Carpenter Parents Step Up for Kids

You can hear envy in the voice of Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. It is a subtle envy but one well known to certain parents in Studio City who, like Greuel and her family, live next to, but not in, “The Promised Land.”

“We’re actually just outside the boundary of Carpenter,” Greuel said.

She refers to Carpenter Avenue School, where about 900 kids from kindergarten through fifth grade receive arguably the finest primary education in the notoriously dysfunctional Los Angeles Unified School District. To live within the boundaries of Carpenter, or to get a rare waiver permit allowing your child to go there, is a sought-after prize.

“When you tell people your kids go to Carpenter, they’re like, ‘Ahhhh,'” said Harriet Diament, who has two boys at the school and graduated from there in 1976. “That name has a lot behind it.”

Rare is the public school that has a dinner-dance fundraiser on a soundstage at CBS Studio Center, with Greuel one of several honorees at the May 22 Motown-themed event. Silent auction items included two tickets to this week’s climactic taping of Fox TV’s “American Idol” courtesy of the show’s producer, a Carpenter parent.

But Carpenter once had a rough stretch; the 1990s reclaiming of its strong reputation had a lot to do with committed parents led by an innovative Jewish principal.

“I want parents to be active in their children’s education,” said Joan Marks, Carpenter’s principal from 1985 to 2000 and now the elementary school principal at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.

Located on a speedy, flat stretch of Laurel Canyon Boulevard south of Ventura Boulevard, Carpenter Avenue Elementary School had a solid reputation for teaching kids, many from upper-middle class Jewish families living on winding, Spanish-named streets in the hills above Studio City. With streets named Dona Pegita and Dona Lisa, Jewish children called their neighborhood “The Donnas.”

By the early 1980s, mandatory busing saw parents pulling their kids out of public schools and enrolling them in private schools. The local school populace nearly vanished; of 469 students at Carpenter in 1985, only 60 lived in Studio City. Only seven kindergarteners were locals.

Marks was determined to not let Carpenter face closure by the school district. In August 1985 she met with eight Studio City parents, several of them Jewish, and they began lobbying other parents to bring their kids back to Carpenter. They had booths at local events, passed out flyers, talked to neighbors and rang many Studio City doorbells.

It worked. On the morning in 1993 Carpenter began accepting applications for open enrollment for kids outside the school’s strict residence boundaries, some 60 parents were at the front door, bleary-eyed.

“They actually camped out all night to get in,” Marks said.

The Jewish influence in Carpenter’s rejuvenation is not specifically Jewish like a synagogue, but more Jewish influenced like the broad community work of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. The principal and many Carpenter teachers are Jewish. The 2003-2004 school year had a student body that was 74.7 percent Caucasian, 9.6 percent Latino, 9.1 percent Asian American and 6.2 percent African American.

The 16th annual dinner dance was put on Parents For Carpenter (PFC), the Marks group now headed by Janet Loeb, a Jewish mom who soon will have her fourth child enter Carpenter. Loeb was active in Jewish Federation young leadership activities before PFC, and one of PFC’s incoming co-presidents, Neil Cohen, has been a leader at North Hollywood’s Reform Temple Beth Hillel. PFC funds the school’s music, dance and physical education teacher salaries plus gives money for a media lab and gives stipends for teachers and supplies that poorer schools buy with Title I federal education funding, which Carpenter does not receive due to Studio City’s high income levels.

Standing before about 40 tables of parents, including several actors known for small “Seinfeld” roles, Loeb spoke of Carpenter’s future challenges, including possible school district budget cuts of $50 per child.

“You may be required to pay for books, paper, paper towels and pencils,” Loeb said. “We are here to make sure our kids get the best and I mean the very best.”

The 20-plus aisles of silent auction items included donations from Studio City’s legions of successful entertainment industry executives, Grammy tickets, autographed DVDs, a week in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Dodger dugout seats and a personalized “Spongebob Squarepants” CD by “Spongebob” voice Tom Kenny, a Carpenter parent.

But along with organizing unglamorous fund-raising like car washes, Carpenter parents also can be as demanding of their public school’s teachers as parents paying $20,000 to have their kids at private schools for virtually the same quality of education.

“The parents are there, they’re in your face,” said Nazzi Kaufman, who teaches Carpenter’s gifted class, meaning she interacts with the parents of highly gifted kids.

Her friends who are teachers at other schools sometimes have lonely parent-teacher nights.

At Carpenter, Kaufman said, “Sometimes I have to have double sessions because they’re so involved.”

How Green is My Envy?

When my daughter, Samantha, was 6, I got a call from our synagogue’s Hebrew-school principal.

“Do you have a Christmas tree?” DiDi asked.

“Is that a serious question?”

“Samantha says you do. She told the class today that you have a Christmas tree and that it’s right near the fireplace,” she insisted. “Is it true?”

At first, I was appalled by the inquiry. Then I laughed at myself, having foolishly thought I could insulate my child from Christmas. There’s not a kid in America, of any religion, who doesn’t spend some time pining for a Christmas tree. In fact, it’s a national rite of passage: Christmas Tree Envy. Even youngsters in day schools go to the mall. They’d have to live in a tunnel not to know that red and green are important colors of the season.

So now that she reached this stage, what was I to do about it? For many Jewish parents, “the tree” is the religious equivalent of the conversation about sex — dark and dangerous territory. We avoid any such discussion until the kids raise it first.

“We have Chanukah,” we say, as if having a holiday of our own evens the score. Of course, it does not.

Most of what’s written on the so-called December Dilemma suggests that the problem is only a matter of education and pride. We’re told that Jewish children can avoid Christmas Tree Envy by learning about their own holidays, taking joy in their own history and celebrating Chanukah as a minor ritual that teaches the values of toleration.

Good beginning, but hardly enough. The biggest problem with Christmas is that it is undeniably beautiful, holy and spiritual. Its music is deeply moving. A home with a Christmas tree is filled with good smells, wonderful colors and, yes, fun. To deny that we, as adults, recognize the beauty of another tradition and that we, in our own way, are moved by “Silent Night,” at least on the level of harmonics, is preposterous and, worse, paints us as Scrooge. Bah, humbug.

But there is another approach, one based on our own tradition, as well as common sense. For it is important that all children, Jews not excluded, develop the capacity to respect a friend’s success, attainments and possessions. Our Yiddish grandparents have a word for this talent — farginen — and it is an important skill to master all year long.

To fargint someone means to allow another person to enjoy what he or she has, free from resentment, belittlement, threat or fear.

Farginen, writes Rabbi Nilton Bonder in “The Kabbalah of Envy” (an invaluable book for every Jewish library), “means to open space, to share pleasure; it is the exact opposite of the verb to envy.”

Bonder’s book demonstrates just how overpowering a disease envy can be. In fact, the sages assert that three things reveal a person’s character: his “cup” (meaning his appetites); his “pocket” (how he earns a living); and his “rage” (the envy by which he lives in the world).

As adults, we know how difficult it is to fargint someone’s good fortune. A friend’s book lands on the best-seller list, while yours is just getting off the ground. A screenwriter’s script is optioned, while yours gathers dust. Competition can kill us. The discipline to fargint assuages the competitive urge, allowing us to recognize another’s accomplishments and feel content with our own.

If we don’t practice farginen when we’re young, it won’t get easier later on. Samantha was about 4 when she first regarded a beautiful wreath on a door.

“Yep,” I muttered, but, afraid she would want one for our home, I tensed into silence. And she said nothing more. Later, she admired Christmas carols. “Nice,” I said, my voice tight. And she fell silent again.

But what had I taught her but to censor herself? This was no good, in ways that had nothing to do with December. By age 6, many children, like Samantha, experience not only Christmas Tree Envy but envy of all kinds, including sibling rivalry and schoolyard brawls. If she can’t fargint Christmas, how will she deal with college entrance exams or a friend whose home is “better” than ours?

So when Samantha came home from Hebrew school, I asked her if she liked Christmas trees. She looked at me suspiciously. “They are beautiful,” I said. She thought I was nuts.

“Would you like to see one?” Yes, of course. So off we went to the mall, and began to fargint.

Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her guest will be Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through