Making the Grade

Jewish parents have good reason to be interested in public school test scores released by the California Department of Education on Aug. 31, although they may need help deciphering them.

In 1997, the last time a study was done, The Jewish Federation found that 64 percent of Jewish children attended public schools in the Los Angeles area. Given rising security and insurance costs since then, and a far weaker state economy, that number is probably at least as high now.

There are basically two flavors of tests involved: those based on state standards and those on federal standards called Adequate Yearly Progress, which are tied to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB penalizes schools or entire districts that don’t improve fast enough.

Six entire districts and 36 percent of all schools in California failed to satisfy NCLB requirements on the spring 2004 tests. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is fortunately not among them, but the tests show that even its improvement is slowing.

"The growth is there, but after having four very good years it was somewhat disappointing," said Esther Wong, assistant superintendent for planning, assessment, and research at LAUSD.

Elementary and high school test numbers reached a "plateau" at LAUSD, Wong said.

"It would have been surprising if the [district’s] numbers had been better," said Howard Lappin, who was the principal of Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles for 12 years. He helped transform Foshay from a failing school into a national success story by adhering to strict measures of progress — he says LAUSD needs more of the same.

"My wife works at Heschel [Day School] — the kids at Heschel are going to do a lot better than the kids where I was at Foshay, and Foshay did much better than [other public schools]," said Lappin, who explained that there’s no gap between what the kids can accomplish at those schools, but rather that "We as educators have to stop making excuses for failure."

Lappin, a lifelong educator, should be taken seriously. Whether NCLB is the best way to set standards — requiring 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014 without providing schools any additional funds — is a lot less clear.

To see how your local school did on the tests, go to

Money Problem Closes Valley Hospital

For Californians, only the best medical care will do, at least in theory: Our hospitals must not collapse during an earthquake. No nurse in an ER must ever be responsible for more than four patients at a time. And if you arrive at a private hospital in Los Angeles County with no insurance, they cannot simply transfer you to a county facility.

Sounds great. Unfortunately, 70 hospitals have closed over the past decade in California, six of those in Los Angeles alone since January, partly because they couldn’t afford those improvements.

Here’s the latest: Northridge Hospital Medical Center’s Sherman Way Campus in Van Nuys, the oldest hospital in the Valley, announced on Aug. 19 that it will shut down by the end of the year. The large Jewish communities in the East Valley can receive their care from the next nearest facility, Valley Presbyterian Hospital.

"The life is being sucked out of [the system] even to deal with normal demand. [In a] regional emergency, an earthquake or a terrorist attack, where will we put people who need a hospital?" County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "The pressure on the remaining facilities is growing to the breaking point."

The mandated renovations will cost hospitals at least $24 billion, and the nursing ratios will run them about $1 billion per month. But the problem goes far beyond expensive regulations.

The insurance issue is the real problem. Private hospitals can’t secure loans to pay for building improvements if creditors don’t trust them to pay back the money. If one-third of the people in Los Angeles lack health insurance, then hospitals stay equally poor: They must then depend on state Medicaid reimbursements instead (which in California in 2000 came to $2,068 per patient compared to $7,609 in New York).

"We are each only a drunk driver away from needing a trauma center and a heart attack away from needing an emergency room," Yaroslavsky said. "And if the ER closest to you was [the closing] Northridge Hospital or Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital or Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and the next nearest ERs are overcrowded, you could literally be in an ambulance calling ER after ER, asking ‘Are you open?’"

Welcome to the GOP Revolution

"The convention floor was dotted with kippot," said Larry Greenfield, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Southern California, about the Republican extravaganza in Madison Square Garden.

According to one unofficial estimate, about 170 Jewish Californians acted as party delegates. "I think we were all saying to each other, ‘Wow, what enthusiasm, what commitment, what pride we have as Republicans,’" Greenfield said.

In a Cheviot Hills rally organized by the Bush/Cheney team on Sept. 9, talk show host Dennis Prager said Jewish Republicans are "at the cusp of a revolution in Jewish life."

Prager told the crowd of about 100, "We feel for [Democrats] benign contempt: You haven’t thought clearly and therefore you’re a Democrat."

Prager said that there is no such thing as a well-thought out liberal opinion, and that many older Jews vote Democratic because they still believe they’re voting for FDR.

‘Til Death Do Us Part

Stephen Sass and Steven Hochstadt had been partners for 14 years when they decided to fly from their home in Los Angeles to Canada and officially get married. Though the couple had wed in a Reform Jewish ceremony five years earlier, an Ontario court had just upheld a law legalizing gay marriage, and the two Steves wanted, in Sass’ words, "some official recognition," of a relationship that has been more stable and loving and productive than most marriages.

The court documents they signed had yet to be changed to encompass the new ruling, so the Steves crossed out "husband and wife" and penned in "partner and partner." The service was held in a park near the U.S.-Canada border on July 4, 2003, and the irony of the moment was lost on neither.

"We could see the United States from where we stood," Sass told me.

Even though it was Independence Day, the couple’s liberties did not extend to signing a similar document in a California courthouse.

The Feb. 3 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to uphold the constitutionality of gay marriage butted up against President Bush’s attack, in his State of the Union address, on "activist judges … forcing their arbitrary will upon the people."

The president’s declaration that, "Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage," reminded me of the quip directed at then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, when he said the same thing.

"Which marriage are you trying to defend," a woman activist asked, "Your first, second or third?"

Those who oppose gay marriage out of religious beliefs have a perfect right to do so. "Most of us do not want the isolation or punishment of homosexuals but will never accept unlimited choice in lifestyles," wrote Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, chancellor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University, in 1995. "The nations which did no longer exist, the people committed to Torah still do."

Though historians — not to mention logicians — might quibble with the rabbi, it is the right of Jews and their Christian and Muslim counterparts to kick homosexuals out from under the marriage canopy. But the case for the state or federal government following their lead is looking flimsier and flimsier. Civil law diverges from religious law in matters of divorce and abortion, but these things are still available to nonbelievers.

Much has been written about the financial, legal and other assorted penalties gay couples face by not being legally married. These range from being denied tax, insurance and inheritance benefits to being denied entry to a loving partner’s sick bed in a hospital.

But beyond issues of law and money, and even basic fairness, is the sense of acceptance and stability that being officially married confers in our society. Committed relationships are the foundation of stable society. Gay marriage activists and their opponents agree on that principle, but opponents feel it necessary — barring any evidence — to deny some people the right to commit in a civil ceremony. A culture that laughs off Britney Spears’ one-day heterosexual marriage but pops a vein over the joining of Sass and Hochstadt is probably closer to decay than Rackman would care to admit. Logic and evidence indicates that legalizing gay marriage would strengthen, not weaken, families.

On Feb. 22, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue, will honor Sass and Hochstadt as exemplars of domestic tranquility and community service. (For more information, call (323) 931-7023 or visit BCC will also honor Lambda Legal senior attorneys Jon Davidson and Jennifer Pizer and Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, for their roles in passing AB205, the historic 2003 California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act. In many ways, AB205 goes beyond the Vermont law made famous by Howard Dean’s candidacy.

"We got involved in drafting this bill because so many of the clients we represent in court could have avoided terrible legal ordeals if protections like this were already in place," Pizer told a reporter. "This law obviously won’t solve everything, but it’s a huge step forward."

That huge step forward will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2005, and it currently faces two lawsuits that threaten to derail it.

Jewish groups and individuals need to act and speak in support of it for one simple reason: Barring gays from marriage discriminates against a class of people because of who they are, not because of what they do. And if that doesn’t set off the alarms, what does?

For centuries non-Jewish law treated Jews as an inferior race and, for centuries, white people discriminated against blacks as inferior and, for centuries, straight people have looked upon gays as flawed and fallen and scapegoated them as well. Gays, stereotyped as Jews once were, as lascivious and promiscuous, are denied access to the institution of monogamy.

"It’s the last safe thing to attack," said Sass of homosexuality, "and all we want to do is live our lives."

One day we will look back on our blithe acceptance of discrimination against gays and marvel at our shortsightedness.

"In our denial, in our failure to see one another as one family — indeed as one holy body — we forget Jewish history, we opt for amnesia," said the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a leader of the Reform movement. "We who were Marranos in Madrid, who clung to the closet of assimilation and conversion in order to live without molestation, we cannot deny the demand for gay and lesbian visibility."

As a Jew, you may or may not like homosexuality, but as an American, you should have to live with it.