Let My Students Go


To celebrate Passover, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy preschoolers spent time in ancient Egypt.

Teachers and students transformed hallway bulletin boards into a colorful representation of the story of Passover. The journey begins with the pyramids, and then students pass through a parted Red Sea with thick tulle and crinkled tissue paper on either side — some gauze and cellophane even hang above. Life-size kindergartners silhouettes represent the Israelites dancing at the other end of the sea, coffee-stained butcher paper evokes the desert, and the trip ends in Jerusalem.

“[The artwork] makes the holiday come alive for the children, so that it’s just not just a flat learning experience,” said Cecelie Wizenfeld, the school’s early childhood director. “They’re a part of it.”

Wizenfeld is not alone in her efforts to find memorable ways of helping children connect with the holiday. While model seders, seder plate illustrations and handmade afikomen bags have become standard educational fare in the classroom, many Southland religious and day school teachers are finding that creative and unusual holiday projects make more of an impact.

Second-graders at Adat Ari El Day School will reenact the Exodus from Egypt as they embark on a two-hour journey around the school grounds. Head of School Lana Marcus will play the role of Moses, while sixth-grade students will dress up as taskmasters, following the children. Other journey highlights include the parting of the Red Sea (the sprinklers will come on), receiving “manna” from heaven (teachers will drop marshmallows from above) and finally, the arrival to the Promised Land (a grassy area on the property) and pitching tents, eating, singing and dancing in celebration. Afterward, teachers will lead a discussion about the journey.

By second grade, the children have a familiarity with the holiday, but “acting out the story of Passover makes the children think what [the Exodus] must have been like for the Israelis,” said Sari Goodman, the school’s general studies director.

Rather than focusing on the journey like the students at Adat Ari El, this year the kindergartners at the Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple decided what material things they would bring on such a journey and, in turn, what they value. Each child decorated a “Passover backpack” and chose a few items from home to bring to Israel. In past years, these prized possessions have included teddy bears, prayer books, baseballs and pictures of family.

Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, who oversees the Judaic studies department, said that these activities allow the children to “enter into the text of the haggadah in a new way.”

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Temple Isaiah’s religious school experienced yet another aspect of the Exodus when they attended a special weekend retreat at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu on April 15.

One of the weekend activities was a homelessness simulation in which students received “eviction notices” on their cabin doors. Students worked together to combat their plight and attempt to get back on their feet.

“We’re equating homelessness with the Exodus of the Jewish people,” said Lisa Greengard, the synagogue’s youth group director. Greengard hopes that this modern take on one of the key aspects of Passover will help children empathize with our ancestors and ultimately, make the holiday more meaningful.

Temple Israel of Hollywood’s fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students will indulge in a “chocolate seder” in which the regular items on the seder plate are replaced by their supposed chocolate equivalents. Roasted eggs are substituted with chocolate eggs. Instead of dipping parsley in salt water, the students will dip strawberries in chocolate sauce. Chocolate milk will replace wine. Trail mix with M&Ms is the new charoset.

Carrie Frank, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion rabbinical student who is interning at Temple Israel, adapted the chocolate seder — a concept typically aimed at college students — to make the experience more relevant to younger students. Her goal is to help the children move beyond the story of Passover and take in the core values of the holiday and the concept of enslavement.

By getting the kids’ attention with tasty treats, Frank hopes to touch on deeper issues. She replaces the 10 plagues with what she deems the “10 modern plagues,” so the seder will include more familiar issues like hunger, inequality and disrespect. When the youngsters sip their cups of chocolate milk, they will be reminded of the things for which they are thankful.

“With the kitsch thrown in, it allows you to sneak in some of the good stuff, like values,” Frank said. “And they will absorb that.”


‘Reimagining’ Earns Educator Accolades


David Ellenson had made a mistake, and he knew Sara Lee could help.

Months ago he had declined an invitation to apply for the position of president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Now, at the 11th hour, he had changed his mind.

“That’s not a problem,” Lee told Ellenson, who in 2001 would become the eighth president of the Reform movement’s 125-year-old rabbinical school. “Just tell the committee you’ve reimagined yourself.”

Reimagining — and finding just the right words and approach to do it — is one of things that has made Lee, who has been the director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles for 25 years, one of the most well-respected educational leaders in the Jewish world. On Feb. 21 in Jerusalem, Lee was awarded Pras Hanasi, Israel’s President’s Prize, overseen by the Jewish Agency and awarded by President Moshe Katsav to four educators.

This award, along with her 1999 honorary doctorate from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the prestigious Rothberg Prize from Hebrew University in 1997, puts Lee up there with a pantheon of 20th and 21st century educators and leaders who have impacted a wide swath of the Jewish community.

“People around the world recognize that Sara has elevated the standards of Jewish education to a new high,” Ellenson said. “She has such a combination of good sense and insight, as well as care and compassion for individuals and concern for the institution itself, that she’s just an unparalleled font of wisdom.”

With what students and colleagues call an iron fist and a velvet glove, Lee has been at the vanguard of the return to knowledge-based Judaism, refocusing attention on education as a lifelong family and congregational endeavor.

“She both anticipated many of the trends [toward traditionalism] in the Reform movement, and simultaneously through her work has really fostered many of them,” Ellenson said.

On a recent winter day, back home between tightly scheduled trips to New York, Florida and two visits to Israel, Lee was clearly at home walking through the halls of HUC-JIR at the USC campus, where, Diet Coke in hand, she headed toward a quiet basement classroom to reflect on a career that is still going strong. A grandmother of four, she carries her age like an elder politician whose vision continues to be about the future, not about past accomplishments.

“I’ve pushed the envelope on what Jewish education ought to be and what a Jewish educator ought to be, and I’ve pushed it pretty heavily,” she said. “You can’t change Jewish identity or Jewish community, but you can change the culture of an institution, and institution by institution get the community to think differently and feel differently about Jewish learning.”

One of her main lines of attack over the last few decades has been Hebrew schools and congregational education.

“The fact is that supplementary religious schools make no sense in an institutional culture that does not celebrate Jewish learning,” she said. “Why would any kid think it was worthwhile if Jewish learning is not something adults are doing?”

Lee helped formalize this integrated approach to Jewish learning in the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), which was founded more than 10 years ago and is now a national program.

She has been at the forefront of the trend toward day school education in the liberal community and founded and co-directs, along with Sister Mary C. Boys, the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium. The two recently traveled to Auschwitz and are writing a book about the experience.

Lee grew up in Boston and was educated in its rigorous Latin school system. She attended Radcliffe in the 1950s, where the women were assured that as the best and brightest nothing was beyond their reach. As a teenager she became involved in Young Judea, a Zionist youth group, and took a year off from Radcliffe to live in Israel.

“That was a very toughening experience,” she said of that year, which cemented her commitment to Israel. “You came to believe that nothing is impossible, that you shouldn’t accept the status quo because there is always something better.”

That determination would serve her well when her husband, a physician, died suddenly when Lee was in her early 40s, leaving her with two teenagers and a 7-year-old.

She enrolled in a master’s program at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, where in her second year she was asked to intern and was hired there when she graduated.

In 1979, she was offered the school’s director position, despite the fact that she did not have ordination or a doctorate degree.

Lee keeps photos of all her graduating classes up on the wall above her desk, so that when alumni call, which they often do, she can immediately pinpoint the face. Students and colleagues alike speak of Lee’s penchant for asking probing questions and her ability to analyze a situation and focus on a solution.

“Sara sets incredibly high standards for herself. She lets you know what the ideal is, but you never feel like you are coming up short alone,” said Isa Aron, professor of education at the Rhea Hirsch School and senior consultant for the ECE.

Lee received a good dose of that kind of recognition when the Alumni Association of Rhea Hirsch School of Education honored her in December, where 120 alumni and colleagues attended in her honor. That, she said, was more meaningful than any other accolade she’s received.

“That is really what it is all about,” Lee said, “that people think that I have this impact on the field to help raise people’s vision and expectation of what a Jewish educator ought to be.”


Where Will a Teen’s Schooling Continue?


When Amy Cohen graduated from Adat Ari El’s day school in 2003, her family faced a decision: Where would she continue her education?

While eighth-graders at Orthodox day schools generally continue on to Jewish high schools, graduates of Conservative, Reform or community day schools matriculate to any number of school settings, including Jewish, public, magnet and private secular.

At this time of the year, parents and students face the task of setting priorities and examining realities that will determine where a Jewish teen’s education will continue.

As the Cohens discussed options, “It became clear that she didn’t want to continue in a religious setting,” recalled Amy’s father, Dennis Cohen. “She wanted to sample the wider world.”

The Studio City family briefly considered public school for Amy, but decided that she would be better served in a private school that could offer small classes and individualized attention. Amy was accepted into Pacific Hills, a private school in West Hollywood. Cohen says his daughter enjoyed the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the student body and quickly adjusted to her new setting.

Similarly, Cohen’s son, Geoffrey, now 18, left Adat Ari El after fifth grade to attend the gifted program at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. There, Cohen said, his son enjoyed “getting lost in the crowd and having a bigger social circle.”

Although Cohen said he would have been happy to send his children to a Jewish high school, he did not object to their preferences.

“You try to lay the foundation for their Jewish observances at home … and you hope it takes root,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to go into the secular world.”

Although neither of his children is continuing with formal Jewish education, Cohen said that their synagogue remains a central part of the family’s life.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of families like the Cohens who are choosing to leave the Jewish day school world after the elementary years. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that one might conclude that fewer students are making the transition from Jewish elementary schools to Jewish high schools, given that last fall there were 685 eighth-graders in day school, and only 621 entering high school students this fall. That number also includes some who enter Jewish high school after attending a secular middle school.

At the same time, Jewish high school enrollment is substantially higher today than five years ago. According to Graff, there were 502 ninth-graders enrolled in Jewish high schools in 1999, compared to the 621 today.

With annual private high school tuition averaging from $18,000 to the mid-20s, the option is beyond the means of many families.

Debbie Gliksman sent her three children to Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. But when it came time for her eldest child, Lianna, to start high school, “our options were limited,” she said. Gliksman would have liked to send her daughter to Milken Community High School, but “it’s a very, very expensive proposition to send three kids there,” she said.

Instead, her daughter enrolled this fall in the humanities magnet program at Hamilton High, her local school.

“There’s a big difference [between private and public],” Gliksman said.

She and other parents recommend that families who may want to send their children to a magnet school begin accruing points as early as possible. (For more information about points, visit www.lausd.k12.ca.us/welcome.html and click on “FAQs” under the “Discover LAUSD” tab.)

For other families, only a Jewish high school will do. In June, Maureen Goldberg’s son, Joshua, will graduate from Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge. Goldberg said her family had been “struggling for the last couple of years” over the issue of where he should go next.

Several weeks ago, she said the family “came to an epiphany” while attending an open house for a secular private school they were considering. The school had put out an extensive buffet, and as Goldberg approached the tables and saw the ham and cheese.

“My heart sank,” she said.

She turned to her son and said, “I don’t think I can go back.” And he responded, “I don’t think I can, either, mom.”

“It crystallized for us that we weren’t ready to give up the Judaic experience,” said Goldberg, who added that she considered it even more important for adolescents than younger children to learn Jewish values. “He might get that at a secular school, but I know he’ll get it at Milken.”

Goldberg also said she was disappointed that although 75 percent of her son’s class went on to private schools, only three chose to go to a Jewish one.

Like many other parents sending their children to private school, Goldberg said the family had to sacrifice to afford the steep tuition.

“I’d rather live in the smallest house in the worst neighborhood and send my kid to a private Jewish day school, than live in the largest house and go to public school,” she said. “The sacrifice is worth it. I have a really menschy, kind kid, and he got a lot of that from Heschel.”


Ending the Post-Bar Mitzvah Exodus

On a recent gloomy Sunday afternoon in L.A. Family Housing’s recreation room, 13-year-old Julia Harreschou laughs with 5-year-old Lara as they take turns drawing on a Magna Doodle. At another table covered with beads, paint and other art supplies, Juliana Klein, 14, helps 4-year-old Carmen decorate a small wooden cutout house. Across the hall, a group of boys bobs for apples, while outside, until the rain descends, other kids play football.

This is Keeping Kids Company, a community service project in which 15 teenagers participating in the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE)’s Netivim program brighten Sunday afternoons for children living in this North Hollywood transitional housing center.

“The teens are not only helping the kids, but they are also learning Jewish values,” said Dan Gold, coordinator of Netivim’s Institute of Jewish Service, who engages them for the last half-hour in a discussion on homelessness and Judaism’s position on the dignity of permanent housing.

In its third year, Netivim is one of several new or revamped programs begun by Los Angeles-area synagogues and Jewish organizations to help stem the tide of teenagers severing their Jewish connections after they celebrate their bar or bat mitzvahs.

Educators are hoping the lure of free food, the opportunity to spend time with friends, provocative programming that breaks out of the behind-the-desk model and the strong presence of clergy will entice kids to continue well into their teenage years.

“The Jewish community has traditionally looked at bar and bat mitzvah as an endpoint. Rather we should say that bar and bat mitzvah is a very important lifecycle event along the pathway of our children’s Jewish education,” says Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood.

But it’s a tough battle. According to the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, of the 29,300 Jewish 13- to 17-year-olds living in Los Angeles, only 3,700 currently attend Jewish day school and another 4,100 attend religious school. And while other teens might be involved in informal education, including youth groups and summer camps, for which no accurate numbers are available, educators estimate at least 20,000 unaffiliated Jewish teenagers live in the Los Angeles area.

Judaism is often a low priority for teens who are already overburdened and overextended with homework, extracurricular activities such as sports, drama and music lessons and a full social life. The focus, for many, is building the college resume rather than building Jewish connections.

Plus, the parents of those teenagers, many of whom are uncomfortable themselves with Judaism, don’t force the issue, according to Lisa Greengard, youth and camp director at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and a member of BJE’s Youth Professional Advisory Council. “Parents actively tell me that this is a battle not worth fighting,” she says.

But Jewish educators are not ready to give up a fight that has the potential to determine the teens’ Jewish future.

While 43 percent of those with no Jewish education intermarry, the rate drops to 29 percent for those who attend even a one-day-a-week program, according to the National Jewish Population Study 2000-01. In the same survey, there was a direct correspondence between the number of years a person spent in a Jewish educational setting, and the strength of their Jewish identity — attachment to Israel, having Jewish friends, observing rituals, marrying Jews.

Many of the re-envisioned programs to get teens to stay in the fold have been successful.

At University Synagogue, Feinstein and Religious School Director Janice Tytell have retooled the confirmation and post-confirmation Monday Night Program for eighth- through 12th-graders. After a pizza dinner, the eighth- through 10th-grade students attend back-to-back minicourses, choosing, among others, “Theology and Spirituality,” “Do Jews Believe in Heaven and Hell?” or “Hot Topics: School Violence,” led by the synagogue’s cantor and rabbis.

Eleventh- and 12th-graders meet with clinical psychologist Richard Weintraub, where, while sitting casually on beanbags, they discuss life, death, sex, drugs, school and parents.

“The class becomes its own community, both magical and mystical,” said Weintraub, who also teaches at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

And while he doesn’t “hit them over the head with the Jewish stuff,” he does weave in stories from the Talmud, from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s books and from his own Orthodox background.

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles, more than 100 eighth- through 12th-graders show up every week for the Wednesday Night Program, developed three years ago by Rabbi Dennis Eisner and full-time youth professional Ellie Klein. After a pizza dinner, the teens participate in a one-hour elective, such as art, dance or improv. Tutoring and study hall are also available.

During the second hour, the students attend three- or four-week seminars on topics such as “Sex in the Text,” “Who Wants to Marry a Teenage Jew?” and “Cult and Culture.”

For 12th-grader Jenna Berger, Wednesday night is the highlight of her week.

“I rely on this night of peace, of Judaism, of fun and of friends,” she said.

For Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, “It’s about making them a second home. And it begins with the rabbi.”

Olins has a 90 percent post-bar mitzvah retention rate for her four-year confirmation program, beginning in seventh grade, with all classes taught by her and Cantor Mark Gomberg,

Once a month, the fourth-year class spends a Tuesday evening with Olins, eating pizza and viewing an episode of “Desperate Housewives,” trying to figure out how many times the characters break one of the Ten Commandments (they watched “Friends” before it went off the air).

“Four years is the maximum,” said Michelle Sharaf, 15, “but I hope we keep going.”Olins credits much of her success to personally knowing all the kids: “I’ve baby-named practically every child who’s having a bar or bat mitzvah.”

She also incorporates Jewish material in a way that is relevant to her students.

“I think it’s a big mistake to think you can teach them Talmud — and I’m sorry to say this because I’m a big lover of Talmud — but the moment I offer them something about themselves, I have a winner.”

Some educators worry that community service projects and less-structured post-confirmation classes are not as effective in transmitting information as traditional models, but Greengard strongly disagrees.

“There’s huge misunderstanding about informal education,” she said. “Those kids are actively learning about Judaism; they just don’t realize it.”

Outside the synagogues, other Jewish organizations are reaching out to teens in the community. BJE’s Netivim offers three pathways for involvement, including the Institute for Jewish Leadership and the Institute for Jewish Culture and Values. But the most popular is the Institute for Jewish Service, which gives teens credit for community service they perform on their own in addition to organizing an array of community service activities, with reflection and Jewish learning incorporated into each one.

“We don’t tell the kids what to believe,” coordinator Gold says, “but we do tell them to follow their Jewish hearts.”

Last year, 240 kids participated in Netivim. This year, Stacey Barrett BJE director of youth education services, expects the number to more than double, with about half those kids unaffiliated with formal education programs. “Our goal is move the teens from a one-shot community service project to a full-year program.”

Another organization, Jewish Student Union (JSU), was founded two years ago by Rabbi Steve Burg to reach out to unaffiliated teens in the public schools. JSU, whose clubs meet weekly for lunch in high school classrooms, is strongly connected to the West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an Orthodox organization, but is open to all denominations and, in fact, even attracts some non-Jewish students.

On a recent Wednesday at Van Nuys High School, adviser Devorah Lunger greeted the JSU members with boxes of extra-large pizzas. They sang the Hebrew alphabet song, learned new Hebrew letters, planned a holiday party and heard a synopsis of the week’s parsha.

“I came because I was curious,” explained Brandon Baker, 16. “It feels good getting back into my religion.”

Currently JSU has 15 clubs, and Shoshana Hirsch, director of administration, estimates that JSU touches at least 1,000 teens a year.

“The hope is that after being exposed to the vast number of opportunities available to them in the Jewish community, they may get more actively involved,” she said.

That’s the goal for all these programs. It’s also a worthy one. The Search Institute, an independent nonprofit research and training organization in Minneapolis, has found that an hour or more per week spent in a religious institution is one of the developmental assets that help foster “healthy, caring and responsible” adolescents.

And the right combination of food and friends, positive role modeling and compelling, though often subtle, Jewish content might be what it takes to get teens in the door.

As Emily Sufrin, 14, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said, “These programs let you know that Judaism is part of who you are in everyday life.”

Mitzvah Programs


(Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles)


Stacey Barrett

Director of Youth Education Services

(323) 761-8605/sbarrett@bjela.org

Jewish Student Union


Shoshana Hirsh,

Director of Administration

(310) 229-9006/jsu@jsu.org

Confirmation Program

Temple B’nai Hayim

Rabbi Sally Olins

(818) 788-4661

Wednesday Night Program

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Dennis Eisner

Ellie Klein

Director of Youth Programs

(213) 388-2401

Post B’nai Mitzvah Continuing


University Synagogue

Janice Tytell,

Religious School Principal

(310) 472-1255/JTytell@unisyn.org

A Day on the Bimah Changes Everything

My bar mitzvah took place in Queens, New York, in 1970. It was an unexpected and odd occasion, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. But now, 34 years later, I was once again in New York, and the subject of my bar mitzvah came up, as the ceremony itself first had, unexpectedly.

My new bride and I sat in a booth across from Charlotte, one of my oldest friends, in the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea. We’d driven to town to introduce my wife to those who couldn’t make it our traditional Jewish wedding in Louisville, Ky.

Abruptly, Charlotte asked point-blank, as New Yorkers tend to do, what had prompted me to become observant. Throughout high school, college and our early careers, we two friends had been secular Jews, intellectually but not spiritually interested to our heritage. During the intervening years, our paths diverged. Eventually I began attending synagogue, and Charlotte remained secular.

She wanted to know, "Was it because you moved from New York, where you’re surrounded by Jewishness, to someplace you felt more isolated?"

Though there is some truth to her point — isolation in Nashville, and in Louisville later on, had definitely been part of the impulse to connect to my "roots" — I had to smile at the thought that one had to leave New York in order to discover Judaism.

As my wife and I toured the city, we passed synagogues, yeshivas and seminaries. Visiting my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, we were in the midst of a large Chasidic neighborhood. It was the eve of Tisha B’Av. Cafe signs proclaimed: "Have a good fast. We open 9 p.m. tomorrow." Even Murray’s Bagels, my favorite Chelsea breakfast spot, was certified kosher.

Seeing these many signs of Jewish observance made me recall the storefront synagogues in my own Rego Park neighborhood, and how, while I ran to class at Queens College one day during Sukkot, the Mitzvah Mobile had pulled up, music blaring like some bizarre Orthodox ice cream truck. A black-hatted Lubavitcher emerged, pressed a Lulav into my startled hands and walked me through the Sukkot mitzvah.

No, you didn’t have to leave New York to discover Jewish observance, but something had to plant the desire. In my case, it was my bar mitzvah.

"That’s the big secret that none of my family or my old friends knows, or would understand," I told her.

In 1969, as I approached bar mitzvah age, the ceremony wasn’t even a blip on my parents’ radar. Not only were they recently divorced and not getting along, but they were both uninterested in Jewish observance; perhaps they were even somewhat antagonistic toward it. Therefore, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. The eldest among my cousins, I had never been to a bar mitzvah, so I hadn’t even acquired "reception-envy," with which to pressure my folks into complying with tradition.

Upon hearing that my parents did not intend to make any Jewish coming-of-age plans for me, my maternal grandparents decreed that despite all my family’s mishegas, I was having a bar mitzvah. And that was that.

But the path from decree to Torah wasn’t that simple. What followed was an embarrassing time for a preteen, as I was taken first to the local Reform, then to the Conservative synagogue, only to be rejected by their rabbis because it was "too late" to train me.

If it was hard for my secular parents to swallow the idea of a bar mitzvah, I’m sure it was even harder for them to make an appointment at their last option — the Orthodox Rego Park Jewish Center. But they did, and Rabbi Gewirtz told them, "He’s a Jew, of course we’ll take him."

Thus began a strange period in my family’s history. Each Wednesday, the day designated by the New York City public school system for RI, or religious instruction, the secular Jackmans’ kid left school an hour early (Yes!), put on his tzitzit under his street clothes, and headed to an Orthodox shul to learn Hebrew writing and stumble through the Rashi reader.

On Sundays, I attended morning minyan and more classes, including accelerated haftarah chanting lessons held with a group of other late-starters.

I must confess I remember very little of this learning. However, what stuck with me all these years is the passion for Judaism that the men and women of the shul communicated to me. During Sunday prayers, the bearded men davened in what seemed to be holy rapture. One morning, a mortified congregant scolded me for trying to pronounce the ineffable name of God. I may not have known better at the time, but I didn’t have to be told twice.

And that passion is why, the day the Jackmans’ kid stood at the bimah to recite haftarah Bo in a beautiful piping soprano full of errors, with his female relatives separated from the men, and heartily congratulated anyway by the somewhat forbidding but tolerant men of the synagogue, he was heading inevitably toward Jewish observance.

The inevitable decision would not be made for many years, until I overcame ambivalences, inhibitions and other mental obstacles. But the impulse was created during that short half-year when I prepped for and achieved my bar mitzvah.

Reprinted courtesy of in the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

All-Female Plays Fill Niche for Frum

At Chabad’s Bais Chana High School on Pico Boulevard, a number of girls are sitting around a table with director Robin Garbose, reading through a new scene of "Portraits in Faith," their upcoming original musical. In the scene, a gold-digging wife tells her hapless husband that he no longer has any claim to his fortune and that she is going to use his money to party. The husband is Jewish, the wife is not, and her non-Jewishness infuses her with a particularly nasty streak of anti-Semitic superiority. It’s a meaty scene, and though the girls are reading the lines for the first time, they are handling them with aplomb. The wife’s malicious insults become more delightfully sinister in the reading, whereas the husband becomes the lame coward who gets weaker with every word.

On a dramatic level, the musical is a multigenerational historical drama that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany, and is replete with marital discord, class conflict and religious struggles. It highlights the dissonance between the Orthodox and the Reform. On an educational level, the play is a vehicle for the girls to become more self-confident and use their talents for performing arts in an environment that remains faithful to halachah. In keeping with the laws of Kol Isha, which prohibit a woman from singing in front of men for reasons of modesty, and tznius (general modesty) the play will be performed to audiences of women only. And the play itself is not just a drama — it’s a story with a moral. At the end of it, the audience is meant to appreciate the courage and dedication of Jewish women in keeping Torah alive through the ages and feel inspired about the beauty and the holiness of the mitzvah of going to the mikvah (ritual bath).

Garbose expects that at least 1,000 women will come out to see the play when it is performed on March 3, but judging from past audiences at other all-girl productions, that estimate seems conservative. In February, Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic girls’ high school on Beverly Boulevard, put on an all-girl production called "Simply Not The Same." The theme of the play was the importance of Torah, and more than 1,000 women showed up to see it over two nights, a large number considering that Bnos Esther only has 50 girls in the entire high school. Last year Bais Yaakov High School performed their biennial "Halleli" — an all-girl song, dance and drama fest — and drew an audience of 4,000 women over two nights.

The reason for the great turnouts is clear. The plays cater to women and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community who restrict the amount of popular culture that they let into their lives, because of what they see as its irreligious and immodest content. Nevertheless, these women still want to be entertained, but they just don’t want to compromise their religious principals in doing so.

"Most of the people who come to these things do not go to outside entertainment," said Chaya Shamie, the co-curricular director at Bais Yaakov and the producer of "Halleli." "This is an opportunity for them to go to an all-women’s performance that is done in a Torah fashion, that follows all the [halachic] guidelines."

"These plays are the only shows that I would take my daughters to, because as innocent as so many things seem, there are many hidden cultural messages in the popular entertainment out there," said a mother of two girls from the Fairfax area. "I want my daughters’ culture to be a Torah culture. It’s very empowering for them because they see themselves up there in a few years."

For "Portraits in Faith," Garbose’s husband, Levi, adapted a novel by Marcus Lehman, a 19th-century German writer who is something of a John Grisham of the Orthodox world. His books typically are plot-driven, hard-to-put-down novels that are infused with messages of faith. For the songs of the musical, Levi wrote original lyrics to Chasidic nigunim (wordless melodies). For the set design, Garbose plans on new visual possibilities using interesting lighting and some carefully chosen set pieces that will evoke the atmosphere of a different era and country without blowing the minimal budget that Bais Chana set aside for the play. All the girls in the school are involved in the play in some way, either as actresses, prop designers, costume makers, ticket sellers or stage managers.

"Things like Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl make a very compelling argument for all-women’s productions," she said. "What happens when you have a production that is for women only is that it takes the whole sexual component out of it. It’s incredibly empowering."

"Portraits in Faith" will be performed on March 3 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (310) 278-8995 ext. 405.

Giving to the Future

Financial wizard Michael Steinhardt is blunt in assessing
the future of North American Jewry.

The next generation is “mostly Jewish ignoramuses,”
Steinhardt said. “We haven’t convinced the general Jewish population of the
value of a Jewish education.”

Steinhardt’s bleak assessment was aimed not at Jews in
general, but at a select group: those who have donated at least $100,000 — and
as much as several million — to Jewish day schools.

There are only 1,800 such major supporters of the country’s
approximately 700 Jewish day schools, however, and that, Steinhardt said, is
“not enough.”

“We need to double that number,” he said.

Steinhardt was addressing the third annual Donor Assembly of
the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) held in Century City
from Feb. 2-4, the day school advocacy group he launched five years ago.

For the first time, those big donors mingled with Jewish
communal and day school professionals in a leadership assembly of more than 600
people, aiming to hammer out a national strategy to promote Jewish day schools.

The gathering comes at a time when many day schools, viewed
as solid foundations for lifelong Jewish identity, are strapped for funds. And
many who want to attend cannot afford the high cost of a Jewish education.

Some 200,000 children attend Jewish day schools in this
country, 79 percent of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.

Among the top goals of the philanthropists was finding new
sources of money.

To bolster their advocacy effort, PEJE offered the initial
findings of a survey of 177 of those big day school supporters. They also
released the results of interviews with 65 other donors, potential donors and
day school experts.

The survey, conducted in October and November by TDC
Research of Boston, found that among current donors, 49 percent give to day
schools because they see them as vehicles to “ensure Jewish continuity” and 13
percent were motivated to give because they had a personal connection, such as
a child or grandchild in day school.

But among donors, nondonors and experts, the study found
that: 81 percent believe that day schools ensure continuity; 78 percent
supported day schools because of the Jews’ “collective future”; 75 percent
backed day schools because they “foster communities of committed Jews.”

Of those who responded, 97 percent also gave money to their
synagogue; 92 percent aided their local federation; 73 percent helped some kind
of Israel-focused program and 59 percent backed their local Jewish Community

The donors surveyed hailed from 29 states and Canada; were
usually parents or grandparents of day school students and were sat on day
school boards.

One such donor at the conference was Claire Ellman of La
Jolla, whose three children attended the San Diego Jewish Academy, a
pluralistic, 700-student school with students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Ellman has just helped the school raise $33 million toward a
new building, the largest single effort to date in the city’s Jewish community.

Born in South Africa, Ellman said her grandfather started Cape
Town’s first Jewish day school and infused her with a love for Jewish

But she believes not all donors support education for the
same reasons.

“A lot of people are going to give to Jewish education
because they feel so strongly about continuity,” she said, “but also because of
a guilt complex” that they personally failed to teach their children Jewish

The study did not reach that conclusion, though it did find
that 10 percent of donors said the most important reason to back Jewish day
schools was to teach Jewish knowledge.

Ellman, who is also vice chair of the Continental Council
for Jewish Day School Education, a program of the United Jewish Communities and
the Jewish Education Service of North America — works to build ties among the
day schools, Jewish federations, religious institutions and the general
community — welcomed the donor study.

“The study is critical, because for the first time we’ve
asked donors and nondonors why they do or don’t fund Jewish education.”

Many of those who don’t support Jewish schools said they
either were not aware of them or found them too parochial, the study found.

But the study also recommends against trying to win this
group over.

Instead, it recommends spreading the word to “neutral” Jews
who may not have any personal ties to the school, but who believe education
helps ensure a thriving Jewish community.

Meanwhile, Steinhardt pointed to statistics showing that
only 20 percent of philanthropy by North American Jews goes to Jewish causes,
down from 50 percent 50 years ago.

“What we lack is a sense of priority,” he said.

But Michael Rosenzweig, a board member of the New Atlanta
Jewish Community High School, said the fact that there are so few donors to
Jewish day schools is both good and bad news when it comes to doubling their

“The good news” is that doubling their numbers is easy to
do, he said. “The bad news is, it’s easy to do because it’s so small.”

Teaching Teachers

Aviva Kadosh, who serves the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) as a specialist in religious schools and Hebrew-language programs, has been an educator for 34 years. But the Moreinu program has introduced her to "the most interesting group of people I have ever taught."

Moreinu, which translates as "our teachers," is the BJE’s creative attempt to deal with an acute shortage of religious school instructors. The 18-month program, funded by major grants from the Jewish Community Foundation and the Amado Foundation, gives participants intensive training in both Judaica and pedagogical skills. Once they receive their certificates in 2002, they should be welcome additions to the teaching staffs at local synagogues.

The 12 prospective teachers who responded last fall to the BJE’s ads and flyers are a diverse bunch. Their ranks include a realtor, a photographer, an animator and a consultant at UCLA’s department of biomathematics, all of whom are willing to make time in their professional lives to teach religious school in the afternoons and on Sundays.

Some — who have attended day schools or studied in Israel — are looking to acquire teaching skills to go along with their Judaic learning. For Debbie Tibor, a longtime special education teacher, Moreinu is a good way to explore special education services within Jewish classrooms, while also filling the gaps in her own knowledge.

When Tibor lost her father in 1998, she began attending religious services regularly, but was frustrated by all she didn’t know about her tradition. As she wrote in her application essay, "I am very excited about the possibility of going through Moreinu. Not only will I be trained with the tools I need to provide a service within the Jewish community, but I will also have the opportunity to continue my Judaic education."

Moreinu participants meet almost every Sunday during the school year, rotating between the classrooms of five Conservative and Reform congregations. They engage in text study with rabbis, and meet with principals who explain practical teaching strategies, like how to gear lessons to students of different age levels.

Pamela Kong, an office manager, expresses delight in the range of speakers who’ve addressed the group thus far: "We’re learning from their styles almost by osmosis." Kadosh attests that the speakers have all responded warmly to these enthusiastic learners, who "soak up knowledge like sponges."

On a recent Sunday morning at Congregation Tifereth Jacob of Manhattan Beach, the Moreinu group focused on the upcoming holiday of Purim. Rabbi Mark Hyman led a session on Megillat Esther, pinpointing issues of identity that might seem pertinent in today’s religious school classrooms.

In discussing Esther and Mordechai’s policy of hiding their Jewishness from outsiders, Hyman predicted that some older students might make the connection that "they’re just like us." Hyman drew a parallel between Esther’s concealment of her Jewish roots at the Persian court and the students’ own reluctance to "wear their Jewishness on their sleeve" by displaying a kippah or other Jewish symbol in public.

He then asked the students to briefly consider the kind of moment that prompts an assimilated Jew to stand with his people. The shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, someone suggested, and the rest of the group nodded in agreement.

Next, veteran religious school principal Debi Rowe shifted the focus to teaching methods, using the Purim story as a starting point. Dividing the group into chevruta (or traditional "study buddy" pairs), she asked them to address "holes" in the story by inventing their own midrash. This exercise led to a discussion of the risks involved with teaching children Megillat Esther, which after all seems to endorse both intermarriage and the wholesale slaughter of Haman’s kin by the triumphant Jews. Rowe’s question — "Do we skip or gloss over risky stuff?" — elicited the recognition that it’s vital for a new teacher to understand each synagogue’s policy on such matters.

The Moreinu schedule contains one more session at Tifereth Jacob, at which Rowe will concentrate intensively on how to draw up lesson plans. She warned the students in advance that a formal plan is rarely followed to the letter. Frequently, at the end of a class session, it serves as "an indicator of where we’ve deviated." Nonetheless, Rowe insisted, the digression often turns out to be far more useful than the original plan on which the teacher has expended so much labor.

Another facet of the Moreinu program is the pairing of the teachers-to-be with experienced instructors like Tifereth Jacob’s Craig Fenter and Jane Golub. These mentor-teachers, who receive modest compensation, attend six sessions. There they analyze effective teaching methods, discovering the theory behind the classroom skills which have come to many of them purely by instinc t. Right now the Moreinu participants are making plans to observe in their mentors’ classes. Soon they themselves will be asked to take over a lesson.

Most new religious school instructors are thrust into their jobs without training. Craig Fenter appreciates the fact that, in sponsoring Moreinu, the BJE is taking steps to go beyond this sink-or-swim mentality. As he puts it, "It’s very community oriented… very cool." Jane Golub, is a key staff member at Torah Aura Productions, hadn’t planned to sign on as a mentor. But "Debi Rowe is my good friend, and I see how difficult it is for her to get good teachers. I see it as my responsibility to help get new teachers out into the world."

The Moreinu participants feel a similar sense of mission. Their screening interviews made clear to Aviva Kadosh that they were not simply looking for new career directions. Instead, "their motivation is they want to give something to the Jewish community. That was very clear to me."

Participant Jeff Gornbein, who holds a doctorate in the field of public health, was inspired to join Moreinu after volunteering in the religious school of his home synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo. Gornbein says with great conviction, "A city is saved by its parents and teachers."

Finding Middle Ground

First comes love, then comes marriage. But when baby makes three, an interfaith couple has to face hard decisions about their child’s religious upbringing. Arlene Chernow, who for 16 years has headed the outreach department for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes it’s vital for parents to commit to a single religious identity for the entire family. If the interfaith family rejoices in Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, their youngster will not be perturbed by the fact that some relatives wrap holiday gifts in red and green, and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If, from the start, the child knows he or she lives in a Jewish household, Hebrew school can be a strong and positive experience.

Unfortunately, says Chernow, “we see more and more children coming into classrooms not knowing who they are religiously.” In some cases, non-Jewish spouses are resentful of the religious school obligation, fearing the loss of their own religious identity as their youngsters are schooled in Jewish tradition. At times, a child’s enrollment in Hebrew school sparks a tug of war between two parents who can’t articulate to one another their own feelings about their religious inheritance. If parents divorce, the situation intensifies.

Chernow feelingly describes one small boy who was brought to temple religious school weekly by his non-Jewish dad, then went home with his Jewish mother. At first, the child dealt with the turmoil in his home life by disrupting the classroom, making everyone miserable. Finally, he settled on his own private solution. Once he arrived at school, he would duck under his desk for 10 minutes, speaking to no one. Then he’d emerge, saying, “I’m Jewish now.”

When Chernow meets with Jewish religious school educators, she stresses their crucial role in making an interfaith family feel part of the congregation. One challenge for a teacher is reassuring interfaith children that they are truly welcome in the classroom, no matter what non-Jewish customs and attitudes may persist at home. These children often ask tough questions, because they’re covertly seeking to establish the fact that they’re truly Jewish. For Chernow, the three key strategies are “support, respect, refocus.” If, during a lesson on Chanukah, a little girl asks why daddy has a Christmas tree, the teacher should support the girl as a valued member of the class, encourage respect for each family’s individual choices, and — for the benefit of the rest of the students — refocus the discussion on dreidels and Maccabees.
When a child hops into the car after Hebrew school, excitedly displaying an ornament for the sukkah, it’s only natural for his non-Jewish parent to feel intimidated by this unfamiliar holiday. Chernow points out that parents who want to share in their children’s excitement can turn out to be a hidden asset in the classroom. She has met many non-Jewish mothers, in particular, who strongly desire a religious identity for their family. Once they gain a basic knowledge of Jewish practice, they sometimes become the teacher’s best friend.

Such is the case of Patty Lombard, the mother of two daughters at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Though herself a Catholic, Lombard has spearheaded the writing of a parents’ guide called “Celebrations.” This looseleaf notebook — which includes background on each major Jewish holiday along with vocabulary, activities, recipes, songs and blessings — was presented to every preschool family when school began in September. The purpose, Lombard says, is to “try to give parents enough information that they can enjoy celebrating with their child.”

Chernow insists that parent education is the key to turning an interfaith family into a family engaged in raising happily Jewish children. She says, “I really see a child’s Jewish education as something that has an impact on the whole family. The more that a temple and school can do to educate the parent while they’re educating the children, the stronger the child’s identity will be.”