buy all the ingredients with a parent volunteer. When they come here, they have a lot of measurements. It incorporates science and math.”

They are even active when learning Hebrew: labeling objects in the classroom, for example.

“The truth is, it is very structured,” Parry said.

Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who pioneered the system, also espoused the importance of community and interconnectedness. “We shall walk together on this path of life,” she wrote. 

In keeping with this very Jewish value, Darko students participate in several community service projects over the course of the school year, often in conjunction with local nonprofits. They visit nursing homes, for example, package food for those in need or feed the hungry. 

Shain wasn’t familiar with Montessori when he started home-schooling, but when he began researching existing educational models and came across the philosophy, he was struck by how much it mirrored his vision. Last year, the school officially adopted the Montessori label. 

This summer, Darko sent Chayale Cohen, a Judaic studies teacher and social worker who helps students with social and emotional well-being, to intensive training at Netivot, a well-regarded Jewish Montessori school in New Jersey with programs from infant to middle school. 

Now that Darko is in its new home, Shain hopes to grow the school. 

“At our previous location, we were filled to capacity,” he said. “Now that we have a much larger campus, we plan on growing organically until we fill the entire campus, which has a capacity of 216.” 

But no matter its size, Shain’s goal for Darko remains unchanged: to be a school where every child can succeed, no matter their learning style. 

It’s an approach that has resonated with at least one Jewish celebrity. The musician Matisyahu, whom Shain considers a friend of Darko, penned a song for the school, available for listening at the school’s website, darkola.org.

“I know I love to learn,” he sings. “Darko, it’s the pathway to my soul. Darko, I won’t fit into the mold.” 

YULA students pair with Arab teens to tour Holy Land


Rachel Dahan remembered being nervous about meeting the four Arab-Israeli girls who would be among her traveling companions this summer during a two-week class trip across the Holy Land. 

“On the plane, our teacher asked us to write down what we were expecting,” said Dahan, now a senior at YULA Girls High School. “I wrote that I was worried that we and the Arab girls would not become friends, that it would be so awkward and that our differences will separate us too much.” 

She wasn’t alone in those sentiments as she and three other YULA girls went on a trip to a different kind of Israel, one in which they explored landmarks from both cultures. But their concerns dissipated when the groups of girls met each other for the first time. 

“When we got there, we became friends the second we saw each other,” Dahan said. “Even though there was a separation between us, we put aside our differences. Their families were so welcoming and it was surprising to see that they were accepting of us.”  

The YULA students embarked on their journey July 5 after learning to speak, read and write Levantine Arabic, a form of the language spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel. Teacher Zvi Smith, who established the class at YULA in 2013, accompanied the girls, and together they met up with the Arab teens.

Over the course of the trip, the eight girls were able to experience places such as a mosque in Acre, the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Kotel and Yad Vashem. They took part in a Ramadan festival and were welcomed into the homes of both Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis, as well as Druze and Bedouin communities.

The YULA girls and the Arab Israelis clearing brush in an orchard dedicated to co-existence

The result was more than a trip filled with fun and adventure for Talia Mahboubi, who is now an 11th-grader at YULA; it was a radical lesson in cross-culture understanding and empathy. 

“Whenever you meet someone, the first things that come to mind are judgments. I learned it’s really important to look past the stereotypes and look at the person,” she said. 

Although the eight girls slept in hotels and hostels, Arab-Israeli families welcomed them into their homes and invited them to local celebrations. 

“The Arab girls were so energetic,” Dahan said. “They stayed up until 4 a.m. singing and dancing — we had trouble getting to sleep! They woke up at like 7 a.m. for their morning prayers. It’s funny to look back and remember that I never slept!” 

For many of those involved, it was a trip filled with firsts.

“For the YULA girls, it was the first time they had gone into a mosque, a Ramadan festival and an Arab village — not to mention speaking Arabic with Arab students!” Smith said.

Mahboubi remembers not being sure what things would be like. 

“Before the trip, I didn’t really know what to expect at all. We hear so many different things. When we went into their villages, Ramadan parties and homes, we got to see their cultures and practices for ourselves.” 

Miriam Waghalter, now a YULA junior, was impressed by the parallels between Muslim and Jewish customs. 

“I was surprised by the similarities between our cultures. So many of our beliefs and morals are very similar. For example: modesty. Even though we have different ways of keeping modesty through how we dress, we both have the core belief that you have to cover up,” she said. 

“One of my favorite parts of the trip was experiencing Ramadan,” Waghalter continued. “Obviously, we didn’t do any fasting, but we saw the other girls on the trip fast. [When they weren’t fasting] everyone and their family ate together. Afterward, we went to a Ramadan festival. They had different cultural activities like henna, a stage with Quran readings and traditional dancing. One of the people who lived in that community was a contestant on ‘Arab Idol’! It was a really nice experience.” 

Mahboubi was grateful for the opportunity to see a different side of the land she loves so much. 

“I think the trip was really enlightening,” she said. “I’ve been to Israel; this was a whole new Israel. I would have never gone to those parts or interacted with those people if [it weren’t for the trip]. I got to see a new part that most Jews don’t get to see.” 

Dahan, who also had been to Israel previously, said she had never met anyone who wasn’t Jewish on those earlier trips. 

“I loved going to these places because they’re a different world in Israel, even though they are small and in the same country. I think we forget about them too much. I think we need to acknowledge them more.” 

Equally important, the Arab-Israeli girls were exposed to a side of their homeland that they had never experienced. 

“There were so many things the Arab girls had never seen before — and they live in Israel!” Smith said. “We took them to Ben Yehuda Street. We took them to the Kotel and the Kotel tunnels, a place with mostly English-speaking Jews. There are no regular Arabic tours of the Kotel tunnels, so we did all of our own translations. The tour guides would speak and we would translate. 

From right, YULA students Talia Mahboubi, Mana Shalikar and Rachel Dahan exit Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem.

“We saw how deep the walls of the Kotel tunnels go and remnants from the First Temple. It’s something that is a matter of contention in the Muslim community, where there is rejection of a pre-Second Temple existence. These kids literally got to see artifacts of the First Temple.” 

Then there was a shattering visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. Three of the Arab girls said they had never heard of the Holocaust and the other didn’t really know what it was, according to Dahan.

“While we were walking around and talking about how many people were killed, two of the Arab girls started crying. They were so hurt. They had never heard of the Holocaust and felt so sorry for us. It was very emotional seeing Arab girls cry for Jewish people,” she said. 

Smith said he was blown away by the scene. 

“Three Israeli girls had never heard of the Holocaust?” he said. “I thought that as Israeli Arabs living in Israel, going to Israeli public schools, learning Hebrew, they would know why Jews are living in Israel now. They don’t know about the Holocaust. They don’t know our recent history. They don’t know our ancient history.  They don’t know our story. They really don’t know us. 

“That was something that was very difficult and challenging. It was perhaps all the more reason for Jewish and Arab kids to meet each other — to say, ‘This is who we are; this is why we’re here. Maybe it will help both of us.’ ”

By the end of the trip, the girls were able to have conversations about controversial topics that might have divided them at the beginning — and there was a lesson in that, too.

“If we had talked about political things and other touchy subjects on the first day, we most likely wouldn’t have become friends. Once we had already bonded and became so close to each other, we were able to explore those subjects and our opinions more,” Waghalter said. “Clearly, there are some things that I said that they didn’t agree with, and I was able to tell them why I thought differently. Right after those conversations, we would return to normal without any weirdness between us.” 

Mahboubi added: “One thing I learned was that it’s possible to have different ideologies and ways of seeing things, but as long as you respect the other person’s point of view — you don’t have to agree with it or anything — you can be friends.”

Mana Shalikar, the fourth YULA student on the trip, who graduated in June, realized that her return to the United States might bring up some difficult questions. 

“Before going on this trip, I never thought I would represent something, and now I represent something bigger than I could ever foresee. Upon return, someone asked me, ‘Now that you are back from the trip, are you all peaceful and happy with Arabs?’ 

“ ‘No,’ I said, ‘that’s not the case.’ The girls and I agreed that there are just good people and bad people. It’s not that there are good Arabs or bad Arabs, good Jews or bad Jews. 

“My classmates and the Arab girls came to the conclusion that we could not describe the experience of the trip to anyone. It’s something that’s really going to stick with us for the rest of our lives.”

Why Jewish educators need to teach the Palestinian perspective


As the new school year gets underway, Jewish educators are making decisions regarding how best to teach about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most begin with the premise that Jewish students should learn to support Israel and defend its government. Throughout the year, their lesson plans will flow from this fundamental objective.

As a rabbi and Jewish educator this concerns me. I question why our Jewish institutions encourage critical thinking when teaching ancient Jewish texts — challenging students to consider multiple voices, give expression to minority viewpoints and ask difficult questions — but when teaching about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they avoid this approach.

American Jews hold strong and diverse opinions about the contemporary political situation in Israel, but our educational materials do not reflect this range of ideas. They either portray Israel as a mythic land of orange trees and sacred sites, or they address its challenges in order to help students defend it from criticism. After careful research, I’ve seen that no major publishers of Jewish educational materials for children and teenagers have produced materials that encourage students to wrestle with both Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

For many years I’ve felt that our community’s educational materials on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are inadequate. Instead of encouraging students to simply support and defend Israel, I’ve realized we should teach students to formulate challenging questions, investigate complicated issues and develop their own well-reasoned perspectives.

And earlier this year, I decided to make a change: I wrote a new curriculum that reflects these goals.

What, specifically, should Jewish educators teach? They can begin by helping their students explore their connections to the people, the land and the State of Israel. By studying Israel within the context of Jewish history — such as how the emergence of Zionism shaped contemporary Jewish thought — young Jews can better understand their own communities today.

But this is not enough. Educators should also help their students cultivate understanding, respect and compassion for both Israelis and Palestinians. Often we don’t teach our children about the Palestinians because we don’t see them as central to our people’s stories. Yet Jews and Palestinians are linked together through a complex history, present conflict and unknown future.

Jews must grapple with Palestinian perspectives because we can’t wish Palestinians away or pretend they don’t exist. We have a moral obligation to listen carefully to their stories and try to comprehend what they have endured as a result of war and displacement. If we want a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must engage directly with Palestinians – not by criticizing or attacking them, but by genuinely trying to understand their experiences.

I wish that I had had the chance to learn about Palestinians growing up because when I attended college, I didn’t know how to analyze conflicting arguments. It wasn’t until I lived in Israel during rabbinical school that I traveled to the West Bank and met Palestinians. I sat in their homes and listened to their stories. I was shocked that no one had ever helped me understand that while the creation of Israel was a magnificent event for the Jewish people, it devastated Palestinian life. I had never considered the impact of war and displacement — as well as occupation and settlement expansion — on Palestinian communities. Learning about Palestinian culture was a transformative experience for me because I learned that Palestinians are as diverse and complex as my own people. I realized that Palestinians are not my enemies. I felt betrayed by my Jewish education.

Now, as a parent of young children, I want to give them what I didn’t have. Two years ago, when my family lived in Israel during my sabbatical, I encouraged my kids to develop a deep curiosity about the people, religions and cultures around them. I enrolled them in an Israeli preschool, and as we walked there each morning we looked at the street signs in both Hebrew and Arabic. We traveled around both western and eastern Jerusalem and talked about the different kinds of people we met. We spent one morning in a Bedouin kindergarten singing songs and playing games. It became obvious to my children that Israel was home not only to Jews but to Muslims and Christians as well.

The children and teenagers in our Jewish communities are bright, creative and eager to learn. They are capable of discussing divergent viewpoints and wrestling with difficult issues. They have the ability to understand that Israel is a modern nation-state embroiled in a complicated political situation, and they are able to struggle with the ethical implications of an almost 50-year military occupation.

Jewish educators often shy away from teaching subjects that they deem too political, arguing that politics do not belong in the classroom. They believe that their role is solely to teach about Israel and to impress upon young Jews that Israel is core to their Jewish identities. Yet educators have a responsibility to teach not only about the vision or dream of Israel but also the reality of Israel — and it’s impossible to do this without political discussions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to Jewish life. It’s as important to Jewish identity as prayer and the weekly Torah portion. While American Jews can certainly live rich Jewish lives without ever thinking about Israel, it’s the epicenter of Jewish politics. Involving middle- and high-school students in the debates around the conflict allows them to grapple with Jewish history, explore the many variations of Zionism and understand religious and political differences within the Jewish community.

Many of us want to avoid fruitless debate about the conflict, but in a classroom educators can employ creative teaching techniques that allow students to genuinely engage with the material. Young children can sample Israeli and Palestinian foods, attend cultural events and learn songs in Hebrew and Arabic. Older students can read novels and act out scenes, stage structured debates and mock trials, write poems from multiple perspectives and conduct interviews with family members, activists, scholars and leaders of their communities.

This type of learning will help our students grow, encourage them to develop their own unique ideas about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and foster a sense of respect and understanding for others. These are the kinds of attributes that the next generation of Jews desperately need.

Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi and education director at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin. She recently published and wrote “Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

The year of the creative in Jewish education


This week, countless young children in Jewish schools of all varieties will bring home familiar handmade crafts for the Jewish New Year: paper towel tube shofarot, “stained glass” honey dishes made of plastic bowls and colored with markers, and decorated “Shanah Tovah” cards. Many busy parents will not lift their gaze to look at these crafts as they respond on autopilot, “Oh, that’s beautiful,” as they do to most art projects their children make in school.

We need a whole new way of thinking about creative learning in Jewish education. These crafts are intended to engage young learners in holiday themes, in making their own symbols that they will hold dear. But without creative engagement with ideas, not just materials, they may be making their own shofar or honey dish, but without achieving deep understanding or a new perspective or interpretation of their own.

Focusing on creativity is a disruptive and uncomfortable notion for many schools. In his groundbreaking new book about the need for school change, “Creative Schools,” Ken Robinson dispels the myth that creativity is simply “about having off-the-wall ideas and letting your imagination run free.” Creativity, Robinson argues, also involves developing a critical, discerning mind and requires drafting, crafting and refining. Creativity is defined as the process of having original ideas that have value. Creativity is not a euphemism for frivolity or meaningless play. Creativity happens through intentional play and the application of imagination. It is a natural part of learning and living.

Another myth about creativity is that it can’t be taught. In my experience, that is only true if the school refuses to teach it.

The question is: Who is prepared to teach creativity? 

Dream Lab is a creativity think tank and pedagogy test kitchen at the Graduate Center for Jewish Education of American Jewish University, which is poised to answer this question. Los Angeles has an untapped mine of natural resources to attend to the task of teaching through creativity: one of the most creative Jewish populations concentrated in one city. There are Jewish creatives and artists who specialize in music, visual art, theater, digital media, cooking, movement and more who are currently freelancing in teaching roles as occasional workshop providers. They have much to offer, and we should take their potential contribution as a serious opportunity to revitalize Jewish life against the landscape of a particularly creative moment in secular culture.

Dream Lab’s theory of change is that if artists and creatives play a more central role in facilitating authentic learning — and by authentic learning I mean accessing, interpreting, applying and making meaning of ideas and concepts — then perhaps Jewish education could achieve radically different outcomes. Learners will turn to Jewish tools for confronting questions and problem solving. By widening the possibilities of Jewish expression beyond basic writing and discussion modes, Jewish learning will become Jewish thriving.  

This fall, seven creatives will begin a yearlong Dream Lab fellowship at American Jewish University to explore how to redefine the form and function of a Jewish educator as a facilitator of creativity, interpretation and personal Jewish expression. They will meet monthly to delve into Jewish ideas and texts about life’s ultimate questions, study pedagogy and human development, and incubate new creative methodologies of facilitating learning through creative processes.

As a result of the fellowship, the creatives will acquire the teaching and planning skills to implement high-quality creative Jewish learning experiences that are more Judaically rich and designed with a deeper understanding of and attention to the needs of learners. They will be co-planning new lessons, courses and curricula to bring to supplementary schools, day schools, youth groups and camps. Within a year, they will be sowing the seeds for a field of creative Jewish education, disseminating their teaching tools, and recruiting and mentoring additional artists who may be curious about Jewish teaching and learning.

Although some traditionalists might worry that introducing creative process into Jewish learning might disrupt the delicate continuity of cultural inheritance from one generation to the next, our history suggests the opposite can be true. As the pre-eminent expert on the American-Jewish experience, Jonathan Sarna, has argued, “Continuity may depend on discontinuity.” The greatest gift Jewish education can give our children is not simply a pre-packaged tradition, but a variety of tools to engage in creative dialogue with the tradition so that they may revitalize Jewish culture, practice and community throughout their lives.

By next Rosh Hashanah, the Dream Lab faculty and fellows hope to provoke a process of real creative interpretation and production among young Jews and partner with educators to rethink how to integrate arts into their curriculum. Often on the margins of Jewish life, Jewish artists are stepping into the core to redefine teaching and learning. Let this be the year of the creative in Jewish life. 

Miriam Heller Stern is dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University.