Orthodox Students Thrive at Milken

Barbara Schloss had gone to Orthodox day schools her whole life. When it came time for high school, she figured, why change?

But the science-oriented teen soon felt dissatisfied with her choice of classes and electives, and saw her brother, Nate, doing things at Milken Community High School that she could only dream about. Two weeks into her freshman year, she asked her parents if she could transfer.

“She was bored, academically, at her old high school. She felt she was not being challenged and the extracurricular activities didn’t fit with her strengths,” recalled Barbara’s mother, Lenny Schloss. “She was getting jealous — she saw Nate doing tech theater and robotics and science research, and she was like, ‘I want to do all that!’”

Nate and Barbara are part of a growing group of Modern Orthodox students opting to leave the traditional Orthodox school system for a high school career at Milken. Parents say the school offers educational and extracurricular opportunities students often can’t get at smaller Orthodox institutions.

Over the last three years, Milken’s Orthodox student population has gone from zero to about 15 to 20 kids, said Head of School Jason Ablin. 762 students attend Milken.

Kids can get a “catered,” highly personalized academic menu at Milken that schools with more limited resources might not be able to provide, Ablin said, such as the science research program Nate Schloss is in at the school’s Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology. The eight-year-old academy has drawn in several students who had previously attended exclusively Orthodox schools, as have Milken’s programs in drama and art.

“These are very high-end kids in terms of their academic abilities and their interests,” Ablin said. “Milken has the kind of resources to be able to provide them with what they need, so parents are turning to us as a solution.”

At Milken, the Schloss kids have blossomed academically. Both of them were on a team that placed third in the 2009 Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards, which challenges students to create products using science and technology.

Nate, a senior, was first drawn to Milken for its renowned Mitchell Academy, and is now captain of the school’s robotics team. In April, he led the team in competition at the national FIRST robotics championships in Atlanta. The school placed 23rd out of some 300 high school teams from across the country.

Between robotics, science research and his semester in Israel through the Tiferet Israel Fellowship — a Milken program allowing sophomores to spend a semester studying in Hod HaSharon — Nate said he’s “definitely” happy with his high school experience.

“I haven’t been able to find an extracurricular activity that other schools have that Milken doesn’t,” he said. “Milken just has so many more choices.”

That’s why the Schlosses decided not to limit their options when it came time to hunt for high schools for their kids. Although Nate and Barbara had only gone to Orthodox day schools from preschool through eighth grade, the family even looked at secular schools such as Harvard-Westlake and Windward School to make sure the teens got the curricular rigor they craved.

Dina and Michael Glouberman did the same for their daughters, both of whom will be Milken students this year after attending Yavneh Hebrew Academy from preschool to eighth grade. Dina Glouberman said she was happy with the education Yael, a sophomore, and Dani, a freshman, got at their old Orthodox school, but she wanted to broaden her daughters’ academic opportunities at the high school level.

“We liked Milken because we could have a high level of academics and still have a Jewish education” for Yael and Dani, both of whom were valedictorians at Yavneh, Glouberman said. “We also liked the idea of an integrated community that appeals to all walks of life, including Orthodox.”

For Glouberman, the idea of her daughters learning alongside secular Jewish students is anything but a drawback — it “adds to their experience and makes them stronger in who they are,” she said.

But making the switch to non-traditional Jewish studies classes can be a jolt for students used to learning in an Orthodox environment.

Nate Schloss said he’s happy with his Jewish education at Milken — “for the most part.”

“I’m used to being taught in an Orthodox way,” he said. “It was interesting for the first time in my life being in a classroom with non-Orthodox kids who had very different beliefs than me. It took some adjusting to, but I feel like I have a much broader understanding of Judaism now, and I appreciate my own beliefs and practices more.”

Outside the classroom, kids and their families also have to get used to less stringent observation of Shabbat and kashrut on school trips and events. Parents said they have to pay extra attention to make sure food provided on field trips and athletic outings is kosher, and to see that activities take place on an “Orthodox-accommodating” schedule.

When Barbara Schloss was in Israel this spring on the Tiferet Israel Fellowship, her father, Hal Schloss, asked to have her excused from the scheduled Shavuot program in favor of “a more traditional Orthodox experience” at her aunt’s house in Ra’anana. On the weekend trip to the Pete Conrad awards in April, the Schlosses brought enough kosher food to feed the whole Milken team.

“The official school position is that everything should be kosher and shomer Shabbat, but then there is the reality of how some things turn out,” Lenny Schloss said. But school officials are mindful of their students’ needs, and on the Pete Conrad trip, Milken paid for all the food, Hal Schloss added. “The administration is very supportive and always wants to do whatever is necessary to make it work for us,” he said.

Having Orthodox students on campus has made the administration much more aware of how to cater to a pluralistic population, said Ablin, head of school, who added that Milken’s Orthodox population has been a boon to the student body.

“The kids who have come from the Modern Orthodox community have completely taken advantage of everything there is at the school,” he said. “Other students have gone to schools with these kinds of resources and have had things like video production before, but these students have not. They’re like kids in a candy shop.”

But while Ablin, who is himself Orthodox, said he would be “thrilled” if more Orthodox students joined the Milken community, he is also wary of altering the school’s goals.

“Parents in the Orthodox community come to me and ask, ‘When are you going to make Milken more Orthodox, or have an Orthodox track at the school?’ I tell them I’m never going to do that,” he said. “What I want to do is expand the pluralism at the school. Our mission is to have an expansive, pluralistic community. That should be able to include students from the Modern Orthodox community, and also kids who come from a completely secular background.”

This year, however, Milken is offering a new program that could appeal to more Orthodox families — a Beit Midrash-style track for freshmen and sophomores featuring longer hours of classes and more talmudic studies. But Ablin said the program is open to interested students of all denominations.

Overall, parents said the few “minor” inconveniences — and few thousand dollars extra per year — are well worth it for the educational benefits their kids get at Milken.

“It’s a really well-run place with excellent opportunities,” Dina Glouberman said. “Our daughters are happy, so we’re happy.”