After-School Kabbalah Comes to LAUSD Campuses

Along with homework time, crafts and supervised games, grade school students in several Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools this spring are getting something different at their after-school programs: spiritual awareness.

Dozens of San Fernando Valley children are enrolled in Spirituality for Kids (SFK), a program founded and run by officials of the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles, whose curriculum teaches socially conscious behavior. Brought to the campuses of four San Fernando Valley public schools through a local after-school enrichment company, the program aims to help kids resist peer pressure, treat others with tolerance and build problem-solving skills.

The Kabbalah Centre has for years drawn the ire of critics claiming its popular version of kabbalah — made famous by such high-profile devotees as Madonna — is a sham.

Critics fear the program — which was founded by Kabbalah Centre International co-founder and co-director Karen Berg, and whose president, Michal Berg, is a Kabbalah Centre official and Karen Berg’s daughter-in-law — promotes concepts that echo the Kabbalah Centre’s teachings. Core terms in the SFK curriculum are also found in kabbalah, such as sharing “the light,” defined by SFK as a force of goodness in all people.

SFK staff, however, claim the program is not religious in nature. “It’s an empowerment program,” said Wanda Webster, director of curriculum for SFK. “We come at it asking ‘What tools would help children in life?’ We teach resiliency, meaning it gives them the tools to deal with the problems and issues they’re facing every day in school, or at home — anywhere they’re interacting with people.”

Webster defines the “spiritual” aspect of the program as “our connection to ourselves and to each other.”

“We don’t touch upon ‘the right thing to do’ — we just don’t go there,” she said. “We never use language like, ‘that’s right, that’s wrong,’ or ‘that’s good, that’s bad.’ What we talk about is, if you make this choice, will that get you what you want?”

A 2008 study by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that students enrolled in SFK classes in Florida showed improved communication, leadership and study skills and decreased attention problems and withdrawal.

Founded five years ago, SFK now operates in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London and Panama City, as well as in Israel, Mexico and Malawi. The program has been criticized by top rabbis in London, but has garnered praise from educators who say it helps at-risk youth make positive choices for their futures.

Most of what the curriculum — the same at each school — teaches is “social competence skills,” such as self-esteem, self-control and sharing, said Jody Myers, professor of religious studies at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and author of “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America” (Praeger, 2007), which includes a chapter on SFK.

The SFK concept of the “true voice” versus the “opponent” echoes the Jewish concept of yetzer hatov (the tendency to do good) versus yetzer hara (the tendency to do bad), but is expressed in non-religious language, she said.

“They don’t teach worship, they don’t teach rituals or talk about God,” Myers said. “If you look at religion as belief in a higher power, they don’t use that language. The curriculum deals with conscience and emotion and intuition, but it’s not religion.”

Among the themes SFK explores are the causes and effects of reactive behavior and the relationship between physical objects and “spiritual powers” — happiness, love and excitement. A major part of the curriculum is the promotion of “caring and sharing behavior” over selfishness, Webster said.

Physical activities and games are included in the weekly 90-minute classes, such as a human knot game to illustrate the idea that “what we do affects others,” Webster said. According to the program literature, students are taught “rules to the game of life” — short adages including, “Take care of others and your needs will be fulfilled,” and “Share and make room for all life’s blessings.”

SFK classes are offered at Kester Avenue and Riverside Drive Elementary schools in Sherman Oaks, Nestle Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana and Tulsa Street Elementary School in Granada Hills through E3, an after-school enrichment program that operates in nine LAUSD elementary schools.

Social awareness among children often suffers because of a gap in “life skills” education in public schools, E3 director Linda McManus said.

“We’re sensing that our kids need more,” McManus said. “They’re getting enrichment, but there wasn’t much addressing life skills at this age.”

In September, E3’s entire staff trained with a team from SFK in the program’s terms and principles. McManus said she hoped the training would help her employees with classroom management and discipline.

E3 offers parents and their children alternative programming during class times SFK is offered, for those who don’t want their children in the 10-week program, McManus added.

Many parents say the program is a boon to their children — or at least an acceptable pastime during the after-school hours.

Maria Tapia of Van Nuys said her daughter seems to enjoy SFK at Kester Avenue Elementary School, where the program is geared toward third- to fifth-graders. “She says she enjoys it. Sometimes I come to pick her up and she says she wants to stay more,” Tapia said of Jennifer, a fourth-grader.

Jennifer Bahat of Encino said both her children had already taken SFK classes at the Kabbalah Centre last year, and her daughter, Shani, 6, is now enrolled again in a course for first- and second-graders at Nestle Avenue Elementary School.

“I love the program,” Bahat said. “Kids learn a lot of useful things. It’s natural for kids to be selfish and only think about what they want. As parents, we’re always teaching them to think of other people. Here they learn to be more thoughtful and considerate.”

Bahat said she has also taken kabbalah classes through the Centre before, and believes spirituality is a beneficial part of childhood education. Since starting SFK classes, Shani has become more aware of the consequences of her actions, Bahat said.

SFK isn’t the first educational program with ties to a controversial religious organization to draw criticism locally. The New Village Leadership Academy in Calabasas, founded by actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith last year, generated buzz for its use of “Study Technology” developed by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. School publicists have said the facility does not teach Scientology.

An LAUSD spokeswoman said the school district contracts with several enrichment companies, some of which bring in programming with known religious affiliations.

“The Los Angeles Unified School District accepts and supports having programs such as Spirituality for Kids on LAUSD campuses,” said Sharon Thomas, assistant general counsel to the district, in a statement. The district must abide by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by maintaining “strict neutrality in religious matters,” she said, and any program is acceptable as long as it does not run afoul of that.

But some still question whether the Kabbalah Centre is a legitimate religious institution.

“The Kabbalah Centre is to true kabbalah what Jews for Jesus is to true Judaism,” said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and director of the anti-missionary and anti-cult center Jews for Judaism. “It’s making it look like it’s Jewish, but it’s not.”

In general, kabbalah is viewed as too “weird” or “out-there” for most mainstream Jews, said Myers, the CSUN professor. But while the Kabbalah Centre’s brand might not hew to the holy tradition on which it is based, it has nevertheless become a ubiquitous part of the religious landscape.

“Little bits and pieces are coming into normative Judaism,” Myers said. “Kabbalah is out of the bag.”

East Ventura Bound

If you’re looking to move into a new home in Los Angeles, good luck. Last month, the median sale price for an L.A. home jumped 10 percent to $213,000, setting an all-time record for L.A. County.

But if you’re looking to move into a new home in Oak Park, say your prayers. Finding a home in this Conejo Valley suburb will take all the luck and all the money you can get. The median price in September for a Ventura County home, which includes the unincorporated community of Oak Park, was $268,000, but the increase of sales was only 0.8 percent, due to a tight inventory of homes available.

Oak Park, which has just recently received its own postal code, is situated in eastern Ventura County, at the base of Simi Peak. Bordered on the west by the North Ranch neighborhood of Thousand Oaks, on the south by Westlake Village and Agoura Hills, and on the north and east by the Santa Monica Mountains, Oak Park is a compact community of only 2,600 acres.

What makes Oak Park so special is a combination of factors, least of which is the quality of the air and greatest of which is its excellent school district, which has received the reputation of being one of the finest school systems, private or public, anywhere in California. Two of the elementary schools, Brookside and Red Oak, have been designated California distinguished schools; a third, Oak Hills, is a blue-ribbon school. The middle schools, Medea Creek and Oak Park High School have been named blue-ribbon schools as well. The alternative high school, Oak View, is a California model school.

Realtor Bev Ovdat has been working the area of Agoura Hills, Oak Park, Calabasas and Westlake for 20 years. Along with her husband, Saul, the Ovdats are considered one of the strongest real estate teams in the area. If anyone understands the draw of Oak Park, it’s Bev Ovdat.

“In 1978, Oak Park broke away from the Simi Valley School District and created its own school district.” Ovdat said. “In 1990 [during the height of the recession], Oak Park implemented a parcel tax to improve schools, built two new elementary schools, giving it three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. With this money, it was able to reduce class size. People had the perception, real or perceived, that because there was a better teacher-to-student ratio, the schools were superior. And what Jewish family doesn’t want a good education for their child?

“People began to move from the San Fernando Valley and L.A., where kids were being bused; the impetus was that children could attend local schools and stay close to home. Safetywise, it was a throwback to the ’50s and ’60s, when children could walk to school and play on the street. That didn’t exist anymore in the Valley,” Ovdat continued. “In Oak Park, you could find safe, old-fashioned, traditional neighborhoods with lots of stay-at-home moms. There was a wonderful feeling of safety and good values – that’s why people fell in love with Oak Park and the area.”

That feeling of safety, coupled with excellent local schools, is the reason Oak Park is now one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in Southern California, reports Mark Moskowitz, Realtor for Century 21 in Westlake Village.

“We have a certain client that only wants Oak Park because of the school system,” says Moskowitz. “Most good homes on the market are sold within a week to 10 days, if the seller isn’t asking too much.”The high demand, plus the shortage of homes on the market, makes Oak Park one of the hottest areas around.

“It’s all supply and demand,” says Moskowitz. “In the last two years, what was the [least] expensive home is now very expensive.”

A typical 1,600- to 2,000-square-foot Oak Park home ranges in price from $280,000 to $375,000, while a 2,000- to 2,400-square-foot home ranges from $375,000 to $475,000. Newer homes, such as those in upscale Morrison Ranch and Sutton Valley, range from $475,000 to $800,000 and beyond. Interestingly, there are no gated communities.

But given the lack of available homes and the high interest rates, a lot of people are being pushed out of the market, says Moskowitz.

“Some decide to rent or settle in a different area, like Agoura Hills. But some decide not to move out at all.”

Carey and Yehuda Fried, two of Moskowitz’s clients, decided to rent. Newlyweds in 1998, they were living in L.A. and hating it. Both Frieds were working in Agoura Hills and spending every available minute commuting.

“The commute was tough and we had no life,” says Carey, Director of Education at CalSource in Agoura Hills. “We knew we wanted to be part of a community where we would have an impact and where we could grow and help others grow, too. That wasn’t happening in L.A.”

Friends encouraged them to “live where they worked, work where they lived.”

With that in mind, they visited friends last year during Sukkot and attended the Chabad House in Agoura Hills. They liked the area, and the people were friendly, but they were still unsure of making the move.Then Moskowitz found them a townhouse in Oak Park, which they loved. They moved in March and have never looked back.

“You pay for the quality of life here, for safe neighborhoods, the beauty of nature. On Shabbat, we walk to the Oak Park Chabad on a nature trail right across from our house. About half the people we pass say, ‘Shabbat shalom.’ Everyone is amazingly friendly.”

“We’ve reduced our whole life to a 10-mile radius,” Carey says. “There are kosher shops out here, the Kosher Connection, and the local Albertsons and Ralphs carry kosher foods. And [the Oak Park Chabad] is building a day school, to open in 2001.”

Carey has grown to love the open feeling, the quiet and the beauty, the children playing in the streets; so much so, that she and her husband are on a mission to get their friends to move out, too.

“We tell everyone to move out here,” Carey laughs. “Every weekend we’re home we have quests from L.A. They all love it. We want to put Oak Park on the map.”

Their only reservation is that one day they have dreams of moving to Israel. But who knows, maybe the allure of Oak Park is that it’s the next best thing.

“We’re in a very good place here, and we’re part of the growth of the community. I love the people, I love the community. And when we walk through the park, my husband and I say, ‘It smells like Israel, it looks like Israel, and it feels like Israel.'”