Netanyahu opens school year with visit to Arab town


More than two million Israeli children headed to school for the 2016-2017 school year.

Thursday was the first day of school for most Israeli children from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed students to their first day of school at Tamra Haemek public elementary school in Tamra, an Israeli Arab town in northern Israel.

The lawmakers were welcomed during an opening ceremony  by the school’s approximately 200 pupils in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Netanyahu told the students to listen to their teachers and to listen to their parents.

“I want you to learn – learn to write, learn to read, learn Hebrew, Arabic and English. I want you to learn mathematics. I want you to learn science. I want you to learn history – history of the Jewish People, the history of your public. I want you to learn the truth, and the truth says that we were destined to live together,” Netanyahu told the students according to his office.

“I want you to be doctors, scientists and writers, and be whatever you want to – and are able to – be. I want you to be loyal citizens, integrated into the State of Israel; this is your state,” he said.

Of the 2.2 million Israeli students who started school on Thursday, some 159,000 are entering first grade and 123,000 are entering their last year of high school.

There are some 180,000 educators working in the Israeli school system, including 9,000 who are teaching this year for the first time.

Why Jewish educators need to teach the Palestinian perspective


As the new school year gets underway, Jewish educators are making decisions regarding how best to teach about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most begin with the premise that Jewish students should learn to support Israel and defend its government. Throughout the year, their lesson plans will flow from this fundamental objective.

As a rabbi and Jewish educator this concerns me. I question why our Jewish institutions encourage critical thinking when teaching ancient Jewish texts — challenging students to consider multiple voices, give expression to minority viewpoints and ask difficult questions — but when teaching about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they avoid this approach.

American Jews hold strong and diverse opinions about the contemporary political situation in Israel, but our educational materials do not reflect this range of ideas. They either portray Israel as a mythic land of orange trees and sacred sites, or they address its challenges in order to help students defend it from criticism. After careful research, I’ve seen that no major publishers of Jewish educational materials for children and teenagers have produced materials that encourage students to wrestle with both Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

For many years I’ve felt that our community’s educational materials on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are inadequate. Instead of encouraging students to simply support and defend Israel, I’ve realized we should teach students to formulate challenging questions, investigate complicated issues and develop their own well-reasoned perspectives.

And earlier this year, I decided to make a change: I wrote a new curriculum that reflects these goals.

What, specifically, should Jewish educators teach? They can begin by helping their students explore their connections to the people, the land and the State of Israel. By studying Israel within the context of Jewish history — such as how the emergence of Zionism shaped contemporary Jewish thought — young Jews can better understand their own communities today.

But this is not enough. Educators should also help their students cultivate understanding, respect and compassion for both Israelis and Palestinians. Often we don’t teach our children about the Palestinians because we don’t see them as central to our people’s stories. Yet Jews and Palestinians are linked together through a complex history, present conflict and unknown future.

Jews must grapple with Palestinian perspectives because we can’t wish Palestinians away or pretend they don’t exist. We have a moral obligation to listen carefully to their stories and try to comprehend what they have endured as a result of war and displacement. If we want a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must engage directly with Palestinians – not by criticizing or attacking them, but by genuinely trying to understand their experiences.

I wish that I had had the chance to learn about Palestinians growing up because when I attended college, I didn’t know how to analyze conflicting arguments. It wasn’t until I lived in Israel during rabbinical school that I traveled to the West Bank and met Palestinians. I sat in their homes and listened to their stories. I was shocked that no one had ever helped me understand that while the creation of Israel was a magnificent event for the Jewish people, it devastated Palestinian life. I had never considered the impact of war and displacement — as well as occupation and settlement expansion — on Palestinian communities. Learning about Palestinian culture was a transformative experience for me because I learned that Palestinians are as diverse and complex as my own people. I realized that Palestinians are not my enemies. I felt betrayed by my Jewish education.

Now, as a parent of young children, I want to give them what I didn’t have. Two years ago, when my family lived in Israel during my sabbatical, I encouraged my kids to develop a deep curiosity about the people, religions and cultures around them. I enrolled them in an Israeli preschool, and as we walked there each morning we looked at the street signs in both Hebrew and Arabic. We traveled around both western and eastern Jerusalem and talked about the different kinds of people we met. We spent one morning in a Bedouin kindergarten singing songs and playing games. It became obvious to my children that Israel was home not only to Jews but to Muslims and Christians as well.

The children and teenagers in our Jewish communities are bright, creative and eager to learn. They are capable of discussing divergent viewpoints and wrestling with difficult issues. They have the ability to understand that Israel is a modern nation-state embroiled in a complicated political situation, and they are able to struggle with the ethical implications of an almost 50-year military occupation.

Jewish educators often shy away from teaching subjects that they deem too political, arguing that politics do not belong in the classroom. They believe that their role is solely to teach about Israel and to impress upon young Jews that Israel is core to their Jewish identities. Yet educators have a responsibility to teach not only about the vision or dream of Israel but also the reality of Israel — and it’s impossible to do this without political discussions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to Jewish life. It’s as important to Jewish identity as prayer and the weekly Torah portion. While American Jews can certainly live rich Jewish lives without ever thinking about Israel, it’s the epicenter of Jewish politics. Involving middle- and high-school students in the debates around the conflict allows them to grapple with Jewish history, explore the many variations of Zionism and understand religious and political differences within the Jewish community.

Many of us want to avoid fruitless debate about the conflict, but in a classroom educators can employ creative teaching techniques that allow students to genuinely engage with the material. Young children can sample Israeli and Palestinian foods, attend cultural events and learn songs in Hebrew and Arabic. Older students can read novels and act out scenes, stage structured debates and mock trials, write poems from multiple perspectives and conduct interviews with family members, activists, scholars and leaders of their communities.

This type of learning will help our students grow, encourage them to develop their own unique ideas about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and foster a sense of respect and understanding for others. These are the kinds of attributes that the next generation of Jews desperately need.

Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi and education director at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin. She recently published and wrote “Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

As school resumes, how to talk to children about the Gaza war


With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world?

These questions are difficult enough, but are especially freighted with anxiety because they hold the potential to revive stereotypes of Israel that North American Jewish schools have been trying to counter. When Israel was forced to wage three major wars during its first quarter century, its image as an embattled enclave overshadowed everything else about its existence.

In recent decades, though, Jewish schools have endeavored to present a more rounded picture of Israeli life. Without denying the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, teachers have drawn attention to the rich tapestry of Israeli culture — its diverse inhabitants, culinary treats and eclectic music, for example — and, of course, its technological wizardry. School trips to Israel have highlighted the country’s natural beauty and its enjoyable recreational scene, even while exploring the strong connections between the land and the Jewish religion. Educators are understandably loath to resurrect the earlier imagery that simplistically portrayed Israel as a country permanently on war footing.

Responses to the Gaza war require North American Jewish schools to address a second topic that had been pushed to the background in recent years — anti-Semitism. Students in all likelihood are not oblivious of the virulent hostility to Israel and Jews surfacing in the media and on the Web. It’s not clear how prepared schools are to address this issue. In reaction to the overemphasis on the Holocaust the 1960s through the 1980s, the pendulum of American Jewish fashion has swung away from discourse about anti-Semitism. Now, with the blatantly negative media coverage of Israel’s prosecution of the war and the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the globe, the subject warrants considerably more attention.

The dilemma facing schools in addressing the new anti-Semitism is how to avoid reviving what historian Salo Baron once described as “the lachrymose [tearful] conception of Jewish history.” The saga of the Jews is about a great deal more than persecution. Yet with the barely concealed animosity toward Jews evident in some quarters here in America and abroad, alas, the need to teach young people about the insidious nature of anti-Semitism has become pertinent again.

As they formulate a school response to the war, educators might consider three important lessons derived from “Hearts and Minds,” a recent report on Israel education in North American Jewish schools:

First, one size does not fit all students. Classrooms this September will contain some students who are largely ignorant about the Gaza war and others who have been exposed to it up close. Students who spent part of the summer in Israel undoubtedly will attest to what it was like to run to bomb shelters or sense the fear aroused in Israel’s populace by Hamas tunnels. Teachers will face the daunting task of bridging differences in what students heard from their parents and absorbed elsewhere about the war. The diversity of students and their families adds a considerable measure of complexity to an already challenging situation. All of this places a great responsibility upon teachers to prepare differentiated responses to a broad range of students.

Second, when teaching about Israel, it is imperative to work with students’ minds as well as their hearts. Jewish schools have focused their attention especially on the latter, an understandable approach with younger children. But by their middle school and high school years, students deserve to be exposed not only to the joyous dimensions of the Jewish state, but also to the complexities within Israeli society and outside of it in the tough neighborhood of the Middle East.

And third, teaching about other Jewish communities — their achievements and challenges — does not detract from a connection to Israel but strengthens the ties of students to the Jewish people and also Israel. In some parts of the world, notably in several European countries, Jewish communities are under siege. American Jewish students should not be shielded from these ugly realities. This is the time to teach students about the interconnectedness of all Jews, a lesson that will also strengthen their engagement with Israel and its people.

The Gaza war presents Jewish schools with a teachable moment, a time to explore with their students (in an age-appropriate manner) the asymmetrical struggle in which Israel is engaged and the surge in hatred confronting  Jews — including children — in many parts of the world.

(Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, co-authored “Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools,” published last spring by the AVI CHAI Foundation.)

 

Sandy Hook anniversary prompts Jewish institutions to review security


On Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a semi-automatic rifle and two semi-automatic handguns, he easily broke through the school security system.

Cameras dotted the school’s perimeter and the school even had a “sally port” system, which restricted entry to the building in a holding area until a guest was identified.

But the windows encasing the sally port were not bullet resistant. Lanza shot through the windows and murdered 20 schoolchildren and six adult staffers before taking his own life.

What have Los Angeles’s Jewish institutions learned from Sandy Hook and other mass shooting events?

On Dec. 10 and Dec. 12, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted, “Seconds Count,” a training session for K-12 schools in active shooter response. The program was organized in conjunction with the LAPD and BJE (Builders of Jewish Education). School and synagogue faculty, staff, administrators and security experts attended the training to share security strategies and to learn best practices from LAPD officers.

The Tuesday event was held at Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard office building and drew about 40 people. The Thursday event was held at New Community Jewish High School and drew about 50.

Seated at multiple tables in a workshop-style environment for the Dec. 10 training, local Jewish educators were asked to brainstorm how they would improve their own security if money were no object.

One person suggested constructing a building without windows to the outside. Another would increase the number of armed security guards. Others suggested more mental-health resources and self-defense training.

Two themes, though, ran through the morning training. First, to prevent a massacre on the scale of Sandy Hook, each school must develop and repeatedly drill its own security plan.

Second, central to that security plan must be a communication system among staff, faculty, and students. According to multiple security experts present at the session, schools can quickly use their speaker system, as well as walkie-talkies and text messages to facilitate a lockdown procedure.

“They all do fire drills exceptionally well, and almost none of them do lockdown drills at all,” said Cory Wenter, director of safety and security at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Wenter, a former U.S. Marine who served on President George W. Bush’s security detail at Camp David, believes every Jewish school in Los Angeles is “very vulnerable” to an active shooter, defined as someone attempting to kill people in a confined space, usually with a firearm.

“No one knew Sandy Hook until it was Sandy Hook,” Wenter said. “No one thought about Virginia Tech or Columbine or any of those other things until they became that case study.”

Jason Periard, Federation’s director of community security, said that every school and synagogue must make sure that it’s not the “weakest link” in terms of security.

Periard, who spent 21 years in the Marine Corps and has worked as a criminal investigator for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), said that on Aug. 10, 1999, before Buford Furrow opened fire, wounding five people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, he scouted other Jewish centers to survey security.

After observing the Skirball Cultural Center, American Jewish University (then the University of Judaism), and the Museum of Tolerance, he decided to check out other Jewish facilities.

“They were too hard a target,” Periard said. “[He] saw security guards out front with guns so he kept moving.”

Buford settled on the JCC because it had plenty of people and almost no security. Furrow walked into the JCC’s lobby carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol and fired 70 shots.

At the training session, attendees debated amongst themselves the effectiveness of different types of security. How can school administrators ensure a secure environment that’s also open and conducive to learning?

According to both Periard and Wenter, the balance between security and not making a space feel like a prison is difficult, but possible to navigate.

Do armed guards improve security?

Cathy Riggs, an LAPD officer, thinks so. As does Marvin Goldsmith, the VP of Security at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “Armed guards are a necessary component of security,” Goldsmith said.

One step every institution should take, Periard added, is to train front desk staff to identify suspicious behavior.

“You put somebody on the phone in the front of a school, generally speaking, you teach that person people skills, right? But you don't teach them tripwires, which is behavioral analysis,” Periard said.

“If the bad guy shows up at your facility and he’s doing what’s called the casing or walkthrough, he’s probing you,” continued Periard. “He comes up to your lady at the front office, and she starts asking him a lot of questions, like, ‘Sir why are you here? Why are you asking me all these questions?’ He backs off and goes to the next facility.”

Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life


Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Berkeley Jewish student union rejects J Street affiliate


The Jewish Student Union at the University of California-Berkeley rejected J Street U for membership for the second time since 2011.

According the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, the rejection at a meeting Wednesday focused on J Street U’s hosting of members of Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF soldiers who chronicle what they say are abuses they witnessed during their military service.

Daphna Torbati, the Jewish Student Union president, said the group disparages Israeli troops, while representatives of J Street U said Breaking the Silence and groups like it facilitate a broader conversation over how best to support Israel.

J Street U is the campus affiliate of J Street, a pro-Israel group that advocates an end to Israeli settlements and an assertive U.S. role in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace.

J Street U lost the vote two to eight, with two abstentions.

According to the Californian, J Street U had endeavored to work together with the Jewish Student Union since last being rejected in 2011. The group helped to push back last April against a Student Senate vote to recommend divestment from companies that deal with Israel’s military.

Students as first responders


First responders have been, rightly so, the focus of national attention since the terrorist attacks at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past April. We have marveled at men and women tearing down barricades, running in the direction of smoke and chaos, unmoved by possible personal injury, in order to care for the needs of others. 

In Boston, these first responders were medical technicians and police, firefighters and doctors, but also athletes who, just completing 26.2 miles of running and physical exertion, immediately proceeded to donate blood. There were bystanders and spectators holding down blood-soaked tourniquets, and people large and small carrying the wounded to safety and security. 

While I have read much about how the first responders represent not only the best of America but also embody the truest of Jewish values, I wondered where these people come from? What makes them who they are? And what do we need to do to “grow” more of them in the future?

Are they the product of a certain environment or home life? Did they receive some type of education along their life journey, whether in their schools or more informally, that has crafted their sense of purpose under crisis? Or, are these individuals just hard-wired this way? Do they have cognitive resources and structures that help properly guide their responses to such challenging moments? 

There has been much cognitive research over the past 20 years regarding a subset of us humans who, under extreme duress, seem to become calmer and calmer. Instead of their hearts racing, which creates the famous flee reaction in humans, these individuals find their blood pressure dropping, their breathing steadying and their decision-making skills sharpened. Their limbic systems, largely responsible for critical, instinctive, non-conscious decision making, trigger differently under duress than those of the rest of us normal panickers. 

Special exams to test for these skills have been crafted by the likes of the military, the National Football League in evaluating future quarterback draft picks and for doctors interested in emergency medicine. However, these individuals are few and represent a small percentage of the human population. They could not possibly account for the sheer number of individuals who, at the right moment, seem to make the most morally desirable decisions under the most strenuous of circumstances. 

I believe that there are ways that we can, at a very early age, begin to address these skills in our Jewish schools. Crisis management, either through man-made or natural disaster, seems to have become a consistently burning issue in newspaper headlines and our communities. Instead of waiting to see if these skills blindly suss themselves out under terrible and stressful circumstances, let’s imagine that our schools and Jewish community can make such training a critical part of how we frame a great Jewish education.

Emergency medical training for our children should begin early. I believe that even first-graders are capable of learning how to respond to circumstances and challenges in order to help those in need. Instead of treating fire and lock-down drills as a matter for adults, we should include our youngest first responders as active partners in this process. 

“What would you say on the phone to the 911 people if there was a problem?” “If your friend next to you had a big cut, what should you do?” “What words would you use to help if someone next to you was scared?” 

By letting children know that they are not only capable but can be part of the process of helping others, we instill the best notions of moral response in their minds. They will feel empowered and better able to see that there are positive ways to be of service, helping during the most trying and frightening experiences. 

For older students, emergency preparedness should be a mandatory part of their application process to our Jewish high schools. Just as they must produce transcripts, recommendations and test scores, future students should have to be able to show certification in CPR and first aid training before day one of ninth grade. 

Our high schools also should fully include students in emergency planning for their campuses as part of critical leadership and team training. Just think about how sporting events or field trips or Shabbatons would have a completely different feel if students knew that they were responsible for each other’s immediate well-being. 

It could be required that student certifications and additional training be completely up to date as one of their graduation requirements. This would be a forward thinking community standard which every school, regardless of denomination, could happily mandate. 

Beyond the lessons in leadership, civic responsibility and confidence building, it would speak volumes to our students regarding Judaism — not just as a theology or way of life, but in seeing the Jewish people as a “Nation of First Responders.”

A principal’s speech to high school students


Three years ago, I wrote a version of this column. Because it went viral — often listing me as the high school principal who actually gave this speech! — I am revising it and publishing it here. I believe that if every school principal gave this speech, America would be a better place.

To the students and faculty of our high school:

I am your new principal, and honored to be so. There is no greater calling than to teach young people.

I would like to apprise you of some important changes coming to our school. 

First, this school will no longer honor race or ethnicity. I could not care less if you are black, brown, red, yellow or white. I could not care less if your origins are African, European, Latin American or Asian, or if your ancestors arrived here on the Mayflower or on slave ships.

The only identity this school will recognize is your individual identity — your character, your scholarship, your humanity. And the only national identity this school will recognize is American. This is an American public school, and American public schools were created to make better Americans.

If you wish to affirm here an ethnic or racial identity — or a national identity other than American — you will have to attend another school. This includes after-school clubs. I will not authorize clubs that divide students based on any identities. This includes race, language, religion, sexual orientation or whatever else may become in vogue in a society divided by political correctness. Those clubs just cultivate narcissism — an unhealthy preoccupation with the self — while the purpose of education is to get you to think beyond yourself.

Your clubs will be based on interests and passions — clubs that transport you to the wonders and glories of art, music, astronomy, languages you do not already speak, carpentry and more. If the only extracurricular activities you can imagine being interesting in are those based on ethnic, racial or sexual identity, that means that little outside of yourself really interests you.

Second, I am uninterested in whether English is your native language. My only interest in terms of language is that you leave this school speaking and writing English as fluently as possible. The English language has united America’s citizens for over 200 years, and it will unite us at this school. It is one of the indispensable reasons this country of immigrants has always come to be one country. And if you leave this school without excellent English-language skills, I would be remiss in my duty to ensure that you will be prepared to successfully compete in the job market. We will learn other languages here — it is deplorable that most Americans only speak English — but if you want classes taught in your native language rather than in English, this is not your school.

Third, because I regard learning as a sacred endeavor, everything in this school will reflect learning’s elevated status. This means, among other things, that you and your teachers will dress accordingly. There will be a formal dress code at this school. And you will address all teachers by their title, not by their first name. They are your teachers, not your buddies.

Fourth, no obscene language will be tolerated anywhere on this school’s property. If you can’t speak without using the f-word, you can’t speak. By obscene language, I mean the words banned by the Federal Communications Commission, plus epithets such as the b-word, even when addressed by one girl to another, or the n-word, even when used by one black to another. It is my intent that by the time you leave this school, you will be among the few your age to instinctively distinguish between the elevated and the degraded, the holy and the obscene.

Fifth, we will end all self-esteem programs. In this school, self-esteem will be attained in only one way — the way people attained it until decided otherwise a generation ago — by earning it. One immediate consequence is that there will be one valedictorian, not eight.

Sixth, and last, I am reorienting the school toward academics and away from politics and propaganda. No more time will be devoted to tobacco, caffeine, sexual harassment or global warming. No more classes will be devoted to condom-wearing and teaching you to regard sexual relations as primarily a health issue.

And there will be no more attempts to convince you that you are a victim because you are not white or male or heterosexual or Christian. We will have failed if any one of you graduates from this school and does not consider him or herself inordinately lucky — to be alive and to be an American.

Now, please stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country. As many of you do not know the words, your teachers will hand them out to you.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Outstanding Graduate: Rose Bern — A passionate voice


Rose Bern isn’t afraid to fight for her values.

The 17-year-old, who recently graduated from Shalhevet High School and lives in Westwood, has strong convictions when it comes to feminism, justice and fairness. 

In the ninth grade, she gave a passionate speech at her school about women serving as rabbis. She sits on the Fairness Committee, where she and her peers hear cases between two students or a teacher and a student and decide upon a verdict. One day, she might even decide to be a prosecuting attorney and “serve justice to people who deserve it,” she said. “There are certain issues that really get me pumped up.”

Her former music appreciation teacher and journalism advisor Joelle Keene has noticed Bern’s enthusiasm about different causes.

“She's a firecracker,” she said. “She has a tremendous amount of passion, personality, drive and a sense of outrage too.”

Keene said that at Shalhevet, Bern’s candid nature made her stand out amongst the other students.

“She gets fired up about the way things ought to be,” she said. “At the town hall meetings at school, where they present a moral dilemma about school policy, news or the dress code, she'll feel more strongly about it than most of the kids.”

No doubt this tremendous energy has served Bern well in other areas of her life as well, whether through the award-winning writing she did for Shalhevet’s newspaper, The Boiling Point; her acting in numerous drama productions; or her passionate work on the debate team. She even wrote three one-act plays that were produced.

Somehow, she still finds time to be a babysitter every other Shabbat at her shul, the Westwood Village Synagogue, and work as a counselor at Camp Ramah in California.

In 2014, she’ll attend New York University (NYU). But before she goes to the East Coast, she’s taking a yearlong trip to Israel, where she plans to live on multiple kibbutzim and travel the country.

“I really wanted a year to decompress, and I think this is the prime opportunity to do this,” she said. “Once you go to college you don't have much time to explore the world.”

Though Bern said she doesn’t know what she’ll major in at NYU or what kind of career she will end up choosing, she’s interested in the fields of law and psychology.

“I took Advanced Placement psychology this year, and it was the most fascinating thing in the world,” she said. “[Learning about] the way people behave and why they behave that way, [as well as about] their inner consciousness really struck me.”

What’s most important to Bern is making sure that she is content with whatever she chooses to do. 

“I want to make sure that at the end of my life, I did everything I could,” she said. “I want to be able to look back and say I did it all because I wanted to, and I didn’t let outside circumstances, like money, [dictate my life]. I just want to be happy.”

Steve Zimmer holds middle ground


After surviving opposition funded by the mayors of America’s two biggest cities, newly re-elected Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer says his win has preserved a “system of checks and balances” in running L.A.’s huge school district.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg teamed up to pour millions of dollars into the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee that supported the campaigns of Zimmer’s challenger, lawyer Kate Anderson, as well as school board president Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally. Garcia won, but Anderson lost in a race that turned out to be the most closely watched of the election. Another Villaraigosa-backed candidate, Antonio Sanchez, is headed for a runoff in a contest for an open seat.

Bloomberg gave $1 million to Villaraigosa’s Coalition For School Reform, which put in almost $4 million to take control of the school board. The two mayors are aligned with national education advocates who generally oppose teacher tenure and seniority rules and instead favor evaluating teachers on the basis of statistically controversial student test scores. They also back charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run schools whose teachers are often not union members. 

Villaraigosa, Bloomberg and their allies seem to believe in the old cliché: my way or the highway.

But Zimmer, whose Fourth District ranges from East Hollywood to Venice and from Westwood into the San Fernando Valley, received 52 percent of the vote in an extraordinarily low-turnout election. “Venice was the tipping point for me,” Zimmer said. “I knew the election would be determined in Venice, and it was literally these parents e-mailing for us. The voters who voted were highly informed and highly educated on the issues. This election was won by moms in virtual precincts, moms blogging, really engaged in the substance of the issues.

“What the opposition wanted was complete control,” Zimmer said. “When you don’t have a system of checks and balances, you go to extremes. As a policymaker, I think moderation, compromise and cooperation are the key ingredients in building successful.”

Zimmer, who was a classroom teacher and counselor at Marshall High School, has always tried to walk a line between the Villaraigosa coalition and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the teachers union that opposes the mayor.  It’s a difficult task in the highly polarized world of education politics and policy.

“He was no one’s ‘yes man,’ ” wrote former State Sen. Gloria Romero in an Orange County Register column. “That seemed to be the problem.” Romero advocates changes in school operations, but doesn’t follow the hard line espoused by some of the national reform leaders. 

Although UTLA has criticized Zimmer in the past, the union obviously considered him better than the Villaraigosa group and put almost $1 million into his and other school board races.

Now safely possessed of another four-year term, Zimmer is looking to the future.

One big question is whether he will support school superintendent John E. Deasy, who is much admired by the Villaraigosa group. Zimmer’s foes implied during the campaign that he would vote to fire Deasy.

I asked him if he would continue to back the superintendent. “Absolutely,” Zimmer said. “John Deasy is the right person. He is the best person. I have been the decisive vote to maintain the Deasy superintendency, but I reserve the right to disagree with him on policy issues. We should debate policy. We are policymakers. You get the best policy by having a healthy debate.”

Another big question is whether Zimmer will be a candidate for president of the school board — a high-visibility post, although the president has the same one vote as the six other board members.

“I think people will speculate,” he said. “And if asked by a strong majority of my colleagues, I would consider that. But I am not obsessed with title or position. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about that.”

We discussed a subject that has long interested Zimmer — the effort to persuade parents to keep their children in public schools, particularly the middle class in middle schools. I first met Zimmer when I began writing about this for the Jewish Journal a couple of years ago, centering my attention on Jewish families on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Zimmer, who is Jewish, has been a leader in the effort.

“On the Westside, I am very proud of the fact that we have had the guts to deal with the complicated issue of families coming back to the public schools,” he said. How do our parents, especially in the Jewish community, invest in and support and transform our neighborhood schools without excluding anybody? That is the absolute question. Can we make the investment? Can we re-engage in our public schools?”

“There are strong examples in West Hollywood. We’re beginning to have examples on the Westside in elementary schools.”

Ethnic and class differences can make the process difficult. Zimmer talked about the difficulty of getting parents of different incomes and ethnicities to work together. “How do I as a leader guide a person through a relationship with a parent who might not even have a high school education … who is regarded as ‘the other’? That is the struggle of the moment on the Westside.”

It’s actually the struggle of the moment all over Los Angeles, and not just in the schools. I’m glad Zimmer survived the Villaraigosa-Bloomberg assault and will be around to continue to add his moderate voice to the battle. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Knife-wielding woman arrested outside Toulouse Jewish school


A knife-wielding woman was arrested after threatening a student of the Toulouse Jewish school where an Islamist radical murdered four people nearly a year ago.

The 51-year-old woman was arrested Tuesday outside the Ohr Hatorah school (formerly Ozar Hatorah) after she brandished the knife in a threatening manner in front of a 16-year-old boy exiting the institution, according to Le Depeche, a French news site. The teen returned to the school and told authorities about the women, who was arrested shortly thereafter.

According to Direct Matin, a news website and daily newspaper, the woman shouted anti-Semitic slogans and “appeared mentally unstable.”

On March 19, 2012, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old jihadist fanatic, gunned down Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, along with his two young sons, Aryeh and Gavriel. He also killed Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old daughter of Yaacov Monsonego, the school's director.

Merah was killed two days later by French police while trying to escape a police raid on his home. Last week, French police arrested two of his acquaintances on suspicion that they were involved in the school shooting and Merah’s earlier slaying of three French soldiers, but they were released a few days later.

Weapons found in Arab-Israeli village’s elementary school


A cache of weapons was discovered hidden in an elementary school in an Arab-Israeli village in northern Israel.

The weapons, including RPG anti-tank missiles, rockets, grenades and bullets, also were found in a kindergarten and a drainage ditch in Abu Sinan, according to reports.  Israel Police sappers destroyed the explosives.

It is believed that the weapons were the property of local crime families. Some of the arms may have been stolen from a local army depot.

Jewish schools, institutions join security conference call


A conference call on school safety organized by the security arm of two national Jewish umbrellas drew over 800 participants.

The call Thursday was organized by Secure Community Network, which is affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Paul Goldenberg, SCN's director, said the call, initiated in the aftermath of a massacre of first-graders at a Connecticut school last month, featured speakers including top officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and drew participants from Jewish schools, synagogues, summer camps and Jewish community centers, among others.

The presenters urged participants to run simulation exercises, noting that a number of these were available from SCN.

Following the presentation, a number of participants posed questions about the wisdom and efficacy of posting armed guards at schools.

Goldenberg said such specifics were best left up to individual institutions, but noted that it was critical for institutions to strike a balance between security and openness.

“Educational institutions must be safe havens for children,” he said, “but if a schools is not welcoming, children will respond negatively.”

The ‘H’ in Jewish education


Money has a way of dominating issues. This is true of politics and presidential elections, and it’s also true of Jewish education. Just say the words “Jewish education,” and the first word you’ll typically hear is “unaffordable.”

For many years now, this problem has been at the top of the communal agenda: How to make Jewish education more affordable.

But while the issue of affordability is certainly huge, it has taken attention away from an equally important issue, which is the quality of the education itself.

It is precisely this issue of quality that was honored at the annual Milken Family Foundation awards luncheon on Dec. 13 at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air. 

In partnership with BJE—Builders of Jewish Education, the Foundation gave Jewish Educator Awards (JEA) of $15,000 each to four Jewish day school educators: Mary Itri from Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School; Lidia Turner from Saperstein Middle School of Milken Community High School; Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, head of school at Maimonides Academy, and Rabbi Usher Klein, a ninth-grade yeshiva rebbe at Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok.

I attend hundreds of Jewish events every year, and I can tell you I don’t recall too many where I see black-hatted Jews having lunch with Reform Jews while celebrating Jewish education.

But that’s the point of rewarding quality: It is independent of denomination.

BJE Executive Director Gil Graff alluded to that when he gave the award to Rabbi Klein and spoke of the value of excellence, whether in studying technology or in studying Talmud.

The fact that so many denominations were represented at the luncheon made the event itself an educational experience. How often does a member of Stephen S. Wise Temple get to hear words of Torah from an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Pico-Robertson?

And how often do ultra-Orthodox Jews get to hear from educators like Turner, who uses music to engage students in learning Hebrew, or Itri, who weaves in the Jewish values of modesty when directing her school’s spring musical?

There was an attitude of genuine open-mindedness at the event, reflected in the words of Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler, who spoke of the importance of emulating the high standards of the diverse honorees, and preserving the heritage that gives meaning to Jewish identity.

It’s in that spirit of open-mindedness and striving for meaning that I want to throw in my two cents about something I think is too often missing in Jewish education — something that presents a great opportunity for every denomination.

This is the H word: History.

My simple question is this: Are we doing a good enough job of teaching Jewish history to our kids?

I don’t mean biblical history, where Adam succumbs to temptation and Abraham almost sacrifices his son and Moses splits the Red Sea and Joseph fights with his brothers and King David does some questionable acts. This biblical history is full of great moral lessons and is crucial to our Jewish identity.

But there’s more to the great Jewish story than biblical history — there’s the history of historians, which also holds great wisdom and meaning.

This is the history where Maimonides engages with Greek philosophy and Muslim scholars; where false Messiahs like Shabbtai Zvi rock the Jewish world; where the advent of the Chasidic movement creates a major rift with the talmudic school of the Vilna Gaon; and where different ideologies compete for the Zionist soul.

This is also the history of prominent Jews making major contributions to humanity, Jews like Sigmund Freud, Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein and Isaiah Berlin.

In short, this is the secular master story of the Jews, where our flaws are exposed along with our accomplishments.

It’s a master story that doesn’t compete with the moral lessons of the Bible, but adds the critical dimensions of cultural knowledge and peoplehood. How great it would be if Jewish students today learned more about the journeys, stories and struggles of their ancestors, whether they came from Morocco, Poland or Persia.

The Milken Family Foundation and the BJE are perfectly positioned to strengthen this aspect of Jewish education.

Maybe at next year’s luncheon, we will see a fifth award: The Jewish History Award, given to the school that has done the most to teach the history of the Jews to our kids.

It’s a history that is messy, complicated and endlessly fascinating, not unlike our own community today.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Five challenges facing the American pro-Israel community in the next four years


The American pro-Israel community has a lot of work to do. While many pro-Israel organizations in the United States, including AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, Stand with US and Hasbara have been extremely effective in defending the Jewish State, there is always more we can do. Here is a list of the five greatest challenges facing the American pro-Israel community in the next four years.

The University

Unfortunately, the place where we send our children to grow up and obtain wisdom, the university, is the hotbed of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in America. Who can forget the exchange between David Horowitz and an anti-Israel student at UC San Diego a couple years ago? Mr. Horowitz asked her, “I’m a Jew. The head of Hezbollah has said that he hopes that we will gather in Israel so he doesn’t have to hunt us down globally. [Are you] for it or against it?” The student answered “For it.”

Incitement against Jews and Israel at the university is not unusual at the hate-fest known as “Israel Apartheid Week,” where anti-Semites are invited to rail against the Jewish State. At one event at UC Irvine, Imam Amir -Abdel Malik-Ali—who has called Jews “the new Nazis”— blamed the financial crisis on “Alan Greenspan, Zionist Jew, Geithner, Zionist Jew, Larry Summers, Zionist Jew.” A few years ago, after visiting several universities in the U.S., Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh described what he observed: “I discovered that there is more sympathy for Hamas there than there is in Ramallah…What is happening on the U.S. campuses is not about supporting the Palestinians as much as it is about promoting hatred for the Jewish state. It is not really about ending the ‘occupation’ as much as it is about ending the existence of Israel.”

Up against such hate and propaganda, the pro-Israel community must fight back. The Horowitz Freedom Center has been very effective, launching important counterattacks like Islamic Apartheid Week and the Wall of Truth, which expose the hateful lies and hypocrisy of Israel’s enemies. The Jewish community must continue to give money to on-campus Israel advocacy organizations, and we must all redouble our efforts to make sure that Israel is adequately defended and promoted at American universities.

The Fringe of American politics

Thank God a majority of elected representatives in both parties strongly support the State of Israel. These members must make sure that the views at the fringe of their parties do not become mainstream. The Republican Party must guard against the likes of Ron and Rand Paul, who would like to see America pull back from the world stage and cease its support for Israel. Fortunately, this movement does not seem to be gaining steam, as every poll shows that the Republican Party overwhelmingly supports Israel.

Unfortunately, however, any serious reflection by pro-Israel Democrats must conclude that there is a problem within their leftwing ranks. Though most pieces of pro-Israel legislation overwhelmingly pass both Houses of Congress, those who abstain or vote in the negative are disproportionately Democrats. In 2009, the House passed a resolution condemning the Goldstone report–which had accused Israel of war crimes—by a vote of 344 to 36. 33 of the 36 who voted against the resolution were Democrats. In 2010, 333 members of the House signed onto a letter re-pledging their support for the American-Israel relationship. 7 Republicans and 91 Democrats withheld their signatures. Furthermore, according to a recent Gallup Poll question–“Are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?”—78% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats answered Israel. This poll was reaffirmed when at least half the Democratic delegates to their convention in August expressed their disapproval of Jerusalem being recognized as the capital of Israel.

I am not writing this to score political points for Republicans, but to reveal a real problem within the Democratic ranks. This is so disappointing, because the liberal case for Israel is such a compelling one. Israel treats its minorities better than any other country in the Middle East—out of the 120 member Israeli Knesset, 16 are not Jewish. During its short existence, Israel has welcomed millions of immigrants from all over the world, including Africa and Russia. Israel has a very liberal supreme court, which routinely places restrictions on its military in times of war. Israel is also leading the way with game changing green innovations that will reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, Tel Aviv annually hosts a gay pride parade! What other country in the Middle East would be so inclusive?

American Jewish liberals must do a better job of making this case forcefully and passionately to their Democratic allies.

Apathy

Jews shouldn’t be ashamed to say that support for Israel ranks among their most important political priorities. If it doesn’t, then there is a problem.

According to an American Jewish Committee survey, when asked what political issue was most important to them, 4.5% of American Jews said U.S- Israeli relations, and a paltry 1.3% said Iran’s nuclear program. This is very troubling. If American Jews don’t care enough about Israel’s survival, and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, then who will?

Jews in America clearly underestimate how important a strong and prosperous Israel is to the collective Jewish psyche. After all, the welfare of Israel is not disconnected from that of American Jews. If something terrible were to happen to Israel, or should there be a mass migration of Jews out of Israel, the status of the Diaspora would be negatively impacted forever, including in the United States.

A strong Israel with a strong military also serves as a deterrent against terrorist attacks against Jews all over the world. Furthermore, a strong Israel is in America’s national self-interest, as Israel is on the front line in the war against radical Islam.

Using these arguments, the pro-Israel community must do a better job of encouraging our friends and family to become more politically active, in order to promote a strong American- Israel relationship.

Iran and the Economy

America has been mired in an economic crisis since 2008. As such, American citizens and its elected representatives have been almost single mindedly focused on improving the economy. The race for the Presidency has largely been defined by whom could best promote a strong economy, even though the most important Constitutional powers of the President reside in the realm of foreign policy. This is understandable. However, it is up to those in the pro-Israel community to ensure that preventing Iran—which is led by a fanatic who denies the holocaust and wishes to wipe Israel from the earth–from obtaining a nuclear capability is not overlooked.

Unfortunately, this issue has not been addressed adequately to date. Though tough sanctions have been passed against Iran, it continues to spin its centrifuges. We in the pro-Israel community must insist that a credible American military threat be understood by Iran as a reality. This is the only way they will peacefully give up their nuclear weapons program.

To this end, we must write letters to our Congressmen, join pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC, give money to pro-Israel causes, and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

Israeli Delegitimization

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign—which encourages people to refrain from doing business with Israeli companies and universities –was launched against Israel several years ago. The campaign is meant to portray Israel in the same light as apartheid South Africa, a country that institutionalized segregation. Of course, this is complete nonsense, as more than one million non-Jews in Israel enjoy the same rights as Jews.  Furthermore, as cited above, there are 16 non-Jews serving in the Israeli Knesset.

Many college professors and pop music figures in America have embraced this campaign. Roger Waters, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd, is spearheading it. He refuses to perform in Israel and is encouraging his musical cohorts to join him. The Pixies, Elvis Costello, The Gorillaz and Carlos Santana have followed his lead, and have all canceled their scheduled performances in Israel. Famed American actress, Meg Ryan, refused to attend an Israeli film festival, because of what she viewed as Israel’s indefensible actions in response to the Gaza flotilla.

This is deplorable. The pro-Israel community must make it known that boycotting the only Jewish State will not go unnoticed. It is one thing to criticize Israel, which, in proportion and without demonizing, is acceptable. However, it is totally unacceptable to try to destroy Israel economically, which is the BDS campaign’s primary goal.

The pro-Israel community should not support those who engage in the BDS campaign; don’t buy their CDs, don’t go to their shows, and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

PRO PROP. 30: Is it Crucial for Higher Education?


[Read the argument
against Prop. 30 here]

We’re worried. 

That’s what we Jews do, of course. Often, for good reason. While we’re pleased to see California voters currently favor Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 initiative to restore a measure of fiscal stability to the state, polls show that support is precarious. That is worrying because our system of higher education is counting on Proposition 30.

Since 1960, when the State of California adopted its Master Plan for Higher Education, California has been the envy of the world for its visionary commitment to a high-quality, affordable and accessible educational system for all. It has performed miraculously for us, the citizen owners, and for us, personally, and our families. California’s system of higher education is a big reason why California has attracted such a large and vibrant Jewish community.

Our region boasts a network of hospitals, entertainment, technology and biotech businesses and startups, is the leading exporter of ideas to the rest of the world and the gateway to the Pacific Rim.  None of this could exist without the colleges and universities that educate and train our leaders, provide upward mobility, create industry and jobs, and save lives. 

Despite this remarkable success story, our colleges and universities have suffered through an endless cycle of massive cuts that have caused skyrocketing tuition, larger class sizes and fewer offerings, layoffs and furloughs, and increased time to graduation. Record numbers of high school seniors, returning veterans and unemployed residents are being turned away or pushed out of state to find opportunity.

On Nov. 6, we face a choice that will take us down two very different paths.

A “no” vote, and we dig a deeper hole for public higher education and our economy. The numbers are staggering but important to recite:

Without Proposition 30, the California Community Colleges system will have its budget cut by almost $338 million in the middle of the academic year, which will force colleges to slash course offerings even further and force more layoffs and additional borrowing — this cut is on top of the $502 million cut that the California Community Colleges system took this year.

Without Proposition 30, the immediate impact to the California State University campuses would be an automatic additional budget cut of $250 million and a total loss of state funding of nearly $1.2 billion since 2007-08.

Without Proposition 30, the University of California will face a $250 million “trigger” cut and lose a $125.4 million tuition increase buyout in the adopted budget package, for a total shortfall of $375.4 million.

A “yes” vote, and we begin to restore fiscal stability and support for a public higher education system that provides the way forward and the way up for millions of Californians. Consider:

Nearly 50 percent of all California veterans receiving GI educational benefits attend a California Community College for workforce training or to get a degree.

  • California Community Colleges educate 70 percent of our state’s nurses.
  • California State University graduates more than 90,000 students into the state’s workforce each year and awards more than half of the college degrees in agriculture every year to boost the nation’s largest agricultural state.

The University of California alone contributes more than $14 billion in economic activity to the state — and that does not include thousands of UC-related spinoffs that provide high-paying jobs and contribute vital tax dollars.

The three of us graduated from the University of California and have gone on to lead productive lives in business, law and community service, as have so many of the Journal’s readers, as a result of the educational opportunities we have received here in California. The small amount that we are being asked to pay in temporary taxes is a worthwhile investment to assure that our children and grandchildren also have the opportunity to benefit from a great public higher education system.

We formed the California Coalition for Public Higher Education to help restore support for public higher education as an engine of growth and opportunity for the people of California. Proposition 30 is an important step in that direction. We need to support Proposition 30 and say “yes” to public higher education.


Former Congressman Mel Levine; Jeffrey A. Seymour, former University of California Alumni Regent; and Howard Welinsky, former chair of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, are co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education — Yes on Proposition 30 Committee. For more information on their efforts, visit yestohighered.org/yesonprop30.

Fairfax Legacy Gala a Lion-Sized Success


When theater producers Pierson Blaetz and Whitney Weston established Friends of Fairfax to help Fairfax High School in 1998, they came up with the Melrose Trading Post, a flea market held every weekend in the high school’s parking lot. But the annual $200,000 from the Trading Post has not been enough to help Fairfax High cover the shortfall it’s currently facing due to statewide cuts in education spending. 

On Oct. 6, the Friends of Fairfax held its inaugural Legacy Gala and Hall of Fame Induction at the vintage Wilshire Ebell, where 500 people, including Fairfax alumni such as L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, attended to give back to the school that enriched their education and their lives. Honorees included philanthropists Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer and Annette Shapiro, Broadcom founder Henry Samueli, and the patron saint of Fairfax High’s music program, Herb Alpert.

Following dinner, the auditorium presentation saw Eisenberg-Keefer, who has supported myriad Jewish and medical institutions, and Shapiro, president of the board of Beit T’Shuvah, receive their medals of honor.

During his turn, Marconi Prize-winner Samueli spoke about how Fairfax helped put him on the path to becoming an electrical engineer. He credited Fairfax with “having good teachers who are passionate about what they teach” for furthering his education,” and urged people to support the school and make sure “they continue that tradition.”

After receiving his medal, Alpert, 77, was joined onstage by pianist Bill Cantos, drummer Michael Shapiro, bassist Hussain Jiffry, and Alpert’ wife, singer Lani Hall. 

Alpert performed a full-length concert for attendees, playing standards such as “Fever,” “Moon Dance” and “Mas Que Nada.”

Seeing Alpert perform brought back memories for Yaroslavsky, who as a Fairfax student in 1966 saw Alpert return to Fairfax with his Tijuana Brass at the peak of his success.
“They had to play two assembly concerts because they could not fit all the students in,” he recalled.

Once dreaming of a Hebrew charter school, now only Mandarin is offered


When the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEA) opened in August 2010, part of the draw for parents was the chance for students at the Santa Clarita charter middle and high school to study Hebrew. 

Since then, AEA backers have submitted petitions to set up elementary schools in the Newhall School District, Los Angeles Unified School District and Ventura Unified School District, without success. In August 2012, a revised version of its twice-rejected petition for an elementary charter was submitted to the Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita. Among the changes in the newest version was eliminating offering Hebrew at the school, at least initially. 

“We will offer only one second language at the beginning; it will be Mandarin,” Shannon Perches, the principal and lead petitioner for the proposed elementary school, told the Saugus district’s board of governors at a well-attended public hearing on Sept. 19. 

In denying an earlier version of the charter petition, the board expressed concerns about the proposed school’s financial plan and its ability to accommodate students with special needs, as well as those whose first language is not English. 

As for teaching a second language, a central element of AEA’s unique curriculum, the board’s objection wasn’t to offering Hebrew, per se. 

The board’s concern was focused on how the proposed elementary school would go about teaching multiple foreign languages. 

“The AEA petition fails to state how students would be assigned to either Hebrew or Mandarin instruction, or whether there would be any consideration of the child’s ability to learn either language,” states a report by the Saugus district staff adopted by the board when it rejected the second version of the charter petition in April 2012. 

Hebrew may yet return to the proposed school’s curriculum, according to Jeffrey Shapiro, the executive director of the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEALAS) Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization designed to support and develop AEA schools. 

“In future years, we intend to add additional languages,” Shapiro said. 

Other public schools in California teach Hebrew, including public charter elementary schools. At the AEA high school, 80 students are enrolled in Hebrew classes this year, the vast majority of them new learners of the language, and not all of them Jewish. 

“It’s like a miracle,” said Nehama Meged, head of the school’s Hebrew department. On the wall in her classroom are half a dozen framed photographs of her students on a school trip to Israel taken after the end of the 2011-12 academic year. 

Twenty students traveled through Israel on an itinerary that featured both Jewish and Christian historical and holy sites; five of the students were not Jewish, Meged said. 

“The kids, who had zero knowledge not just about the language, but the place, the people learned so much, and they care about Israel,” she said. 

Taking Hebrew out of the AEA Saugus elementary petition is just the most recent step in a long process that has dramatically reduced the prominence of Hebrew language instruction in AEA schools. 

In order to get the high school’s charter petition approved by the William S. Hart Union High School District, the backers of the AEA high school dropped a curriculum that would have offered Hebrew-immersion instruction. That change led the Hebrew Charter School Center, the leading organization dedicated to developing Hebrew-language charter schools, to cut ties with AEA. The school also abandoned their plan to locate in a newly planned Jewish community center building.

The school was, from the first, the vision of Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, and Blazer spoke publicly to parents, officials and the media during that initial AEA charter approval effort. He has since taken a much lower profile, though he remains president of the board of the AEALAS Foundation. Blazer attended the Sept. 19 hearing but left before the proceedings began.

Americans for Peace Now opens campus unit


Americans for Peace Now is establishing a presence on college campuses aimed at reaching students and faculty.

The left-leaning group is working “in full coordination” with J Street U to provide information and speakers that can be used on campuses across the country, said APN spokesman Ori  Nir. Campuses in the Washington area have been sent information kits, and other universities will be receiving them as well, he said.

The aim of the program is “to counter opposition from the growing voices calling for a one-state scenario,” said Nir, whose group supports a two-state solution.

APN on Campus also will work with the American Task Force on Palestine, “a pro-Palestinian group which in very broad terms shares our two-state solution,” he said.

Nir said it's not just right-wing groups that favor a one-state solution. “That is now the mantra of the left,” he said.

Aaron Mann, the outreach and research associate for APN, will be coordinating the campus program as its co-manager. In a statement, Mann said he is “a Jew and a Zionist. I’m pro-Israel and pro-peace. I want security for Israel. I want rights for Palestinians.”

He added, “The pursuit of a balanced and fact-based education for college students is the foundation of APN on Campus. We want to create more space at colleges and universities for moderate voices on Israel.”

APN on Campus includes an academic resource program designed to aid faculty members to “enrich and diversify the conversation about Israel in classrooms and beyond,” the program said in a statement.

The program will offer expert speakers and add an interactive online resource page by the spring semester. A student advocacy initiative will aim “to bolster and broaden” events held by students.

Shalhevet looks for financial security in property sale


Shalhevet high school is close to finalizing a deal to sell more than half of its 2.4 acres to a property developer who plans to build an apartment complex on the lot at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard.

The plan will put Shalhevet on firmer financial footing, head of school Ari Segal told the Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s school newspaper. The school currently carries heavy debt and has limited funds for capital improvements and programming, Segal said. 

The school plans to either renovate or completely rebuild the structures on the remaining half of the property, starting after this academic year. The contract stipulates that the buyer will not take possession of the property until construction of a new school building is complete, so Shalhevet can use the other side of the facility during construction, the Boiling Point reported. 

“We have a lot of time,” Segal told the Boiling Point. “It will be a year before we need to move out of our side of the building — until then we will have 12 months to fundraise.”

Segal said the sale would mean capping enrollment at 240 students. There are 162 students enrolled this year.

“But to be perfectly honest, I love the idea that we should focus on having 200 students,” Segal told Jacob Ellenhorn, editor of the school paper. “Part of what makes the school unique is that every single student has a voice, and every member of the community really knows each other. I find that once you get past 200, and certainly past 240, you lose that intimacy.”

Proposed Albert Einstein Elementary charter to get a new hearing


The Saugus Union School District is set to hold a third hearing on Sept. 19 regarding a petition to establish an Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts & Sciences (AEA) charter elementary school in Santa Clarita. 

If approved, the school would be the second in the AEA family of charter schools, along with a charter high school in Santa Clarita that started its third year in August. It would also be one of a handful of charter schools on the West Coast where Hebrew is taught as a second language. Classes in Mandarin would also be offered. 

The Saugus Union district’s five-member governing board rejected two earlier petitions for the same AEA elementary school, voting unanimously in March 2011 and on a 4-1 vote in June 2012. In the past two years, petitions to establish AEA elementary charter schools have also been denied by three other school districts.

In its latest denial, the 37-page staff report adopted by the Saugus board found that the AEA petition presented an “unsound educational program for the pupils” and that the “petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program.” 

Jeffrey Shapiro, executive director of the AEALAS Foundation, a nonprofit entity designed to develop and support AEA schools, said that a modified petition, submitted to the district on Aug. 27, addressed “each and every one” of the concerns raised in the June staff report. 

Faced with what it called “a complicated and sometimes frustrating process of seeking approval for a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade charter school in the Saugus Union School District,” the AEALAS Foundation has launched a concerted public relations effort in support of its petition for a Santa Clarita elementary charter school. 

An “Approve the Einstein Charter” Facebook page was established in August; as of Sept. 11, the page had garnered 274 “Likes.” Earlier this month, California State Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) wrote a public letter in support of an AEA elementary school charter. 

The AEA high school in Santa Clarita first opened its doors in the fall of 2010 with 200 students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. As of this fall, AEA high school has 375 students enrolled in grades seven through 11. In early 2012, the high school received a five-year renewal from the William S. Hart Union High School District, and a three-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

The proposed AEA elementary charter school aims to eventually enroll 500 students. According to Shapiro, 1,000 families have expressed interest. If the current modified petition is approved, the elementary school will begin classes in August 2013. 

The governing board is not expected to vote at next week’s public hearing; according to Shapiro, votes are typically taken approximately 30 days later.

Hillel’s new plan: Programming for and by students not so involved in Hillel


Meet 22-year-old Jeremy Moskowitz, the poster child for what Hillel hopes will be a revolution in campus Jewish life. The catch: He didn’t spend much time at Hillel during his four years at Duke University.

Moskowitz attended Jewish day school before college, but chose Duke in part because it was “less Jewish.” Once on campus, he stayed away from Hillel except for a few Shabbat dinners, instead throwing himself into Greek life as a leader of the AEPi chapter there.

But a Hillel staffer challenged him to reach out to students uninvolved or little involved in Jewish life. By his senior year he had agreed to serve as a Hillel Peer Network engagement intern, a key role in the international campus organization’s thrust to use students not very involved in Hillel to reach other students not very involved with Hillel—with programs having little if any overt connection to Hillel.

In Moskowitz’s case, this meant building his own 12-by-12 sukkah and inviting 28 people over for a meal, and hosting a Passover seder for 73 fellow students—Jews and non-Jews—in his backyard, not to mention cooking 80 or so matzah balls and creating his own hagaddah that included photos, jokes, traditional prayers and Mad Libs (Hillel provided kosher chicken and seder plates).

“A friend called her mom after and said, ‘You’ll never guess where I just was. I was at a Passover seder,” Moskowitz says with a grin while taking a break from last week’s Hillel Institute, a gathering at Washington University here of about 1,000 Hillel professionals, student leaders and guests.

For Moskowitz, the conference was the start of a post-graduation yearlong stint as the Bronfman fellow at Hillel’s Schusterman International Center, the operation’s headquarters in Washington, where he will serve as an assistant to Hillel President Wayne Firestone, learning the ins and outs of running a high-profile international organization based in the nation’s capital.

For the wider Hillel movement, the gathering in St. Louis served as a rollout venue for a new five-year strategic plan that the organization’s board approved in May. The plan, pushed by Firestone, looks to build on the work of Moskowitz and the other 1,200 peer outreach interns on 118 campuses—and moves further away from the traditional model of focusing primarily on improving programming inside the walls of campus Hillels for the most Jewishly engaged students.

It comes with an ambitious mandate: The 800-plus Hillel professionals active to varying degrees on more than 500 campuses are now supposed to “engage” 70 percent of identified campus Jewish students, having “meaningful” interactions with 40 percent of them and turn 20 percent of them into Jewish leaders.

“Jews are leaders all over campus, but we had to come back to teach them about what it means to be Jewish,” says the low-key Firestone, who can rattle off statistics one moment while retelling stories of a student’s profound shift in Jewish identity the next.

Speaking of students like Moskowitz, Firestone adds, “When we get them to talk about and understand what it means to be Jewish, we have a force multiplier. We think about them as ‘prosumers,’ not just people we are servicing but people who are building communities.”

The goal is being implemented by retraining staff, putting senior Jewish educators on some key campuses, putting Israeli shlichim, or envoys, on others and injecting a mantra of engagement into all things Hillel. Costs for the effort remain elusive, and privately some staffers worry about the new thrust sapping resources from existing programs as well as how their results will be measured. Nonetheless, it is taking root and Hillel has reams of statistics, studies and plans that it says shows the push is worthwhile.

Some in the Jewish world are taking note. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spent two days at the conference in St. Louis to study how the engagement effort could help his movement.

“What everyone sees at Hillel is an incredibly smart, transformative process to literally re-create a whole different kind of campus Jewish life,” Jacobs told JTA. “It’s really remarkable to watch, certainly for someone in the midst of our own refocusing and realignment.”

Also taking notice is the University of Toronto. Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative has been adapted campus-wide by the university’s president, David Naylor. The push fosters conversations around “practical and existential topics” such as politics, social change, biology and God.

Launched last year on 13 campuses, the initiative has involved 72 fellows building relationships with 3,574 students, according to Hillel.

The engagement agenda began in earnest in 2008 when the Jim Joseph Foundation gave Hillel $10.7 million that was used in part to create 10 senior Jewish educator positions on various campuses. They set to work with 12 campus entrepreneur interns—students whose goal was to speak one on one with their peers about where they might fit into Jewish life offerings on campus.

By Hillel’s calculations, those educators and interns took part in a combined 746 personal encounters with students in one year. About a third of the students said they never or rarely went to the Hillel building.

“The No. 1 reason students told us they didn’t participate in Hillel was that they didn’t know anyone who was going to be there or didn’t think they’d like the people there,” said Graham Hoffman, Hillel’s associate vice president of strategy. “By cultivating relationships with these people we can overcome that.”

To figure out how to push forward with its new vision, Hillel hired the Monitor Institute, the consulting firm that helped Teach for America plot a blueprint for achieving its goals. Even with a well-researched plan, implementation will not be easy—it requires recruiting, training and retaining staff, says Scott Brown, a Hillel executive vice president.

“We need more investors and resources to do this,” Brown said. “If it’s about relationships and strategies, you need more hands on deck to do all this at a higher level.”

Hillel directors who buy into the concept say the bottom line remains making students comfortable enough to talk about their emerging identities as young adults. That’s what Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says is her focus as the supervisor of the Northwestern University Hillel’s Campus Rabbi & Questions That Matter program and the previous three years as the senior Jewish educator at the Hillel at Tufts University.

“The heart and soul is the relationships,” she said. “People who previously had no reason to care about Judaism or thinking it didn’t have anything for them, once they began to trust me or my interns, their willingness to be open to a new experience was extraordinary.”

Healthy, kosher hot lunches rare in L.A. Jewish schools


On a Thursday this past March, at around 11:40 a.m., the alluring scent of chicken schnitzel – freshly breaded and pan-fried — wafted through the parking lot of New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills.

The source was a truck from Alex Felkai’s kosher catering company, Kosher on Location. Though the company does the majority of its business over the weekends, catering elegant weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, to keep his core staff busy during the week, Felkai had been selling lunch at NCJHS – every day except Friday – since the school opened 10 years ago.

But when NCJHS’s approximately 370 students (including one of Felkai’s children) return to school this fall, the kosher lunch truck won’t be there.

“We tried,” Felkai said, explaining that the cost of preparing and serving sandwiches and salads, burgers and burritos to the approximately 80 students, faculty and staff who bought lunch from the truck, was prohibitive.

“It was a difficult decision, but I never really made money on it,” Felkai said. “I kind of did it hoping that things would grow.”

In Jewish day schools across Los Angeles, Felkai’s story is a common one. With the first day of classes less than a month away, NCJHS isn’t the only high school that may not offer an in-school alternative to bringing lunch from home.

The Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls School’s caterer is going into his third year, but the campus of the boys school on Pico Boulevard doesn’t have a kitchen or a cafeteria, nor is the school planning to build one anytime soon. At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school located on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard, the caterer who had been cooking in the kitchen during the last academic year just left.

“We’re busy interviewing caterers for next year,” Robyn Lewis, the new executive director at Shalhevet High School, told the Journal on Aug. 6.

On the whole, elementary schools seem more committed to providing a hot lunch program for their students, even if only a minority of students opts into the program.

Schwartz Bakery is about to start its third year providing food at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Hancock Park.

“After working with our nutritionist, and after working with the school on a number of issues, we are very happy,” Yavneh Executive Director Lev Stark said.

According to Stark, about one-third of the approximately 470 students are signed up for the school lunch program.

At Yavneh, lunches can be bought in advance on a semiannual basis or purchased for $6 per day. The hot lunch program at Valley Beth Shalom Day School (VBSDS) in Encino offers parents and students more flexibility, to the point that students can choose to eat as few as two meals each month, or eat a hot lunch every single day.

“Overall, the parents appreciate the program,” said Gabrielle Baker, a mother of two students at the school who has been coordinating the hot-lunch program with another volunteer parent.

In addition to the flexibility, Baker said that parents appreciate the convenience of not having to make lunch for their children every day and feel that the food prepared by the synagogue’s in-house caterer, Starlite Catering, is reasonably nutritious.

“The only complaint is the cost,” Baker said. While it’s cheaper to purchase meals in advance, students can pay a little over $7 for a day’s lunch. “But there’s only a very limited amount that we can do to bring cost down.”

That’s because, Baker said, the food at VBSDS has to be certified kosher, and kosher food – and kosher meat in particular — is expensive.

Yavneh’s Stark also said cost was a hurdle to overcome.

“The big problem is the combination of trying to get a fantastic meal for $5. No one wants to pay $10 a meal,” he said. “This is where we worked very hard with Schwartz to make sure that it’s a viable business for them,” and that students still get a healthy and tasty meal that’s affordable.

Or, at least somewhat affordable. While Yavneh students pay $6 for lunch if they buy it that day (less if they sign up at the beginning of each semester), elementary school students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this fall will, by comparison, pay $1.50 if they buy lunch at school.

That lower price is due in part – but only in part — to the lower cost of non-kosher ingredients. It’s also a result of the subsidy (27 cents this year) the district receives from the United States Department of Agriculture for every meal it serves. The district receives more when it serves meals to the 80 percent of its students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But the low prices also undoubtedly stem from the district’s being able to work on a massive scale. Compared to the LAUSD, which has more than 640,000 students in about 1,100 locations, each of Los Angeles’s private Jewish day schools is a boutique-sized operation.

“It just doesn’t work when maybe 80 kids eat,” said Felkai, who said that if NCJHS had been willing to charge all the students a lump sum of money (he said about $800 per year), he would have been able to feed everybody and make a profit.

“You have to make enough money to cover all the costs,” he said, “and if you only have a small volume, you just couldn’t do it.”

When a Jewish high school approached Brenda Walt to prepare lunch for its 200 female students, Walt, who runs her catering company from a synagogue’s kitchen, turned them down.

“It’s very, very hard because they really want it [the food] for nothing,” Walt said. The modest student volume also limits her ability to hold down per-meal costs.

Stark said Yavneh doesn’t mandate all of its students participate in its hot-lunch program, and that he didn’t know of any Jewish schools in Los Angeles that did so.

“But I do know if they did, it would solve the hot-lunch problem,” Stark said.

To keep their school-based caterers in business, small private Jewish schools at least should consider ways to protect them against the challenge of competition from other food vendors.

Randy Fried owns R House Foods, the catering company that recently left Shalhevet after occupying the school’s kitchen for a bit less than one year. Fried said he decided to leave the school in part because too few of the school’s approximately 200 students and faculty bought lunch at school for him to make a profit.

“By the time we got there,” Fried said, “the culture that existed was that 20 percent ate at school.”

Most students, Fried said, ordered food to be delivered to Shalhevet, and the most popular choices appeared to be fried chicken and pizza from kosher restaurants nearby.

Nancy Schiff, the school administrator at YULA Girls High School said that they specifically don’t allow students to order food to be delivered to the cafeteria.

“That would take away from Dudu,” the in-house caterer, who serves a made-to-order breakfast and a variety of set-meal and a la carte options for lunch, including sushi, wraps and various “kid-friendly foods” like lasagna, grilled cheese and quesadillas.

Students at YULA Girls School are allowed to bring their own lunches from home, of course; a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of the students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy did just that, leading the school to seek out a new caterer, who is going into her second year at the Orthodox elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Every Friday is pizza day at the Orthodox elementary school; getting the crust right took some tweaking.

“At the beginning of the [2011-12 school] year, we tried out all whole wheat [pizza crust],” the school’s principal, Jeffrey Tremblay, said last May. “Didn’t go so well there. The kids were picking off the cheese, and that’s about it.”

That Friday, a few minutes before their lunch period ended and the middle school girls entered the cafeteria, a few boys headed back to the kitchen window for another slice.

“After the seconds,” Tremblay explained, “then they can, if they’re still hungry, they can pay for a third if they want to.”

To Tremblay, that sixth-grade boys want a bit more pizza at lunchtime is a sign that the school’s caterer is doing her job well – better than the previous caterer, who served only canned fruits and vegetables. But nutritionists see second helpings as problematic.

“It’s not like in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where there are certain nutrition standards,” said Leeann Smith Weintraub, a registered dietician in Los Angeles who works with children enrolled in private Jewish day schools and in public schools. At private Jewish schools, she said, “there tend to be a lot of issues with portion sizes and not really getting a good balance between the food groups.”

The menu, Tremblay said, is still a work in progress. This fall, Hillel students who buy lunch at school will be able to serve themselves from a salad bar that has improved from last year, when the only vegetables were mixed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Now, we’ve added onions, sprouts, garbanzo beans for protein,” Tremblay said. “And low-fat and nonfat dressings only.”

Still, nearly everyone — nutritionists, parents and even school administrators — agrees that bringing a homemade lunch could be the healthiest choice for any student.

“My friends’ children take their food to school,” said Maryam Maleki, a registered dietician who works with Jewish and non-Jewish clients. “They would rather their children take their food to school because it’s healthier, and they’ll sparingly allow their children to eat the food at school.”

That perfectly describes Chavi Wintner, a mother of two young students at Hillel. “I like to know what’s in the food that I make,” Wintner said, over a late-morning breakfast of oatmeal and unsweetened decaf iced coffee.

Her children don’t participate in Hillel’s hot lunch program; instead, Wintner packs lunches that always include some fresh fruit and might feature some roasted vegetables or a sandwich of melted cheese on bread.

Still, Wintner was very vocal in the push to eliminate the vending machines selling Gatorade at Hillel. “I think that nutrition is part of the school’s responsibility to teach,” she said.

Opinion: Finishing school


I remember my kindergarten graduation. We wore crowns on our heads and had big smiles on our faces. We sang songs, cute songs about the changing seasons and growing up. And then we received our diplomas, had an ice cream party and were hugged and kissed by our loved ones.

It was a traditional early childhood graduation, replayed over and over, year after year, in almost every school.

But then, I didn’t grow up in the Palestinian Authority or Gaza.

Traditions are different in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. In Gaza this graduation season like in years past, three, four and five year old children marked their big day with ceremonies depicting Palestinians becoming martyrs and by dressing up as Israelis who torture Palestinian men, women and children. Certainly, an educational message was being presented, as it should be at every graduation, but not a positive message. Here it is a message of murder.

These young Palestinian graduates performed plays about slaughter, marched with weapons and wore traditional bandanas. They sang songs of love and they glorified murder. No Palestinian graduation from pre-school through high school is complete without stories, performances and songs about the killing of Israelis.

It is a part of the general Palestinian curriculum and it is a major theme at graduation time. In one school a teacher was quoted as saying: “At every kindergarten graduation ceremony we focus on the children to represent the role of struggling and resistance in the way of Allah so they will grow up to love the resistance and serve the cause of Palestine and Holy Jihad, as well as to make them leaders and fighters to defend the holy soil of Palestine.” That same school’s kindergarten director took it even further: “It is our obligation to educate the children to love the resistance, Palestine and Jerusalem, so they will recognize the importance of Palestine and who its enemy is.”

Even at a tender age, the message is not lost on the students. In their own, translated, words from Ynet we hear children saying: “When I grow up I’ll join Islamic Jihad and the al-Quds Brigades. I’ll fight the Zionist enemy and fire missiles at it until I die as a shahid and join my father in heaven.’ And: “I love the resistance and the martyrs and Palestine, and I want to blow myself up on Zionists and kill them on a bus in a suicide bombing.”

That’s just one example. The internet and Youtube are full of other examples, some posted by media outlets like Ynet, others posted with pride by Hamas and by general Palestinian Authority sources.

Kindergartens in Gaza are sponsored by Islamic Jihad. But it would be wrong and narrow minded to believe that only Hamas and Islamic Jihad engage in this kind of war mongering cum education, wrong to think that only they transmit this hateful educational message. PA sponsored schools in the West Bank are on board with Muslim extremists when it comes to glorifying resistance and martyrdom – catch phrases for murderous attacks against Israelis and Jews. It is a part of their curriculum, too, it is enshrined in their school books.

Israelis teach about peace and coexistence as a formal part of their curriculum. But for the Palestinian educator, it is easier to teach hatred than to talk about peace. Idealizing mass murderers and calling them defenders packs much more emotional punch than does talk about co-existence. And when Palestinian children march with toy guns and accompany mock coffins, when during their ceremonies they play ‘Kidnap an Israeli Soldier’ they are cheered on by older children they admire and by adults they respect.

It is hardly education. It is indoctrination. And what happens when these educational goals and objectives are challenged? What happens to the

Palestinian family that does not think that the only good Israeli is a dead Israeli? They are labeled as collaborators, as people who have sold their heritage for money. They often have to seek refuge and sanctuary outside the Palestinian Authority, they are no longer welcome within.

Graduations, we are told, do not signify the end, they embrace a new beginning. We do not conclude, we commence. How frightening.


Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Giving himself a sporting chance


“Yeah, those years of seventh to ninth grade were not the greatest years for Jacob Cohen,” Jacob Cohen says, trying to bring a little levity to a pretty grueling litany.

In seventh grade, Cohen had a terrible cough and breathing problems that kept him in and out of the hospital, and school, for a good six months. It took a few years for him to feel fully healthy again.

In ninth grade, Cohen’s whole life changed. He came home from grocery shopping with his mother one day and found his father dead, felled by a stroke.

His father had been Cohen’s closest confidant, and his death followed closely the death of Cohen’s grandmother, with whom he was also close. But after some months, Cohen said, he made the decision not to pity himself.

“I knew if I were to sit and sulk all day, I wouldn’t be able to enhance myself to get further in life. So I’ve been able to move on because I know that is what my dad would want,” Cohen said.

He threw himself into his schoolwork, and in 11th and 12th grade earned a 4.0 grade-point average. He also immersed himself in journalism, specifically sports writing. This past year, he was editor-in-chief of the Taft Tribune, where he revamped the look of the paper and wrote frequently about school district budget cuts — including cuts to the newspaper.

Cohen will major in journalism at the University of Oregon, but he hopes to eventually go into sports marketing.

Cohen plays on the Taft water polo team and enjoys playing and commenting on all sports. He worked as a college peer counselor, where he introduced students to the guidance counseling office. Some of the students he mentored had not been considering college at all but now will be applying, Cohen said.

He has also worked as a tutor, helping kids with math and other subjects. He’s saved a lot of that money, since he knows paying for college will be a burden for his mom.

Cohen has had to step up in other ways, too — finding rides, because his dad used to take him to school, and making sure to be helpful around the house. But he still refuses to sulk.

“I look back on it now, and all those things made me what I am today,” Cohen said. “It made me a stronger person.”

Islamic school loses right to use building over anti-Semitic teachings


A Toronto Islamic school has lost the right to use a public school for its classes after anti-Semitic teachings were discovered in its curriculum and posted on its website.

One of the lessons taught at the East End Madrassah referred to Jews as “crafty” and “treacherous,” contrasted Islam with “the Jews and the Nazis,” and alleged ancient Jews conspired to kill the Prophet Muhammad.

The curriculum was available on the school’s website, which was later taken down.

This week, the Toronto District School Board announced the Islamic school could no longer rent space for its Sunday classes until police finish their investigation of the anti-Jewish teachings.

Police are probing the madrassah based on Canada’s Criminal Code, which makes it unlawful to publicly and “willfully” promote hatred against any identifiable group.

The public school board “[needs] to be satisfied with the outcome of the investigation and that [the madrassah was] in compliance with our policies and procedures” before they can use school board property, board spokesman Jim Spyropoulos told the Toronto Star.

The board has asked for a meeting “to have a deeper discussion so we can have a clear understanding of their programming and curriculum, and how and why some of the statements that appeared on their website were there,” Spyropoulos added.

Avi Benlolo of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, who alerted police to the offensive material, was pleased with the board’s move but said the permit should have been revoked immediately. He called on Canadian school boards to “put a plan in place to ensure no group is ever targeted as the Jewish community has been.”

N.Y. school sued for allegedly failing to act on anti-Semitic taunts


A suburban New York father is suing his school district over the anti-Semitic taunting of his son.

Robert Slade filed the suit last week alleging that officials at Northport High School on Long Island took no action to stop a group of 20 students from traumatizing his son with taunts such as “Jews are disgusting,” “Being Jewish must suck,” “Hitler was a good person” and “My love for you burns like a thousand Jews in an oven.”

The suit says that 20 students mercilessly teased the boy in person and on Facebook during his freshman year in 2011 until he was forced to leave, the New York Post reported Monday.

“This student was subjected to some awful things,” Slade’s lawyer, Chaim Book, told the Post. “His parents alerted administrators at the school and they were ignored. Nothing was done.”

A lawyer for the school district said officials reacted appropriately to the student’s concerns.

The suit, which seeks compensatory damages, was filed May 3 in U.S. District Court. The superintendent and high school principal also are named as defendants.

Opinion: Agreements with Israeli schools a turning point for UC Irvine


Few universities have garnered as much international attention and Jewish communal concern over student-led, anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic activities on campus than the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

A history of incendiary demonstrations demonizing Israel; a revolving door of speakers sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah; accusations of harassment of, and threats to, Jewish students, and a pattern of unsatisfactory responses by campus administrators — at least until the 2010 suspension of the Muslim Student Union (MSU) for its role in the Michael Oren debacle — led this writer in a Jewish Journal cover story that year to wonder if UCI was safe for Jews. Some in the community had even accused the university itself of being anti-Semitic.

That’s why UCI’s new agreements with four Israeli universities are nothing less than historic.

During a momentous academic mission to Israel in March, Chancellor Michael Drake signed memoranda of understanding with Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University and the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, as well as a letter of intent with Tel Aviv University. These agreements recognize shared areas of academic interest and expertise and open the door to collaborative research, faculty and student exchanges, conferences and other initiatives.

Drake calls Israeli universities “natural partners” with which UCI shares a “synergistic series of competencies and approaches to problems.” Speaking with leaders of the Rose Project, Jewish Federation & Family Services’ program established in 2008 to create a comprehensive and proactive approach to addressing challenges at UCI, the chancellor cited the schools’ cultural and demographic similarities that help build strong relationships among faculty and administrators. He was clearly excited about the potential of these agreements for UCI and Israeli scholars and students.

The university is wasting no time getting started. While in Israel, UCI deans of physical science, medicine and engineering who accompanied Drake laid the groundwork for short- and long-term programs, some of which will launch this summer. Among these are student and faculty exchanges in electrical, civil and environmental engineering; visiting medical rotations, post-doctoral fellowships in the physical sciences; virtual conferences for medical school faculty; and a workshop on water resources. UCI also announced plans to establish “Communications 2025,” a major conference in Israel to explore the technologies needed for IT and communications in the next decade.

The notion that more positive discourse on college campuses can be generated through academia has fueled a number of initiatives by pro-Israel organizations, including the rapid growth in North America of multidisciplinary Israel studies programs. Embracing this approach, Rose Project leaders in 2008 began engaging the UCI administration in dialogue regarding the value a wider academic lens on Israel would have for building a civil campus climate. Significant steps with measurable progress have been achieved: Top pro-Israel speakers and Israeli officials regularly address the UCI community; Israeli journalists and academics are frequent guests in classes dealing with Israel and the conflict; the Israel Fellows Program of the Jewish Agency for Israel has added an important educational and advocacy component to the UCI Hillel agenda; and the Schusterman Family Foundation — in cooperation with the Rose Project — has established a visiting Israeli professor program that brings a scholarly, pro-Israel voice to campus to engage in broad education inside and outside the classroom.

The Orange County Jewish community has seen time and again the transformative effects of Birthright Israel, Hasbara Fellowships, Hillel and StandWithUs Israel programming – all of which are supported by the Rose Project — on participants’ understanding and perception of Israel. Now that UCI’s administration is actively seeking Israeli partnerships, a growing cadre of faculty and students are unequivocally empowered to have the kind of direct interaction with Israel and Israelis that we know will leave a lasting imprint on how they will view the country, its people and their contributions to society. Let’s hope they take up this mantle of opportunity and responsibility.

With the MSU’s notorious “Palestine Awareness Week” assumed to be three weeks away, anti-Israel speakers and their supporters will once again assemble on Ring Road to lambast Israel. And while that small but vocal group may continue to call on the university to divest from companies doing business with Israel, the UCI leadership has outright rejected calls for an Israeli academic boycott. Instead, it has set in place a positive path and vision regarding Israel that will have a profound impact on the campus climate for years to come.


Lisa Armony is a former Jewish Journal Orange County correspondent and now director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services.

Opinion: Reconsideration of state aid to Jewish schools is welcome


For decades, the American Jewish community has debated the advisability, constitutionality and necessity of government aid to Jewish (and other faiths’) parochial schools. But with the United States still experiencing tough economic challenges, the American Jewish community finds its schools under greater financial stress than ever. This reality, alongside the solidification of court rulings upholding government aid programs and a current of broader education reform, has positioned 2012 to be a year in which we see signs of a sea change within the Jewish community over this perennial issue.

Since the mid-1950s, the majority view within the Jewish community has opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it diverts funds from the public schools, breaches the “wall of separation” between religion and state, and runs counter to the communal responsibility to support our own institutions.

On the other side, the Orthodox and other conservative segments of the community advocated for public sector support for Jewish schools. This admittedly minority camp contended that as a matter of economic fairness, citizens paying taxes that support local school budgets are entitled to some support in return; that First Amendment principles did not bar carefully crafted and religion-neutral state aid programs; and that in the absence of full communal support for our schools, resorting to state support was warranted.

In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered in the 1990s and 2000s, the constitutional question was clearly settled in favor of state support programs and against the “strict separationists.” The high court approved state-funded special education teachers in parochial schools, state-funded textbooks and technology, and more, culminating in the 2000 ruling upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program as constitutional. Under the program, publicly funded vouchers could be spent on parochial school tuition.

The liberal camp has also, essentially, lost the argument about the “diversion” of funds.  The historically political champions of the traditional public school systems—Democrats—are deviating from longstanding orthodoxy by strongly backing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately administered (and free from unionized teachers). Inner-city mayors and reform-driven governors are denouncing the social injustice of low-income children trapped in failing public schools and pursuing an array of initiatives to offer opportunity to these children. The debate line is no longer over whether to support “school choice” but simply how expansive that choice will be.

This leaves as the last argument standing the question of necessity, and in the context of the economy of the past five years, America’s Jewish day schools desperately require more support—and it is not within the community’s ability to provide it alone. Today, Jewish day schools (of all denominations) amount to more than a $2 billion enterprise annually, according to the Avi Chai Foundation.  A conservative estimate assesses annual scholarship awards at more than $500 million, and that is nearly twice the amount that was being awarded five years ago. Requests for scholarship showing no signs of abating.

If the Jewish community is going to fund its educational system by itself, we have yet to identify where the funds will come from, let alone the will to make the decisions to secure or re-allocate those funds. The need is clear and present.

And so we get to 2012 and several signs indicating a shift in the debate. One prominent sign is the essay recently published in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Beinart making the “Jewish case” for state funding for Jewish education.  While Beinart’s latest book featuring intense criticism of Israel generated a tidal wave of tough responses from Jewish organizational leaders and pundits, Beinart’s Wall Street Journal column received virtually no comment from the community’s liberal stalwarts.

A second notable sign of shift is the recent political debate in Louisiana in which a new and ambitious school voucher program was enacted into law—with the explicit endorsement of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans—making it the first federation in the country to embrace a school voucher proposal. This action in the Bayou State follows on the JCRCs of Baltimore and Greater Washington endorsements of legislation to create a Maryland state tax credit for contributions to school scholarship funds, and active support for analogous public support programs from Jewish federations in Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, where they are already in place.

The UJA-Federation of New York is the federation entity with the largest number of Jewish citizens and day schools within its jurisdiction, so it is a significant sign when it hires a new staffer into its Albany lobbying shop tasked with “day school advocacy,” as it did earlier this year.

Finally, a sign we see down the road is the upcoming convention of the JCPA that will launch a renewed examination of communal policy on the topic of government support for Jewish education.  JCPA, the umbrella entity for national and local Jewish organizations throughout the U.S., last “examined” this topic 15 years ago, but those of us who participated in that discussion thought it a sham, with rejection of all forms of state support a foregone conclusion. This time, with the economic landscape at hand and the federation entities directly participating in state aid programs, we have a hopeful sense that the position adopted by the broader community will not be reflexive and dogmatic but appropriately sensitive and nuanced.

As the Jewish calendar has turned from Passover toward Shavuot, we turn our attention from achieving Jewish freedom to understanding Jewish purpose. The fact that our ancestors’ exodus culminated at Sinai is a lesson to us that our central purpose is the transmission of Jewish knowledge and commitment. Today we do that best through Jewish schools, and we must ensure their viability to ensure the next generation. The permissibility and necessity of state support to make our school system viable are clear, and in 2012 we are seeing signs that we might indeed make this prospect a reality.

Nathan J. Diament is the executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

I can’t be the badly dressed mom at pickup time


Today, I stopped home to change my outfit before picking up my kid from day care.

What, because you never know who might snap a photo as I lure my child into his car seat with the whispered promise of a Grover juice box? No one cares. Except now that I’m a parent, I care deeply about lots of things that are totally meaningless. For example, what I wear when I fetch my kid.

It’s not that I want to impress the other moms, or the woman who runs the place, or her assistant. It’s that on some level, I need to impress them.

Or at least that describes the urgency with which I want to stroll in wearing skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled brown suede boots with a casual but clearly expensive T-shirt.

It was one thing for me to show up places with a guacamole stain on my sleeve when I was only representing myself. Maybe it was even cute, not Zoey Deschanel in a romantic comedy cute, but I like to think it was close. Now that I’m a mom, for some reason it seems important to look important, or at least like I don’t eat in my car and buy accessories at Claire’s.

Yep, get ready, because this is one of those mom moments triggered by one of those daughter moments. Get cozy, it’s blame mom time!

It may not surprise you that keeping up appearances wasn’t exactly a thing to my mom, and bless her heart for being all free-spirited, but her free-spiritedness cost me big time.

My mom wore what she wanted, regardless of the setting. Graduation from Confirmation class at Temple Sherith-Israel, the other moms wore knit separates and wrap dresses, my mom wore something with a batik feel, something Mrs. Roper might have sold at a yard sale after placing it in her “too loud” pile. My mom never shaved her armpits, but always wore sleeveless. Granted, it was San Francisco and the hippie thing was arguably fashionable, but not at Hebrew school.

Part of me wished she would see that, and bend to the obvious notion that all kids want to fit in, and by extension, they would like their parents to blend.

Blending is an important skill I had to teach myself, the way I taught myself table manners and cursive, because counterculture childhoods kind of skip those stops on the growing-up train.

Looks matter. And by that I mean the sideways looks you get when your mom is sporting an exotic beetle-sized amethyst brooch to the dentist’s office.

What never fails to surprise me is the pressure I put on myself not to make a single mistake my mom made.

No epiphany about perfectionism or how shallow wardrobe is as an assessment of a person’s character is going to stop me from being aware of my wardrobe choices from now until I’m dropping my son off at his college dorm room (or visiting him in prison; I don’t want to jinx anything). I can’t hide how deeply I want to do better than my own mother, because I’ll be wearing it.

Ironically, I’ll be wearing wrinkle-free and appropriate clothing as I make a bevy of other untold errors in judgment that my son will go out of his way to avoid when it’s his turn. That’s how it is. We over-correct. In doing so, we make all sorts of other gaffes. There’s a closet full of ways to under-achieve, so grab whatever is on the rack. There’s something to fit everyone.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

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