Moving and shaking: AFHU award dinner, TRZ Yom HaShoah event and fire safety at B’nai David-Judea

New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) celebrated its upcoming name-change to de Toledo High School — which goes into effect July 1 — during the school’s annual gala at the Skirball Cultural Center on May 17. 

The event honored members of the de Toledo family: Alyce and Philip de Toledo and the couple’s sons, Benjamin, who graduated from the school in 2014, and Aaron.

The family made a gift of an undisclosed amount last year to the school — the impetus for the school’s name change — that will fund an endowment to offset tuition costs, and which has supported renovations to the school in West Hills. NCJHS purchased its 100,000-square-foot campus, where nearly 400 students will be enrolled in the 2015-16 academic year, from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The school opened at the site in 2013. 

Approximately 700 people turned out at the Skirball, including American Jewish University President Rabbi Robert Wexler, Skirball President Uri Herscher and NCJHS founding Head of School Bruce Powell. Musical theater/drama and dance students performed during the event. 

Also honored during the evening was Linda Landau, who serves as vice president of community affairs on the school’s board. She received the Nita Hirsch Community Service Award. 

Businessman Sheldon Adelson (left) joins Adam Milstein at Milstein’s home on May 14. Photo by Moshe E. Elgrably

Members of the pro-Israel community gathered at the home of Adam and Gila Milstein for a fundraising gala on May 14 in support of the Birthright Israel Foundation. 

The event, co-sponsored by the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, featured remarks from radio host and Journal columnist Dennis Prager, and a keynote address from business magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.

During his comments, Prager appealed for a need to bring youth back to the Jewish faith, and to give them the tools to combat leftism. “There’s an antidote,” he said. “One of those antidotes, the biggest one right now, is Birthright — sending Jewish kids to Israel.”

Adelson told the 240-person crowd about his upbringing, and how the seeds were planted that grew into his love for Israel: “My father is the main reason [my wife] Miriam and I got involved in Birthright. When Israel was born, he said, ‘One day I will go,’ but he never had any money. When we finally made some money and tried to send him, it was too late.”

Adelson pledged to match every dollar given to Birthright over the next three years, up to $50 million a year. “We want to go from 40,000 kids to 75,000 a year on Birthright. We won’t rest until that happens,” he said.

Miri Belsky, deputy CEO at the IAC, told the audience that Birthright made her abandon her medical aspirations for a career in Jewish leadership. Other speakers included the Milsteins; Richard Sandler, immediate past chair of Federation, and Steve Fishman, a member of the Los Angeles regional council of the Birthright Israel Foundation. Comedian Mark Schiff provided entertainment for the evening.

According to a press release, a portion of the $1.5 million raised at the event was specifically earmarked for the IAC’s new Shelanu program, which offers Birthright trips to Israeli-Americans.

— Aron Chilewich, Staff Writer

At Temple Beth El in San Pedro, activities at a daylong groundbreaking ceremony that drew more than 200 attendees included writing messages on construction lumber. Photo by David Feldman

Carrie Glickstein recently recalled having her bat mitzvah at San Pedro’s Temple Beth El synagogue in 1965. After a bit of nostalgia, however, the 63-year-old’s thoughts moved forward in time during a May 31 groundbreaking ceremony for the Reform congregation that is undergoing major renovations and undertaking a $5 million capital campaign. (Nearly $4.5 million has been raised so far.)

“I love that the community is so vibrant and looking toward the future,” Glickstein said in an interview about Beth El, which was established in 1922 and is home to about 260 families.

Debi Rowe, the synagogue’s director of education and programs, told the Journal in a phone interview that the goal is “revitalizing the current campus.” Already covered in plastic sheeting and yellow caution tape in the lobby, the synagogue is renovating its entire lobby and social hall, reconfiguring one of its classrooms, and, if it raises enough money, turning its library into a hybrid beit midrash/library. It will add a handicapped-accessible ramp to its front entrance and emergency sprinklers to its sanctuary as well, according to Sandi Goldstein, who is serving as a consultant for the capital campaign.

Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and Congress member Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) were among those who attended the groundbreaking ceremony, during which congregants wrote their names on pieces of lumber that will be used in the upcoming construction. Approximately 250 people attended the event, which raised $35,000, according to Goldstein.

Beth El clergy includes Cantor Ilan Davidson and Rabbi Charles Briskin, who told the Journal that the synagogue holds particular importance in San Pedro. Here people rely on the synagogue for “vibrant Jewish life,” Briskin said. George Mayer, chair of a 24-person committee that has been conducting the capital campaign, echoed the rabbi’s remarks.

Glickstein’s father, Seymour Waterman, 92, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy, donated more than $1 million to the campaign, according to Goldstein. Waterman said he joined the congregation when he was 6 or 7 years old and continues to be involved with it. 

“I’m happy for the community, and I’m doing as much as I can,” he said at the recent ceremony.

Construction is slated to be completed in February. The synagogue will remain open during construction, although its religious school and High Holy Days services will be held offsite.

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Passing an art legacy on to the next generation

During the lengthy visits she would have with her great-uncle and great-aunt, David and Rivka Labkovski, at their home in South Africa, Leora Raikin — who was a young girl at the time — recalls these relatives being a bit eccentric.

David owned one pair of shoes, and Rivka — the sister of Raikin’s grandmother Zlata Spektor — had but two dresses. Husband and wife wanted herring with every meal, a carryover from the frugal ways they lived during the years they spent in a Siberian prison camp during the Holocaust. 

“He used to take my face in his hands and say, ‘Do you want to be smart or do you want to be pretty?’ and I would say, ‘Can’t I be both?’ ” Raikin said. “With Rivka, it was all about knowledge, intellectual ability and learning something new every day. She always wanted to know, ‘What have you learned today?’ ”

David Labkovski had been an artist in his native Vilna, Lithuania, and during eight years in a Siberian prison camp, where he served as a sketch and tattoo artist. After the war, he resumed his artistic career in Israel, where he lived in the artist colony of Safed from 1958 until his death in 1991.

Labkovski would sometimes give Raikin a painting or a sketch as a present. She always hoped the gift would be “one of the happy ones,” such as a picture of flowers. 

Not all of Labkovski’s work was so upbeat. 

His imagery covers a spectrum, from images of his homeland, including scenes of everyday life in Vilna and its Nazi occupation during the war and its destruction during the Holocaust. Labkovski returned to Vilna in 1946 and met with survivors, capturing their memories on canvas. He also produced a series of works portraying the characters of Sholem Aleichem.

Works spanning Labkovski’s career are represented in the exhibition “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) through June 14. The LAMOTH exhibition marks the first time a comprehensive collection of Labkovski’s work will be seen in the United States. His family regained possession of the collection nearly three years ago, after a lengthy court dispute in Israel over ownership of the works. 

During his lifetime, Labkovski’s views on the placement of his art were as complex and conflicted as the man himself. He wanted the work seen in the Diaspora, but only when the viewers — particularly the next generation — were ready for it. He refused to sell his work, and, after a 1959 exhibition of his work in Israel, he and Rivka concluded that the time was not right, according to Raikin. 

“The audiences in Israel were not ready to confront the horrors of the Holocaust. It was an Old World thing — they wanted to move forward,” Raikin said. “David and Rivka had this absolute belief that one day a generation will come along that will appreciate this life that was lost, the enormity of it.”

According to Raikin, after the deaths of her great-aunt and great-uncle, the artwork was left to the city of Safed. A small museum was badly maintained and eventually fell into disarray, and the art eventually fell under court conservatorship, Raikin said. By the time the court case was settled and the art came to Raikin’s mother and her siblings, more than 20 years had passed. 

An artist herself, Raikin wanted the work to be seen, and she found people of like minds in Connie Marco and Lisa Lainer-Fagan, both of whom are parents of students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills. Marco, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, also volunteered at LAMOTH and worked closely with the museum’s executive director, Samara Hutman. 

Hutman studied the Labkovski collection — the haunting self-portraits, the vibrant depictions of market scenes and shtetl life — and immediately knew that she would put the paintings on display. 

“There was something incredibly prescient in the mind of the artist,” Hutman said, “to sort of hold his body of work together to keep the integrity of the collection and of the vision and to save it for when the time is right.

“The work is magnificent, and I think there’s something in really incredible alignment for us to exhibit this work,” she added. “It has a lot of symmetry with the narrative of the museum. It is all about finding these little shards and remnants of a world that was blown apart by the Holocaust, and now we’re all in this work of recovery and excavation and redignification.” 

The more people who saw Labkovski’s work and heard Raikin’s story, the more his great-niece was encouraged to get the art displayed, and the more the circle of support grew. A smaller version of the exhibition had an initial stop at the school, where a group of art students co-curated the exhibition under the guidance of art instructor Benny Ferdman.

Labkovski’s work resonated not only with the art students, but with a spectrum of departments across the NCJHS campus. In addition to the eight co-curators — who argued and debated which works should be included — two film students are assembling a documentary about the Labkovski experience. Students have written poetry that accompanies the work at the school and at LAMOTH, and a student sang a song in Yiddish about Vilna at the openings.

This was the first time such a cross-department art display had come together at the school, said Ferdman, arts director and artist-in-residence at NCJHS.

“When you look at an artist’s work over time and place, that kind of turns the work into an artifact as well,” Ferdman said. “Beyond its aesthetic value, it becomes the witness to a time and place. It was like a little time machine from the past coming to us now.”  

Wherever the journey next takes Labkovski’s art after LAMOTH, Raikin feels that by passing through young hands, the work has found its place again.

“I think we all feel it’s our responsibility to make sure this next generation cares,” Raikin said. “That the [NCJHS] students were so involved and vested, that superseded any dream I possibly could have had. It would have made David and Rivka so, so happy to have seen these students so interested. I can walk away and say I feel safe. I feel that these kids get it. They can pass it on.” 

For more information on “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” visit

Sports programs can score big for Jewish day schools

To understand the place of athletics at a Jewish day school, attend a recruitment open house and watch the children’s eyes. As they listen to the descriptions or tour the stations set up to display the school’s programs and activities, look for the moments when the spark of connection appears.

After more than a decade as a faculty member at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, and 20 years prior to that at other independent schools in Los Angeles, I’ve seen those eyes light up most dependably for athletics and performing arts. Whether there is a wall covered with championship banners or tables topped with theater costumes, prospective students and their parents are drawn to these elements more earnestly — and more dependably — than any other school endeavor, including core academics.

I cannot carry a tune or dance a step, so I won’t discuss the role of drama, dance and singing in this process. But I have been involved for nearly half a century in team sports, coaching all sorts of high school teams since 1977. I was also a founding member of the NCJHS faculty who participated in its growth from 40 students in 2002 to nearly 400 today, so I can try to explain the importance of athletics to a Jewish day school’s success.

What do sports teams offer such a school? Students! And for a Jewish day school’s recruitment efforts, the students who have the most to gain — from the perspective of Jewish engagement and learning — are the ones for whom extracurriculars such as athletics (and performing arts) are key spurs to enrollment.

After all, it’s a relatively simple matter to recruit students from families who are committed to Jewish day-school education. They are choosing among a limited number of options. And their children are more likely to have a strong initial connection to Jewish life and background in Jewish learning.

Sports and performing arts appear to be more important in the choices of families who are choosing between Jewish day schools and their secular competitors, whether private, public, charter or non-Jewish religious schools. These are often the families whose children ultimately will experience the greatest boost in their Jewish engagement by virtue of attending a Jewish day school. To them, these extracurricular programs promise to vouchsafe the Jewish day-school experience as a choice that will be comparable to that offered elsewhere.

For schools, these are high-stakes issues. In many respects, spending on athletics and performing arts could be considered recruitment expenses rather than program expenses, as the extra-curricular activities are essential to the schools’ ability to match up with their non-Jewish competitors with whom they are already equal in the academic domain. 

A couple of anecdotes from NCJHS’ early history illuminate the nature of this recruiting competition. In the school’s second year, when there were only ninth- and 10th-grade students, the boys lacrosse team defeated its rival counterpart, the Harvard-Westlake junior varsity team. After the post-game handshake, one of the opposing team’s boys was overheard saying, “I can’t believe we just lost to a bunch of Jews.” Before any of us could respond, one of his teammates gave him a shove and said, “You idiot, we’re a bunch of Jews.” 

A couple of years later, after a one-sided varsity loss to Chaminade College Preparatory, the winning coach attempted to console me by saying that if his Jewish players had been on the NCJHS team, the result would have been much closer. 

Neither comment reflected anti-Jewish feeling — only the stereotypical notion that Jewish schools cannot be competitive in athletics. The walls of Jewish day schools that are now covered with championship banners put the lie to that notion. And anyone who has doubts about the intensity of commitment to sports at Jewish day schools has not tried to squeeze into the Westside Jewish Community Center gym to attend a YULA post-Havdalah basketball game.

My former colleagues at NCJHS, Rabbi Benjamin Resnick and Bruce Powell, wrote powerfully in these pages in 2010 about the opportunity athletics provide for inculcating Jewish values. They described how athletics do more than act as an opportunity for physical and mental fitness; tthey provide a safe environment in which Jewish values and ethics can be translated into actions. A sports program “allows thinkers to become doers,” they wrote. 

Their explanation of the central role of athletics in Jewish education does not have an easy path to acceptance. Years ago, I once scolded a rabbi who was disdainful of athletics in a confessedly snarky comment, claiming perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly that I had presided over more Jewish boys’ passages to manhood on the lacrosse field than had occurred at the bimah of his synagogue.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that to be successful at competing with non-Jewish schools, Jewish day schools need to accept the fantasies peddled by ESPN and bought into by deluded parents that school athletics will prepare their children to “play at the next level.” For many this is valid, but the rosters of college intramural teams are filled with former high school all-stars. 

But if you look at Hillel chapters, Jewish communal housing units, fraternities and sororities with predominantly Jewish memberships — not to mention Jewish organizations such as StandWithUs or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — you’ll find many Jewish day-school graduates who initially had the choice of a Jewish or a non-Jewish school. For many, the athletics (and performing arts) offerings of those Jewish day schools led to the decision to enroll. And that — the exposure to a Judaic curriculum that can create such profound Jewish engagement — has made all the difference, not just for the students themselves but for the entire community.

Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School, where he taught history and government and coached boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse and golf.

L.A. grad Max Levin wounded in Gaza, recovering in Petah Tikva hospital

Max Levin, a 21-year-old New Community Jewish High School (NJCHS) graduate and Israeli soldier, is recovering in a central Israel hospital following injuries he sustained Wednesday in the Gaza Strip, when a booby-trapped house collapsed, killing three members of his paratrooper unit and lodging shrapnel above his right eye.

Bruce Powell, head of school at NCJHS, said that Levin's parents, Bud and Judy, are with their son in Israel and that he may be discharged as early as Friday. Powell, who spoke with Judy Levin before she and Bud left for Israel on a flight from Los Angeles, said that when the explosion occurred, Max was in the back of the three-story house and his fellow fallen soldiers were in the front. The IDF said the three killed paratroopers were Lt. Paz Eliyahu, 22, Sgt. Shahar Dauber, 20, and Sgt. Li Mat, 19,

Levin was immediately airlifted for surgery to Rabin Hospital in Petah Tikva where, Powell said, dozens of strangers have brought him food, gifts and warm wishes.

An August 2012 Jerusalem Post piece reported that Levin, a St. Louis native, arrived to Israel that month with a group of 350 immigrants making aliyah from North America. 

On July 20, another local IDF volunteer, Max Steinberg, 24, ” target=”_blank”>@thesichel

New Jew wrestlers succeed

They walk into the gym, and immediately they feel it: snickers, stares, whispers and even laughs. 

We’re going to beat those poor little Jewish kids. Why do they even have a wrestling team? This is going to be a breeze.

Jake Gordon hears it at virtually every wrestling camp he attends. 

“There’s not a Jew in a hundred miles, and I love telling them I go to a Jewish high school,” he said.

Then someone steps onto the mat and faces Gordon, Ben de Toledo, Sam Shpall or many of the other New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) team members, believed by school officials to be the only Jewish prep wrestling team west of the Rockies. Minutes later — sometimes it’s less than a minute — the referee raises the New Jew wrestler’s hand in victory.

“For me, it’s a boost. I love being the underdog,” Shpall said. “Most schools are practicing three to four hours a day, Monday to Friday, and they go to tournaments every Saturday. We have about half the time in the wrestling room as all the other schools because we don’t practice on Fridays, because we only go two hours after school and because we don’t compete on Saturdays. … We can have half the time, and we’re still gonna get on the mat and kick your butt.”

Some major butt-kicking is happening in the San Fernando Valley, and it’s happening in a sport not usually associated with Jews. The NCJHS team is dominating bigger schools, and there is talk that this might be the year some wrestler wins a postseason championship.

Competitors from Eagle Rock, Calabasas and Thousand Oaks have already gone down at the hands of the Jaguars. So have 12 other opponents. The team is 15-5, having beaten Brentwood School 53-18 (points are earned with every victory in each of the 12 weight classes), with Prep League finals still to come. Any wrestler who finishes in the top two of the league qualifies for the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section meet, which is always on a Saturday. This year, when the competition’s finals fall on Feb. 22, coach Ken Jackson asked and received permission from the school to compete.

“We’ve never had the talent to go that far, so I never made the request,” said Jackson, now in his eighth season with NCJHS after spending seven at Granada Hills Charter High School. “This year, we have four, possibly six that can actually place after league. This is the year to ask.”

School officials said in a statement to the Journal that the decision was made in keeping with the school’s pluralistic Jewish environment. “The school’s guiding Jewish educational goal was to make each wrestler struggle with what it means to ‘keep Shabbat’ in any or all of its manifold forms in a way that helps each student stay true to who they are and challenge them to grow. For those who will be competing in the state tournament, we will find a special and unique way to keep and celebrate Shabbat,” it said.

It’s not like Jews can’t wrestle. There have been famous ones, though one must be a real aficionado to recognize the names. The most famous American wrestler, Henry Wittenberg, was a light heavyweight freestyle champion at the 1948 London Games. Jewish wrestlers from Hungary and the former Soviet Union also have been Olympic champions.

On the professional side, Diamond Dallas Page (born Page Joseph Falkinburg Jr.) won three World Championship Wrestling heavyweight titles. Bill Goldberg racked up a disputed 173 consecutive victories on the way to winning two heavyweight titles, and Dean Malenko (born Dean Simon) won the then-World Wresting Federation light heavyweight title twice.

Jackson believes that wrestling is ideal for Jews because it fits the Jewish work ethic. A successful wrestler must possess tremendous mental discipline to learn how to properly fight within the rules, not stray from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and maintain the proper weight. Practices can last up to 120 intense minutes, and then the wrestlers are expected to work out even more on their own.

“It really is an incredibly brutal sport,” said de Toledo, a senior wrestling at 147 pounds. “At the hardest match, when you’re going three [two-minute] periods, it’s physically exhausting. There’s nothing more exhausting. There are no breaks. There’s no resting at the bottom. You pause for a second, and it’s over. It’s brutal keeping your body tense, keeping your body going when you’re exhausted.”

Shpall, a senior at 140 pounds, has the mental discipline down to nearly an exact science. When he wakes up, he thinks about running. At breakfast, he’s counting calories. He knows exactly how many calories he burns in one hour on the treadmill or the bike.

“If you can succeed on the mat, you can succeed anywhere,” he said.

Gordon, a senior competing at 160 pounds, won the school’s first individual league title in 2011 and now is the first in his school to earn a spot on a college team. Thanks to an annual prep meet at Yeshiva University in New York, where the Jaguars will compete again Presidents Day weekend, Gordon caught the attention of Muhlenberg College, a tiny liberal arts school in Allentown, Penn. 

Gordon’s effort typifies what Jackson thinks of wrestling.

“Wrestling is the kind of sport where a boy has to be a man for six minutes,” Jackson said. “These are young Jewish warriors.” 

New Jew to reopen at former West Hills campus

In a way, New Community Jewish High School’s Purim shpiels said it all. For the past several years, students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) — founded in 2002 and commonly known as New Jew, for short — would use the opportunity of Purim, when it’s customary to perform humorous skits, to make fun of their school’s biggest shortcoming — namely that students ate lunch on a parking lot because, well, as tenants renting temporary space from a West Hills synagogue, there was nowhere else for them to eat. 

Next Purim, students at NCJHS will have to find another target to lampoon. On Aug. 29, the first day of its 2013-2014 school year, NCJHS will open at its new — and permanent — home, the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, which offers plenty of places to eat on its four-acre campus, and none of them parking lots. 

“We are moving from about 35,000 square feet of usable space into 100,000 square feet. So that’s an important statistic, and that alone gives you more room, gives us grass area, gives us a campus feel,” Bruce Powell, the school’s head of school, said during a recent campus tour.

For the school to finally open its doors at the Bernard Milken campus follows a minor drama that ensued involving the property’s former owner, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and its former major tenant, the JCC at Milken. In October 2011, NCJHS settled on a deal with Federation, the then-owners of the campus, to purchase the property with a down payment of $2 million — at the end of nearly a year of negotiations. 

The JCC at Milken had been suffering financial difficulties for several years and announced in early 2012 that it would close, after it and the Federation failed to reach a plan allowing the JCC to continue operating there.

The school’s entire initiative — including its purchase of the property, two phases of construction and creating an endowment — was budgeted at $36 million. As of the opening, with the first phase of construction complete, the endowment is growing and the second phase of construction is expected to happen, provided the school can continue to raise funds. So far NCJHS has raised $17 million in cash and pledges.

The Federation currently holds the mortgage on the property, which includes a 65,000-square-foot building in the front and a 35,000-square-foot building in the back.

The deal marks the first time in NCJSH’s history that the school has a home to call its own. It also marks its return, full circle, to the Bernard Milken campus, where NCJHS, as a tenant, opened its doors with just 49 students in September 2002.

One of several science labs at the new campus.

The school’s student population doubled in size by its second year, which forced the school to seek out a new site. 

The site they found was at Shomrei Torah Synagogue, a West Hills-based synagogue a few miles away from the Bernard Milken campus. Two modular, customized prefabricated buildings were installed on the grounds of Shomrei Torah, equipped with everything the school needed.

The school remained at Shomrei Torah for nine years, growing to become one of the largest Jewish high schools in the country, until its move this summer back to the Bernard Milken campus.

According to Powell, the school didn’t need to move. New Jew was thriving at Shomrei Torah, even in temporary buildings with the students eating in the parking lot.

But he said there were practical reasons to do it. 

For one, the school will have more space than ever. The new home has 36 learning spaces. These includes classrooms — the largest of which is 1,200 square feet — while at Shomrei Torah the largest classroom was half that size — as well as a 10,000-square-foot basketball gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and a large grassy field where students can eat, hang out and relax, and where a vegetable garden will be planted.

Only the baseball team will have to travel to another site to play — the touch-football team will compete at a park across the street from the school, an improvement over the school’s prior situation in regard to athletics, where basketball, swimming and volleyball teams had to travel to the Bernard Milken campus to use its facilities.

And the nearly year-long project of renovations — led by Gensler, a global architecture firm — included transforming the JCC at Milken’s Finegood Art Gallery into three classrooms, which was achieved by putting up new walls; turning a conference room into an instrumental music room; carving up multiple small offices into additional classrooms; and taking empty classrooms that were run by the JCC and turning them into science labs with state-of-the-art equipment.

NCJHS also redid the gymnasium floor so that it now bears the logo of their mascot, the Jaguars; they added new carpeting and new coats of paint to the entire front building and installed new floors in the back building, the Masor Lounge, which houses the athletics facilities, a student store and more. 

Meanwhile, the community Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy, which rented out the pool from the JCC at Milken as its main tenant, will continue to lease the facility. Additionally, NCJHS has set up a committee tasked with finding other sources of rental income.

Sometimes during renovation, Gensler was forced to get creative and work around shear walls that hold up the foundation of the building. In these cases, multiple rooms that might have been turned into a single classroom were repurposed as spaces where students can do group work.

The school has stepped up its technology game as well: 30 of the 36 classrooms are equipped with short-throw projectors that turn blank walls into interactive whiteboards. And wireless Internet will be available campus-wide.

Powell reiterated the most important aspects of the school remain its faculty, the learning Jewish concept that knowledge leads to wisdom and the secular concept that knowledge leads to power, as well as the students’ eagerness to engage with this.

All the tech and amenities in the world aren’t important, if they aren’t used correctly, he said.

“I can have Mickey Mantle’s glove, but I’m not going to play like Mickey Mantle.”

Still, as he walked around the school’s new home, he was beaming.

“The bricks and mortar don’t necessarily change everything,” he said, “but it does give you a better baseball glove.”

Charter school moving to Shomrei Torah

Shomrei Torah Synagogue has found a new occupant for the space on its West Hills campus that once belonged to New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). Ivy Academia Entrepreneurial Charter School is moving its eighth- to 12th-grade students and its business operations from Chatsworth to the synagogue’s campus.

“We were happy to be able to house New Community Jewish High School for nine years of partnership, and while we were sad to see them go, we are excited to be able to reach out to a new organization in need of space,” said Rabbi Richard Camras, of Shomrei Torah.

The synagogue announced June 20 that it has entered into a lease with the public charter school authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The K-12 charter school has 1,150 students spread among two other campuses located in Woodland Hills and Winnetka.

The space became available when NCJHS, in search of a permanent location, purchased the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus — former home to the JCC at Milken, which closed June 30, 2012 — from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Renovations at the site are ongoing, and the school is preparing to move to the Vanowen Street location and begin classes there in August, according to Cheri Mayman, NCJHS’ director of marketing.

Jessica Green, executive director at Shomrei Torah, a Conservative congregation of more than 500 member families, said that the match with Ivy Academia has been perfect.

Although the charter school was founded in 2004, the high school branch was started five years ago when the students from the lower grades grew into it. They have since had three graduating classes.

Caroline Neuhaus Wesley, executive director of Ivy Academia, said that she is excited about the new facilities, because it has full science labs, nicer classrooms, access to better technology, and the area is only 10 minutes from the school’s Woodland Hills campus on De Soto Avenue.

According to the school’s Web site, its entrepreneurial program teaches students life skills that translate into business skills. Pupils are taught to organize and manage a business. 

The school’s operating charter was renewed by the LAUSD school board for another five years in April, the same month that its two founders were found guilty of illegally taking or misappropriating more than $200,000 in public funds following their arrests in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Wesley explained that many changes have been made.

“Basically, in working with LAUSD in our memoranda of understanding, the founders are no longer attached to Ivy Academia, we have brought in an entirely new board of directors [and] a new management team, and we have continued to excel despite the controversy.”

Wesley said that the relationship between the school and the temple will be a positive one.

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience,” she said. “They’re excited to have us there, and we’re excited not only to have a nice facility but also to be working with Shomrei

JCC: New Jew breaks ground

Months after the former JCC at Milken closed its doors at the Bernard Milken Campus in West Hills, officials representing the property’s new owners — New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) — organized a ceremonial groundbreaking for its new campus.

“A lot of us have been working on this for many, many years,” said Harold Masor, past president and current finance chair at NCJHS. “We’re pretty darn excited about it. The biggest thing is having our own permanent home. That’s a real big plus for us.”

The event planned for Nov. 15 was meant to mark the official start of renovations to the school’s campus, slated to open in fall 2013. Two years after its 2002 inception at the Bernard Milken Campus, NCJHS moved to its current home at the Shomrei Torah Synagogue campus.

The development of the $36 million project will take place in phases, with science and technology taking precedence in terms of scheduling and funds, Masor said. In fact, an entire wing of the school’s campus — set up to accommodate wireless Internet — will be dedicated to the sciences.

Interior walls will be reconfigured to create new offices, including a large, collaborative teacher workspace and approximately 35 learning spaces for students. A renovation of the gymnasium’s basketball floor was finished in August.

In spite of the numerous renovations planned inside, there will not be any exterior structural changes to the building, located on the four-acre site of the Bernard Milken Campus on Vanowen Street. NCJHS purchased it from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in late 2010, and the JCC at Milken, which had been located there, closed June 30. 

Gensler, a global architecture and design, firm, is designing the project.

So far, Masor said, the school has raised $13 million in cash and pledges. Two million dollars has gone toward the down payment owed to the Federation, and NCJHS must pay $9 million more to the organization in the form of a loan.

Additionally, the school has committed to raise $4 million in order to receive approximately $2.2 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation, a grant-making organization that supports the education of Jewish youth and youth adults. That money will be used to fund tuition assistance for middle class families who would not normally qualify for assistance, Masor said.

There is more that officials would like to do if they can find the money. Ideas include building a “heart of the community”— a large space that would be used for assemblies, Jewish learning and which would accommodate a beit midrash (house of study). The construction of an arts wing also remains on the wish list.

When the school opens, everybody will happy with the result, Masor promised.

“It’s going to be beautiful. Kids and parents are going to be in awe when they see the property when we finish.”

Healthy, kosher hot lunches rare in L.A. Jewish schools

On a Thursday this past March, at around 11:40 a.m., the alluring scent of chicken schnitzel – freshly breaded and pan-fried — wafted through the parking lot of New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills.

The source was a truck from Alex Felkai’s kosher catering company, Kosher on Location. Though the company does the majority of its business over the weekends, catering elegant weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, to keep his core staff busy during the week, Felkai had been selling lunch at NCJHS – every day except Friday – since the school opened 10 years ago.

But when NCJHS’s approximately 370 students (including one of Felkai’s children) return to school this fall, the kosher lunch truck won’t be there.

“We tried,” Felkai said, explaining that the cost of preparing and serving sandwiches and salads, burgers and burritos to the approximately 80 students, faculty and staff who bought lunch from the truck, was prohibitive.

“It was a difficult decision, but I never really made money on it,” Felkai said. “I kind of did it hoping that things would grow.”

In Jewish day schools across Los Angeles, Felkai’s story is a common one. With the first day of classes less than a month away, NCJHS isn’t the only high school that may not offer an in-school alternative to bringing lunch from home.

The Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls School’s caterer is going into his third year, but the campus of the boys school on Pico Boulevard doesn’t have a kitchen or a cafeteria, nor is the school planning to build one anytime soon. At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school located on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard, the caterer who had been cooking in the kitchen during the last academic year just left.

“We’re busy interviewing caterers for next year,” Robyn Lewis, the new executive director at Shalhevet High School, told the Journal on Aug. 6.

On the whole, elementary schools seem more committed to providing a hot lunch program for their students, even if only a minority of students opts into the program.

Schwartz Bakery is about to start its third year providing food at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Hancock Park.

“After working with our nutritionist, and after working with the school on a number of issues, we are very happy,” Yavneh Executive Director Lev Stark said.

According to Stark, about one-third of the approximately 470 students are signed up for the school lunch program.

At Yavneh, lunches can be bought in advance on a semiannual basis or purchased for $6 per day. The hot lunch program at Valley Beth Shalom Day School (VBSDS) in Encino offers parents and students more flexibility, to the point that students can choose to eat as few as two meals each month, or eat a hot lunch every single day.

“Overall, the parents appreciate the program,” said Gabrielle Baker, a mother of two students at the school who has been coordinating the hot-lunch program with another volunteer parent.

In addition to the flexibility, Baker said that parents appreciate the convenience of not having to make lunch for their children every day and feel that the food prepared by the synagogue’s in-house caterer, Starlite Catering, is reasonably nutritious.

“The only complaint is the cost,” Baker said. While it’s cheaper to purchase meals in advance, students can pay a little over $7 for a day’s lunch. “But there’s only a very limited amount that we can do to bring cost down.”

That’s because, Baker said, the food at VBSDS has to be certified kosher, and kosher food – and kosher meat in particular — is expensive.

Yavneh’s Stark also said cost was a hurdle to overcome.

“The big problem is the combination of trying to get a fantastic meal for $5. No one wants to pay $10 a meal,” he said. “This is where we worked very hard with Schwartz to make sure that it’s a viable business for them,” and that students still get a healthy and tasty meal that’s affordable.

Or, at least somewhat affordable. While Yavneh students pay $6 for lunch if they buy it that day (less if they sign up at the beginning of each semester), elementary school students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this fall will, by comparison, pay $1.50 if they buy lunch at school.

That lower price is due in part – but only in part — to the lower cost of non-kosher ingredients. It’s also a result of the subsidy (27 cents this year) the district receives from the United States Department of Agriculture for every meal it serves. The district receives more when it serves meals to the 80 percent of its students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But the low prices also undoubtedly stem from the district’s being able to work on a massive scale. Compared to the LAUSD, which has more than 640,000 students in about 1,100 locations, each of Los Angeles’s private Jewish day schools is a boutique-sized operation.

“It just doesn’t work when maybe 80 kids eat,” said Felkai, who said that if NCJHS had been willing to charge all the students a lump sum of money (he said about $800 per year), he would have been able to feed everybody and make a profit.

“You have to make enough money to cover all the costs,” he said, “and if you only have a small volume, you just couldn’t do it.”

When a Jewish high school approached Brenda Walt to prepare lunch for its 200 female students, Walt, who runs her catering company from a synagogue’s kitchen, turned them down.

“It’s very, very hard because they really want it [the food] for nothing,” Walt said. The modest student volume also limits her ability to hold down per-meal costs.

Stark said Yavneh doesn’t mandate all of its students participate in its hot-lunch program, and that he didn’t know of any Jewish schools in Los Angeles that did so.

“But I do know if they did, it would solve the hot-lunch problem,” Stark said.

To keep their school-based caterers in business, small private Jewish schools at least should consider ways to protect them against the challenge of competition from other food vendors.

Randy Fried owns R House Foods, the catering company that recently left Shalhevet after occupying the school’s kitchen for a bit less than one year. Fried said he decided to leave the school in part because too few of the school’s approximately 200 students and faculty bought lunch at school for him to make a profit.

“By the time we got there,” Fried said, “the culture that existed was that 20 percent ate at school.”

Most students, Fried said, ordered food to be delivered to Shalhevet, and the most popular choices appeared to be fried chicken and pizza from kosher restaurants nearby.

Nancy Schiff, the school administrator at YULA Girls High School said that they specifically don’t allow students to order food to be delivered to the cafeteria.

“That would take away from Dudu,” the in-house caterer, who serves a made-to-order breakfast and a variety of set-meal and a la carte options for lunch, including sushi, wraps and various “kid-friendly foods” like lasagna, grilled cheese and quesadillas.

Students at YULA Girls School are allowed to bring their own lunches from home, of course; a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of the students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy did just that, leading the school to seek out a new caterer, who is going into her second year at the Orthodox elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Every Friday is pizza day at the Orthodox elementary school; getting the crust right took some tweaking.

“At the beginning of the [2011-12 school] year, we tried out all whole wheat [pizza crust],” the school’s principal, Jeffrey Tremblay, said last May. “Didn’t go so well there. The kids were picking off the cheese, and that’s about it.”

That Friday, a few minutes before their lunch period ended and the middle school girls entered the cafeteria, a few boys headed back to the kitchen window for another slice.

“After the seconds,” Tremblay explained, “then they can, if they’re still hungry, they can pay for a third if they want to.”

To Tremblay, that sixth-grade boys want a bit more pizza at lunchtime is a sign that the school’s caterer is doing her job well – better than the previous caterer, who served only canned fruits and vegetables. But nutritionists see second helpings as problematic.

“It’s not like in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where there are certain nutrition standards,” said Leeann Smith Weintraub, a registered dietician in Los Angeles who works with children enrolled in private Jewish day schools and in public schools. At private Jewish schools, she said, “there tend to be a lot of issues with portion sizes and not really getting a good balance between the food groups.”

The menu, Tremblay said, is still a work in progress. This fall, Hillel students who buy lunch at school will be able to serve themselves from a salad bar that has improved from last year, when the only vegetables were mixed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Now, we’ve added onions, sprouts, garbanzo beans for protein,” Tremblay said. “And low-fat and nonfat dressings only.”

Still, nearly everyone — nutritionists, parents and even school administrators — agrees that bringing a homemade lunch could be the healthiest choice for any student.

“My friends’ children take their food to school,” said Maryam Maleki, a registered dietician who works with Jewish and non-Jewish clients. “They would rather their children take their food to school because it’s healthier, and they’ll sparingly allow their children to eat the food at school.”

That perfectly describes Chavi Wintner, a mother of two young students at Hillel. “I like to know what’s in the food that I make,” Wintner said, over a late-morning breakfast of oatmeal and unsweetened decaf iced coffee.

Her children don’t participate in Hillel’s hot lunch program; instead, Wintner packs lunches that always include some fresh fruit and might feature some roasted vegetables or a sandwich of melted cheese on bread.

Still, Wintner was very vocal in the push to eliminate the vending machines selling Gatorade at Hillel. “I think that nutrition is part of the school’s responsibility to teach,” she said.

Combining rigorous debate, humble leadership

At the end of Danny Hirsch’s first week at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS), a fellow freshman tapped him on the shoulder as he sat eating lunch, alone.

Showing genuine concern, the student wanted to know if Danny was mute, since he had yet to speak to another student.

Having his voice heard is no longer a problem for Hirsch.

This week, Hirsch will represent the senior class as a speaker at graduation. And in April he placed second in a statewide debate tournament.

Hirsch got involved in the debate team when it was founded, in his junior year, and by December he was the captain. He involved more students and instituted more school-wide and intramural debates to keep the energy level up.

Hirsch himself went undefeated in local and regional rounds of the California High School Speech Association tournament this year, and he placed second in the statewide final round.

He specializes in the Lincoln-Douglas format, a model based on researching and presenting evidence and philosophical arguments on a topic chosen every two months by the National Forensic League. Aside from the intellectual rigor, Hirsch has found a community among debaters.

“There is this friendly, cooperative atmosphere, juxtaposed with a ruthlessly competitive environment,” Hirsch said.

Working with rabbis in his school, he came up with ways to distinguish Shabbat during Friday night and Saturday debates — using different color pens, for instance, and reciting the Hamotzi blessing over the bread and the Shehecheyanu prayer of gratitude before tournaments.

Hirsch, who will attend Pomona College in the fall, plans to study law or philosophy. This summer, he’ll coach a debate camp and run a weeklong institute to teach debate skills to high-schoolers.

Hirsch also helped found his school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, where members tutor elementary and middle-school kids.

Respected among his peers not only for his intellect, but also for his humility and kindness, Hirsch earned the highest GPA in his class. He volunteers to tutor bar and bat mitzvah kids at his synagogue, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, where he also helps out with third-graders at the religious school. He is vice president of NCJHS’ film club and writes the “Senior Musings” column for the school newspaper.

During ninth and 10th grades, he played on the school’s junior varsity basketball team and played in a local field hockey league through 11th grade, but he gave up sports to focus on debate.

“The atmosphere at New Jew and the connection among students and with teachers allowed me to blossom as an individual and gave me motivation to pursue my interest in debate, because I knew I would have a community who would support me whether I succeeded or failed,” Hirsch said.