White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 11, 2017. Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share/ REUTERS.

How to Stop ‘Neo-Nazi’ from Turning ‘Nazi’


After 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, his former high school teacher Derek Weimer reported that his student had been fascinated by the Nazis at school. Weimer’s classroom was not where Fields’ fascination began, but where he was able to express himself openly and publicly with pride. The Second World War and the entire period of Nazi power was indeed fascinating, but Weimer realized that Fields’ interests lay in a deeper and darker place.

Weimer touchingly confessed that once he knew of Fields’ leaning towards white supremacy, and did not manage to dissuade him from his unhealthy interest in the Nazis, that he “failed” as a teacher. In fact, we failed Weimer.

Our society has had such a focus on the threat from extreme Islamist terrorism, that white supremacy has been portrayed like some tribute band, reprising dated covers with no contemporary threat and little relevancy.  So much so, the leadership of its ideological cousin, the so-called alt-right, festers in the White House, veering policy down a dangerous path, enabling the far right to believe they can unite.  Unite the Right, the alt-right, and James Fields share the same ideological DNA.  It is an ideology that is always exclusive and ultimately violent.  The labels we use for the various strands of far right groups mislead us. White supremacy, alt-right, neo-fascist, neo-Nazis: There is nothing alternative or new about them. They are self-declared fascists drawing directly from the well of a genocidal past.  To term current-day Nazis as “neo-Nazis,” when in fact they themselves want to emulate the actions of Hitler and consider themselves to be Nazis, is to delude ourselves about their intent and the threat they pose.

Currently, eight states have laws on the books that mandate the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide.  Of those, only five have a state commission or task force to keep genocide education comprehensive and up to date. No states mandate the provision of resources to support teacher education in this subject or the kind of mentorship that would have benefitted Fields’ high school teacher.

To prevent more students treading this dangerous path requires a concerted effort among the U.S. Department of Education, state education boards, school districts, and the many private sector organizations that teach about the Holocaust and the prevention of racism and discrimination. There needs to be support for intervention when a teacher notices a student in a dangerous situation.

The reason we teach about the Holocaust is because hatred as expressed by Nazi ideology is not abstract history. It has real, ongoing power that can rapidly manifest in violence at any time. We do not teach it to engage students in morbid fascination, but to alert them, to prepare them, and to provide them with tools to resist this kind of evil.

A high school recently called USC Shoah Foundation because its football team greeted members of the opposing team who were Jewish with the “Heil Hitler” salute. The school leaders could have ignored it, but in seeking help, they were able to work with a well-equipped organization. The students were brought together and the issue was worked through.  With a safe context and expert support, the gap was closed, and students got to know each other as people, not as stereotypes.  It took some time and was a difficult process, but hate was taken out of the situation and replaced with respect.

We need to worry about what we have seen in Charlottesville.  This is not the last we will see of the far right.  But if we really want to prevent such violence, we need to invest in our classrooms. Otherwise, there will be many more James Fields in the future.

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation.

Four ways Jews and Arabs live apart in Israeli society


Betzalel Smotrich, perhaps the most right-wing member of the current Knesset, caused a storm when he endorsed the idea that Arabs and Jew should be segregated in Israel’s maternity rooms.

Smotrich was responding to a report on the Israel Broadcast Authority that several hospitals practice de facto segregation of maternity rooms — placing Jews with Jews and Arabs with Arabs. Such segregation is prohibited by law.

“There are mental gaps, and it’s more comfortable for both sides to be with themselves,” Smotrich, a member of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, tweeted on April 5. “It’s really not racism.”

In a subsequent tweet he wrote that it’s “natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby, who may want to kill her baby 20 years from now.”

Smotrich’s remarks were panned by lawmakers from left and right, including Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home. Responding to Smotrich, Bennett tweeted a rabbinic passage about man being created in God’s image, adding, “Every man. Jew or Arab.”

Jews and Arabs are afforded equal rights under Israeli law. But in many ways, the two sectors live in separate societies — attending different schools, living in different cities, reading different newspapers and espousing different political ideals.

Unlike the prescribed, top-down segregation supported by Smotrich, much of this separation stems from longstanding structural factors like language, culture and religion.  

“In most places, there’s no problem. The Arab population lives in totally Arab villages,” said Nachum Blass, a senior researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

But the divisions between Israeli Jews and Arabs, who represent 20 percent of the population, have also contributed to economic disparities between them. And despite laws meant to prevent discrimination, Arabs point to studies showing persistent disparities in education, social services, income and political participation.

“There’s definitely discrimination in every aspect” of Israel’s education system, Taub said.

Nongovernmental organizations and government bodies have worked to promote a “shared society” in economic development, higher education and the labor market.

Here are four ways Jews and Arabs live apart in Israeli society.

Jews and Arabs attend separate schools.

Israel’s schools are separated by both religion and race. Jewish students attend either secular, religious or haredi Orthodox schools, while the Arabs attend separate Muslim, Christian and Druze systems taught in Arabic. Of the 1.6 million total students in grades 1 through 12 last year, fewer than 2,000 attended the handful of joint Jewish-Arab schools.

The split education system, where students are taught in their own language and according to their own cultural norms, according to Blass, “answers the [Arab] community’s needs.” But it has also led to lower educational achievement among Arab Israelis.

In 2012, two-thirds of non-haredi Jews qualified for university, as opposed to less than half of Arab students. Israel’s universities are more integrated, but Arabs make up a low proportion of students. In 2012, Arabs made up only 12 percent of bachelor’s degree students, and 4 percent of doctoral students, according to Sikkuy, an organization that aims to foster Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Jews and Arabs live in separate towns.

In addition to studying separately, Israeli Jews and Arabs mostly live in separate cities. Two of the country’s largest cities, Jerusalem and Haifa, have substantial Arab populations, but even those cities are often separated by neighborhood. Nearly all of Jerusalem’s Arab residents live in the eastern half of the city.

Aside from a handful of other mixed Israeli towns, most of the country’s cities are more than 90 percent Jewish or Arab. Though Arabs make up nearly 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Israel’s largest, is nearly 95 percent Jewish.

The Jewish-Arab division is also marked by economic gaps. Arab cities have higher poverty rates and, in general, worse municipal services than their Jewish counterparts. Eight of Israel’s 10 poorest towns are Arab. The richest 30 are Jewish.

“It’s not a problem in principle to live in different places,” said Rawnak Natour, co-director of Sikkuy. “There needs to be a possibility to live together, that there will be [cultural] symbols and the ability to encompass the different cultures.”

Their political leaders rarely work together.

Israel often points to its Arab-Israeli lawmakers as proof of the country’s democratic chops. Arabs hold 16 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and the body’s third-largest party, the Joint List, is Arab. Arabs have also risen to the top of other branches of government, including sitting on Israel’s Supreme Court.

But Israeli Arabs’ political leadership perpetually sits in the Knesset’s opposition, and few politicians in the government are Arab, such that the two communities’ agendas rarely align. The only Arab in Israel’s political leadership is the deputy minister of regional cooperation, Ayoub Kara, who is part of the Druze minority.

Arabs are barely present in Israel’s mainstream media.

Lucy Aharish, the young Arab co-host of a morning show on a leading Israeli TV station, speaks accent-less Hebrew, has gained admirers for her forthrightness and was even honored with a role at the country’s official torch-lighting ceremony on Independence Day.

But she’s one of the few Arab faces and voices Israelis will see and hear on their TVs and radios. Israeli Arabs have their own active press, but they are vastly underrepresented in mainstream Israeli media, comprising fewer than 3 percent of total interviews on leading Israel stations in January and February, according to a study by Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye, a media watchdog.

The number drops even lower when it comes to news segments not directly related to Israeli Arabs. Aharish’s Channel 2, for example, spoke to only 11 Arabs out of more than 5,500 total such interviews in January.

“You have low representation, and the moment you have it, it’s about specific topics and a very specific framing, which is crime and the conflict,” Natour said. “The way they’re interviewed is a negative framework that perpetuates the stigmas about the Arab population in the state.”

In Israel’s poorest schools, teachers improvise fixes for funding shortfalls


In 2008, Asher Nachmani wanted to buy a computerized blackboard for his classroom, but the elementary school where he teaches technology in this low-income town didn’t have the money.

So Nachmani built one himself.

He downloaded a free program from the Internet, bought a controller for a Nintendo Wii video game console and connected it to an infrared bulb taken from his television remote control.

Using a Bluetooth connection, Nachmani was able to project his computer screen onto a wall and draw on it.

The story is a typical one at the Ashalim Experimental Public School, the oldest elementary school in Ofakim. Chronically short on funds, Ashalim teachers are often forced to improvise, making do with supplies donated by neighbors or paid for from their own pockets.

In one classroom, a window divider was cut from a coffee table found by the principal. Teachers at times pay for lunches that poor children cannot afford, said Yael Segev, the school’s principal.

“The municipality can’t take the expenses,” said Segev, who says she donates about 10 percent of her salary back to the school as charity. “We approach this from a place of pride. We see this as our home and we care for it.”

As 2 million Israeli students begin the school year this month, they face some of the most unequal educational conditions in the Western world. According to a report this year by the Taub Center, Israel has the largest educational achievement gaps between rich and poor among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, an economic grouping of the world’s wealthiest nations.

The report also found that Israel performs second worst in international test scores, beating only Slovakia, and has above-average class sizes — 29 students per class compared to an OECD average of 20.

Israel’s Education Ministry has aimed to address these problems by providing more funding to poor districts starting this year, increasing the number of summer schools and enhancing school choice. But Nahum Blass, a senior education researcher at the Taub Center, said increased local education funding in rich towns, coupled with the hiring of private tutors by wealthier parents, cancel out the ministry’s efforts.

“What the system can give the weaker students is not enough to cover the gap between weak and strong,” Blass said. “A poor kid will get a little more from the Education Ministry, but what the [well-off] local authorities and the parents give can counteract that affirmative action and flip it.”

A number of educational nonprofits have launched efforts to address these issues.

Balanced Literacy, a program by the Israeli Center for Educational Innovation, runs programs at 18 schools with high concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants, beginning language classes with a half-hour of class reading time and up to three hours of language instruction daily. Another nongovernmental organization, Educating for Excellence, identifies the most talented students in low-income areas and provides them with enrichment, extracurricular activities and a quiet space to do homework for three hours several times a week.

But much of the burden still falls on teachers who take it upon themselves to give students in low-performing schools the extra attention they need to succeed.

Sarit Elmaliach, a first-grade teacher at the Saadya Gaon Religious Public School in the central Israeli town of Or Yehuda, has taken steps to make her lessons more relevant to the one-third of her students from Ethiopian families.

Like other Israeli minorities, Ethiopians come from less affluent families and struggle more in school. According to the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, a government-funded think tank that studies Ethiopian Israelis, as of 2010 only one-quarter of Ethiopian high-school graduates were prepared for college, versus nearly half of Israeli Jews overall. Ethiopian college graduation rates also lag those of Israeli Jews.

Elmaliach reads to her students books with Ethiopian characters and focused one art class on an Ethiopian sculptor. When she visits the parents of her Ethiopian students at home, she takes care to abide by Ethiopian standards of politeness, even being mindful of things as simple as sitting down before drinking a cup of water. Before the school year starts, she learns the origins of her students’ Amharic names.

“You want to show them a little that you’re connected to them,” Elmaliach said. “Some kids would get embarrassed and want another name. I say, ‘You have nothing to be embarrassed about. That’s a respected name.’ ”

That sort of cultural sensitivity can only go so far toward compensating for the substantial funding gaps between rich and poor schools. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2012, Ofakim’s local government provided $1,629 of annual funding per student — a sum less than half the $3,613 per student provided by the wealthy town of Ramat Hasharon in suburban Tel Aviv.

The Education Ministry did not respond to JTA’s request for information about how much extra funding it gives to low-income schools.

Funding from NGOs also helps a bit. But at Ashalim, which doesn’t receive NGO funding, the school depends on the commitment and ingenuity of its teachers.

“When I came here, I fell in love,” said Segev, the Ashalim principal. “It’s very warm, very embracing, not like in the city. We all have the opportunity to move to other places, but it’s hard to leave this place.”

Educating the educators, here and abroad


A recent roundtable discussion between local and Israeli educators has kindled a desire on both sides to collaborate in an effort to tackle issues of universal significance. 

“We learned that Israel is struggling with some of the same sorts of challenges we are here in the United States, and they’re looking at ways to assess their students … ” said Ben Allen, former president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education and candidate for California State senate. 

“They’re looking at how and when they examine kids. They’re looking at questions of violence in schools and disparity in schools. The more we can learn from each other, the better.”

The March 3 event at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles included an Israeli delegation of 10 with representatives from the government, foundations and non-governmental organizations. Approximately 20 Los Angeles educators from public schools, Jewish day schools, educational organizations and The Federation participated.  

Immediately following the discussions, several delegates declared their wish to continue a partnership, particularly on issues such as providing meaningful learning experiences to students and confronting educational inequality stemming from students’ different backgrounds and economic statuses. 

Jewish investor and philanthropist Gary Jacobs arranged for the Israeli educators to come to Southern California with the purpose of pointing out how they can incorporate cutting-edge pedagogies into their own education reforms. Jacobs’ Israeli representative, Tamar Kedar Harris, accompanied the Israeli delegation on its seven-day tour to the Federation’s Goldsmith Center, High Tech High in San Diego (which Jacobs helped found in 2000), the Da Vinci Schools in Hawthorne and New Village Charter High School in Los Angeles.  

Harris said cooperation is particularly valuable for Israel because the country is examining how it should restructure its education system over the next decade to provide more meaningful and in-depth learning opportunities for students. 

Harris said her and Jacobs’ intention was to start a dialogue between Israel and Southern California about education so they can learn from each other by comparing their cultures. Even she was surprised, though, at how illuminating the discussions were at the Federation roundtables. 

“Listening to the locals, The Federation and the people here [is] like receiving a mirror in your face in terms of what [Israel is] doing and what [Israel] is trying to do. You realize a lot of the challenges are international,” she said.

Daniel Gold, who directs Federation’s education and Israel advocacy campaigns, helped Harris organize the discussion panel and roundtable. Later, he wrote to the Journal that, while nothing is scheduled yet to reconnect these Israelis and Angelenos, his objective was to simply start a relationship of “commonalities” between them.  

At the roundtables, the Angelenos split up and rotated among the three groups of representatives from Israel. This followed presentations by Judith Kadesh, director of the Israeli ministry of education’s elementary school division, and Eyal Ram of the Institute for Democratic Education, about Israel’s upcoming education reforms that will require fewer matriculation exams to complete high school and more service learning.   

A discussion with managers of Israeli foundations brought to light how educational problems in both nations are entwined in socioeconomic disparity. When Allen explained that an American student’s success is often determined by his affluence or poverty, Harris replied that Israel also struggles with this conundrum. But the Angelenos said the United States is already several generations ahead of Israel in the widening gap between wealthier and poorer students; Israel can use its example so as not to make the same mistakes.

The Los Angeles group also referred directors of Israel’s education system to the Common Core State Standards in the United States because, they reasoned, it paralleled Israel’s objective to reform its education system. The Common Core is a national education initiative that sets a curriculum for what a student should know in various disciplines. 

Kadesh praised the roundtables for delving into the “core” of education.

Israel holds national exercise simulating rocket strikes on schools


A national exercise simulating rocket strikes took place in all schools and kindergartens in Israel.

The exercise, held Thursday morning, was planned in advance as part of the 2013 training schedule for the country and was staged by the Home Front Command, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, the Israeli Police, Magen David Adom, the Israeli Fire and Rescue Services and local authorities.

Sirens were heard throughout the country on Thursday morning as school children headed for bomb shelters and other secure areas. The emphasis of the exercise was  “the rapid movement of children from schools and kindergartens into the nearest secure areas,” according to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces.

Yeshiva University ranks as 4th most popular U.S. college


Yeshiva University is the fourth most popular school in the country, according to a recent U.S. News and World Report ranking.

The annual rankings are based on the percentage of students who attend a university out of the total number who are accepted to the school. According to the report, which was released Tuesday, 70 percent of the accepted students enroll at YU.

Harvard, Brigham Young and Stanford universities respectively took the top three spots, with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks placing fifth.

“Most of our students have grown up with certain values and a certain belief system, and we believe that those should not be compromised when they hit college,” said YU President Richard Joel. “Our students are looking to continue growing in their Jewish and secular studies, and they know that we provide the pre-eminent university platform for them to grow Jewishly and intellectually.”

Baltimore-area philanthropies changing the way they fund day schools


Two Baltimore-based philanthropies are paring down a coordinated tuition grant program for area Jewish day schools but will still be giving to the schools.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation along with the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore made the announcement last week about the planned end of a six-year, $16 million Jewish day school scholarship initiative and their future allocations to the schools. Ten Baltimore-area schools are benefiting from the current initiative.

In the past six years, the Weinberg Foundation has provided $1 million for the first year, then $2 million a year for five years for a total of $11 million for the schools. The Associated matched that with another $5 million.

Going forward, Weinberg will allocate $5 million to the schools over the next five years. That includes $1.7 million for the 2012-13 school year, with a gradual reduction of funds over the subsequent four years. At the same time, the Associated will increase its commitment to Baltimore Jewish day schools, adding an additional $3 million match over the next five years. The Associated dollars are expected to come from an increase in core allocations from its annual campaign as well as a commitment to raise restricted funds for day schools.

The money is in addition to the current $2.1 million allocated annually by the Associated to the schools.

Linda Hurwitz, resource development chair at the Associated, emphasized that the ability to allocate funding for day schools will be dependent on the annual campaign to raise additional money.

“Putting food on the table and a roof over someone’s head is equally important. We have to continue to provide a safety net,” she said.

Local day school heads expressed their appreciation of both the Weinberg Foundation and the Associated for making day school education a priority and for their continued efforts at providing funding for scholarship needs. However, several admitted that they will have to step up efforts to make up the difference from the overall decreased grant money available.

“We were aware that Weinberg was ending,” said Dr. Paul Schneider, headmaster of the Krieger Schechter Day School. “We met with [them] to encourage them to not just end it [completely], but to do it in a gradual way. That’s exactly what they did.”

LAUSD reaches out to middle class


Los Angeles’ new school superintendent, John Deasy, says one of his top goals is to persuade middle-class families, including Jewish parents, to return to the Los Angeles public schools. “It’s one of the major projects I have to deliver,” he said.

I interviewed Deasy last week in his office on the 24th floor of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters, just west of downtown Los Angeles.

Deasy has been superintendent since January. Before taking the LAUSD job, he was deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of charter schools. Charters are publicly funded but are run with considerable independence; they also often receive substantial private funds and operate outside of union contracts. Deasy also has served as superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland.

It was our first meeting. He — or a member of his staff — had checked me out, and he had read my articles on education. Most important for readers of The Jewish Journal, he was on top of the middle-class issue.

He told me he’s been talking with parents about getting private-school students to enroll in public schools, including those on the Westside and in the West Valley, home to many Jewish families. “People are saying they want to come back, but come back with confidence,” he said. “And that’s my obligation. And I think some are coming back because of the huge economic pressures, which are not going to get better soon. And so, while they may be forced back economically, we want them to feel welcomed and comfortable that the decision … can actually better the lives of their sons and daughters.”

Deasy said school board member Steve Zimmer, who represents much of the Westside, sparked the back-to-public schools effort. He said Zimmer was supported in this by Tamar Galatzan, who represents the West Valley. Both are Jewish.

“I have a whole team on this,” Deasy said. “And we’re going to spend some money to incubate programs that are highly attractive for parents to come back to. At the same time, I am … improving the district, so, as students come through these programs, they will continue to matriculate to better and better public schools.”

He said the program would be presented to the Board of Education in autumn.

Elevating the back-to-the-public-school campaign to a top district priority would be a change. It’s been going on for a few years on some campuses, but has depended on the interest of principals and parent groups. Operating with the intensity of a political campaign in some areas, it has worked. “This is about organizing — listening, communicating … [going] to churches, synagogues, neighborhood councils, door to door,” Zimmer told me when I interviewed him a while back.

Parents dealing with LAUSD face a bewildering number of choices, including traditional public schools, magnets, charters and pilot schools, the last of which offer a blend of charter and traditional approaches. 

“I would acknowledge that now we make choice difficult for parents,” Deasy said. “We want to make it much easier. … Parents shouldn’t have to figure out the system. We are developing a portal [on the LAUSD Web site], which lays all this out. We want parents not to search but to be fed information. And, of course, [the site will be] in all of our six predominant languages, so that what you are left with is to make a choice, not to wonder how to find something. It is one-stop shopping, how to register, how to transfer, how to learn about choices, how to understand college applications, how to fill out a financial-aid form, immunization rules, counseling and support, after-school options.  Up to this point, it has been hit or miss, or, worse, fractured information.”

A major obstacle facing Deasy is the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The union is opposed to charters, test-oriented teacher evaluations and any easing of seniority rules that would make it easier to fire teachers. All these steps are favored by LAUSD’s critics, who consider them reforms. Deasy’s time as an executive of the charter-supporting Gates foundation makes the union suspicious of him.

The union has a new president, Warren Fletcher, who succeeded the combative A.J. Duffy. Deasy said he and Fletcher “are working on building a strong relationship together. We both have enormous responsibilities on our shoulders, and we both don’t want to make mistakes in our first year. I have met him a number of times now,” Deasy added. “He wants to do the right thing by his membership and students, and so do I. … How we disagree will be the hallmark of our relationship, that it will be a respectful and productive disagreement when it occurs, and a very respectful and productive collaboration when it occurs.”

If that miracle happens, it will change the theatrics of the Los Angeles public-school debate. With the shouting toned down, perhaps the two sides can then get down to substance, and the district can be made into something attractive to all Los Angeles, to become, as Deasy said, “Best in the West; No. 1 in the nation.”

The Education of LAUSD’s Steve Zimmer


It’s been dark for almost five hours, the city has slowed, and even the 101 Freeway is sparse and quiet. Steve Zimmer has just wrapped his last appointment, but rushing home seems foolish when a rare sit-down dinner is an option. Most days Zimmer hardly notices how alone he is, because he never stops working.

On this wintry night earlier this year, the then-18-month veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education is coming off a 14-hour day, a zigzag tour of schools from West Hollywood to the Elysian Valley, from parent meetings on the Westside to policy meetings downtown, home to Hollywood to walk his blind Chihuahua-pug mix and is about to wind down — finally — with dinner and a very necessary nightcap in Echo Park. By this point, Zimmer is hungry, tired and melancholy, so once he’s decided upon the kitschy French bistro Taix on Sunset Boulvard, he pops in a Leonard Cohen CD and sinks into the driver’s seat of his LAUSD-owned Prius.

Hallelujah…

“So you know that everybody covers ‘Hallelujah,’ but this version, this live version is just … unbelievable,” he says. “The instrumentation is very different than his studio albums. I didn’t realize how Jewish-influenced his music was until I heard this. It almost has a klezmer-y feel.”

Zimmer moves to another favorite, Beck, whose album “Sea Change” he calls “the breakup album.” “It rips your heart out,” he says, explaining that he listened to it on loop for months after a six-year relationship ended recently. At 41, he has never married, but he says his last breakup felt like a divorce.

“I’ve been good — or at least passable — at a lot of things in my life,” Zimmer tells me. “I haven’t been as good at relationships. An artist can’t help being an artist — in the same sense that I can’t help what I do. It’s a focus thing.

“I don’t know how to do things any other way. It’s a complicated balancing act to have two passions. It takes a very, very special person to be willing to be part of a balancing act.”

Steve Zimmer speaking at Venice High School about LAUSD’s “We Build” school construction and renovation program.

But if Zimmer thinks his schedule reflects any sort of work/life balance whatsoever, he’s either incredibly un-self-aware or in denial. Most days he’s so entrenched — between developing and arguing policy downtown and visiting with parents, students and administrators at any of the 99 school sites in his district, which runs from East Hollywood to the ocean, north to the Valley and south to Westchester (“It’s f—-ing enormous!”) — there really is no distinction between Zimmer’s work life and personal life. Given the constant state of crisis in today’s public schools, every school board member must take the job seriously, but, for Zimmer, it is an up-all-night, high-octane, high-stress, the-world-rests-on-your-shoulders kind of job. He gives it everything, with a self-sacrifice that borders on masochism.

You might call Zimmer a modern-day Don Quixote, a man on a deeply personal but quite possibly futile quest to revitalize public education during one of the most fraught periods in American schools’ history — and in a landscape packed with counter forces so dizzying it makes La Mancha look like a playground. Is he mad? Maybe. And yet, there can be reason in madness. Zimmer is the kind of hero you want to see succeed — affable, passionate, intense and charismatic —  and he approaches almost everything except politics with romantic brio.

Like any good literary character, Zimmer faces tough obstacles and has some tragic flaws. He took a huge pay cut to sit on the board full time, leaving his $90,000-per-year teacher’s salary for an annual income of about $50,000. “I don’t say this lightly, but financially, this has ruined me,” he says.

The parallel between his life and the central dilemma facing LAUSD is striking: Just a few months ago, due to California’s budget crisis, LAUSD faced a $408 million deficit for the 2011-2012 school year, effectively threatening the jobs of about 4,000 teachers, and, as a result, the education of approximately 640,000 students.

The crisis was mitigated in late June when LAUSD passed a budget combining state revenues, givebacks from the unions and from the California Workers’ Compensation reserve, as well as a one-time stimulus from the federal government’s Education Jobs Bill. But even that wasn’t enough; this month, 3,000 LAUSD employees face layoffs, though a pending labor deal with the unions mandating furlough days may prove a saving grace for at least half of those jobs.

Zimmer is part of a board trying to steer a ship under siege and, every day, has to contend with numerous angry forces. But, for Zimmer, that seems to fade into the background when he’s face to face with the city’s most vulnerable. He is known for his devotion to at-risk students, the impoverished and gang-prone, those most susceptible to drug addictions or lives of crime.

His altruistic spirit, while admirable, has also earned him criticism; he’s been accused of putting the needs of his Eastside constituents before the concerns of his more affluent constituents on the Westside. Indeed, dividing his focus is a struggle both internally and externally, but Zimmer maintains that his bottom line is to ensure equal opportunities for all students, irrespective of where they land on the socioeconomic continuum.

To bridge the education gap between the haves and the have-nots, he says, is “the civil-rights struggle of our day.”

At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, Zimmer picks me up 20 minutes late for a parent meeting at Rosewood Elementary School, where he’ll discuss the district’s plans to build a new middle school in West Hollywood (currently, the closest option is in Hollywood, a long commute for parents). Zimmer wears a suit that looks a little baggy on his medium build, the business attire an odd contrast with his laid-back style. He has beady but piercing blue eyes and is markedly bald in front; a perpetually furrowed brow gives him a scowling look.

“So, this is a train wreck of lateness this morning,” he apologizes before adjusting his tie and checking his BlackBerry. “But there will be food and coffee.”

Before he was elected to a three-year term on the board in 2009, Zimmer taught for 17 years. He came to Los Angeles as a Teach for America trainee in 1992, and, by fall, was placed at John Marshall High School teaching English as a second language. Marshall transformed Zimmer; the Los Feliz school is a Title I school, with nearly 70 percent of students qualifying for the free or reduced-fee lunch program. At Marshall, he realized his students needed more than what the classroom offered, so he created an intervention-counseling program and became a community activist, campaigning for immigrant rights and bilingual education. Public education, he came to believe, is the best and only hope for creating stability in marginalized communities.

At West Hollywood’s Rosewood, 25 parents have gathered inside a small auditorium for a meeting about a new middle school added onto the nearby Laurel Elementary School campus last fall. “We want middle school to be something you’re excited about, not something you’re scared of,” Zimmer says to mild chuckles. Laurel opened to sixth-graders in fall 2010; 160 students are registered for grades 6-8 for the coming school year.

“You get to have a major role in how this school is shaped. You get to build it,” he tells them. When he’s done with his shpiel, parents ask about class size, curriculum and what the cafeteria will serve. Zimmer doesn’t have all the answers but tells them classes will start small. “I wouldn’t be broadcasting this out,” he warns.

“And the new superintendent is on board with this?” one woman asks, referring to John Deasy, who would take over for LAUSD’s veteran innovator Ramon Cortines in April 2011.

“He will be,” Zimmer says with surprising confidence for someone who was the sole board member to oppose Deasy’s confirmation as superintendent last January. “He should be,” Zimmer corrects himself, “because if we do this right, we’re going to retain the ADA [average daily attendance] of the middle-school students we’ve been losing to charters for years.”

Before Zimmer helped open the new middle school, only 11 students from the greater West Hollywood area attended an LAUSD middle school. The resulting loss in funds to the district was enormous because LAUSD receives approximately $5,800 from the state per student enrolled. Next calendar year, Zimmer estimates the district will have lost 83,000 students to charter schools. Do the math, and the total losses amount to more than $480 million, a substantially larger sum than LAUSD’s total deficit.

At a town hall meeting at Walgrove Elementary in Venice in June, Zimmer found himself in the awkward position of defending district plans to parcel out Walgrove land to a charter school (LAUSD is required by law to provide space for charters). The meeting was attended by Tanya Anton, author of “GoMamaGuide,” a detailed guidebook to Los Angeles schools. Anton makes a living advising families about their public school options. In the last election, she supported Zimmer’s opponent, Mike Stryer, a business executive-turned-Fairfax High School teacher, but she said she is heartened by Zimmer’s willingness to engage in dialogue.

“My issue with Steve is that I feel he’s conflicted, because he was paid for by UTLA money,” Anton said, referring to the teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which donated an estimated $300,000 to Zimmer’s 2008 campaign. “I just don’t know how effective he can be. I see his passion. I honor his commitment to the disenfranchised. I just don’t know if he can take care of business and get things done.”

Because he is a former teacher, Zimmer’s allegiance to unions is philosophical and fundamental; he believes public workers’ rights should be protected. But Zimmer’s union association has also become an image problem as one of public education’s fiercest current battles pits a civic-led reform movement against teachers’ unions. Fed up with dismal graduation rates and low test scores — in LAUSD, approximately 50 percent of students graduate high school, and only about 10 percent go on to college — teachers’ unions have come to represent what many believe is an intolerable status quo, one that protects poorly performing teachers. The notion that if students are failing, bad teachers are to blame, has been reinforced in mainstream culture by popular polemics such as Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

The assumption that Zimmer parrots union party line is problematic, but it’s also not entirely true. In fact, Zimmer nearly derailed his union base within the first weeks of his term, when, in July 2009, he voted for Public School Choice. The measure created a mechanism by which all new LAUSD schools are automatically put out to bid, so charters can apply to operate these schools. Zimmer came on board when, as a compromise, an addendum included failing schools in the conversion program. To date, however, only one charter operator, Green Dot, has ever applied to take over an LAUSD failing school.

The teacher’s union vehemently opposed Public School Choice, largely because most charters are not unionized, and every takeover means more job losses for teachers and other school staff. A.J. Duffy, immediate past president of UTLA, referred to Public School Choice as “an unmitigated disaster” and called it a “misstep” on Zimmer’s part to lend his vote.

“Having said that, I’m a realist,” Duffy added. “And when we support a candidate for school board, we don’t buy them. They don’t belong to us. Overall, Steve has been very good about pushing a progressive teacher-driven agenda.”

Zimmer defends his support of Public School Choice as a political compromise.

“Public School Choice is a better process for restarting schools than anything the federal government has come up with. But for new schools? I’ll regret forever that I voted for that,” he said. He believes the admissions process by which charters operate, as well as the disproportionately low attention given to special-needs programs, work against the core value of public education — to serve all students.

Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, admitted Zimmer has “butted heads with official union leadership — on a number of occasions.”

“He’s not a blind follower,” Durazo said. “But he believes in the fundamental value of a strong labor movement, that it is essential to a democratic society. He represents true human values; a janitor losing his or her job is not just a number to him — that’s a human being.”

The problem Zimmer faces, though, is that what matters most to him is not necessarily what matters most to everyone else. “Certainly I think about kids first, but not kids only,” he says. “Because to get kids to graduation requires adults that are well trained, performing well, and well supported.”

Zimmer was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to a middle-class family. His mother taught middle school, and his father taught business at Newark College. When Zimmer was 5, his father lost his job and purchased a blueprinting business in Bridgeport, Conn., moving the family from Jewish Mecca to a place where the boy would become the only Jew in school.

“I got beat up because of it,” he says. “I remember one time when we were doing a Christmas project, one of the kids asked, ‘Why doesn’t he have to do it?’ And my teacher said, ‘Oh, he’s not like us. He’s different, he’s Jewish.’ ” The family’s religious practice was even more alienating, as they kept a strict kosher home and attended a Conservative shul every Shabbat.  Did this make him resent Judaism?

Schechter Institute employees return to work


Employees at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem returned to work following a seven-week walkout.

A settlement between the institute’s management and workers was ratified at a general meeting of the workers and signed last Friday. The employees returned to work two days later, the institute told JTA on Sunday.

The institute’s summer semester will open as scheduled on July 3.

Students, who according to the Institute had completed about 80 percent of their coursework when the strike was declared, on Sunday were offered two options to complete the semester: the completion of academic assignments that will enable them to receive a grade, or an automatic “pass” grade. A pass grade confers full credit and is not figured into the students’ grade point average.

The Workers’ Committee, a chapter of the Koach Laovdim-Democratic Workers’ Organization union with about 70 employees—about half of Schechter’s staff—launched the strike after salary negotiations broke down over their request for the reimbursement of several months of a salary reduction instituted in July 2009 due to financial difficulties at the Schechter graduate school.

The global financial crisis and the death of a major donor, whose annual contribution covered about 15 percent of the institution’s budget, spurred the fiscal woes.

Workers of the TALI Education Fund and Midreshet Yerushalayim, located on the Schechter campus, did not join the strike.

Most workers during the salary reduction took pay cuts of 5 percent to 7 percent, with management taking cuts of 10 percent to 12 percent.

The institute receives no government funding; 70 percent of its operating budget comes from donations.

The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies offers a master’s degree in Jewish studies designed for Israeli teachers, and sponsors centers and research institutes of applied Jewish studies. It is also home to the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

School Is in Session for Villaraigosa’s Critics


“A great school is an anchor for a neighborhood,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “A great school district is an anchor for a great city.”

I was interviewing the mayor in his City Hall office last week about his heavy involvement in the Los Angeles public schools. Although running the Los Angeles Unified School District isn’t in his City Charter job description, Villaraigosa has been a leader in creating schools that offer alternatives to traditional district methods, trying to improve student and teacher performance.

Villaraigosa has been criticized for these efforts. Some critics say he should spend his time on potholes, traffic congestion, jobs and cops rather than on an institution over which he has no jurisdiction. His most intense criticism comes from the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), which opposes his sweeping proposals, especially those that weaken seniority protection for the hiring, firing and assignment of teachers. The union especially opposes charter schools, which operate with public funds but are not under UTLA contracts. Villaraigosa favors charters.

The union-charter school issue is complicated.

The charters are beloved by rich business people like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, who help fund them, and by some hedge fund magnates, who see them as good investments. Also, there are tax advantages for donating to nonprofit charters. All these people think charters offer a magic way to better schools, although results around the country are mixed. UTLA, on the other hand, is opposed to charters and to other proposals to change seniority rules and other contract provisions that protect veteran teachers at the expense of newer, more energetic and perhaps more imaginative teachers. To UTLA, charter supporters are union busters.

This is just one element of the public school situation, one of the most interesting and important stories in Los Angeles. For public school students, parents and grandparents, the daily ups and downs of life at the kids’ school are a major worry and topic of conversation. Many Jewish families, returning to the public schools or contemplating such a move, are among them. That’s why I write about the public schools as often as I do.

In addition to helping create alternatives to the traditional Los Angeles public schools, Villaraigosa has rounded up donations for the LAUSD and, most importantly, raised money and campaigned for winning candidates, who have formed a majority on the seven-member L.A. district board and are friendly to his ideas.

I asked him about this. “Mayors need to drive these reforms,” he said. He had visited one school in the morning and said he had to limit our conversation to a half hour because he was going to another school late in the afternoon.

As he sees it, “Kids fail in urban schools in numbers that boggle the mind.” When they drop out, they can’t compete for jobs that are increasingly complex. Nor can a city with bad schools compete for industries and other businesses.

Villaraigosa is deeply involved in two efforts that he considers major reforms but that are strongly opposed by the teachers union.

One is Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which he formed with the school district after his effort to take over the LAUSD was defeated in the legislature. It is a nonprofit organization run by the city and the school district, which has taken on more than 21 schools with considerable power to manage teaching and the budget. A $50 million donation — at $5 million a year for 10 years — from South Bay real estate developer Richard Lundquist and his wife, Melanie, both LAUSD grads, got the partnership off to a good financial start.

The other is Public School Choice, consisting of 74 Los Angeles schools that have been taken over by nonprofit charter school firms or organizations formed by teachers, school administrators, parents or community groups. These schools operate without many of the union rules Villaraigosa opposes, and with strong emphasis on evaluations of teacher performance.

As Villaraigosa sees it, teachers collaborate and compete. “Competition and choice work,” he said. “The days of excuses and low expectation are over.” He added, “Teachers are rising to the occasion.” He said they “plan together, work together and critique each other.”

Like the mayor’s Partnership schools, the Public School Choice schools include some of the city’s lowest ranked academically and have the most needy students.

All this reflects an expansive view of being mayor, but one that has always made a lot of sense to me.

The mayor of Los Angeles is the most visible and powerful elected public official in the L.A. basin. Some of his responsibilities extend beyond the city limits. For example, by serving on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board and appointing three more of its members, he has considerable influence over the Southland’s rail and bus lines. By appointing the airport board, he has more say than anyone else in running Los Angeles International Airport.

With such wide-ranging responsibilities, it’s good that the mayor has focused on the public school system, the institution that, along with the police and fire departments, has more impact than any others in Angelenos’ daily life.

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).

Tuition grants, endowments to benefit day schools


More than half the students in Los Angeles Jewish day schools receive financial aid to pay tuition, which runs between $12,000 and $30,000 per year. And with both tuition and the number of students requiring aid expected to continue climbing, BJE: Builders of Jewish Education is partnering with local donors and national organizations both to alleviate the immediate crisis and work toward long-term solutions for lowering the cost of Jewish education.

Last week, BJE announced that Los Angeles is one of three cities to split a $3.1 million Generations grant from the AVI CHAI Foundation and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) that will provide seven day schools with financial aid dollars and training and resources necessary for developing an endowment capable of spinning off funds in perpetuity. BJE raised $600,000 to match AVI CHAI’s contribution to secure the grant, and is now accepting applications from elementary, middle and high schools.

“If you look at what is happening in the school world, the schools and universities that are successful and able to weather the economy are those that have big endowments. So we set that as a high priority,” said Miriam Prum Hess, director of BJE’s Center for Excellence in Day School Education.

Only a few of Los Angeles’ 38 Jewish day schools have any sort of endowment, and the Generations grant joins other initiatives that in the last few years have focused on endowment.

A Jim Joseph Foundation grant totaling $12.7 million gave five Los Angeles Jewish high schools money to provide scholarships to middle-class families who earn too much to qualify for financial aid but still struggle to pay tuition. The grant came with funds to hire and train development staff, and required schools to raise their own monies for endowment.

Now completing the second year of a six-year cycle, the five high schools have raised a combined $2.3 million for their endowments.

“It’s difficult to think endowment when you need to raise money to keep the lights on,” said Larry Gill, board president of Shalhevet, where tuition for next year is $27,250. “But the reason the Jim Joseph program has been so effective is that it has really forced discipline on us. It’s sort of like a 401(k) — it forced us to put money away for the future.”

The grant also enabled Shalhevet to hire two full-time development professionals. Gill says Shalhevet is well on the way toward securing pledges of $500,000 for the endowment to meet a June 30 grant deadline.

BJE itself has secured pledges of nearly $10 million for a community fund that, starting in 2012, will add 25 cents to every dollar schools raise for endowment. The community fund, also a requirement for the Jim Joseph Foundation grant, was seeded with a $5 million matching challenge from the Simha and Sara Lainer Family Foundation. BJE has set a target of $100 million total for the community fund combined with the schools’ individual endowments, but Prum Hess says that number will have to grow to meet the community’s growing needs. More than half of the 9,500 students in BJE-affiliated schools are projected to receive financial aid next year.

To further help schools build fundraising infrastructure, BJE set up the Leadership and Fundraising Academy (LFA), an 18-month program for administrators and lay leaders, funded by a grant from Peter and Janine Lowy.

Sinai Akiba is one of the few schools in Los Angeles to have an endowment — a $7 million fund it started in the 1980s — and participation in LFA has enabled it to broaden its fundraising activities and focus its mission, according to headmaster Rabbi Larry Scheindlin.

“The thing we have learned most from the LFA process is that it is educational quality that drives the future of the school and carries the school into a virtuous cycle of enrollment and fundraising,” Scheindlin said. “It’s a terrible mistake to think that you can cut back on educational quality in order to lower tuition and thereby sustain enrollment.”

Rather, he said, Sinai Akiba has set tuition where it needs to be — $19,400 for the lower school, $21,600 for the middle school for the 2011-12 academic year — and increased its financial aid program, going from 15 percent of students a few years ago to 27 percent this year. The school has actively recruited and offered aid to families who thought they couldn’t afford a Jewish education.

Prum Hess says the presence of the LFA and the success of the Jim Joseph grant helped Los Angeles win the AVI CHAI grant, which relies on training existing development staff.

BJE raised $600,000 to qualify for the matching grant, then raised additional money to offer each of the seven schools $52,000 over three years, rather than the $25,000 prescribed by AVI CHAI. The hope is that the scholarship money, though a modest amount compared to the need, will alleviate some immediate stress and stabilize enrollment, and allow schools to develop their capacity to raise endowment funds, Prum Hess said.

In addition to the cash infusion, each school will receive five days of coaching with an experienced fundraiser and marketing materials that schools can customize. A BJE staff person, hired with the grant money, will serve as a resource to guide schools through the process of shoring up its fundraising apparatus.

The help, according to Shalhevet’s Gill, can’t come soon enough.

“If things continue in the current crescendo of cost versus money earned, in a very short amount of time the advantage of a Jewish education will be the purview of the extremely wealthy only. And that would be a disaster,” Gill said.

Milken school, Stephen S. Wise Temple severing ties


March Madness and the Evrit Eight


The real March madness is thousands of Jewish high school seniors waiting to hear about college acceptance. And then what if they are accepted by more than one? How to decide? Since statistics show they favor certain schools, to aid their choices and soothe their jitters why not carve out a “J” Division to the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament from the 68 teams already playing in it?

Based on “Hillel’s Guide to Jewish Life on Campus” which includes the estimated total of Jewish student population at each school, an “Evrit 8” could even be bracketed: Tournament teams with the highest Jewish student enrollment. The finalists would include some tournament regulars, some who are highly ranked, and even a Cinderella.

Here’s the J Division’s

Evrit 8

1. University of Florida 8500
2. Penn State 5500
3. University of Michigan 6500*
4. Penn State 5500
5. Wisconsin 5000
6. University of Texas at Austin 4800
7. Florida State 3814
8. Ohio State 3550

On the Bubble, a tie between UCLA, Michigan State, USC—3500

Cinderella—Xavier with 45**

See ya next year—Wofford 15, BYU 0
Unfortunately no one is currently tabulating each college’s JS scoring percentage (Jewish Spouse). Maybe in June.

* If the colleges were ranked by Jewish Studies courses, Michigan would be the easy winner with around 90, and Wisconsin at #2 with around 70.

**An historically Black college that in the 1930’s hired Jewish professors who were escaping Nazi Europe.

New Jew to relocate to larger, permanent West Hills campus


“We now have a ‘makom’ — a sacred space in which to house our values,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School, shortly after the deal was announced that New Jew may have finally found a permanent home — at the site of its first home.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles announced Dec. 13 that it has agreed to sell the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills to the school for an undisclosed price. The property, which houses the JCC at Milken, was where New Jew was founded in 2002.

The deal won’t be finalized until the school receives permits from the city necessary to house a school on the property, but officials said they are confident the bid will go through. 

Moving into the campus will let the school grow its musical theater program, strengthen its science department with state-of-the-art labs and give its 400 students more breathing room than they currently have at the school’s rented quarters at West Hills’ Shomrei Torah Synagogue, said Mike Greenfeld, president of the New Jew board of trustees.

Plus, the school would no longer have to bus its student athletes to sports practice at the JCC’s gymnasium, where New Jew has for years been running its 22 sports programs. Making the gym their own would be more convenient and give students a greater sense of ownership, Powell said.

School officials hope to complete renovations to the site and move in by 2012 or 2013.

The school will share space with the JCC, which will continue to operate on the campus.

The JCC won’t have to cut or downsize any programs due to sharing the campus, JCC executive director Paul Frishman said. The center’s pool and swim school will stay open, along with its early childhood programs, sports leagues and activities for seniors.

“We feel there will not be a major impact” upon the JCC’s 1,200 members, Frishman said. “We look at it as a positive thing that will allow the JCC to thrive.”

Having the school on the property could precipitate a membership boost for the JCC, Frishman believes, by exposing more students’ families to JCC programming. It would also alleviate some of the financial pressure the JCC had faced as the primary tenant of the campus.

The Jewish Federation, which OK’d the parcel’s sale, sees the deal as a “win-win-win” situation: The school will acquire more space to grow, the JCC can attract more people to its programs, and The Federation will have an expensive piece of property taken off its hands.

Much of the four-acre Milken campus wasn’t being used as efficiently as possible, according to Richard Sandler, chairman of The Federation’s board. It had been costing the agency more than $100,000 per month to operate the site, he said.

The property had for years been a weight on The Federation’s books. Bought by the West Valley JCC in 1976 and later deeded to The Federation, the campus cost $15 million to build in 1987 and even more to refurbish after its buildings were damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Tense talks between JCC and Federation officials over sharing the campus’ operating costs led to the JCC’s pool closing in 2007. Those talks ended in early 2009 with an agreement that the JCC would pay a rising percentage of the campus budget, up to 65 percent by 2013. That deal was supposed to guarantee the center’s status as the foremost occupant of the property.

But sharing space with New Jew would be a boon to the JCC, which has chronically struggled to stay out of the red. The center would benefit from extensive campus renovations the school must make as part of its purchase agreement. And it would renegotiate its rent with the school, from which it would now lease space.

New Jew leadership had long dreamed of returning to the Milken campus, where the school was founded with 40 students in 2002. The school outgrew its space within two years and moved to Shomrei Torah, but they knew they would eventually need a permanent facility of their own.

School officials first approached The Federation about buying the campus five years ago, but a deal never materialized, said Greenfeld. They made another bid in early 2010 and hammered out the deal in meetings throughout the year.

“We always had this place in the backs of our minds,” Greenfeld said. “It’s the right size, and it’s not out-of-the-way for our student base. We felt it would be the right home for us.”

Now the school must get building permits from the city and reconfigure some of the buildings for classes. Plans are also on the table for new classrooms and a faculty center. Powell, the head of school, said his mind is spinning with ideas for new learning spaces and programs they could create.

Moving to the Milken campus would take the school’s square footage from 35,000 at Shomrei Torah to about 100,000, tripling the amount of space the school has to work with, Powell added.

While officials won’t estimate how much the move will cost, they say it will take a few years to raise all the funds needed. The school has already begun receiving donations from its community, Greenfeld said, and they’re confident they will cover their costs. Tuition will not be affected by the move.

Greenfeld believes having an expansive new campus will allow the school to grow its student base. Rented quarters are “not what people usually envision when they think of a high school,” he said.

“Right now, we have a nice facility, but not a state-of-the-art facility. We’ve done an amazing job with what we’ve got; imagine the possibility of what we can do when we have a place of our own.”

With so much activity slated for the Milken campus, ideas for joint programming are already in the works.

Powell envisions giving New Jew students community service opportunities at the JCC by having them run after-school arts and crafts for nursery school children, or keeping the seniors company during their activities.

“Our goal is to create programming side by side with the JCC — to make this a real center of community,” he said.

School leaders arrested for cheating Israeli government


The leaders of six educational institutions accused of using fake identification cards to cheat the government of millions of shekels have been arrested.

In raids on nonprofit organizations’ offices associated with the haredi Orthodox institutions, Israeli police reportedly confiscated counterfeit ID cards along with a printer, rubber stamp and laminating machine.

The schools are located in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Betar Ilit in the West Bank.

The fake cards, which use the names and national identification numbers of real people but with different photos, were presented to the Education Ministry in order to receive monthly allocations for students who were supposed to be studying at the school. The organizations made it seem as if hundreds of students attended each of the schools, though only a few dozen did.

The scam has been going on for more than a year, according to reports. Other schools may be involved in the scam, Haaretz reported.

Budget crunch forcing schools to cut, become creative


Rabbi Samuel Levine has a problem—and it’s echoing throughout the Jewish day school world.

Levine, the head of school at Hillel Day School in Boca Raton, Fla., has seen an increase of more than 20 percent in requests for financial aid from the past year. In 2008-09, the school gave out about $1 million in assistance. This year the figure will be at least $1.25 million.

While the need for aid is rising, the school’s donors are giving less because of the recession, which has hit South Florida especially hard with blows to two of the region’s main industries, real estate and tourism. In addition to the drop in donations, the annual allocation that Hillel receives from the Jewish Federation of South Florida has been cut because its general fund-raising campaign is hurting.

To cope, the 21-year-old Orthodox school, which runs from pre-K through eighth grade, has had to slice $700,000 from its budget. That includes pay cuts of between 2 percent and 6 percent across the board, the elimination of non-essential staff and a cut in maintenance.

“It’s been very, very painful,” Levine told JTA. “We looked at every line in the budget and asked how can we pay less, how can we afford less, without affecting the programs.”

Hillel is not alone. From a story in The Jewish Star of Long Island focused on Orthodox families headlined “Tuition or mortgage: Choosing public school over homelessness” to the announcement that the Solomon Schechter Day School of Palm Beach County in Florida is closing because of budgetary problems, examples abound of day schools struggling at the start of the academic year.

As yet, there is no hard data on how much need is out there in terms of financial assistance. The groups that follow day schools are just gathering the information as schools are reporting it. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the 20 percent or so increase that Hillel in Boca has experienced is about average.

“We saw families already participating in the financial aid program turn to schools for additional assistance,” said Marc Kramer, the executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, a non-denominational umbrella group bringing together community day schools.

“We saw families who were non-financial aid students seek financial aid, families who had been paying tuition and making donations indicate they could make tuition but not donations,” he said. “And there was the most tragic subset of those who needed aid for the first time and did not apply but just dropped out.”

Amid the challenges, according to leaders of several organizations focused on day school development, a silver lining has emerged: Many of the suffering day schools have sought creative solutions to their problems that could help strengthen their economic foundations in the long term.

Kramer said the upsurge in such responses from philanthropists and schools attempting to cut costs has helped stave off a mass exodus of students leaving for financial reasons—a mounting fear since the 2008-09 school year ended, especially in non-Orthodox schools.

For example, in Phoenix, an elementary school (The King David School) and a high school (Jess Schwartz College Prep) decided to merge in order to save on overhead.

In the Cleveland suburb of Beechwood, the Agnon School increased tuition last year by 12 percent with an eye toward an upcoming budget crunch. Still, it had to cut $450,000 from its budget this year—about 10 percent. That included a wage freeze and the temporary suspension of certain programs that Agnon did not view as part of its core mission, such as the Mandarin Chinese course that had become mandatory in the middle school.

Schools across the country are working creatively, according to Rabbi Josh Elkin, the executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an organization that consults with day schools on various issues.

“Along with the anecdotal stories of significant increases in requests for tuition assistance,” Elkin said, “we have heard probably an equal amount of extraordinary stories that significant numbers of schools have taken to find the resources to keep families in school and to bring in new families.”

Some local Jewish federations, including New Jersey’s MetroWest, New York and Chicago, have stepped up with significant multimillion-dollar gifts to help schools cope with their budget problems and growing financial aid needs. Foundations such as the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco, the Helen Bader Foundation in Milwaukee, the Kohelet Foundation in Philadelphia, the Weber Family Foundation in Atlanta and the Legacy Heritage Foundation also have provided significant gifts to help schools, Elkin said.

The schools are looking at ways to raise money.

One approach involves attempting to diversify their donor bases: Instead of asking relatively few families for large donations, schools are reaching out to more families for smaller dollars, Elkin said. His organization is working with four schools in a pilot program to help them learn how to cultivate legacy gifts or bequests to help endow schools after a donor dies.

Northern New Jersey residents have launched an organization called Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools to collect small donations of $40 on average to help local schools. In July, the New Jersey Jewish Standard reported that the organization would distribute $250,000 this year.

There are even signs of schools working together across denominational lines.

Members of RAVSAK, the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools, the Reform movement’s Pardes and the Modern Orthodox Institute for University-School Partnership of Yeshiva University will hold a joint professional development conference in New York in January instead of having separate conferences.

RAVSAK’s Kramer says it adds up to a positive story behind what could be a very negative one.

“This is a vision of collaboration that is at once about being smart with dollars because we have to be,” he said. “But the recession has also given us permission to remember that all of us are ‘klal Yisrael.’ In many ways we perhaps have forgotten this.

“If everyone in the Jewish community puts our oars in the water and rows in same direction, we will get through this.”

Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach


Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piñatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com

Public money for Jewish schools: Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education


At the Ben Gamla school in Hollywood, Fla., students can get kosher food in the cafeteria, and many wear kippahs to school. They engage in acts of chesed, they worry about speaking lashon hara, and they are taught to treat each other and their teachers with derech eretz. But administrators at the school say that using those Hebrew words to describe the universal values of kindness, not gossiping and respecting one another doesn’t make this a Jewish school. In fact, it is not allowed to mean students are getting a Jewish education, because Ben Gamla is a kindergarten through eighth-grade public charter school funded by the State of Florida’s taxpayers.

Ben Gamla is currently entering its second year, with 600 students enrolled and many more who didn’t get in. Ben Gamla is one of several nascent efforts to found Hebrew-language charter schools and has caught the attention of Jewish parents, including some in Los Angeles, who have begun to lay the groundwork for a school here.

Publicly funded Hebrew instruction is seen by some as an important component for the future of Jewish education, either as an alternative to a costly private Jewish education or as a way to reach the significant minority of Jewish children who are not getting any Jewish education at all. Others are simply excited about creating an academically excellent public school where children can graduate fluent in Hebrew.

The movement to create such schools got a high-profile bump last May when the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in ALTTEXTNew York, the philanthropic entity behind some of this generation’s most innovative and successful programs, threw its backing behind a Hebrew charter start-up in Brooklyn.

But where some see innovation, others see a duplicitous and threatening end-run around the Constitution, trying to get the state to fund what almost amounts to a religious day school. Critics say enterprises like Ben Gamla, the first Hebrew-language charter school in the country, are a lose-lose proposition: If the school is teaching Hebrew stripped of its Jewish resonance, as required by church-state separation, the Hebrew language and Jewish education suffer. Conversely, if too much of the cultural context or flavor of Judaism seeps in, the school threatens to breach the church-state wall Jews have spent decades fortifying.

They also worry, with good reason, that free Hebrew schools — where not all, but most of the kids are Jewish and some Jewish culture is embedded in the curriculum — will threaten existing day schools and congregational schools.

The debate, while important in formulating a community approach, will not determine whether these schools are founded. Charter schools — paid for by school districts, but run privately — can be established by anyone with enough vision, energy and startup money to make it happen. Spanish and Japanese charter schools already are flourishing in Los Angeles, and Arabic, Greek and Chinese schools are among those succeeding elsewhere.

Now, at least two separate efforts by parents in Los Angeles have begun pursuing Hebrew charter schools.

“This is going to happen, whether we do it or someone else does it,” said Tanya Mizrahi Covalin, a former journalist for NBC News who is laying the foundation for a Hebrew language elementary school in Venice Beach. Covalin calls Hebrew an integral part of her identity; she grew up in Montreal and her husband is from Mexico City. Their three small children speak English, French and Spanish, and Covalin and her husband speak Hebrew when they don’t want the kids to understand.

“Talk about the American dream,” she said of the charter school process. “I can make the school I want for my kids. I can put in the elements I want and find amazing people to help make it happen.”

Covalin envisions a progressive, developmentally directed program with a strong Hebrew language component, located, most likely, in the Venice area. She doesn’t have a firm timeline, but has already paired up with some forward-looking educators to generate the vision and plans necessary for applying to the school board for a charter.

A separate group of parents, many of them day school parents, have been discussing for about a yearthe notion of a Hebrew language charter as an alternative to costly day school education.

Covalin doesn’t see her vision as a Jewish endeavor at all, and she has not attempted to engage Los Angeles’ organized Jewish community. But if the plans move forward, Covalin’s school will find itself at the center of an educational experiment that will most likely have a significant impact on existing Jewish institutions and Jewish families across the city.

“The leadership, lay and professional, of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and in any other places where they are building these schools should work together from the beginning to make sure they understand everything, make sure they work in a collaborative manner, not one against the other,” said Moshe Papo, executive director of the Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education in Broward County, Fla.,where Ben Gamla is located. “Work together to make sure it is suitable for your community, or you will wake up in the morning and find out it’s not good for you and it’s hurting your schools.”

ALTTEXT

Briefs: L.A. Koreans and Jews protest anti-Semitic cartoons published in South Korea;


L.A. Koreans and Jews protest anti-Semitic cartoons published in South Korea

Leaders of the Korean and Jewish communities in Los Angeles have joined forces to vigorously protest anti-Semitic cartoons in a book published in South Korea and translated into English.

A typical cartoon depicts a newspaper, magazine, radio and TV set with the caption: “In a word, American public debate belongs to the Jews, and it is no exaggeration to say that [U.S. media] are the voice of the Jews.”

The publication in question, which is in comic book format, is one in a series titled, “Distant Countries and Neighboring Countries,” and is designed to teach young Korean students about other nations.

It was written by Lee Won-bok, a popular South Korean university professor and author, and the book’s English translation has reportedly sold more than 10 million copies.

“I don’t have words to describe the outrage I feel,” Yohngsohk Choe, co-chairman of the Korean Patriotic Action Movement in the U.S.A., told the Los Angeles Times.

Choe was among leaders of the large local Korean American community who met last Friday with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Choe added, “The depictions are explosive. They have the potential to harm good relationships with our Jewish American neighbors in Los Angeles.”

Cooper said he had written the publisher of the book, asking her “to carefully review the slanders in this book that historically have led to anti-Semitic violence and genocide,” and “consider providing facts about the Jewish people, our religion and values to young South Koreans.”

The publisher, Eun-Ju Park, answered by e-mail that she would check into the matter “more closely and correct what needs to be corrected,” a response Cooper considered unsatisfactory.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jewish liaisons for Bush and Clinton outline work in ‘the real West Wing’

Noam Neusner, who served as Jewish liaison and special assistant to President George W. Bush, said last Thursday that while the president welcomes comments from major Jewish organizations on matters of national policy, “it was kind of crazy” for the Union of Reform Judaism to pass a resolution condemning the Iraq War.

Neusner and Jay K. Footlik, who was President Bill Clinton’s Jewish liaison, spoke at Sinai Temple at the 2007 Rabbi Samuel N. Sherman Memorial Lecture. Titled, “The Real West Wing,” the event was co-sponsored by StandWithUs and moderated by Rabbi David Wolpe.

It is the job of the Jewish liaison to advise the president on a wide range of issues, including such things as lives of Jews in the military, allegations of proselytizing or arranging the annual White House Chanukah party. Footlik said some people believe that the Jewish liaison works for Jewish community, rather than for the president. He pointed out that American Jews are “not shy” about telling the White House their feelings.

In response to a question about anti-Semitism in America, both men said that in spite of the impact of President Jimmy Carter’s recent book, support for Israel remains solid, but they stressed “you can’t take it for granted.”

Each cited examples of their administration’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people and expressed confidence that regardless who wins the 2008 elections, American support for Israel will remain strong.

— Peter L. Rothholz, Contributing Writer

Milken schools chief announces retirement

Stephen S. Wise Schools went into high gear to find a successor for Dr. Rennie Wrubel, who last week announced her intention to retire from the position of head of school of Milken Community High School and Stephen S. Wise Middle School on June 30, 2008.

Wrubel, 62, has headed the schools for 10 years, during which time she has increased enrollment, made both the academics and Judaic studies more rigorous and built up the Jewish culture of the school, according to Metuka Benjamin, director of education for Stephen S. Wise Schools.

“She has been a great asset to Milken and really helped develop and build Milken,” Benjamin said. “She brought it to the next level.”

On Feb. 22, Wrubel sent a letter to Benjamin, explaining that she and her husband, who is 10 years her senior, longed to spend more time with each other and with family. Her daughter and son-in-law live in Israel with three children — a 4-year-old and twin 10-month-olds.

“Leading Milken for these past 10 years has been the highlight of my 41 years in education. It has been far more than a job to me; it has been an act of love,” Wrubel wrote, saying the decision to retire was one filled with emotion.

Milken is planning an international search for the position in the 16 months before Wrubel retires. With its $30 million campus, challenging academics and robust programming, the school aims to compete with L.A.’s best prep schools.

A search committee is already in formation, and administrators have hired Littleford & Associates, a consulting and executive search firm that has worked with the synagogue and its schools in the past and understands the culture and needs of the school, Benjamin told parents in a letter. John C. Littleford has already visited the school to conduct focus groups to develop a leadership profile for the position.

Once candidates have been identified and narrowed down, small groups of parents, teachers, alumni, students and administrators will have a chance to interview semifinalists and give input to the search committee. The committee aims to make a final recommendation by February 2008.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Police Chief Bratton warns terrorism will be threat for the rest of our lives

“Terrorism, like crime, is going to be with us the rest of our lives” LAPD Chief William Bratton told Rabbi David Woznica at an open forum at Stephen S. Wise Temple Monday night.

“Since we are a likely target, we share intelligence with the FBI and the governments of Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Israel. We know we must trust one another and learn from each other.”He went on to reassure his audience, however, stating that “we are highly regarded for our capability and creativity, and there’s no place as well prepared as this place.”

Keep Your Eyes Open


Kein v’ Lo: Snack Attack

YeLAdim talked to the LAPD and got these tips on what kids can do to stay safe — and maybe to help catch a bad guy:

  • Be aware of your surroundings on the way to and from school, at your synagogue and while hanging out with your friends.
  • If you find a note about someone wanting to hurt someone — or use a gun or knife — tell an adult immediately. If any of your friends wants to write notes like that, let them know that they could get in big-time trouble because threatening notes are no joke to the police.
  • If you see packages, boxes or bags with bottles sitting near the street or in a hallway don’t touch them.
  • If you see anything or anyone in a public place that looks like they don’t belong or is acting strangely, tell a parent, a teacher or another adult you trust.
  • When it comes to safety, there’s no such thing as a tattletale.

This section of the page is a way for you as kids to sound off about an issue.

This month’s Kein v’ Lo (yes and no) is about snacks at school. Many schools have removed candy, chips and sodas from campus vending machines and replaced them with what they consider healthier snacks and drinks. Also, many schools are telling parents that when they bring a treat for a child’s birthday, it should include a healthy snack, as well.

Should schools be able to say what kids can and cannot eat?

The Kein Side:

  • Many kids are gaining weight much faster than ever before, because of how easy it has been to get sugary-, fat- and salt-filled snacks during and after school. Eliminating those kinds of foods could cut down on kids’ health problems.
  • Most kids left to their own choices probably won’t pick veggies over cookies or bottled water over soda. Cutting out unhealthy snacks at school makes sure that at least during school hours, kids will be exposed to more nutritious foods.

The Zimms Can’t Wait To Go Back To School!

The Lo Side:

  • Removing sugary snacks won’t really improve health if, at the same time, schools are cutting back on time to get exercise during recess or cutting back on physical education. Offering nutrition classes would be a better idea, allowing kids to feel they have a little say in what happens to their snacks.
  • A birthday is a celebration — if a child wants to have cupcakes, they should be able to — parents shouldn’t have to spend additional money on granola bars or fruit.

Discuss your opinions in your classroom or around your dining table with your family. We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. Send your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.

Back to School Shout-Outs

Get a head start on making new friends this year by sending a shout-out to your classmates, and we will print it here! Example: Sending a “Have a great year” to Mrs. Friedman’s sixth-grade class at Siman Tov Academy

— Josh A. & Laurie H. (names are optional).

E-mail us at ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.zimmermuseum.org.

Fight Against Campus Bias Gets Boost


If you’re a Jewish college student, you no longer have to tolerate anti-Semitism or Israel-bashing on your campus. You are protected under our federal civil rights laws. These were the landmark conclusions of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent federal agency that analyzes information about discrimination and reports its findings and recommendations to the president and Congress.

In November 2005, the commission held its first-ever hearing on the issue of campus anti-Semitism. One topic was the Zionist Organization of America’s precedent-setting civil rights complaint on behalf of Jewish students at UC Irvine, who have faced a pattern of anti-Jewish hostility that university administrators have known about but have failed to adequately address. Based on the hearing, the commission recently issued historic findings and recommendations that both Jews and non-Jews can applaud.

According to the commission, the problem of campus anti-Semitism is “serious.” In addition to name-calling, threats, assaults and the vandalism of property, hatred toward Jews is being expressed on campus in subtler ways. Zionism — the expression of Jewish rights and attachment to the historic homeland of Israel — is being unfairly mischaracterized as racism. Israel is being demonized and illegitimately compared to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, and its leaders are being compared to Hitler.

At UC Irvine, annual campus events (titled, “Anti-Zionist Week” and the misnomer “Israel Awareness Week”) have been regular opportunities to attack Jews, Zionists and those who support Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state. Signs have equated the Star of David with the swastika and depicted it dripping with blood. Speakers have portrayed Jews as overly powerful and conspiratorial; one referred to “the Jewish lobby” as a “den of spies.”

At San Francisco State University, fliers depicted a baby with the caption, “Palestinian Children Meat — Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites Under American License.” The commission rightly condemned all this conduct as anti-Semitism, finding that “[a]nti-Semitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism.”

The commission also recognized that Jewish students face harassment inside the classroom. Many academic departments present a one-sided, anti-Israel view of the Middle East conflict, squelching legitimate debate about Israel. According to a Jewish student at Columbia University, her professor said that she had no claim to the Land of Israel because she had green eyes and therefore could not be a Semite. In response to such incidents, the commission recommended that academic departments “maintain academic standards, respect intellectual diversity and ensure that the rights of all students are fully protected.”

According to the commission, “severe, persistent or pervasive” anti-Semitism on campus may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI requires that colleges and universities ensure that their programs and activities are free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on “race, color or national origin.” Otherwise, they risk losing their federal funding. The commission recognized that Jews are protected under Title VI because they are an ethnic group sharing a common ancestry and heritage.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education ensures that colleges and universities comply with Title VI. The commission recommended that OCR vigorously enforce Title VI to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism.

The commission also urged university leaders to denounce anti-Semitic and other hate speech. Some have already done so: When a cartoon mocking the Holocaust was published in a Rutgers student newspaper, the university president publicly recognized that although the publication was constitutionally protected, it was hurtful to the community and inconsistent with the university’s values. He urged the students involved to take responsibility for their actions and succeeded in getting them to apologize for the hurt they caused to the community.

Not all university leaders have exercised the same moral leadership. Some have remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic speech and conduct, justifying their silence by saying that offensive behavior is constitutionally protected. Of course, we must all stand up for free speech and vigorous debate — especially on a college campus, where the exchange of ideas should be encouraged. But hateful, degrading and demeaning speech is hateful, degrading and demeaning, no matter where it occurs.

We can’t lose our common sense about what is hateful and harmful, just because it is expressed on a college campus. If college officials remain silent, they help perpetuate the bigotry. And their silence contributes to making the targets of the hate feel even more marginalized and unwelcome.

What should you do if you are experiencing anti-Semitism on your campus, to the point that the environment feels hostile or intimidating?

First, you should try to resolve the problem internally by working with university officials to create an atmosphere that is tolerant and respectful. While colleges and universities must uphold the right of free speech, they have a legal obligation to provide you with an educational environment that is free from harassment, intimidation and discrimination. If working with university officials fails and the hostile environment persists, then you can and should file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (www.ed.gov/ocr).

More information is forthcoming. The commission has recommended that OCR conduct a public education campaign, and it will be distributing its own materials to inform students of their rights. Hillel directors should be getting the message out to college administrators and to their Jewish constituents. The Zionist Organization of America will be undertaking its own nationwide effort to inform Jewish students and college administrators that anti-Semitism is illegal and that students have legal tools to fight it.

Whatever your campus experience, if you are a Jewish student, it’s important to know that the Civil Rights Commission has staked out its position firmly supporting your right to be free from campus anti-Semitism. You have the right to obtain your education in an atmosphere that is conducive to learning and that does not intimidate or harass you because you are Jewish or support Israel.

Susan B. Tuchman, is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, and testified at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ hearing on campus anti-Semitism on Nov 18, 2005. Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

 

Mayor Stumbles to Left on Immigration


Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recent handling of protests by pro-illegal immigration crowds showed a man awkwardly straddling opposing sides of a political chasm that divides Angelenos who have all supported him. And his lack of deftness leaves doubt about whether he can bridge this gap as well as whether he can keep some of his most fundamental and important promises.

One year ago, Villaraigosa was busy wooing the business community to back him for mayor. At the time, he told me — and other journalists — that he intended to be a mayor who “pays attention to the middle class.”

His pledge made sense on a pragmatic level, since the ability to fight Los Angeles’ drift toward unlivability relies almost entirely on wooing those who buy the homes, rebuild the business strips and invest in the schools.

It also made good political sense to pay attention to the middle class, because Villaraigosa trounced incumbent Mayor James Hahn after Hahn largely abandoned his middle- and business-class base, spending too much time wooing labor unions and identity politics groups Hahn believed could assure his re-election.

And for months after his election, Villaraigosa appeared to be as advertised. He said the right things about municipal belt-tightening, appeared in person to calm parental fears about race trouble in the schools, and recently jumped into the high-stakes business battle to win NFL football back to Los Angeles.

But lately, Villaraigosa has stumbled in the face of pressure to take sides over a proposed guest worker program for illegal immigrants now before Congress.

First, he gave a troubling speech — one that I will always remember as his “us versus them” moment — using jarringly divisive language before a cheering, pro-illegal immigrant crowd to declare that “… we clean your toilets.”

Villaraigosa could not have handed his critics more powerful evidence for them to argue that his loyalties are not with Los Angeles’ middle class core at all. The negative reaction was so intense that one talk radio station caused a sell-out of cheap toilet-bowl brushes on eBay, after directing angry Los Angeles residents to buy a brush and mail it to Villaraigosa to show their anger toward his divisive language.

But a poor choice of words from Villaraigosa is not all that’s putting the middle class on edge. The city has pursued a fat increase in trash pickup fees aimed directly at middle-class homeowners, even as media outlets publish seemingly endless stories on excessive overtime or excessive workers compensation paid to spoiled city workers.

Voters, business owners and middle-class families — the core city taxpayers — have also been unsettled by a nasty criminal trial in which private PR agents working for the Department of Water and Power stand accused of grossly padding their DWP billings — without anybody at City Hall even noticing.

The PR scandal predates Villaraigosa’s election, and was used by Villaraigosa to devastating effect against Hahn. But the trial acts as a constant reminder that you can allegedly bilk a Los Angeles City department for hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet nobody even spots the waste.

Further putting out the middle-class, Villaraigosa’s recent State of the City speech came freighted with all the verbal precursors to calling for more tax increases on the middle class.

Then, this week, Villaraigosa reminded us through his words and actions that he is very awkwardly straddling his labor union/minority rights past and his pro-business/mayor-for-the-middle future.

In a hurriedly explained change of plans during the final two days of April, Villaraigosa abruptly cancelled his May 1 NFL meeting out of state, telling one print journalist that he was concerned that violence or other troubles could erupt at the big May 1 protests demanding amnesty for illegal immigrants.

While some media outlets seemed unaware of his change in plans, and continued to report on Monday that Villaraigosa was out of town to meet with the NFL, I heard him interviewed by KFWB news radio that morning, during which he confirmed that he had suddenly delayed his NFL meeting.

The KFWB reporter had done his homework, and asked the mayor — who had been insisting he opposed the boycotts and rallies — if it was true he had already told the Spanish-language media that he intended to give a speech at the afternoon protest.

What followed was the sort of strained spin, too frequently heard in politics, that almost makes you uncomfortable. Yes, Villaraigosa admitted, he had told Spanish-language journalists he would be speaking at the afternoon rally — but, he offered, his only concern was to ensure the safety of the citizenry.

Suddenly, the job of mayor, less than a year into his tenure, isn’t looking so easy.

Later that day, a different radio station reported that, as Villaraigosa prepared to give his speech to the massive afternoon protest crowd, he waited until after his aides managed to find for him “a big enough American flag” to wave onstage.

Appearances are important in politics. Once he made the decision to speak at a rally he previously claimed to oppose, I don’t begrudge him wanting to have the star-and-stripes at his side.

But promises are even more important than appearances. Former Mayor Hahn, who broke several of his promises to the city’s middle- and business-class in his fight to woo the powerful labor unions, can attest to that.

Villaraigosa promised to be a mayor for the entire city. That includes illegal immigrants, as well as everybody else. But he also promised to make a special effort to shore up, retain and attract middle-class families, without whom the city cannot remain livable.

Yet in recent weeks, that is not what we have seen. With new middle-class taxes probably on the way, with his divisive us-versus-them language, and with his strained explanation for wanting to appear at a rally he said he opposed, Villaraigosa is making the fundamental promise of his mayoralty look extremely difficult to keep.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Class Notes – National Nachas for Shalhevet


Shalhevet School is on a winning streak, bringing the Los Angeles yeshiva high school to national prominence in the areas of ethics, politics and sports.

Shalhevet is the only Jewish school and the only school in Los Angeles included in a national report on how to produce students who are not only intelligent, but have a sense of moral maturity.

The 14-year-old high school is one of 24 schools from across the country included in “Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond,” a 225-page report recently published by State University of New York College at Cortland.

Researchers spent time at Shalhevet to observe how it builds character in its students — for example, through its weekly town hall meetings and moral discussions that permeate the classroom and extracurricular activities.

“In a ‘Smart and Good High School,’ all things in the life of the school — routines, rituals, discipline, curriculum, co-curricular activities and unplanned ‘teachable moments’ — are intentionally utilized as opportunities to foster excellence and ethics,” the report reads.

Two seniors from last year, Leor Hackel and Sara Hoenig, served on the National Student Leaders Panel for the study.

Shalhevet also chalked up a win in Yeshiva University’s Model United Nations, where about 40 Jewish high schools faced off in debates on issues such as the crisis in Darfur, how to define terrorism and providing nutritional support to alleviate the HIV crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shalhevet’s win continued a long Model U.N. crosstown rivalry with YULA High School, which came in second. In the last five years Shalhevet has placed first twice and YULA three times.

Phu Tranchi, adviser to the 14-member Shalhevet team, notes that aside from spending many hours preparing, students hone their persuasive abilities at town hall meetings.

And, Tranchi added, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have great overlap between the Model U.N. and the drama club — they can really get up and put on a show.”

The same can be said for Shalhevet’s Lady Firehawks, who won first place in the Hillel Community School invitational basketball tournament in Florida last month, where teams from Jewish high schools across the country competed. This was the second consecutive year that the Lady Firehawks won the tournament. Tamar Rohatiner, a Shalhevet senior, won tournament MVP.

Sun Strong for Camp Ramah

Camp Ramah in Ojai will be getting some new décor atop the Gindi Dining Hall this summer — about 250 photovoltaic panels to generate enough solar energy to cut the camp’s energy bill by about $30,000 a year.

This is phase one of a three-part project that will eventually save the camp up to $75,000 a year and will reduce toxic emissions by approximately 15 million pounds of carbon dioxide, 37,800 pounds of nitrous oxide and 121,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide over the 50-year life of the installation.

The camp received a $500,000 gift from alumnus David Braun to begin construction on the $1.3 million project. Camp Ramah expects reliance on solar power to insulate tuition against future energy cost spikes.

“By both using and educating about solar energy during future encampments, we believe we will create generations of Jewish leaders who are environmentally conscious and who will seek to move more and more Jewish and non-Jewish institutions to environmentally friendly energy options,” said Ramah’s Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

Greyber has been working with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) to obtain IRS approval of a strategy to offer nonprofits the same tax incentives currently given to for-profit companies to build solar installations.

For more information about Camp Ramah or the solar energy project, call (310) 476-8571.

YULA Girls Face History

Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization dedicated to teaching morality and tolerance through the study of the Holocaust, will hold a seminar for teachers this summer at the YULA girls’ school. The five-day workshop will be geared toward, but not limited to, teachers at Orthodox schools.

“What I hope people come out with is a better way of teaching about this history and also a way to help students think about their own participation in the society in which they live,” said Jan Darsa, director of Jewish education at Facing History.

The conference runs June 25-30 and costs $500 for the first teacher and $400 per teacher after that. Applications are due April 15. For more information, contact Jan Darsa at (617) 735-1613, or visit www.facinghistory.org.

Jewish Peace Corps

Looking for a great summer experience of hard physical labor and few amenities? American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to sustainable development, will bring 16- to 25-year-olds to Africa, Central America and Asia to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, in the most literal sense.

The seven-week program couples intense physical work — building schools, water systems, homes and agricultural projects — with Jewish study and community experience.

The program is open to high school juniors and seniors, and adults 18-25. The application deadline is March 31. For more information, contact Sonia Gordon-Walinsky at (800) 889-7146, ext. 651, sgw@ajws.org or visit www.ajws.org.

Prejudice Awareness Summit

More than 300 middle school students from area public and parochial school participated in a Prejudice Awareness Summit at the University of Judaism (UJ) last month. UJ undergraduates led the younger students in exercises that encouraged honest and open dialogue and allowed them to explore their own feelings about prejudice. Workshops focused on reducing harmful actions and developing techniques to resolve conflicts. For more information on the summit, call (310) 476-9777.

 

Letters


Muslim Majority

Salam Al-Marayati’s apologetics miss the mark entirely (“Don’t Ignore the Quiet Majority of Muslims,” Feb. 17). In the wake of the mass violence throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia, it is impossible to argue that a small, extremist element, “a handful of reckless Muslims” in Al-Marayati’s words, is responsible for weeks of mayhem. Tens of thousands of rioters have rampaged, killed, and looted with governments either abetting or unable to control the violence. They are not a tiny fringe. And they are not reacting to alleged anti-Muslim bias in Europe, as Al-Marayati tries to argue.

Whether the rioters and their silent supporters represent the majority of Muslims or a sizable minority is debatable, but one conclusion is certain: They and the intolerant strain of Islam they adhere to threaten all who disagree with them.

Linda Abraham
Los Angeles

The op-ed of Salam Al-Marayati is a well-articulated presentation that falls short of explaining the “civilized response” of U.S. Muslims to the caricatures of Mohammad. It is difficult to accept the representation that “free thinking is a cornerstone of Islamic law” when the essence of Islam is submission to Allah and violations of fundamental Sharia law are dealt with by dismemberment, stoning and decapitation.

Most troubling is the accusation that racism and bigotry in Europe are disguised as freedom of expression or democracy. Yet, many instances of quite the opposite is being reported — Muslims who choose to live in their own communities, following Sharia law in their dealings with each other, even if it contravenes the law of their adopted countries.

Quiet Muslims will be ignored until they speak up loudly against the violent actions of their fellow Muslims.

Aggie R. Hoffman
Los Angeles

School Pesticides

Thank you for your wonderful and important article about Robina Suwol and AB 405 (“Parent Wins School Pesticide Battle,” Feb. 10). Suwol is a tireless worker for our children’s health. Unfortunately, you did not mention that she and others helped to establish the Integrated Pest Management Team in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). This team, which has been operating for about five years, is one of the leaders in the country in minimizing the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides in our schools. LAUSD should be recognized for their pioneering spirit.

Dr. Cathie Lippman
The Lippman Center for Optimal Health
Beverly Hills

Cartoon Controversy

Hurray for The Journal! Although lacking the courage to print the riot-provoking cartoons, the honesty of the stated reasons for not doing so was refreshing (“Drawn to Controversy,” Feb. 10). That’s more than can be said for most of the country’s major news outlets.

Kenny Laitin
Via e-mail

Jack Abramoff

Over three decades ago, Equity Funding Corp., a Century City-based financial conglomerate, was forced into bankruptcy due to massive fraud and embezzlement. The trustee surmised that approximately 60 employees (about 10 percent of the workforce) were involved in some level, in the illegal activities (“Sympathy for the Devil,” Jan. 27).

Twenty-two of them, mostly Jewish, pleaded guilty to participation in the conspiracy.

Although both my wife and I were employees, we were neither involved nor knowledgeable, primarily because we joined the corporation long after the fraudulent activities began. Nonetheless, I’ve often wondered what I would have done, had I been asked to assist in the illegal activities.

The point is that given the opportunity, many otherwise honest people are easily seduced into immoral activities that they sincerely regret after the fact. Most of Equity Funding’s conspirators are truly repentant.

Because of that experience, I truly believe that men like Jack Abramoff are sincerely remorseful. So while it is important that they pay for their crimes, it is also important we accept their apologies at face value and practice forgiveness.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles

Kosher Gourmet

I was impressed with the excellent article in The Journal titled, “Oxnard Kosher Dining is a Sur Thing”(Feb. 3).

I did however take issue with one of the authors’ comments: “Kosher gourmet sounds like an oxymoron.”

Apparently the authors of this article have never sampled the food at Pat’s Restaurant on Pico Boulevard, or sampled the cuisine of Pat’s catering or Brenda’s catering, among others. Far from being an oxymoron, kosher gourmet has been alive and well in Los Angeles for many, many years!

Martin Shandling
Los Angeles

Military Hitch

I was stimulated by the recent article on Rabbi David Lapp (“Rabbi Ending Long Hitch in Military,” Feb. 17), which focused on his ability to bring all major branches of Judaism to work together to support the needs of Jewish soldiers.

I am wondering whether there might be other important areas in which such cooperation can occur, and whether Rabbi Lapp’s experience might suggest how that cooperation can be brought about to the benefit of the entire Jewish community.

Barry H. Steiner
Department of Political Science,
Cal State Long Beach

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Superintendant Romer Wants to End Term Early


Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer, the central figure in efforts to improve local schools, has quietly informed top school officials that he would like to leave the job by September, some nine months before his contract expires.

Romer made his request to L.A. Unified school board members at a recent closed-door meeting, where they were discussing the process of choosing his successor. The conversation was confirmed for The Journal Friday by district spokesperson Stephanie Brady, a senior member of Romer’s staff. In the meeting, Romer assured board members that, if needed, he would serve out his contract, which runs through June of next year.

Romer, the former three-term governor of Colorado, has overseen a significant rise in student test scores and academic standards since accepting the job in June 2000. His efforts to build new schools helped jump-start one of the nation’s largest public works projects. At the same time, these reform efforts have been frustrated by an ongoing high dropout rate and lagging academic improvements in middle schools and high schools.

Romer, who is on what staff termed a mini-vacation, was unavailable for comment, but the details of the school board meeting were confirmed by spokesperson Brady. She did not speculate about Romer’s reasons for preferring an early exit. At the meeting during which Romer expressed his wishes, he and board members discussed the hiring of an executive search firm to find a replacement for him and how that firm would do its work.

Board members were less than eager to offer their own confirmation. “He may choose to do that,” said board member Julie Korenstein. “He mentioned he would be willing to leave earlier. But he cannot leave until we find a replacement. We haven’t had a whole lot of discussion on this yet. This has to do with our success in finding a replacement and how long it takes to do our national search.”

Board member David Tokofsky, who could only respond briefly because he was reached during a meeting, said he disagreed with any assertion that Romer would be departing early.

Another board member, Jon Lauritzen commented, “We’ve had some serious conversations in closed session but I can’t confirm anything — although it sounds like your sources of information know what they’re talking about.”

Added board president Marlene Canter: “It’s not something I would even want to comment on. The school board is beginning to do a search for a replacement, as we would have done anyway. His contract goes to June 2007, and he will stay as long as we need him to stay up till June of 2007.”

She added that board members have decided that community input would be an important part of this search. The selection process that, six years ago, led to Romer had been criticized as not sufficiently involving community members.

Rumors about Romer’s future as superintendent already had been circulating widely. These were sparked earlier this week when a senior administrator, addressing a meeting for principals, said, “Romer might be not back for the next school year,” according to two principals in attendance.

The reference was so brief that another principal who was present didn’t recall the remark. The senior administrator was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.

Some of the recent speculation has focused on whether Romer would be willing to work under the auspices of the mayor’s office. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to get control of the L.A. Unified School District, with authority similar to the mayors of New York City and Chicago. But even under the fastest scenario, it was never clear that Romer, who is 77, would still be serving by the time Villaraigosa might be calling the shots.

Individual school board members have criticized Villaraigosa’s efforts, which could complicate the search for Romer’s replacement. A top candidate might be more reluctant to take the job if it isn’t clear to whom he or she will answer.

Romer became the L.A. schools chief with mixed expectations after being persuaded to apply by businessman-philanthropist Eli Broad. The school board’s first choice had been Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and Clinton administration official. L.A. Unified had run through four superintendents in the previous decade and predictions abounded that Romer would be a short-timer or ineffective.

The longtime politician was not an educator, but he’d championed education issues as Colorado’s governor. Romer’s substantial political skills, his selective stubbornness and a determination devoid of personal ambition began both to impress observers and also to make headway on some seemingly intractable issues, notably school overcrowding.

During his tenure, Romer avoided a teachers strike, while also remaining on good terms with a business-civic coalition led by Richard Riordan both during and after his terms as mayor — even though Riordan’s coalition pointedly opposed the influential teachers union.

“I wanted a politically astute leader,” said board member Korenstein. “He was definitely not an educator. On that part, he has been okay. His lasting legacy will be building 180 schools.”

Lauritzen was more unstinting in his praise. “His performance has been fantastic in terms of the building program — absolutely magnificent and his success in increasing performance in test scores has been remarkable as well. In those areas he’s exceeded expectations.

Lauritzen added that there would be plenty of work for Romer’s successor. “The biggest area is the dropout rate. We’ve simply got to get that under control. And we still have a lot of work to do in terms of academic achievement in secondary schools.”

Board president Canter echoed that sentiment: “Governor Romer has brought more change to the district in the last five or six years than has happened in a long time. But none of us is satisfied with where we are. We all feel an urgency for bold reform, and we’re looking for another bold reformer.”

Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time


Francis Bilak and her extended family are taking a cruise this week, but to do so, Bilak’s son, Michael, is missing a week of preschool at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy.

Hillel, like two-dozen other Orthodox schools in Los Angeles, doesn’t have the last two weeks in December off. Instead, yeshiva day schools take their winter break during the last week of January — the end of the first semester. Families like the Bilak’s have to adjust their schedule to a calendar that is a beat or two off from the rest of the world’s rhythm.

The current schedule was adopted by Orthodox schools in the last two decades, when the Orthodox community made a collective decision to follow a halachic ruling by the great contemporary sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, according to Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School in Valley Village and president of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Yeshiva Principal’s Council.

Feinstein ruled that Jewish schools must be open on Dec. 25 to avoid giving any impression of Jews observing Christmas. He said that it was not appropriate for Jewish schools to be closed on Christian holidays, regardless of their status as national or legal holidays. Most schools offer a two-day Chanukah break, and some of them close for New Year’s Day (this year the two calendars coincide).

Although Feinstein’s work was published in 1956, the Los Angeles Orthodox community did not institute the policy until the 1980s, perhaps because the community was not as large, observant and as unified as it is now, Stulberger explained.

“As a community, it was time to make a stand,” Stulberger said.

Ruthie Gluck, whose daughter is in nursery school at Hillel, agreed with that reasoning.

“Children always have a happy, positive feeling associated with breaks from school, and I don’t think Jewish children should connect that feeling with Christmas,” she said.

While many Orthodox parents don’t see any threat or problem with having Christmas off, they still must adjust to the school calendar. For some, the schedule is a nuisance, disrupting family vacation plans. On the other hand, some couples enjoy the opportunity to drop the children off at school and spend a day off together.

Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, is happy to take advantage of the late-January break, when popular vacation spots and local attractions are less crowded and sometimes less expensive than during the holiday season.

Many decry the fact that while the school is technically in session Dec. 25 (or this year Dec. 26), the day is often wasted, because non-Jewish teachers and support staff are given the day off. Some schools have special programs on that day, but that is little consolation for day school parents who suspect their kids have too many days off.

While Los Angeles public schools require 180 days of instruction, Jewish day schools — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — tend to have fewer school days. Day schools aim to provide between 175 and 180 days of instruction, but often don’t hit that mark, according to Gil Graf, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

This year, for example, Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school, has 162 days of instruction, while students at the Reform Brawermen Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple attend school for 164.5 days. Yeshivat Yavneh, an Orthodox day school, has 170.5 days of classes, plus Sundays for boys in Grades 5 to 8.

This year was particularly hard on the calendar as all the High Holidays fell in the middle of the week, and some schools had as few as five days of classes during October.

Even so, Graff pointed out, school days at most Jewish schools are longer than at public or secular private schools, so students might be getting more hours in the classroom. A sixth-grader in day school, for instance, has anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour longer of school daily than a sixth-grader in public school. While most Jewish schools let out early on Fridays, most public schools have weekly or biweekly early dismissals for staff development.

Still, day school parents often complain that their children seem to be home too much — for parent teacher conferences, for teacher training days — given the workload students are expected to master and the tuition parents pay.

Another change in the Orthodox school calendar in the last two decades has been giving all of Sukkot off, resulting in 10 to 12 days of vacation in early fall.

“The Jewish community in Los Angeles used to have fewer families who built sukkot at home,” Stulberger explained, “so the schools remained open to give the children the opportunity to partake of the mitzvahs of Sukkot, such as benching lulav and eating meals in the sukkah. Now that so many families have sukkot at home, chol hamoed [the intermediate days of the holiday] is a time for families to enjoy the holiday together at home.”

Most non-Orthodox day schools are in session during Sukkot. Pressman Academy has school during Sukkot but refrains from assigning homework during that time, said Rabbi Mitchell Malkus, Pressman educational director.

Wilshire Boulevard also has school throughout Sukkot, even though most families build their own sukkahs at home.

“Reform Jewish education is now much more of an extension of home observance,” said Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, head of Judaic studies at Wilshire Boulevard,” rather than a replacement of it.”

 

Preschool Project Strives to Educate All


King Solomon was known to have coined the expression, “Educate the child accordingly so that when he grows old, he will not leave.” In other words, take advantage of the child’s education as soon as possible.

In modern times, this admonition certainly applies to preschool, and it’s something that my day care school, the Bilowit Learning Center, based in the Lomita-Torrance area, has always taken as a mission.

It’s why we were one of 600 preschools to apply for funding from Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), a new nonprofit that seeks to establish or to advance affordable high quality prekindergarten education to public and private schools in Los Angeles County. LAUP’s goal is to make preschool universally accessible to every 4-year-old in Los Angeles County. With money from Proposition 10, LAUP funds and expands preschool programs.

Bilowit Learning Center was one of the lucky first 100 schools selected last spring in a countywide lottery as a LAUP school, receiving more than $100,000 in funding.

That good fortune was just the beginning of a process. With the LAUP funding, we hired a new special educator to direct our program, added two new teachers and redesigned the preschool classes with new activity centers.

We then advertised “Preschool for Free — How Can It be?” and left our number to call. Children were admitted on a sliding scale, so that all who were interested could attend. Who would believe that in a few months, the number of preschoolers attending our school would double to more than 40, thanks to the LAUP program?

Through this process, parents of children from all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds had the opportunity to see a Jewish school for the first time, often meeting a rabbi for the first time or learning from peers why some people wear yarmulkes. They saw that, yes, people with different religions, beliefs and backgrounds can get along, working side by side. All this in a safe and sound environment. Prejudices disappear and children learn trust.

In accordance with LAUP guidelines and our desire to provide an opportunity for children of all backgrounds to learn together, we provide secular education to the preschoolers for the half-day program. For the Jewish preschoolers, we offer an additional hour for Jewish studies.

My hope is that the transition from a preschool with such an environment will help children assimilate positively, by helping them live American ideals. We may be different, but we are all the same.

Everything starts with education. If we educate the very young in their most impressionable years, we may succeed in making progress toward the many challenges that lie before us. After all, it is much easier to plant a tree correctly than to reshape it in its maturity.

As the LAUP program increases, the great mosaic is drawn, each child adding beauty and trust. You should visit a LAUP preschool program and see the miracles it performs.

Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past-president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, which houses a synagogue, day school, nursery school and chaplaincy programs.

 

Inclusive Education


In the summer of 2002, Liza Wohlberg had no idea that her life was about to irrevocably change. The 7-year-old, who loved to dance and play with her dog, was enjoying the summer vacation between first and second grade. On a family trip to Canada, Liza’s mother, Terry, noticed that her daughter couldn’t seem to get enough to drink. When the problem persisted, Terry took Liza to the pediatrician. She was immediately diagnosed with juvenile-onset (type 1) diabetes.

From the day she was diagnosed, Liza’s existence became marked by frequent blood sugar testing, regular insulin shots and the need to vigilantly monitor food intake. The Wohlbergs grew adept at the new routine, but another problem loomed: school was starting up soon, and Liza would have to deal with her condition outside the protective cocoon of home. Terry immediately called Shelley Lawrence, principal of the lower school at Sinai Akiba Academy in Westwood, to discuss Liza’s needs.

When faced with cases such as Liza’s, Jewish institutions must balance their desire to accommodate children’s special needs with their ability to do so. Besides diabetes, schools must handle chronic conditions such as asthma and severe food allergies, which all can have emotional as well as medical components. Practically and educationally, the other children at a school may have to enter the equation as well. For a time, Liza kept her medical condition a secret, but eventually she found an appropriate moment to tell her friends.

These days, a broader understanding of diabetes is especially valuable for children and their parents, because cases of type 2 diabetes — which is closely associated with obesity — are reaching epidemic proportions.

People with diabetes have a shortage of insulin or a decreased ability to use insulin, a hormone that allows glucose (sugar) to enter cells and be converted to energy. With type 1 diabetes, cells in the pancreas no longer make insulin because the body’s immune system has attacked and destroyed them. When diabetes is not controlled, glucose and fats remain in the blood and, over time, damage vital organs including the heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves. To survive, people with type 1 diabetes must have insulin delivered by injections or a pump.

After Liza was diagnosed, Lawrence, the school nurse, the P.E. instructor and Liza’s teachers all met with the Wohlbergs to manage Liza’s diabetes within the school setting.

The challenge was compounded because Liza didn’t want her classmates to know about her condition.

“I didn’t know what people would think,” said Liza, now in the fifth grade. “I was afraid it would change my relationships.”

The school plan took Liza’s feelings into account, allowing her to test privately, first in the bathroom, and then at the area where backpacks are kept. Her teacher devised a special signal to remind Liza when it was time to test.

“When we toured the school [before enrolling], they talked about caring for each child’s soul,” Terry said. “With this experience, I really felt that came into play.”

In the fourth grade, Liza received the Ramah Scholarship Award, a free month at Camp Ramah in California. Like Sinai Akiba, Ramah considered Liza’s need for independence along with the institution’s need to ensure her safety. By this point in her life, Liza was wearing an insulin infusion pump, and was quite adept at monitoring her blood sugar.

Ramah deals with campers’ medical needs on a case-by-case basis, said Dr. Andrew Spitzer, chair of Ramah’s Medical Committee and an orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic. Besides kids with diabetes, the camp has hosted children with asthma, those on various medications and even a child with cancer.

“The child [with cancer] was at a point in his treatment that he could participate with some special arrangements on our part. For others, that might not be feasible,” Spitzer said. “We’re willing to look at each case to see if we can offer the positive, life-changing Jewish experience that camp provides.” (Ramah also runs a special program, called Tikvah, designed for Jewish adolescents with learning, emotional and developmental disabilities.)

As for Liza, the bright, articulate fifth-grader fills her days with school, homework, dance classes and jewelry making. She said her Sinai classmates were overwhelmingly supportive after she told them about her condition — right after another girl in her class was also diagnosed with diabetes.

While Liza was at Ramah, two classmates who remained in town enlisted some friends to create and sell green-and-white string bracelets to raise money for diabetes research. The school is allowing the girls to have a booth at its Chanukah boutique, and waiving the usual vendor fees. Students, families and teachers have repeatedly participated in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s annual walk, and will do so again on Oct. 23.

The Wohlbergs are grateful for the support they’ve received from Jewish institutions.

“Liza was treated in such a way that has increased her esteem and confidence,” her mother said. “It could have gone the other way…. They could have created more shame instead.”

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s annual Walk to Cure Diabetes takes place at Santa Monica South Beach Park on Sunday, Oct. 23. Registration opens at 8 a.m.; walk begins at 10 a.m. For more information visit walk.jdrf.org or call (626) 403-1480.

 

Survivor Voices Come to Classrooms


In the backlot at Universal Studios, somewhere between the lake where Jaws lurks and the courthouse square where Michael J. Fox sped back to the future, researchers in nondescript trailers are finishing up one of the most ambitious projects involving the Holocaust.

It is here, at the unlikely international headquarters for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, that cataloguers, archivists and researchers are viewing and indexing the last batches of 120,000 hours of videotaped testimony from Holocaust survivors, liberators and rescuers.

By the end of this year, all of the 52,000 testimonials in 32 languages from 56 countries will have been digitized and indexed using 30,000 keywords, so that amateurs and scholars can search the collection electronically.

With this work winding down, the Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 after he produced “Schindler’s List,” has shifted resources toward education aimed at overcoming bigotry and prejudice. One of the fruits of this shift is Echoes and Reflections (www.echoesandreflections.org), a just-released comprehensive, multimedia curriculum for American secondary schools produced in a first-time collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

The groundbreaking venture is geared toward middle and high schoolers. Lesson plans and student handouts, as well as online supplements, include photos, poems and diaries from Yad Vashem’s vast holdings. The units are designed so teachers can use the curriculum for a day, a week, or an entire semester. The lessons also are designed to fulfill educational standards in all 50 states.

The material integrates two and half hours of filmed witness testimonials, lending it the power of personal stories that can affect students more than hard-to-grasp numbers like the figure of 6 million killed. Students and teachers are encouraged to apply the lessons to contemporary situations, both personal and societal.

“Studying the Holocaust would be an arid and somewhat silly thing to do if we didn’t draw from it lessons that we could apply to our own lives and to our own futures,” said Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation. “If we have all this information and know so much about genocide, how do we go about preventing it? How do we identify societies at risk?”

While there is some resistance in the Jewish community toward comparing genocides or implicitly challenging the uniqueness of the Holocaust or the purity of memory, Greenberg said scholars such as preeminent Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer talk of the need to universalize the message.

“If we remembered and learned the Holocaust, a lot of things that happened in the last 60 years wouldn’t have happened — in Rwanda or Kosovo or anywhere else,” said Yossie Hollander, an Irvine-based pioneer in the Israeli software industry who, with his wife Dana, donated more than $1 million to fund Echoes and Reflections.

The Shoah Foundation’s new emphasis on anti-bias education is what enabled the collaboration with ADL — which for 30 years has built programs around teaching tolerance — and Yad Vashem, which in the last decade has focused anew on what goes on in classrooms.

In 1993, Yad Vashem built a school dedicated to Holocaust education, and now spends more than a third of its budget on training teachers and educating young people, a dramatic increase from a decade ago.

“It was clear to me and my colleagues that this was the next step. We still have a great responsibility to take records and build the knowledge historically, but we understood at a certain point the real challenge was to go through the changing generations,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem. “The Shoah should be part of our conscience, become part of the bricks, the essential elements that build our society.”

In 2004, about 11,000 educators in Israel and abroad participated in Yad Vashem teacher training. Last year 100,000 Israeli and foreign youths visited its International School for Holocaust Studies, and another 30,000 had Yad Vashem mobile educational units visit their schools.

In the United States, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., makes education of teachers and students a central priority. More than one-third of the 350,000 visitors a year at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles are children. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Facing History and Ourselves, which have always focused on anti-bias education, are forming partnerships with a growing number of organizations looking to tap into their expertise.

The Shoah Foundation is relying on such partnerships to make its archive as accessible as possible — currently the organization’s biggest challenge. There are five sites with full access to the testimonials. Centers are set up at the Tapper Research and Testing Center at the Shoah Foundation offices at Universal Studios; at the University of Southern California; Rice University in Houston; Yale University; and the University of Michigan. Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, will have access to the complete collection by 2008.

At these archive centers, researchers, genealogist or amateurs can use a sophisticated search engine to pull up testimonies relating to a specific person, a certain concentration camp or town, or to a type of experience, such as hunger in the Ukrainian forest, or Jewish girls raised in convents in eastern Poland.

But outside those five centers, access is limited, even online. Visitors to the Web site can review some short clips and fact sheets about the eyewitnesses, but tapes or DVDs of the testimony must be ordered from the foundation.

The foundation has distributed smaller collections to libraries, museums and universities at 42 locations in 16 countries, so that places like the public library at Jackson, Miss., have a few dozen testimonies and a printed index to go with it.

The foundation also offers programming and follow-up for schools in the area.

And over the past four years, the Shoah Foundation has produced 16 CDs and videos for classroom use that have reached 2 million students, along with 10 feature-length documentaries and teacher training on how to use visual testimony in the classroom. The foundation’s interactive Web exhibits get about 25,000 hits a month.

In 2003 The Shoah Foundation teamed up with Facing History and Ourselves for a program at Los Angeles public high schools to accompany the film “Schindler’s List” and a documentary with testimonies from Schindler Jews.

One million high schoolers in Germany are using an interactive CD produced by the Shoah Foundation, and the foundation has or is setting up relationships with education ministries in many countries.

Getting into the classroom is actually more difficult in the United States, where education is controlled at the state and district level. While many states mandate Holocaust education, getting the material into hands of capable teachers is not easy. In California, a bill mandating teaching of the Holocaust was passed unanimously by the legislature in 2002, but was not funded.

For Echoes and Reflections, the ADL is taking on the challenge of distributing the curriculum. The ADL has 30 regional offices, and 50 education staffers were at Universal Studios last month for a three-day seminar on Echoes and Reflections, in the hopes that they can teach teachers in their regions. ADL national staff is going out to state boards of education, Holocaust education commissions, school districts and private and parochial schools to sell the product, which costs about $100 for a three-inch binder with the lesson plans and a DVD or video cassette (group packages are available).

Jenny Betz, project director of the ADL’s A World of Difference Institute, went through the training, and said she and the other educators cried as they listened to survivors tell their stories.

The effort and the response encourage project funder Hollander.

“There is no other subject that can teach more than this subject,” he said. “There isn’t another subject that they learn in school that makes them cry. And if they can cry, it opens their hearts and it opens their minds.”

For more information on Echoes and Reflections, visit www.shoahfoundation.org, www.adl.org or www.yadvashem.org.