After School Is Prime Game Time for Kids of All Needs


Kathryn Gaskin’s blonde braid bounces against her sweatshirt as she rounds second base under the afternoon sun. The 12-year-old’s obvious enthusiasm is not for her own athletic pursuits but for those of Angeline, a teen with Down syndrome, whom Gaskin coaches in an after-school program called Prime Time Games.

When the batter hits a grounder, Gaskin gently prompts a beaming Angeline to run. The excited youngster, clad in pink sweats and a T-shirt, jogs down the softball field and plants herself firmly on third base. She looks back at Gaskin, who claps and whoops. The two share a smile.

“I wanted to be a coach because I like sports,” said Gaskin of her involvement with the Prime Time Games program.

The Pacific Palisades resident initially took on the responsibly to fulfill an outreach requirement for her bat mitzvah last spring. The experience has satisfied more than a ceremonial obligation.

“I feel good because I’m helping other people,” Gaskin said.

Gaskin is among a group of preteens and teenagers who serve as peer sports coaches for Prime Time Games, a program of the Los Angeles-based Team Prime Time. Most of the coaches are at-risk children from low-income areas of the city, taking part in Team Prime Time’s intervention programs that combine academics, athletics and leadership training. Prime Time Games was created a year ago to include students with special needs. While the athletes clearly get a chance to shine in group sports, the young coaches thrive, as well.

“The coaches are truly responsible — with the knowledge that adults are there to support them — for the total experience of another child, and they are treated with respect and acknowledged for what they accomplish,” said executive director Peter Straus. “We have yet to figure out who benefits more, coach or athlete.”

While the majority of Prime Time Games coaches are at-risk kids from the Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, a Title I school where the weekly after-school program is held, a small percentage are Jewish children fulfilling the community service portion of their bar and bat mitzvah requirements. The respectful interaction between the athletes and coaches is also reflected in the interaction between the Webster students and their Jewish co-coaches.

Straus, a veteran teacher and sports coach at various L.A. schools, also runs a summer camp called Prime Time Sports Camp. He noticed the void in after-school programs for at-risk kids at the middle school level and in 2001 created Team Prime Time to do something about it.

“The emphasis is not on the outcome of the games,” said Straus, adding that no one keeps score. “It’s the interaction of the kids. They bring out the best in each other.”

Prime Time Games began attracting the pre-bar mitzvah crowd as Jewish kids filtered through Straus’ summer camp. Other coaches discovered the program because of their siblings’ participation.

Adam Sperber-Compean, who will become a bar mitzvah in September, learned about the program when his autistic brother became involved. “I’m here for him, and he listens to me,” said Adam, on coaching his younger sibling.

Some of the coaches know one another from Straus’ summer camp and others attend the same school. Straus attempts to pair together coaches with these commonalities. When that’s not possible, Straus is optimistic.

“With the focus being on sports and the kids you’re helping, it breaks down barriers pretty quickly,” he said.

When the program resumes in October, coaches and athletes will meet one afternoon a week at Webster School. The coaches will attend a training program, where they will learn about working with special-needs children.

Mady Goldberg’s daughter, Elena, an 8-year-old with motor and processing issues, has blossomed in the program.

“She loves it,” said Goldberg, a Pacific Palisades resident. “She’s had the opportunity to play team sports, and in any typical scenario, that would be difficult for her.”

Goldberg said that practicing her skills in a supportive environment has helped Elena progress physically. In addition, she developed a close bond with her two coaches. As a result, Elena’s self-esteem has soared.

Jonah Gadinsky, 12, who has volunteered since December, vows to continue coaching after his bar mitzvah in November. “I definitely see how lucky I am do to be able to do the things that others can’t do,” said Jonah, a Westwood resident who is starting seventh grade.

After working almost exclusively with Bobby, a budding basketball player, Jonah is hooked.

“I feel really good for kids when they make a basket, just seeing their faces light up,” said the young coach.

Prime Time Games will resume in October.

Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox


At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.

But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.

Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.

Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”

Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”

This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.

Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.

“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”

The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.

Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

Simple Minds


I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.

Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.

Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.

The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.

One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.

“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.

In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.

Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.

One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.

“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.

Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”

The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.

The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?

A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.

For more information, go to www.etta.org

 

Milken Teens Live, Learn on Skid Row


 

Keep passing. Keep passing.”

It’s 6 a.m. on a Monday morning in March, and students from Milken Community High School, wearing hairnets, plastic aprons and gloves, are dishing out hot cereal, sugar, applesauce, milk and a muffin assembly-line style onto blue trays.

“We’re a well-oiled machine,” says 11th-grader Ethan Stern, the last student in line, who — with a smile and a “good morning” — hands a tray to each of the 130 males living at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

The 22 Milken juniors and seniors, who arrived the previous afternoon with several teachers and administrators, are spending two days and nights at the Union Rescue Mission, sleeping in bedrooms on a locked floor reserved for volunteers. They are taking part in the mission’s Urban Experience Program, a 52-hour hands-on community service project in which they live and work at the mission to learn about the complexities of hunger and homelessness.

“We have to leave our comfortable communities to see how the rest of Los Angeles lives,” says Wendy Ordower, community service coordinator at Milken, a transdenominational Jewish day school in the Sepulveda Pass. “Like at Yom Kippur, we need to be disturbed.”

Breakfast continues till 10 a.m., during which time the students bus dishes and wipe down tables, serve another 350 women and children and, after a short break to eat their own breakfast, fill trays for another 200 men.

The students spend the majority of their time serving food, with the mission providing an average of 2,200 meals daily. They also work in the warehouse filling boxes with hygiene supplies and candies, part of the mission’s Easter outreach of 3,500 packages to be distributed to local homeless and low-income Angelenos. Additionally, they tour the facility, chat and play basketball with the residents, create a mural to leave at the mission and meet as a group to reflect on their experiences.

“I had a stereotypical view of the homeless,” says 12th-grader Tannis Mann. “These are real people, and there are real reasons why they are here.”

In the evenings, the students listen to participants’ stories in the Christian Life Discipleship Program, a one-year residential program that graduates about 100 men annually, providing them with the recovery, educational and work skills needed to rebuild their lives.

They hear from Aaron, a former Catholic seminarian, who had “a little alcohol problem” and Michael, a CPA who moved to Los Angeles only to be immediately mugged and robbed of everything. They also listen to Robert, a former gang leader and prison inmate, who tells them, “Learn to make the good decisions because I made the bad ones when I thought I was cool.”

All the students pay close attention to their words.

“If I see someone on the street, I won’t see them in the same way again,” acknowledges 12th-grader Leticia Grosz.

The teens learn that the reasons for homelessness go beyond addiction to include poverty, lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs, mental illness, unemployment and prison release. They learn there are about 80,000 homeless in L.A. County but just slightly more than 18,500 beds. They also discover that women and children are the fastest-growing homeless population segment nationwide.

Some of those women live in the shelter, part of a six-month program called Second Step, designed to get them back into permanent housing and jobs. Others who come to the Mission for meals are homeless or reside in daily rate hotels or single-room apartments in the Skid Row area.

The Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit, privately funded, faith-based organization, was founded in 1891. Now housed in a five-story, 225,000 square-foot facility completed in 1994, it provides an array of emergency and long-term services to the poor and homeless, including food, shelter (797 emergency and transitional beds), clothing, medical and dental treatment, recovery programs, counseling, education, job training and legal assistance.

Some former residents now work for the mission.

Irvin “Pepi” Jones, who runs the evening dining room shift, tells the students, “Ten years ago I was in that line [of homeless men]. I used to push a cart and eat out of the trash.”

The students are moved by what they see and hear.

“These people have so much faith and love for God. They have such purpose in life,” says 11th-grader Alli Rudy.

That is the kind of impact Jewish studies teacher Rabbi Ruth Sohn wants from the program.

“I hope that the kids have a greater awareness of how poverty, drug addiction and prison can destroy lives but that they also feel empowered by what kinds of possibilities exist to turn your life around,” Sohn says.

The program also reminds the students of the role they can play in changing Los Angeles’ urban landscape.

“There’s such incredible work you can do,” says 12-grader Sophie Bibas. “It’s not an option; it’s an obligation.”

As the students board the bus at the end of the 52 hours, student Karin Alpert, speaking for many in the group, says, “For sure I’m doing this again next year.”

 

Circle of Friends


Every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., Alysson Beckman and Julie Pinchak go to Victoria Maddis’ house to hang out and play. What makes this situation unique is that Alysson and Julie are both 16-year-old high school students, while Victoria is a 7-year-old girl with a neurological disorder. They have been brought together by The Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, a new outreach effort designed to enrich the lives of Jewish children with special needs and their families.

The Friendship Circle and its Friends at Home program pairs local teenagers with families of special-needs kids in order to provide a social outlet for disabled children and support for their often over-extended parents. The Agoura-based Conejo Friendship Circle is modeled after the flagship program in Detroit, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassi Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation, a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Conejo Friendship Circle was launched by its director, Rabbi Yisroel Levine, and assistant directors Chanie Malamud and Devorah L. Rodal in April 2002. The program is administered by Chabad of the Conejo, and currently boasts 100 teen volunteers and 50 families with special- needs children, ages 4 to 13.

The teenagers who volunteer their time learn the value of giving through the experience of making a difference in a child’s life.

Michelle Levy, a 17-year-old student at Oak Park High School, learned about the organization from a friend at Los Angeles Hebrew High. Levy, who works with a 6-year-old autistic child, said that “although at times it can be difficult, it’s about having fun and being open,” and said that the reward she reaps from being involved always “masks” the difficulty for her.

“I’ve told others to get involved,” she said. “It’s a help for the family to have a little bit of time, and it is so good for us because it’s really special to connect with someone you wouldn’t otherwise know. It’s amazing.”

What makes The Friendship Circle unique is that the one-on-one contact between the child and the teen volunteers takes place in the environment the children are most comfortable in: their own home. Families interested in enrolling in the program are interviewed and evaluated by the directors and a speech pathologist.

The Friendship Circle addresses many types of special needs, ranging from autism and blindness to ADHD and bipolar disorder. Rodal stressed that this program is “truly open to anyone who feels that they need a friend.”

Teen volunteers are carefully screened, selected and trained to work with the children, and are then paired with a second volunteer and a special needs child in the program. The volunteers visit with the child once a week for an hour. Their role is to play and interact with the child, while giving the parents a much-needed respite. They can bake cookies, play games, read books or do almost anything the child wants.

“This program is wonderful,” said Robin Felton, a Calabasas mom whose 6-and-a-half-year-old son Jonah is autistic. “This is the only time that’s really just for fun. Jonah’s life is so therapeutic, and everyone has an agenda related to an IEP [school] goal. His therapy is all adult driven. These girls [from the Friendship Circle] come every Sunday afternoon, and they are completely focused on Jonah and what he wants. It’s not babysitting, it’s not respite, it’s just a gift.”

Felton said that the rest of the family also benefits from this program. Hilary Srole and Sami Wellerstien make an extra effort to share their attention with Jonah’s two brothers, ages 9 and 4.

Erica and Matthew Kane’s family has been with Conejo’s Friendship Circle since its inception. Like many of the children in the program, Kane’s daughter Abby, 6, is autistic; Abby has a 20-month-old brother and an 8-year-old sister.

“Kids thrive on the continuity” Erica Kane said. “We are paired up with two wonderful high school seniors. They come every Sunday, and the kids really look forward to it. The girls are very devoted, and the kids are all very bonded to them. They jump rope, play in the yard, play with Play-Doh … it’s very healthy for them.”

Rodal explained that teen volunteers must provide references as well as copies of past report cards and an explanation of why they are interested in volunteering in The Friendship Circle. All teens attend an hour and a half training session run by the directors, a speech pathologist, a family liaison and a parent of a special-needs child. There may also be additional training provided for a particularly difficult situation, as in the case of a child currently in the program who is blind, autistic and developmentally delayed. In the future, Jewish Family Service will provide this training, and is currently working to make the sessions more interactive.

Rodal and Malamud always accompany the teens on their first visit to their assigned family, and follow up regularly with both the families and the teens. In addition, each teen is responsible to report back to Rodal and Malamud via e-mail (or standard mail) postcard after each visit.

Becoming a member of the Friendship Circle’s Volunteer Club is yet another benefit for the teens. It is a place for the teenagers to come together, discuss their experiences, and just have a good time.

“They help others, but they also have a lot of fun,” Rodal said.

“I want these children to feel like they have someone to lean on when I come to visit them,” said Andrea Kramer, another 15-year-old Friendship Circle volunteer who attends Milken Community High School. “Seeing a child feeling good will boost up their life as well as mine. I want to know that a child is feeling even a tiny bit better because of me.”

To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit the
program’s Web site at

As Easy as Aleph, Bet, Gimmel


“It’s no sin to be a lefty and she’s always right,” instructs Rabbi Elie Stern of Westwood Kehilla in West Los Angeles.

His adult students follow along in their textbooks, nodding and mumbling to themselves, as they commit the statement to memory. This pneumonic device for distinguishing two the similar Hebrew letters sin and shin — one has a dot on the upper-left side of the letter and the other on the right — is just one of the many techniques that the National Jewish Outreach Program’s (NJOP) uses to help adults learn Hebrew quickly and efficiently. Every October and November, the New York-based organization sponsors Read Hebrew America/Canada, a program offering free Hebrew classes at shuls and Jewish centers across North America.

“I was bar mitzvahed almost 50 years ago,” explained Howard Katzman, one of Stern’s students. “I don’t remember very much Hebrew and I want an easier time following the services when I go to shul.” The 62-year-old West Los Angeles resident is one of about 30 students attending the weekly Level One Hebrew Reading Crash Course at Westwood Kehilla. Classes consist of five sessions lasting an hour and a half each.

Stern, the shul’s outreach director, has taught the classes for about five years, drawing students of all ages and all walks of life. While the shul is Orthodox, the majority of the Read Hebrew America students are not. “It’s a good opportunity to connect Jews with their roots,” Stern said. “If you can’t read Hebrew, it’s hard to make that connection.”

Elaine Kirn has been trying to make the connection for some time. At 57, the English as a second language teacher has made two other attempts at a local college to learn how to read the language. She said both times were busts because the teachers moved too fast. Kirn hopes that the third time’s the charm.

“So far, I’m doing really well,” the Culver City resident said. “I can read and this time it’s not painful.”

NJOP is offering an expected 15,000 students more than 1,545 Hebrew classes in more than 745 locations across North America during October and November, according to Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, NJOP program director. The organization offers three crash courses: Level I Hebrew, Level II Hebrew and a one-day review.

Volunteers teach the Hebrew classes and NJOP supplies students with workbooks. Students learn easy-to-remember tools for memorizing the alphabet. The rounded edge of the letter Resh helps them remember that the letter has an “r” sound. The inward curve of the letter Dalet is labeled as a dent, referencing the “d” sound.

At Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Cantor Herschel Fox has been teaching Read Hebrew America for several years. He believes that the brevity of the program helps make it appealing. “If you tell someone it’s going to be 27 sessions, they won’t come,” Fox said. “But with five, it’s not so bad.”

Lynn Sturt Winetraub, co-president of Temple Beth Zion in Los Angeles, helps organize the classes at her shul. Winetraub has found the program to be a success for many of her members, but also believes that it is still “too fast” for some. In addition, she noted that sometimes classes are only offered on weekends, making it impossible for observant students. However, she commends the program’s techniques and that it’s offered for at no cost to students.

“There are so many people who don’t have the means during these economic times,” she said.

Since the program focuses on enabling students to read and follow along in their prayer books in the synagogue, Stern said that some of the best moments in class are when a student recognizes a word her or she has heard in shul. “It’s great to see their eyes light up and their soul light up when they understand what they’ve read,” he said.

Free Hebrew School

There are at least two after-school programs in Los Angeles that offer Hebrew school classes at no cost. However, donations from parents are encouraged.

Hashalom, an Orthodox organization, offers an after-school program for children, ages 6 to 12.

"Our target is for more children who go to public schools to know about Judaism and to read and write Hebrew," said Rabbi Hagai Batzri, who runs the classes, which are offered in four locations around the city.

At Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks, Rabbi Samuel Ohana runs a weekday program for children, as well as a Talmud class for college students. The after-school program accepts children from age 9 though bar mitzvah age. While the school encourages donations for classes, they will take a child for free if parents are unable to afford the program.

"We do not teach Hebrew as a language to speak," Ohana said. "We teach Hebrew that’s relevant to understanding Judaism."

For more information about Hashalom, call (310) 652-9014. For more information about Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, call (818) 901-1598. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer