Betty Neymark: Second Career From a Second Language


Betty Neymark

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

“Why isn’t Temple Judea doing something like this?” Betty Neymark’s daughter, Nancy, asked her more than 19 years ago, referring to an English as a second language program at a nearby church. That was all the push Neymark needed.

She and her daughter, along with friend and reading specialist Evelyn Stecher, promptly began a program at their Reform synagogue in Tarzana.

On the first day of registration in January 1990, Neymark thought no one would show up. Instead, she encountered a line of people stretching past the Temple’s driveway. Fifty students registered, and Temple Judea’s all-volunteer ESL program was born.

Today that program boasts 150 students, 25 volunteer teachers and five administrators, including Neymark. While her daughter has begun a new career and Stecher has moved away, Neymark remains.

“I just love it. I meet wonderful people. It enhances my life,” said Neymark, who previously worked as a human resources administrator in two school districts.

Those “wonderful people” include the students, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Iran and South America. Most are 50 or older, and they are both Jewish and not. Many are new immigrants. A few have lived here as long as 20 years.

Neymark also has great affection for the teachers, who range in age from 21 to 89. Only two are new this year, and 18 of them have been with program 10 years or more.

The classes are small, with four to seven students. They meet for two hours twice a week, from September to June. In addition to English, students learn about American culture.

“Students come in with no English and then are able to function in society and make their lives better,” said Neymark, noting that many go on to become citizens and to vote.

Temple Judea provides the classroom space. The program is free; students pay only for their textbooks. Donations and a corporate grant cover other expenses.

“I call myself a coordinator,” said Neymark, a 47-year temple member who won’t reveal her age. She registers new students, evaluating their English proficiency and placing them in one of six homogeneous classes, ranging from beginning to conversational English. She also arranges for new teachers to receive 12 hours of training each fall.

Additionally, she publishes a newsletter twice a year for the teachers, holds two faculty meetings a year and organizes the annual faculty party.

Neymark is reluctant to take credit for program’s accomplishments.

“It runs itself,” she said, emphasizing that it’s a team effort. She also refers to her husband, who does all her computer work, as her “secret weapon.”

Hilda Fogelson, a retired Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who has taught in the program for 16 years, said, “Betty is very organized and very professional. That’s why the program is so successful.”

Neymark feels a responsibility to continue to support Temple Judea and the Jewish community.

“I’m not going to fade away any sooner than I have to,” she said.

Middle-Class Squeeze


In the past six years, Diane Demetras and her husband, Marcel Indik, have taken one low-cost vacation and have dined out only on rare occasions. They don’t buy themselves new clothes, they drive old cars and rent movies rather than go to them because weekend activities have been whittled down to what is cheapest.

They’ve done this — willingly and without regrets — so they could afford to send their two children, Emile and Olivia, to Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, where they feel their kids are getting a great education, a grounding in Jewish tradition and a sense of belonging to a values-based community.

The Demetras-Indiks are solidly middle class. She is an academic adviser at USC and he is a successful commercial photographer. They co-own the fourplex they live in, and, if not for the $30,000-plus a year they spend on their kids’ school and camp (that’s including a few thousand dollars in financial aid), they would be considered comfortable in the Southern California economy.

But it is families like theirs who are feeling the squeeze of the upward crawl of day school tuition over the last several years, which has brought the average tuition for elementary and middle school to about $12,600 and for high school to as much as $20,000. Those numbers are about 30 percent above what a year of schooling cost four years ago and nearly double 10 years ago.

To be sure, at secular private schools tuition has risen just as sharply, and often far more so, but non-Orthodox Jewish schools are competing on two fronts: with the lure of fancy private secular schools for many who can afford to pay whatever it takes, on the one hand, and with the tuition-free option of public schools, particularly the gifted magnets or other specialized programs for those who are struggling to make ends meet, on the other. Neither socio-economic group is willing to compromise educational standards, which means Jewish schools have to maintain a high academic bar, but also give the added value of a Jewish education — making the latter a convincing selling point to those who might opt for just Sunday school enrichment.

Most of the 10,000 students in Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools come from families with too much income to qualify for significant financial aid, but many are not wealthy enough to easily absorb such a significant hit on their budget. And there are also those who do not see themselves as “scholarship families,” and who choose therefore to send their kids to public schools rather than open their financial records for the aid applications.

About 14 percent of school-age Jewish children in Los Angeles are enrolled in day schools, the majority of them in Orthodox schools.

In the past 15 years, day school enrollment across the country has boomed. Between 1992 and 1998, enrollment jumped by 25,000 students, and from 1999 to 2004, another 20,000 students enrolled, bringing the total to 205,000 nationwide. Much of the growth occurred in non-Orthodox schools, new schools and in high schools.

While Los Angeles has generally mirrored that growth, in the past five years the number of students enrolled in L.A. day schools declined by about 400 students. Last year saw a turnaround, however, with an increase that brought the number close to its 1999 peak of 10,000 students.

But the decline has educators concerned, and while they know that cost is not the only factor — there was also an overall economic downturn and demographic dip in school-aged children — tuition increases certainly don’t help.

Over the past 11 years, Temple Israel has seen its enrollment increase from 82 children to 200, but the school has had losses, too. Like many families, the Demetras-Indiks had to make a tough choice. Tuition at Temple Israel Day School went from $9,500 four years ago to $12,170 for the next school year. So come this September, Emile will be attending public school for the sixth grade.

“We couldn’t handle the cost anymore,” Demetras said.

Diminished day school enrollment — or enrollment from a narrow socioeconomic stratum — hurts the entire Jewish community. Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism, and to educate their own kids Jewishly. Day school graduates, in a sense, boost the knowledge base of the entire community.

“We have learned so much about what keeps kids Jewish in this world that is always pulling at them, and the day school movement is such an important contributor to the Jewish people. To not be able to make a day school education affordable for people who want it is an awful alternative,” said Rennie Wrubel, head of school at Milken Community High School.

Over the past decade, with increasing sophistication, schools are looking to sources other than tuition to make ends meet. They are setting up endowment funds, ramping up marketing both to potential parents and donors, and nurturing new supporters — from alumni and grandparents to people and foundations previously unconnected to day schools.

“If we believe in this, and we believe in how powerful it is — and some of us do — then we have got to have the whole community get behind all of our efforts,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. Powell believes a massive communal endowment — $1 billion — needs to be set up to cover the cost of Jewish education.

Lisabeth Lobenthal couldn’t agree more. Lobenthal is a synagogue director who put her son, Aaron, at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy for kindergarten. A single mother who does not receive child support, Lobenthal was making $48,000 a year when she applied for financial aid. She tried to make do with the $2,500 break on the tuition of about $9,000 — she was told it was the maximum she could receive and never asked for more — but once she paid for tuition, rent, basic bills and groceries, she was, literally, penniless.

“They called me for a donation for a pizza party, and I couldn’t give them the $10,” Lobenthal said.

She pulled Aaron out in first grade and put him in public school, where he’s been happy, but his Jewish identity has suffered. Now 11, Aaron hates Hebrew school.

“I’ll be happy if I can get him to have a bar mitzvah,” Lobenthal said.

Currently, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), a Federation agency, allocates $2.35 million to Los Angeles’ day schools. For the past two years, the wheels have been turning to set up a $20 million endowment fund for day school education. The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation have each pledged $1 million to the fund, and are working with BJE to secure lead donors. The interest from the endowment — about $1 million annually — would leverage endowment dollars raised in the schools at a rate of 25 cents to the dollar. So if a school raised $1 million for its endowment, the fund would then pay the school an additional $250,000, according to Miriam Prum-Hess, the director for day school operational services at BJE. That approach, rather than, say, discounting every child’s tuition, works for a city the size of Los Angeles. With nearly 10,000 students, a community fund to discount tuition by $2,000 per child would cost $20 million. With this model, schools have incentive to raise their own money, and then can use the money however best suits the particular schools.

Other communities have managed to generate large gifts in the last two years. In late 2004, three philanthropists gifted $45 million to Boston’s 16 day schools, and other communities have seen numbers between $13 million and $20 million.

“I have found a great willingness among major Jewish philanthropists to invest tremendous amounts of capital in models of Jewish education that work,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

Elkin also believes that with the right training, technology and motivation, the 759 day schools that serve 205,000 students nationwide can double their annual giving to cover the gap between tuition revenue and what it costs to run a school.

In Los Angeles, while some schools have to make up about 10 percent of their budget in fundraising, others find themselves with gaps of 40 percent or more. And with a huge jump in insurance — particularly workman’s comp — and increased security costs since Sept. 11, as well as the pressure to keep teachers’ salary and benefits on par with public schools, raising tuition is a tempting way to make up the shortfall.

But Prum-Hess, who moved into her position at BJE after serving as vice president of allocations for The Federation, hopes that schools can hold the line on tuition by tapping into unrealized revenue potential.

This year, as part of a national Match Grant program, she helped 13 schools raise a combined $1 million from new donors, which earned the schools an additional $500,000 from the Jewish Funders Network and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Schools also brought in $1 million in homeland security grants, with Prum-Hess’s help (see sidebar).

She wants to see schools think more strategically, setting up endowments and seeking bequests.

“I think the biggest problem that day schools have is that many live hand to mouth and it’s very hard to think beyond the immediate when that is the way you operate,” she said.

Change is coming slowly. A handful of schools have already started endowments.

Emek, an 824-student Orthodox school in Sherman Oaks, last year set up the Emek Heritage Endowment Fund, asking every family to contribute $200 a year. Now at the end of its second year, the fund garnered 100 percent participation and has $70,000, and administrators hope to reach $1 million within 10 years.

But long-term planning isn’t going to help the Katz family (they asked that their real name not be used to protect their privacy). Jennifer is a social worker; David is in the allied medical field. Both have advanced degrees and good jobs. But between the housing market in Los Angeles and the cost of day school — even with financial aid — they have made the decision to move to Cleveland this summer. There they can trade up from their two-bedroom duplex to a four-bedroom house that costs $250,000, and they will pay $11,000 less than they do now to send their three children to an Orthodox day school.

“We’re just not getting ahead,” Jennifer said. “We can’t take trips that we want to take to see our family on the East Coast. We’ve got three kids living in one bedroom. We work too hard for our money to have nothing to show for it.”

Prum-Hess calculates that to send two kids to day school and live decently in Los Angeles, a family has to earn about $160,000 annually.

“Part of the message that we need to give is that you might be earning $150,000 and saying ‘I’m earning a great salary and I can’t pencil out what is wrong,’ and we say we know you’re not making ends meet, and you need to apply for a scholarship,” Prum-Hess advises.

All Jewish schools have scholarship programs, with a wide range of giving levels and procedures for how parents can access than money.

At Milken, tuition and fees for the 600 students is about $24,000 each. The school gave out $1.2 million in scholarship money. New Community Jewish High School, where tuition and fees run about $22,500, has allocated more than $1 million for the 320 kids it has coming in next year.

Pressman Academy, a Conservative K-8 school where the bottom line comes to more than $12,000, gives out $340,000 to its student body of 367. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform elementary school, allocated $200,000 to its 210 students last year to defray the $14,000 price tag. In the school’s seven years of existence, the temple has kicked in more that $1.5 million to the school’s budget.

The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood parcels out $77,000 annually among its 200 students, but caps aid at 30 percent of tuition so the school can help more families. On the few occasions where families who apply aren’t able to afford the day school, Temple Israel guides them toward the religious school, where no child is turned away for financial reasons.

“It’s a very difficult situation for all of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education,” Temple Israel Day School head of school Eileen Horowitz said. “We want to be able to help as many families as we can.”

Other Reform and Conservative synagogue schools acknowledge that while they only rarely have to turn students away, they don’t often see those families that truly can’t afford the education. It is an economically self-selected group that even applies.

That is not the case in the Orthodox community, where a day school education is seen as mandatory, even when a family has six, seven or eight kids. Schools that serve the Modern Orthodox population give out about 30 percent to 40 percent of tuition revenues in scholarships every year, compared with 10 percent to 20 percent in non-Orthodox schools.

At the YULA boys high school, last year $1 million was distributed among 195 boys to help cover the $19,000 tuition.

“There is no such thing at YULA as a student unable to attend because of inability to pay tuition,” said boys’ school principal Rabbi Dovid Landesman. “At the same time, we will put as much pressure as we can on parents who can pay. It has to be their most important priority — they can’t say ‘we prefer a Jewish education, but not at the expense of a nice car or going to Puerto Rico for Pesach.'”

The “no child turned away” policy finds extreme expression in the ultra-Orthodox community, where in some schools as much as 80 percent of the student body receives financial assistance, including some who pay only a nominal amount.

At Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, the two principals, Rabbi Berish Goldenberg and Rabbi Yakov Krause, handle financial aid personally. Last year, the school allocated more than $2 million in tuition subvention. Goldenberg estimates that only 350 to 400 of his 1,100 students are paying full tuition, which added to fees comes to about $12,000 a year for the first child (as at most schools, there is a sibling discount and teachers get an automatic break).

The parent body includes many teachers at other schools, as well as rabbis and Jewish communal professionals who serve the wider community. Many of them have large families.

Toras Emes is currently phasing in a minimum tuition requirement of $3,500, so that every family is paying something. (Goldenberg expects exceptions to that minimum, too.)

Like most yeshivas, Toras Emes functions in the red, constantly begging and borrowing to make payroll and pay bills.

“This yeshiva exists on miracles, and you only see it when you sit behind this desk,” Goldenberg said. “Somehow Hashem [God] takes care of us.”

“God will provide” is also the mantra at Chabad schools, which have an open-door policy for anyone who wants a Jewish education.

Rabbi Baruch Hecht, director at the girls’ elementary and junior high schools Bais Chaya Mushke and Bais Rebbe, allocates about half his budget toward financial assistance.

“There is no point sitting in my chair if you are not prepared to do what we do,” he said. “If you are going to run a Jewish day school, then part of that process is knowing you are going to be handing out scholarships — a lot of them — because your mission is to make sure every child has an opportunity for a Jewish education.”

But for now, most middle-class families either aren’t willing to ask, or don’t qualify for much help. Instead, they make lifestyle choices to support their educational goals for their children.

Joanne Helperin went back to work full time when her daughter was 2 so her two kids, now 7 and 4, could attend Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in West Hollywood.

“And I feel guilty about it every day,” Helperin says of the need to work full time.

Helperin is a journalist, the senior features editor at Edmunds.com. Her husband, Robby, is the owner and bandleader of Spotlight Music and the Simcha Orchestra. Business is booming, but with the high cost of living in Los Angeles combined with day school tuition, they find it hard to refuse the offer of tuition help from the grandparents.

“And the question is, will I be able to do that for my grandchild? And what about college? I think we’re going to have to work longer and retire later,” Helperin said.

Tuition assistance programs that have sprung up in small communities across the country over the past five or six years are aimed at precisely this demographic. In Morris County, N.J., tuition was automatically capped at $5,500 for families who earn less than $120,000, and those who earn more can qualify, too.

In the Bay Area, the Levine-Lent Family Foundation set a goal of doubling the number of day school students in Northern California by the year 2010. In 2002, the foundation gave every child enrolling in the newly opened Kehilla Jewish High School a $9,000-a-year tuition voucher for four years, and the following year entering students were offered $7,000 vouchers. The school had expected 18 students in its first class; 34 enrolled, and half of those students had not gone to a Jewish elementary school.

But with 10,000 students at 37 schools, a similar endeavor in Los Angeles would cost tens of millions of dollars — a daunting figure.

The Avi Chai Foundation, a leader in promoting day school education, launched a pilot program in 1998 in day schools in Atlanta and Akron, Ohio. Students were given $3,000 vouchers, but analysts concluded that while the vouchers did help attract and retain students, more important factors were the child’s happiness and the quality of the education.

“The cost of education is not the only challenge the day school world has,” said Elkin of Boston’s PEJE. “We have to market Judaism. We have to market the quality of the education, we have to deal with concerns about ghettoization, concerns that that the schools are too narrow and that kids will be socially crippled when they get out of school. There is a whole range of selling we have to do. There is no silver-bullet panacea for the day school world.”

In Los Angeles, where the non-Orthodox day schools compete for students not just with public schools, but also with other private schools — which cost more and are often perceived as offering more than day schools — competition has increased among the Jewish schools, which is one of the reasons tuition has gone up. Schools vie for the best teachers and pay for extras to attract kids who might end up at Harvard-Westlake or Buckley.

“We want great teacher-to-student ratios, and great science labs and great sports,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “We want an orchestra and computers and art and dance and music — and, and, and. It costs a lot of money and I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of that fact. It simply needs to be made a priority and we need to go out and raise it,” he said.

Powell of New Community Jewish High School agrees. “How can we do any less 60 years after the Holocaust, when we have not even replaced the 6 million? How can we turn Jewish kids away from Jewish school, kids who want to learn how to live a joyful Jewish life?”

 

All-Female Plays Fill Niche for Frum


At Chabad’s Bais Chana High School on Pico Boulevard, a number of girls are sitting around a table with director Robin Garbose, reading through a new scene of "Portraits in Faith," their upcoming original musical. In the scene, a gold-digging wife tells her hapless husband that he no longer has any claim to his fortune and that she is going to use his money to party. The husband is Jewish, the wife is not, and her non-Jewishness infuses her with a particularly nasty streak of anti-Semitic superiority. It’s a meaty scene, and though the girls are reading the lines for the first time, they are handling them with aplomb. The wife’s malicious insults become more delightfully sinister in the reading, whereas the husband becomes the lame coward who gets weaker with every word.

On a dramatic level, the musical is a multigenerational historical drama that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany, and is replete with marital discord, class conflict and religious struggles. It highlights the dissonance between the Orthodox and the Reform. On an educational level, the play is a vehicle for the girls to become more self-confident and use their talents for performing arts in an environment that remains faithful to halachah. In keeping with the laws of Kol Isha, which prohibit a woman from singing in front of men for reasons of modesty, and tznius (general modesty) the play will be performed to audiences of women only. And the play itself is not just a drama — it’s a story with a moral. At the end of it, the audience is meant to appreciate the courage and dedication of Jewish women in keeping Torah alive through the ages and feel inspired about the beauty and the holiness of the mitzvah of going to the mikvah (ritual bath).

Garbose expects that at least 1,000 women will come out to see the play when it is performed on March 3, but judging from past audiences at other all-girl productions, that estimate seems conservative. In February, Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic girls’ high school on Beverly Boulevard, put on an all-girl production called "Simply Not The Same." The theme of the play was the importance of Torah, and more than 1,000 women showed up to see it over two nights, a large number considering that Bnos Esther only has 50 girls in the entire high school. Last year Bais Yaakov High School performed their biennial "Halleli" — an all-girl song, dance and drama fest — and drew an audience of 4,000 women over two nights.

The reason for the great turnouts is clear. The plays cater to women and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community who restrict the amount of popular culture that they let into their lives, because of what they see as its irreligious and immodest content. Nevertheless, these women still want to be entertained, but they just don’t want to compromise their religious principals in doing so.

"Most of the people who come to these things do not go to outside entertainment," said Chaya Shamie, the co-curricular director at Bais Yaakov and the producer of "Halleli." "This is an opportunity for them to go to an all-women’s performance that is done in a Torah fashion, that follows all the [halachic] guidelines."

"These plays are the only shows that I would take my daughters to, because as innocent as so many things seem, there are many hidden cultural messages in the popular entertainment out there," said a mother of two girls from the Fairfax area. "I want my daughters’ culture to be a Torah culture. It’s very empowering for them because they see themselves up there in a few years."

For "Portraits in Faith," Garbose’s husband, Levi, adapted a novel by Marcus Lehman, a 19th-century German writer who is something of a John Grisham of the Orthodox world. His books typically are plot-driven, hard-to-put-down novels that are infused with messages of faith. For the songs of the musical, Levi wrote original lyrics to Chasidic nigunim (wordless melodies). For the set design, Garbose plans on new visual possibilities using interesting lighting and some carefully chosen set pieces that will evoke the atmosphere of a different era and country without blowing the minimal budget that Bais Chana set aside for the play. All the girls in the school are involved in the play in some way, either as actresses, prop designers, costume makers, ticket sellers or stage managers.

"Things like Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl make a very compelling argument for all-women’s productions," she said. "What happens when you have a production that is for women only is that it takes the whole sexual component out of it. It’s incredibly empowering."

"Portraits in Faith" will be performed on March 3 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (310) 278-8995 ext. 405.

Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families


Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.

Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.

"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.

"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."

Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.

She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."

As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.

"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."

Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."

Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.

"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.

"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."

Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."

Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."

One Community


Our Torah portion begins after a tragedy — the tragedy of
the golden calf. Moses assembles the entire Israelite community in order to
renew the covenant between God and Israel. Vayakel — “and he
brought them together” — he made them one community.

It is not so easy to be one community, particularly at a
time of tragedy.

I thought about this a great deal over the past few weeks
when I was in Israel with Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Rabbi
Bill Berk of Temple Chai in Phoenix and 22 members of our congregations. We
were there to study Torah at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Our
learning focused on the “Ethical Challenges to Israeli Society at a Time of
Crisis.” The study was extraordinarily powerful — with master teachers like
Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Rabbi Rachel Sabath, not to mention our unforgettable
session with the founder of the Institute, the brilliant philosopher Rabbi
David Hartman. They led us through the study of Torah and sacred texts that
raised thought-provoking questions about what the ethical obligations ought to
be of a state that calls itself Jewish.

Our Torah study was enriched by a day in Tel Aviv where we
visited some of the projects supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los
Angeles’ Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, including the Shevach Mofet School,
a high school in which the majority of the students are immigrants from the
former Soviet Union. This was the school that lost many of its students in the
Dolphinarium bombing. Instead of being defeated by the tragedy, the students
have recommitted themselves to excellence. We heard from several of the
students who have joined with their counterparts at the Milken Community High
School in different kinds of partnerships, connected by the Internet and summer
seminars.

Then we met with Rabbi Meir Azari and learned about the
groundbreaking work of the Reform Movement’s Beit Daniel, which is reaching out
to teach Israelis about religious pluralism and offers alternatives to the traditional
Israeli notion that to be religious means to be Orthodox. We also visited the
wonderful program for elderly Holocaust survivors called Café Europa.

Finally, we met with social workers from the municipality of
Tel Aviv to learn about the problems faced by foreign workers in Israel and the
challenges to a city in dealing with victims of terror.

It was both inspiring and deeply troubling — inspiring because
it seemed as though everyone we met was a hero, but troubling in that there
were hardly any other American Jews in Israel. Wherever we went, after Israelis
thanked us for coming, they asked us: “Where are all the American Jews? Aren’t
we all in this together?”

Vayakel: “And Moses brought us all together” to make us one
community.

The Torah portion goes on to describe what God commanded:
“Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall
bring them. So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence and
everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came
bringing to the Lord his offering for the Tent of Meeting … men and women, all
whose hearts moved them … came bringing objects of all kinds…. Thus, the
Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring everything
for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it
as a freewill offering to the Lord.”

Building the tabernacle, the sacred place that symbolized
our connection with God, was a communal effort that required the whole
community to work together. Different people had different tasks — the Torah
describes the artistry of Bezalel and Ohaliab and the special skills of the
women who spun with their own hands. But the work belonged to everyone — so
much so that there was even an overflow of effort and gifts.

The work of building Israel belongs to all of us. Whatever
our politics, whatever our view of what ought to be done in the West Bank and
Gaza, Israel is central to the Jewish story. It is our story.

We heard two different versions of that story from the
Israelis we met. Each has implications for us as American Jews. One version is
that our mishpacha is in trouble — and when your family needs you, you drop
everything and you go. You don’t just send money. You don’t just pay the
medical bills. You go, you sit, you visit.

The other version is different. It is not just the story of
members of our family in trouble. It is the story of our Torah portion, of
members of our family, our people, who are builders, willing to live through
difficult times because they are engaged in the very important work of building
a more just world. Their work is to make certain that Israel can survive the
challenges of power and live up to its promise to truly be a Jewish State, a
country animated by the highest ethical values of Jewish tradition.

That task is a sacred task and, like the building of the
tabernacle, it requires the entire Jewish community to work together. May we
each bring our skills, talent, resources, energy and, most important, our
presence, to nurture the holy place that is so central to the covenant between
God and the Jewish people. 


Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

A Small School With Big Plans


On a recent Thursday afternoon at the New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, 20 students fill the biology lab to hear a guest speaker discuss cryogenics. Next door, another 14 teenagers sit in a semicircle as their English teacher describes their next chapter in Homer’s "The Odyssey." Down the hall, four students in the beginning Hebrew classes learned the Hebrew names for other languages.

In other words, NCJHS — or "New Jew," as the students call it — is pretty much like any other high school, only on a much smaller scale.

Located at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, NCJHS opened its first year with 40 students, offering a curriculum split 30/70 between Jewish and secular studies — with an integration between the two.

During the school’s grand opening ceremony on Sept. 17, Head of School Bruce Powell outlined NCJHS’ mission: to be a place "where students take advanced placement kindness, where science and math are the grand tools in tikkun olam … and where the precious legacy that resides in the souls of our children is nurtured, one mind at a time."

A respected educator in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Powell’s holistic approach can be seen in everything from the curriculum to the weekly schedule. For example, the school has a kehillah where students and teachers gather after lunch several days each week for 40 minutes of Jewish song or Israeli dancing.

"Judaism, when given to students only through text and history, can become very dry," Powell said. "You need both the cognitive and the affective, the intellectual and the spiritual."

Spiritually speaking, NCJHS bills itself as non-denominatinal. While over the last decade much of the Jewish community has been moving both to the left and the right, creators of NCJHS hope it will fill a middle ground between the more traditional Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and the Reform-leaning Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air.

The process began three years ago, when a group of Los Angeles parents and community leaders decided they needed an option between the Orthodox and Reform schools. They joined a group of parents whose children were attending Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge, who were interested in starting a high school. The two parties merged to form the initial board of directors for what would become NCJHS.

Schools feeding into the new high school include Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills; Heschel Day School in Northridge and its Agoura sibling, Heschel West; plus three synagogue day schools: Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Hillel.

The mix makes for some interesting arrangements. In order to accommodate students from many different schools, a flexible schedule was key, said Rabbi David Vorspan, the NCJHS Jewish studies director and official rabbi-in-residence.

It also makes for a varied student body. "We have kids who have been home-schooled; we have kids who come from public school programs," Vorspan said. "We have kids who did not know an alef from a bet when they came in, and kids who were involved in heavy text study when they were in day school. So we have had to create a program that could meet everybody’s needs."

The NCJHS offers three levels of Hebrew, from basic to advanced, and several tiers of other academic classes such as English and math. There are also innovative electives, like American Sign Language (made possible by a donation from Shirley and Aaron Kotler in memory of deaf relatives), computer science and art classes that take advantage of the Milken’s gallery.

Like any Jewish private school, the cost of Jewish education at NCJHS does not come cheap. Tuition for the 2002-2003 school year is $17,500 — not including the application fee, textbooks and other costs such as school trips that can add another $1,825 or more. Financial assistance is available, and there is a nice perk: once enrolled, students and their entire families automatically become members of the West Valley Jewish Community Center.

In addition, the students get to use the 10,000-square-foot gym and a swimming pool on the $4.5 million Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex which opened in 1999.

Although only enrolled for a few weeks, on this hot Thursday afternoon, the students seem comfortable in their new and somewhat quirky environment, where one is as likely — while going from one class to another — to encounter a group of tots from the JCC’s preschool as to run into a fellow student. Elan Feldman, 15, of Woodland Hills was at Heschel for four years and chose the New Community Jewish High School after looking over the descriptions of the teachers and classes.

"My parents said I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted to go as long as I could get good grades," he says. "Dr. Powell was at Milken and my brother went there and it was good. I liked the idea of starting a new school. I want to start something new, be a pioneer."

Feldman says that going to a small school is both challenging and interesting. "It’s nice that I know most of the people that are going here," he says. "It is kind of small and I might like a bigger environment, but the people are so great it makes up for it."

Talya Vogel, 14, comes to NCJHS from Kadima, which she attended since kindergarten. Like Feldman, she chose the school over nearby academic decathlon-winning El Camino Real High School.

"I preferred to come here," she says. "I think the people you meet influence who you are and I would rather be with people more like me. The classes are great, the teachers are great and the faculty makes the school."

Vogel says that some of her friends are considering switching back to public school after this first year. "They just came here to experiment with it. Some of them might go to El Camino or even switch to Milken, just because they are bigger schools. But, I think this is exciting. We are what will start everything, what will be remembered."

As for the future, Powell and the board are in the process of looking for a site on which to build the school when it outgrows the current facility — although the intention is to keep NCJHS a small and user-friendly school.

"I would like to see the school be 100 students per grade," Powell told The Journal. "I believe that is the ideal size for a high school. A lot of research has been done now on high schools showing schools of 250 to 400 are optimum. They are able to offer the programs that are necessary yet maintain the smallness so no child is missed."

Marlene Canter


Public schools remain a central part of civic life, the linchpin through which the middle class remains committed to the city. On June 5, Westside/Valley voters have the opportunity to bring fresh ideas to the board. I am endorsing Marlene Canter for District 4.

An experienced educator and a successful CEO, as well as a parent, Marlene understands that Los Angeles parents, teachers and administrators must act as one to reform and improve our schools. Over many years, her company designed programs for the training of teachers, especially in the difficult area of classroom performance and decorum. As a former special-education teacher, she brings up-to-the-minute understanding of teaching methodologies and student issues to the table. She understands that students learn in different styles and modes and is committed to bringing this understanding — which is now commonplace in private schools — to all of our children. She is committed to continued reform, especially to improving the all-important middle schools.

This school board runoff election is critically important to our community. More than 100 new schools must be built in the nation’s second-largest school system. The travesty of students lacking textbooks and basic supplies must end. We must recruit new teachers, encourage parent participation and make sure that students throughout the city get the active support of administration. We must hold our schools to high standards. In short, we need to bring efficient management experience to our common problems. Marlene brings a well-modulated personal style, substantial business experience and a deep commitment to our neighborhoods and to these tasks.

Marlene Canter began this race as the outsider, but she has won the endorsement of virtually every Los Angeles area newspaper, including the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, LA Weekly and La Opinion. She is beholden to no group but is committed to the exploration of the most effective ideas to improving Los Angeles education. She will help bring change and mature leadership to an institution bogged down in politics and rhetoric.

Marlene Canter will be a thoughtful, responsible and responsive steward of Los Angeles’ public schools. Our children and our communities deserve nothing less. I hope you will join me in supporting her candidacy; she will be a superb member and reform leader of our school board.

Critical Response


Yeshiva University is enmeshed in its own battle over gay and lesbian couples less than a month after the Reform movement affirmed the right of its rabbis to officiate at same-gender commitment ceremonies.

Two lesbian students and a gay-lesbian-bisexual student group are suing Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York for barring same-sex couples from living in its subsidized, on-campus married-student housing.

Gay and lesbian students at the university, like other students, are eligible for university housing, but their nonstudent partners are not.

While Yeshiva University is officially a nonsectarian institution except for its Orthodox rabbinical school, it is the oldest and largest American university under Jewish auspices.

According to Orthodox interpretation, Jewish law strongly prohibits homosexual relationships, and Orthodox leaders have been outspoken in condemning the Reform rabbis’ recent resolution on same-sex unions.

Although the case was dismissed in New York’s Supreme Court on March 15, 1999, the students — backed by the American Civil Liberties Union — are appealing.

They had their first court hearing April 19 before a panel of judges in the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division.

The students’ attorney, James Esseks, argued that by requiring students to present a marriage certificate in order to receive couples housing, the university’s policy has a disparate impact on homosexual couples who are unable to marry. Thus, he argued, it violates city and state human rights laws.

Yeshiva’s attorney, Mark Jacoby, said that the university has a limited amount of student housing available, and while it can provide housing to the children and spouses of students it cannot “open that up to all people who want to live with a partner.”

He also noted that the university does not permit unmarried heterosexual partners to live together in university housing.

Asked by one of the judges if the university would recognize a same-sex marriage certificate from a government that recognizes same-sex marriages, Jacoby said it would, but Esseks stated that no state or nation recognizes gay marriages. The Vermont Senate last week approved “civil unions” giving same-gender couples all the benefits of marriage under state law, but the vote recognized these unions only in Vermont.

The plaintiffs do not have legal domestic partnership agreements, and the university would not recognize them if they did.

It is not clear when the judges will issue a ruling.

In dismissing the original case, the judge wrote, “Einstein is not responsible for the fact that gay and lesbian students are unable to provide the college with a marriage certificate that validates their relationship with their partner. The plaintiffs’ real complaint lies not with the defendants but, rather, with the refusal of the New York state legislature to sanction same-sex marriages.”

During last week’s hearing, the plaintiffs and about 15 friends sat quietly in the seats reserved for observers. One of the plaintiffs, fourth-year medical student Sara Levin, 26, held the hand of her partner, Carla Richmond.

The other plaintiffs are third-year medical student Maggie Jones, who has broken up with her domestic partner since the case was dismissed last year, and Gila Wildfire, acting in her capacity as secretary of the Einstein Association of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals.

With Levin approaching graduation and Jones no longer with her partner, the case’s outcome will not affect them personally. Both said they are appealing nonetheless to help future students affected by the school’s housing policy.

“Cases like this will determine how any institution designs its policies, and I’ll be involved in lots of institutions as a doctor,” said Levin after the hearing, shortly before leaving to prepare for a Passover seder.

Although when she enrolled she knew university housing was restricted to students and their spouses, Levin said she had “assumed they would accept a domestic partnership.”

Richmond, a social worker who has been Levin’s partner for eight years, said the two have been living in Brooklyn — a lengthy commute — because they were unable to find safe, affordable housing close to the medical school’s Bronx campus.

“It’s been an additional stress on her in what’s already a stressful process,” Richmond said. “She’s had to make choices between being in an environment in which she has ready access and losing sleep because of having to commute, but having the support of a partner.”

The two met as undergraduates at Columbia University. Asked if they were united in a commitment ceremony, they said, “Not yet.”

Interviewed after the hearing, their lawyer said that other New York universities with married-student housing, such as Columbia, make those facilities available to gay couples.

Yeshiva officials declined to comment on the case, but noted in a statement that the 1999 decision ruled that “our student housing policies are in full compliance with all anti-discrimination laws.”

Because the appeal is pending, “no further comment would be appropriate at that time,” adds the statement.

Although commonly thought of as an Orthodox institution, Yeshiva University has been chartered since 1969 as nonsectarian, enabling it to receive state and federal funding.

That nonsectarian status means it must abide by various anti-discrimination laws, forcing it at times to adopt policies offensive to the religious sensibilities of some of its alumni and donors.

In the mid-1990s, it refused to ban gay student groups at Einstein and its law school, despite demands from some Orthodox students and alumni. — Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency