Children on Purim Photo by Flavio Grynszpan

It’s Purim. Here’s Your Mission.

One of the more challenging aspects of living an inspired life is experiencing meaning during those inevitable stretches that appear to be spiritually vacant. Many of us live our lives eagerly waiting for the next peak moment to arrive. We cross the days off our calendar in anticipation of the next big milestone, event or vacation, and we endure the hard days because we know something better lies ahead.

And, why not?

The approach seems harmless, maybe even therapeutic. It helps take the sting out of the everyday grind, and keeps us excited about our future: ten more days until the long weekend, a few weeks until my boss goes on a long vacation, one month until our family will all be under one roof again, the first time in years.

But, the mathematics here cause concern. Most of life, at least for me, exists somewhere between our significant highs and inevitable lows. If meaning only arrives when life crescendos, our fulfillment ratio won’t be pretty. Maybe once a week for the lucky ones, far more sporadic for the rest of us.

Recently, I caught myself absorbed in this kind of slump. As an educator, I live for the watershed moments of my classroom, of our institutional achievement, and of my teaching. If I could pull it off, I’d want everyday and everything in my life to be an earth-shattering experience – and why wouldn’t I? And so it’s not surprising that I’ve been struggling to find fulfillment absent a groundbreaking event. Although my job description includes teaching, learning, relationships and community building – things that should be naturally meaningful – if I allow each day and week to bleed into the next, these supposedly fulfilling tasks feel like… tasks.

I am fairly convinced that there are both many and no real ways to actually resolve this dilemma, but this year I’m finding some ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ in the duel strata of the Purim story.

The world of Megillat Esther is a famously godless one. Anomalous among the Torah’s many books, Esther’s ten chapters fail to mention God’s name, let alone attribute a divine hand in its topsy-turvy plot. The story itself begs the reader to be seduced by its fairytale style and too-good-to-be-true plot twists. With the absence of God’s presence, the story itself appears to be one of good fortune or luck: It just so happened that Mordechai was sitting at the king’s gate… It just so happened that Esther was chosen to be queen… It just so happened that Achashverosh opened up his diary to Mordechai’s page…

Indeed, the name of the holiday, חג פורים, a Holiday of Lots, appears to riff off of the story’s fluky plot. While all our other holidays commemorate the explicit hand of God in our national history, a cursory reading of the Purim story offers a worldview that’s whimsical and arbitrary. Something like: in a world without God, Chance reigns.

But of course, our Holiday of Lots is grounded in a Scroll of Hiddenness, מגילת אסתר. While the first-layer of the Megillah tempts us into seeing the world as if things just happen, I believe the Megillah wants us to dismiss that view as artificial. Instead, the Megillah challenges us to develop a religious consciousness, a spiritual acumen willing to find meaning, God, and godliness even when its presence isn’t immediately obvious. Different than our other biblical stories, Megillat Esther raises the ante and demands that we become active and engaged seekers of God, rather than mere consumers. Meaning is unavoidable at the birth of one’s child; it takes a bit more effort to find it while paying your taxes.

I love this idea, but it’s also demanding. The hidden theology of Megillat Esther requires us to search actively for meaning and to work to uncover God’s presence in the world. It encourages us to be suspect of appearances, and instead value the deeper layers of soul, purpose, and intent.

On one level, we wear costumes on Purim to accentuate the carnivalesque nature of the day. Yes, Jews can party, too. But on a deeper level, our costumes are meant to express our less revealed selves, the hidden layers of our persona that tend to be a bit more concealed. Amidst the merriment and joy of Purim, we simultaneously affirm that there’s always more than meets the eye. Ironically, though in typical Jewish fashion, the Purim costume is actually meant to subvert the outer world in favor of revealing our inner-world. (So, choose your costume wisely!)

Herein lies the great work of the Purim season. Revisit an aspect in your life that feels perfunctory and reflect on its purpose, reignite a relationship that’s stultifying by identifying its real worth, and try to remind yourself that peak moments are always lurking, we just need to do a better job opening our eyes.

Purim Sameach.

Ari Schwarzberg is Director, The Shalhevet Institute and Judaic Studies Faculty at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

Members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church protest early on the morning of Feb. 27 outside Shalhevet High School. Photo by Oren Peleg.

Sharing love, lessons in the face of hate rally

Nine members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for hate speech directed at Jews and the LGBT community, staged a 30-minute demonstration early on the morning of Feb. 27 outside Shalhevet High School, a Modern Orthodox high school in the Miracle Mile neighborhood.

The protesters had flown to Los Angeles to hold a protest outside the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 26 in Hollywood. They also demonstrated outside the Islamic Center in Hawthorne over the weekend.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic hate groups, calls Westboro Baptist Church “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” According to the church’s website, it has held  more than 59,000 demonstrations in 994 cities.

In an email to the school community several days ahead of the demonstration, Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s Head of School, said classes would start at 9:30 a.m., about two hours after the demonstrators were scheduled to be dispersed. He also said extra Shalhevet security, as well as Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, would be on hand and urged against any counterprotest, on advice from school security officials.

“This group is looking to incite a response. I strongly urge our entire community to not give them the satisfaction of an argument or a response,” he wrote.

The protestors — teens to middle-aged adults — gathered on a busy section of Fairfax Avenue directly across the street from Shalhevet’s gated parking lot entrance. With LAPD officers and Shalhevet’s armed security guards on alert, protestors played music on a stereo, sang along and held up signs, including those that said “Tranny Sin Dooms Nations” and “144K Jews Will Repent,” a reference to scripture, the protestors claimed. The group believes Jews to be ardent supporters of homosexuality and the murderers of Jesus.

Timothy Phelps, 53, the son of Westboro’s founder, Fred Phelps, was among the protestors, but he did not offer much of a reason for choosing Shalhevet over other Los Angeles Jewish schools. He cited its location near a busy intersection, saying the group would get to other Los Angeles Jewish schools, such as YULA, in due time. He went on to refer to Judaism as a “dead religion” and talked about how sin in various forms is synonymous with Judaism.

“Idolatry, adultery, sodomy, fornication, pride, all of those … it’s rampant in the Israeli culture, in the Jewish culture,” he said.

With some in the Shalhevet community calling for a counterprotest off-site, Principal Noam Weissman favored the idea of a special learning program as a response to “virulent anti-Semitism.”

“We didn’t want to give them the attention they were seeking,” Weissman said. “We thought: Why not respond from a Jewish perspective and use this hatred as a springboard to be more proud of our Judaism?”

Segal found a willing partner in Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills, which offered use of its facility. Heads of three area Jewish high schools — de Toledo High School, YULA Girls High School and Milken Community Schools — expressed an interest in having their students participate in whatever Shalhevet planned. Approximately 60 students from the three schools joined nearly 240 Shalhevet students and some parents who gathered at Beth Jacob at 8 a.m. for a tefilah service and Torah learning centered around Purim.

“This brought out the best in so many people,” Segal said. “Whatever Westboro was hoping to do, they accomplished the exact opposite.”

Weissman added: “They preached hatred and we celebrated love, friendship and peace in a most incredible way.”

After the program, Shalhevet students walked the 40-minute route back to campus in what Segal and Weissman called “the peace and love march.”

Segal said the rest of the day went smoothly, though he called the day as a whole “one of the craziest” during his time there.

In response to the protest, IKAR, a Jewish community that holds prayer services inside Shalhevet’s gymnasium, sent an email to its community, urging donations to the Trevor Project, an organization that provides life-saving support for transgender youth and adults. IKAR also collected donations from its members for a separate fund that was used to purchase sweets that were delivered Monday afternoon to Shalhevet students.

Segal said he was touched by the support from colleagues and the students at other schools. However, he added that he hopes moving forward, Jewish schools can look to come together in a proactive way, rather than just in reaction to troubling circumstances.

“I spoke with the leaders of the other schools and we all agreed that it shouldn’t just be something negative that brings us together,” Segal said. “The schools coming together to do good things together shouldn’t just be a reaction to people coming to tear us down. It should also happen to celebrate something positive.”

Staff writer Eitan Arom contributed to this report.

From left: Claudia Puig, president of the L.A. Film Critics Association; Robert Magid, producer of “Eyeless in Gaza;” Hollywood journalist Alex Ben Block; Creative Community for Peace co-founder David Rezner and Tribe Media Corp. President David Suissa. Photo courtesy of Roz Wolf.

Moving and Shaking: New Gaza film screening, local olympian celebrated, TIOH Rabbi announces retirement

“Eyeless in Gaza,” a documentary that attempts to show how Israel suffered from biased media coverage during its 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, had its Los Angeles premiere on Feb. 6 at the iPic Theaters in Westwood.

The film incorporates news footage of the war, including that of a media company capturing on camera Hamas fighters setting up rocket-launch sites in densely populated Gaza neighborhoods. Israel has long maintained that this is standard practice by Hamas and that it is part of the reason why Israel inflicts high civilian casualties on Gaza in the event of violent conflicts with the anti-Israel terrorist organization.

The 50-minute film also incorporates original interviews with Hamas officials; Israeli-Canadian journalist and author Matti Friedman, who formerly served in the Israel Defense Forces and pro-Israel attorney Alan Dershowitz. It delves into the history of Israel’s relationship with the Gaza Strip, beginning with Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and its dismantling of settlements in the region.

During the 2014 war, mainstream media depicted Israel as using disproportionate force against the Gaza people. Reporters cited the uneven death toll — 1,483 Palestinian civilians killed compared to five Israeli civilians, according to, which cites the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — as evidence of Israel’s brutality.

The film explains that Israel’s Iron Dome defense prevented Israel from suffering higher casualties despite the constant rocket fire on Israel from Gaza.

About 60 people attended the screening, including pro-Israel philanthropists Naty and Debbie Saidoff.

A post-screening panel featuring the film’s producer, Robert Magid; Hollywood journalist Alex Ben Block; Creative Community for Peace co-founder David Renzer; and Tribe Media Corp. President David Suissa examined the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Los Angeles Film Critics Association President Claudia Puig moderated the panel.

The film will be available Feb. 28 on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime and Vimeo.

From left: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinsky; Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) Executive Director Rabbi Dave Sorani; NBC Universal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer; and JGSI Director of Operations Rabbi Matthew Rosenberg attend the Jewish Executive Leadership Conference. Photo courtesy of Jewish Graduate Student Initiative.

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) on Jan. 29 drew the largest crowd ever to its Jewish Executive Leadership Conference, which was held at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

More than 400 Jewish graduate students and recent college graduates attended the conference that featured 50 panelists and three keynote speakers.

The goal of the conference was “to create a forum for Jewish graduate students and young professionals to interact with high-level Jewish executives who share insights into their careers and industries while impacting upon them the importance of philanthropy and community leadership,” said Rabbi Matthew Rosenberg, JGSI director of operations. “Participants are then introduced to volunteering opportunities with a full range of L.A.’s premier Jewish nonprofits.”

The featured speakers addressed a variety of topics, including real estate, finance, law and the entertainment industry. The three keynote speakers were Scooter Braun, founder of the entertainment and media company SB Projects; Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBC Universal; and Elaine Wynn, co-founder of Wynn Resorts.

“This year was our best-attended and most successful conference ever, with our best lineup of speakers to date,” Rosenberg said. “We look forward to hosting an even bigger and better event next year and getting even more young people involved in their Los Angeles Jewish community.”

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

World Swimming Championships XOlympic champion swimmer Anthony Ervin, a native of Valencia, is among inductees elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame for 2017.

Ervin captured a pair of gold medals at last year’s Olympics in Brazil in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter relay. His performances were a near repeat of his gold- and silver-medal-winning efforts in the same events at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. He now resides in Florida.

The other inductees to the hall of fame include two Americans, a Canadian, a Hungarian, an Israeli, a New Zealander and a Russian.

One of the Americans, who among all the inductees arguably has had the longest impact on spectator sports, was the late Albert Von Tilzer, a New Yorker who wrote the immortal baseball anthem “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in 1908. The other American, Thelma “Tybie” Thall-Sommers, was a two-time world champion in table tennis. In 1948 she paired with Richard Miles to become the first Americans to win the world mixed doubles title. In 1949, as a member of the U.S. team, she won world championships in singles and doubles. She also won several national titles during her career.

The other inductees are:

The late Hy Buller of Canada, a National Hockey League star who played for the New York Rangers. He set a rookie record in 1951-52 for scoring the most goals, and ranked second for most goals among all NHL defensemen in three consecutive seasons.

The late Joszef Braun, who joined the MTK Budapest soccer club in 1916 at age 15 and three years later was named Hungary’s “Player of the Year.” His team won nine national championships through 1924. Braun perished in a Nazi forced labor camp in 1943.

Israel’s Lee Korzits, a four-time world sailing champion, who won her first Mistral-class title in 2003. After a long layoff due to injuries, the Hadera native won world gold medals in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

New Zealand sailing champion Jo Aleh, who won gold medals (with Olivia Powrie) in the women’s 420 Class event at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and at the 2007 and 2013 world championships.

Swimmer Semyon Belits-Geiman, a Moscow native who broke 67 Soviet national freestyle records, set a world 800-meter freestyle record in 1966, and the same year won two gold medals at the European championships. In 1999, he and his wife moved to Stamford, Conn.

The election results were announced in December by the hall of fame’s co-chairmen, Alan Sherman of Potomac, Md., and R. Stephen Rubin of London. Formal inductions are slated for July 4 at the hall of fame’s museum on the Wingate Institute campus in Netanya, Israel.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

emple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) Senior Rabbi John Rosove has announced his plan to retire from TIOH and become the Reform synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, effective June 30, 2019.

By the time he retires, Rosove will have served as senior rabbi at TIOH for 30 years and “will have completed 40 years of service to the Jewish people since my ordination” at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, in 1979, Rosove said in a Feb. 8 statement.

“Though my retirement is still two-plus years away, I am announcing now to give our Temple leadership the time necessary to thoughtfully establish a process that will ensure the best and wisest selection of my successor as Senior Rabbi,” he said.

Rosove assumed the position of senior rabbi at TIOH in 1988. The Los Angeles native graduated from the UC Berkeley in 1972.

He is the board chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America; holds a seat on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; serves as a Jewish Agency for Israel committee member; recently was national co-chair of the rabbinic cabinet of J Street, a left-leaning, pro-Israel organization and more.

From left: Westwood Village Synagogue Rabbi Abner Weiss; actor and comedian Elon Gold; Shalhevet High School senior Micha Thau; and Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal participate in a discussion about Orthodox Judaism and the LGBT community. Photo by Eitan Arom.

From left: Westwood Village Synagogue Rabbi Abner Weiss; actor and comedian Elon Gold; Shalhevet High School senior Micha Thau; and Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal participate in a discussion about Orthodox Judaism and the LGBT community.
Photo by Eitan Arom.

In middle school, Micha Thau wanted to live what he called “the Jewish Orthodox American dream” — a future with a house in Beverlywood with a Honda Odyssey in the driveway, four kids and a pretty wife eight years his junior. When he realized he was gay, in eighth grade, “it spit in my face, robbed me of all motivation.”

Now a senior at Shalhevet High School, Thau spoke at Westwood Village Synagogue on Feb. 8 as part of a panel called “Modern Orthodoxy and LGBT: Navigating a Complex Reality,” alongside Shalhevet head of school Rabbi Ari Segal; actor and comedian Elon Gold; Westwood Village Synagogue Rabbi Abner Weiss; a clinical psychologist, and moderator Alexander Leichter.

In high school, Thau was ready to come out to his community. “It came to the point where staying in the closet was so much more painful than anything that could happen outside of it,” he explained to about 50 people who gathered at the synagogue, upstairs from Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Westwood.

Something clicked for Segal when he realized Thau had spent years worrying if Shalhevet would ostracize him for being gay. “I made a decision at that moment,” he said. “We were going to have a [gay-straight alliance], we were going to stop pretending that we don’t have gay kids at the school.”

After that, Segal wrote an editorial for Shalhevet’s newspaper calling LGBT acceptance “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” With Thau at the helm, Shalhevet issued a pledge Jewish schools can sign to commit themselves to supporting gay students. So far, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it, Segal said.

Gold, an observant Jew, played a gay father in the web series “Bar Mitzvah.” He spoke about his brother, Ari, who came out at the age of 18. To this day, his brother doesn’t feel comfortable within the Orthodox community, Gold said. “He is a very proud Jew,” he said. “He just feels like he can’t stay observant. It’s too conflicting.”

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Making Jewish high school affordable

Los Angeles residents Dafna and Scott Taryle hoped to send their son Adam to a Jewish hight school when he graduated from Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy. But, Scott Taryle said, “We didn’t know for sure that we would be able to.” 

The Taryles aren’t alone. The annual tuition at most Jewish high schools in Los Angeles is upward of $25,000, and in some cases closer to $35,000, when you count all the add-ons (such as textbooks, technology and security fees, grade trips, etc.) — a price that is simply out of reach for a lot of people.

So the Taryles, who have a younger son as well, considered their options, including an LAUSD magnet school. Adam attended orientation events at various schools and his dad said he “fell in love with Shalhevet,” a Modern Orthodox co-ed school in the Fairfax neighborhood. 

“We thought this would be the environment that would be best for him and nurture him,” he said. But there was still the matter of tuition. 

Fortunately, the Taryles learned about the Los Angeles High School Affordability Initiative (LAHSAI), a program spearheaded by the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation with major help from Los Angeles-based Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). Among other things, the multiyear program, which was introduced in 2008 and wraps up this coming school year, provides tuition assistance to Jewish middle-income L.A. families hoping to send their children to one of five area high schools: Shalhevet, YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). 

It is worth noting that “middle income,” as defined by LAHSAI, is very different from what most people, especially those outside Los Angeles, might consider “middle.” When BJE developed the parameters for applicants, they started with the figure of $74,044, which the California Budget Project defined as the subsistence level for two working parents with two kids, said Miriam Prum-Hess, director of BJE’s Center for Excellence in Day School Education. BJE then took into account the additional costs of living in a Jewish neighborhood, synagogue membership, keeping kosher and sending kids to summer camp, as well as school tuition. BJE set the maximum aid at 40 percent of tuition, and each school determined the amount awarded based on each family’s need.

The Jim Joseph Foundation, whose mission is “to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews,” did not simply write checks to the five high schools. In the interest of assuring the schools’ long-term financial health and sustainability, they made their monies dependent on the schools building significant endowments. In this way, even after the six-year initiative runs its course, the schools can continue to help middle-income families for at least six more years and, hopefully, well beyond.

The carrot approach worked. Including more than $4 million that the schools received, together, from the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund, they will have raised over $21 million in endowment funds by the program’s end, said Sandy Edwards, associate director of the Jim Joseph Foundation. “None of that includes Jim Joseph money,” she added. “We felt our money was the incentive and stimulus. … Schools are now thinking differently. That’s what we mean by culture change.”

Prum-Hess elaborated:. “Prior to this program, very few schools had any sort of endowment. Thinking long term into the future was not something that was in their consciousness at all. … As one head of school who wasn’t part of this program said to me, ‘I so get it now. If I want my school to be around in 10 years, I have to begin building an endowment.’ It made real for us what must be done. Schools were too busy working in the today to think about working in the future.” 

Raising millions of dollars was not easy for any of the schools. Some did not have dedicated development staff. Now they all do. Boards worked tirelessly. BJE offered direction and hand-holding along the way.

“The key was the inspirational piece,” said Bruce Powell, head of NCJHS. “Our people were so inspired. We need huge endowments to make sure we never have to be in the position to turn a Jewish family away from a Jewish high school education. What a great day that will be. … In the short term, [LAHSAI] helped us. … In the long term, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Adam Taryle is one of 367 students receiving tuition assistance thanks to the initiative. In September, he’ll start his second year at Shalhevet. According to his dad, it’s a good fit. 

“I’ve really seen it bring out a lot of confidence in him,” he said. “The financial commitment, even with Jim Joseph, is a little daunting. But I’m really happy with what I’ve seen it doing for my son.”

Arlene Davidson, whose daughter Morgan moved from a well-regarded public school to NCJHS last year to begin her junior year, is equally enthusiastic. 

“She needed something different,” the Woodland Hills resident said. “She needed to be around other kids who, [like her], want to make this world a better place.”

For the Davidsons, too, even with the assistance, the tuition is a stretch. “We still have had to make a lifestyle change,” said Arlene Davidson, who is quick to add that they live very comfortably. Although they have not taken a vacation in more than two years, she has no regrets. 

“This is what Morgan needed,” she said. “She has blossomed 100 percent.” In fact, Morgan recently was named a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipient, one of 15 from across the country.

“If there’s one thing I can stress to other parents, it’s don’t let the financial part turn you away,” Davidson said. “I know a lot of parents who decide to send their kids to Catholic school because it’s half the cost. This makes [Jewish school] more doable.”

Jewish student press group convenes in L.A.

More than two dozen Jewish high school student journalists from Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco gathered on Oct. 24 for a four-day convention and Shabbaton that aimed to build students’ practical journalism skills while addressing the intersection of news reporting and Jewish ethics.

The inaugural convention of the newly formed Jewish Scholastic Press Association (JSPA), held at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Pico-Robertson, included workshops and lectures that covered issues such as Jewish journalism ethics, Israel coverage in the college press, freedom of the press in religious high schools, copyright law, photojournalism, layout techniques and more.

The conference was co-sponsored by Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox school on Fairfax Avenue, and the American Jewish Press Association. It was organized by Joelle Keene, adviser to Shalhevet’s prize-winning newspaper, The Boiling Point. A total of 28 students — all but seven from Los Angeles — attended.

On Thursday, the conference’s first afternoon, students chose among several workshops. One was led by Los Angeles-based New York Times national correspondent Jennifer Medina, who is an Orthodox Jew. She gave students a glimpse into life as an observant Jewish journalist at The New York Times.

“The most difficult thing for me is Shabbat,” Medina said to a group of about 20 students in B’nai David’s beit midrash. “We work in a news system that goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s quite unusual for any journalist to say, ‘There’s going to be 25 hours in a week where, not only will I not work, I won’t check e-mail or answer my phone,” Medina continued.

Students asked Medina questions ranging from her coverage of Israel during her brief stint as the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent to whether she has had to compromise her Jewish and halachic values as a journalist.

After Medina’s talk, Ricki Heicklen, a senior at the Modern Orthodox SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., told the Journal she learned how her religiosity is “going to shape my life later on” if she pursues a career in journalism. Heicklen is the editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper, The Buzz. 

Students from out of town stayed at local families’ homes and attended B’nai David for Shabbat meals and services. They also had an opportunity to sample the various kosher restaurants lining Pico Boulevard.

The event’s keynote was given by Dana Erlich, Israeli consul for culture, media and public diplomacy in Los Angeles. 

In one session, journalist Kathleen Neumeyer, the adviser of the student newspaper at L.A.’s Harvard-Westlake School, addressed the issue of covering controversial news within one’s own community. She discussed the balance needed in reporting significant news while trying to not unfairly hurt anyone. 

“What are stories that maybe you could tell, but maybe they could be harmful to somebody?” she asked the students.

Adam Rokah, a junior at Shalhevet and the arts editor for the school’s newspaper, The Boiling Point, said that Neumeyer’s workshop gave him insights into “what names you can use and what has to be anonymous.”

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the Jewish Week of New York, was among others who participated in the conference, along with several representatives from TRIBE Media Corp., the parent company of the Jewish Journal. They included Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief; David Suissa, president; and Susan Freudenheim, executive editor.

Deena Nerwen, a student at SAR, was awarded the JSPA’s inaugural prize for Jewish scholastic journalism for her story on the Tav HaYosher, an Orthodox initiative in New York that aims to improve working conditions in kosher restaurants.

More options for modern Orthodox campers

Camp Judah West, which has run travel and sports camps in West Los Angeles for the past four years, has procured a rental location near San Diego and is organizing a five-week summer camp session based on the ideals of Jewish camping, Zionism and Torah. 

Targeting Modern Orthodox families, the camp was founded by Rabbi Aharon Assaraf, a veteran Jewish camper, counselor and educator who currently works as director of student activities at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

The camp’s programming will include typical outdoorsy fare, such as sports, trips and outdoor survival, as well as strong Jewish elements that include daily Torah and tefilah (prayer). There also will be Shabbat programming and visiting Jewish performers nearly every weekend.  

Camp Judah West, which will open July 10 and close Aug. 13, is open to students entering third through ninth grades, although older students can work as waiters/waitresses or counselors. Tuition ranges from $499 for a mini-session to $3,499 for the full summer session, according to the for-profit camp’s Web site,  

Assaraf said that since he moved to Los Angeles nearly five years ago for a job in education, one of his main goals became creating an Orthodox sleep-away camp in the region. He said that a meaningful summer experience can inspire students throughout the year and serve as a bridge between the school years, which is why he sees it as critical that overnight camping be open to all socio-economic classes in the Jewish community.  

“Camping is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” he said.

Assaraf said he’s hoping that funders and investors will contribute to the camp’s scholarship fund, enabling more kids to come. 

Camp Judah West officials hope to attract between 200 and 250 young people to the overnight camp this year, although the facility can hold up to 450.  While most of the youths are coming from California, there will be campers from 15 different cities all over the West, and even from New York, New Jersey and Florida, Assaraf said.

Shana Chriki, a Shalhevet 10th-grader who will be working as a counselor at Camp Judah West, said that many of her friends from Shalhevet were encouraged by Assaraf to go to Jewish summer camp. 

“When he was little, he didn’t have the privilege to go to camp,” she said, “and he thinks everyone should be able to go to camp, so he tries his best to make everybody happy and get everyone to go there.”  

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in New York, said there is a changing culture on the West Coast, where kids are more interested in camping. He said that FJC has been seeing a growing demand for overnight camps and that camp attendance has been particularly on the rise on the West Coast.  

Camp Judah West is based in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, a 2 1/2-hour drive from Los Angeles, which Assaraf believes is critical to the experience.  

“It needs to be a couple hours removed,” he said.  “If [kids] know that home is right around the corner, it would affect their experience.”

Some of the more unique components include a newly hired music director who co-founded the band Blue Fringe; a beit midrash (house of study) program for high school and post-high school students; and a group of former Israeli soldiers coming to train campers on wilderness and survival skills. 

But Assaraf said he’s most excited about “how amazed the community will be that we are going to change the lives of hundreds of youth in our first summer.” 

Shalhevet looks for financial security in property sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding common ground

Shalhevet journalism teacher Joelle Keene says that Leila Miller, editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Boiling Point, has set a high standard for journalism, integrity and optimism amid complex human relations.

“[She is] wise enough to know that real differences among people do exist, [but] she has set out on a personal mission to work through them to communities’ common humanity,” she said.

A Quill and Scroll award-winning writer, 17-year-old Miller has penned several stories about Jewish communities in other countries. She contacted Jewish sources in Japan last year to interview them about the earthquake and tsunami. She also published an article about the strategies and organizations that
Mexican Jews use to cope with violence in their country.

“It’s been really interesting meeting these people all over the world that I would not have been able to meet otherwise,” Miller said. “And I learned a lot about them.”

Miller’s writing also recognizes that geographic barriers are not the only obstacles to interaction between communities. She wrote an article about Muslim teenagers in Los Angeles and the difficulties they faced attending public schools—from balancing religion and heritage to interacting with misinformed classmates and teachers. She was happy to discover that the girls she interviewed had taped a copy of the article to the youth-group bulletin board at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

The ties Miller made while writing about the Muslim teenagers extended beyond the publication of her article when she decided to organize an interfaith picnic. In May 2011,

11 students from Shalhevet met with 33 teens from the Islamic Center’s youth group. The picnic was such a success that a second one was organized.

Miller said she hoped the picnics would help dispel the preconceptions between communities, which do not often interact. “They were primarily social events for kids to ask questions about each other,” she said.

Miller has experience balancing multiple cultures in her own life. Born in Argentina and fluent in Spanish, she has returned to Argentina every summer since she was young. She worked with the Tzedaká Foundation in Buenos Aires during the summer after her sophomore year, and the following summer she worked as an assistant teacher in English classes at Escuela Martín Buber.

Miller has played classical piano since she was 7, and is currently the accompanist for her school’s choir.

Miller plans to attend Oberlin College next fall. She wants to “keep an open mind and take a wide variety of classes,” but is considering studying English or creative writing, she said.

Keene said Miller is “a kind of ambitious humanist, someone who has never seen a challenge she doesn’t think can be solved by working harder, or a problem that can’t be solved by some dialogue and a smile.”

Shalhevet students bring elders’ memories to stage

“Collective Memory,” a theater program at Shalhevet High School last weekend, was the culmination of a process that brought together student playwrights with various seniors who gather at the Westside Jewish Community Center. The students interviewed the seniors about their youths — among them were a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, an African-American woman who traveled through Europe as a young hippie and a man who loved to tell funny stories — and then told their stories in a series of short plays with student actors. Because the stories all were about memories of youth, the very talented teens seemed to connect vividly with their subjects. Led by executive producer Emily Chase and playwriting teacher Laurel Ollstein, with the help of a student stage crew, the program was presented to a sold-out audience that included many of the seniors interviewed, all of whom seemed very pleased to see younger versions of themselves onstage.

Milken JCC hires new director; Heschel West receives award

Milken JCC Hires New Executive Director, Finalizes Strategic Plan for Improvements

Paul Frishman, a 22-year veteran of the Jewish Community Center movement, has been tapped as the new executive director of The New JCC at Milken. He officially began Sept. 2.

Frishman, 45, spent the last four and a half years as chief operating officer of the Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale, Ariz., and 18 years at the Dave & Mary Alper JCC in Miami.

His selection represents a solid commitment to rebuilding Milken JCC, said Steve Rheuban, the center’s board chair.

In spring 2007, as the center was facing a $250,000 deficit, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles closed the Olympic-sized pool, causing almost one-third of its members to abandon the JCC. Despite these challenges, the center’s leaders voted down a one-time $350,000 allocation offered by The Federation that would have required giving up its historic right to be the major tenant on the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills.

The organization now has finalized a new business plan, as well as a strategic plan to create a state-of-the-art fitness center, with the goal of reopening the pool and shower facilities. It is working with the JCC Development Corp., successor to JCC parent organization, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, to finance reopening of the pool. Once that happens, Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg is on board to bring back his swim school.

Additionally, representatives of the JCC and The Federation have been meeting to work out an agreement by December detailing occupancy and responsibility issues.

“It’s not us vs. them. We are a community, and the JCC is part of the community,” said Richard Sandler, Federation vice chair and one of the negotiators.

Meanwhile, more than 80 2- to 4-year-olds are enrolled in the JCC preschool, and 200 to 250 seniors daily attend classes, play cards or work out at the center. “This is their home,” Frishman said.

He wants to increase membership, currently hovering around 500 families, as well as sports, educational and cultural activities, including specialized programming for the Russian and Israeli communities. In addition, he wants to make facility improvements.

“I look at this with wide-open eyes and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm,” he said.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

College Credit, Teacher Training Now Available for Arab-Israeli Conflict Course

Beginning this fall, high school juniors and seniors who complete The David Project’s course on the Arab-Israeli conflict can receive freshman-level college credit for the class. Teacher training on the high school curriculum is tentatively planned for Nov. 2-4 in Los Angeles.

“The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Educating Ourselves, Educating Others” teaches the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict by promoting historical accuracy, critical thinking, discussion, moral decision making and activism.

The curriculum has been offered for the past two years through the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, a transdenominational Jewish college in Melrose Park, Pa. With support from the Avi Chai Foundation, the course has been adopted by 100 schools in the United States and Canada, including YULA High School in Los Angeles. More than 3,500 students complete the class each year.

The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, a nonprofit educational organization, has partnered with The Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles to offer the Teacher Training Institute, tentatively scheduled for November. Registration for the three-day seminar would be $150 (includes lodging and two meals per day); a commuter option would also be available.

For more information, visit Questions about the teacher training institute can be addressed to Na’ama Levitz Applbaum at

— Anita K. Kantrowitz, Contributing Writer

Heschel West Receives Blue Ribbon Award

The U.S. Department of Education has given Heschel West Day School the National Blue Ribbon Award, a prestigious prize given to the “top 10 percent of schools nationally, based upon academic achievement.”

The Agoura school is the first Jewish school in the Conejo and San Fernando valleys to be awarded the prize. Heschel West attributes the award to its commitment to the education of the whole child.

“Often, parents come to us believing they have to choose between schools that provide children with rigorous academics and those that build strong values,” said Tami Weiser, Heschel West’s head of school. “This Blue Ribbon Award is validation of what we knew all along at Heschel West — families can come to us and find everything they are seeking at one school.”

The community Jewish school will celebrate its Blue Ribbon Award at Mitzvah Day on Sunday, Nov. 2. The event will call attention to illiteracy in other communities and collect books, toys and funds for underprivileged students and schools.

For more information, call (818) 707-2365.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Shalhevet Student Participates in Genesis College Program at Brandeis University

While other high school students spent this past summer in camp or working, Penina Smith was away at college.

The Shalhevet senior was one of 62 rising juniors and seniors chosen to attend Genesis, a four-week residential program at Brandeis University offering first-year college-level courses integrating the arts, Jewish studies, humanities, social action and community building.

Participants from 21 states, Canada, Israel, Spain and Russia attended team-taught workshops and seminars that were both test and grade free. The students, representing the spectrum of Jewish life from Modern Orthodox to secular, also created different Shabbat programs weekly and worked on various community service projects.

Smith took a world religions course and a creative writing workshop titled, “The Lie That Tells a Truth.” Other courses included “Journalism, Judaism and Ethics,” “Israel” and “Judaism and Justice.” In addition, workshops included mixed media, music and digital photography.

Founded in 1997 with support from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Genesis accepts applications on a rolling basis.

For more information, visit


A school with attitude

If Barack Obama and John McCain wanted to elevate the level of discourse of their presidential campaigns, they could do worse than check out the last election campaign at Shalhevet High School.

You would think that typical teenagers would be the ones poking fun at each other to try to gain an advantage — you know, like recent McCain ads that mock Obama’s rock-star status by associating him with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, or Obama ads that mock 72-year-old McCain’s “senior moments.”

You would think.

But check out 17-year-old Kevin Birnbaum’s message at Shalhevet’s Town Hall last May — as covered in their award-winning Boiling Point newspaper — when he ran for Agenda chair:

“I have a dream that one day this school will rise up and have full Town Hall attendance, interesting topics and complete student involvement.”

Or what one of his competitors, Mark Rad, promised: “To redo the ugly and plain non-functional Agenda bulletin board and to enforce the Shalhevet constitution.” Or what another candidate, Penina Smith, said she wanted: “To bring Shalhevet back to the golden age, when (during a 1999 heat wave), students were able to pass a proposal for boys to wear shorts.”

OK, those are not ideas that will fix global warming, but it’s nice to see that, unlike the grownups in Washington, the Shalhevet candidates didn’t need to attack each other to get ahead. They were all business.

“All business” would be a good way to describe the mood at Shalhevet these days. I know, because when they invited me last week to come see the school, they ordered lunch from my favorite restaurant (Shilos).

After getting a tour of the renovated space, I sat down for lunch with a few of their key players: Efrem and Kendra Harkham, the community angels who have spearheaded the renovations; Esther Feder, the board president and a passionate ambassador for the school; Phu Tranchi, the beloved motorcycle-riding principal of general studies; and the new head of the school, Rabbi Elchanan J. Weinbach, a graduate of Yeshiva University and an educator from the East Coast.

This will be Shalhevet’s first year without founder and longtime leader Jerry Friedman at the helm. Friedman, who retired from the school last May, started Shalhevet 17 years ago to fill a need in the local Jewish school scene: A coed Modern Orthodox high school that would empower individual students to think for themselves and grow morally in a Torah environment.

Opposition to the school from right-leaning Orthodox circles came early, and still lingers. Although coed Orthodox high schools are common on the East Coast, the idea never went down smoothly out here, where the all-girls and all-boys YULA High Schools have been the dominant presence. But Friedman persevered, and over the years it became clear that there are more than enough Jews in Los Angeles who want a progressive Modern Orthodox school like Shalhevet (which now includes kindergarten through 12th grades).

In fact, I can tell you from personal experience that for parents whose kids graduate from Orthodox elementary schools like Maimonides or Hillel, it’s one of the annual hot topics of conversation: “YULA or Shalhevet?” Many parents agonize over this question: How far should one push the boundaries of Orthodoxy?

It’s a debate that’s playing out nationally within the movement itself. On the left, you have “Open Orthodox” leaders like Rabbi Avi Weiss, of Riverdale in New York, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who struggle creatively within the Jewish law to be more open and inclusive; while on the right, you have groups like the “Black Hat Orthodox” of Yeshiva University who fear the halachic slippery slope and are pushing for a more inward and stringent direction.

Shalhevet’s delicate balancing act, however, goes beyond the issue of Jewish law and touches on core issues like how to educate and nurture independent-thinking moral Jews; Jews who will lead and not just follow; Jews who will know when to respect the establishment and when to challenge it.

But like all high-wire acts, there have been stumbles. Shalhevet has gone through some rough patches over the years, with periods of high teacher turnover and questions about its financial solvency. But throughout the ups and downs — and my lunch group impressed on me that Shalhevet is now trending “up” — one thing has remained constant: Students are encouraged to open their minds, speak up, engage their teachers and stand up respectfully for what they believe in.

This is not a coincidence. Student involvement is the soul of the school. Teachers who can’t stomach it don’t last. Teachers who thrive on it run classes that regularly turn into lively debates on modern-day dilemmas.

Their new leader, Rabbi Weinbach, calls it Jewish education for “10 years down the road.”

The school’s concern, he says, is “what kind of Jews will our graduates be when they’re 27, not simply when they graduate at 17.”

When I heard the number 27, I got an “Aha!” moment. You see, someone at lunch had hinted that it would be great if I could give Shalhevet some advertising ideas (apparently, the little detail that my daughter happily goes to YULA didn’t seem to bother anyone).

Anyhow, I suggested that since they’re so proud of their alumni, they should run ads that play them up. And a good start would be someone like Zvika Krieger, a journalist with The New Republic magazine who reports from faraway places like Saudi Arabia. (Headline option: “I used to go to Shalhevet. Now I pray mincha in Mecca.”)

Who knows, maybe in a few years they’ll be promoting alumni like Kevin Birnbaum, Mark Rad and Penina Smith.

And I can tell you they won’t need anyone to write the headlines — unlike most of the grownups in Washington, the Shalhevet graduates will already have written their own.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Temple Beth Haverim bankrupt, ADL condemns rise in anti-Semitic incidents

Synagogue Files for Bankruptcy Protection

Temple Beth Haverim, an Agoura Hills-based Conservative congregation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week in an effort to restructure its debts.

“[We filed] as a result of our inability to work out any kind of a resolution with the bond holders,” said James Felton, the synagogue’s executive vice president.

Temple Beth Haverim says it is upside down on its debt, with the property worth less than the bonds it’s repaying. In papers filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Woodland Hills on July 22, the synagogue estimates its property’s current value at about $4.5 million, while its outstanding bonds are roughly $6.8 million.

Unlike residential or commercial real estate, Felton says it’s difficult to gauge the current value of the synagogue.

“This is a rather unique piece of property, and there’s not a lot of sales of temples or churches you can use as comparables,” he said.

Beth Haverim wants the court to either remove the bondholders through a refinancing of the property at the market value or arrange for the congregation to pay its debts at a lower percentage rate. Felton says that bridge loans from member families, which amount to $150,000, will also be repaid as part of a bankruptcy plan.

Founded in 1984 as the Agoura Jewish Center, the congregation moved to its current location at Ladyface Mountain in February 2003 after meeting in homes, an elementary school, a Presbyterian church and an industrial park. Congregants were able to raise $6 million in more prosperous times, which was used to purchase the property and build a preschool and a main building that houses the religious school, administrative offices, a chapel and a social hall.

Organizers had planned to raise an additional $6 million to build a sanctuary after growing the congregation beyond its 440 families, but membership and giving remained mostly static or slightly smaller over the years. As the economy faltered, Felton says fewer people joined or made capital contributions, which hurt the synagogue’s ability to meet its financial obligations.

The synagogue is still waiting for a court date, but Felton says salaries will be paid and services will continue. “We’re not closing our doors, we’re not folding. We’re reorganizing our debt, and we’re hoping that everyone is going to hang with us,” he said.

— Adam Wills, Senior Editor

ADL Condemns Rise in Anti-Semitic Incidents

The number of hate crimes reported in Los Angeles County was 28 percent higher last year than in 2006, according to a report released last week by the county’s Commission on Human Relations. The overwhelming majority of religious-based incidents targeted Jews.

Race accounted for 68 percent of acts of harassment and vandalism and was followed by sexual orientation. Hate crimes targeting religious groups, the third most common category, saw a 17 percent increase to 105 reported incidents, with 74 percent directed at Jews.

This contrasts both the drop in general crime throughout the county and the continuing decrease in anti-Semitism in California and the United States. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported in March that anti-Semitic incidents fell nearly 13 percent nationally from 2006 to 2007 and had dropped 25 percent from the 1,821 incidents reported in 2004. The decline was similar in California, where hate crimes fell last year to 186 from 204 the year before.

The ADL’s report, however, included two high-profile attacks in Los Angeles, including the pellet-gun assault of two yeshiva students in the Fairfax district and the defacing with swastikas and an anti-Semitic screed of Councilman Jack Weiss’ Sherman Oaks office.

Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s regional director, said the hate crimes report was particularly troubling because total incidents increased significantly while general crime was falling and because anti-Jewish attacks accounted for 10 percent of all reported incidents. She attributed the uptick, in part, to the social acceptability of previously unacceptable rhetoric.

“There is a campaign to make hate hip,” Susskind said.

The Commission on Human Relations report only cites two of the anti-Semitic complaints it learned of: a Jewish home in Beverly Hills was tagged with a swastika and a Jewish home in San Dimas was egged and toilet papered and then harassed with phones calls, including one in which the caller said, “You Jew! It’s going to be the Holocaust all over again.”

Since the beginning of 2008, there have already been several notable anti-Semitic attacks, all in the San Fernando Valley. In January, “F—k” Jews” and “Burn Jews” was spray-painted on the walls outside of four Encino and Tarzana homes. Molotov cocktails were thrown the following month at The New JCC at Milken in West Hills and the nearby home of a Jewish family, where a mezuzah was also torn from its doorpost. And, in April, a 59-year-old Orthodox man, who had just finished observing the Sabbath, was attacked while walking in North Hollywood.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Federation Looks to Fund Nonprofit Real Estate Projects

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is now accepting applications from Jewish nonprofits seeking funding for real estate development. Grants, which can be used for any brick-and-mortar projects, will total $300,000, ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 for each approved organization.

The recipient’s last year, the first time the grants were awarded by the Real Estate Principals Organization (RPO) of the Federation’s Real Estate and Construction Division, were CSUN Hillel, Gateways Hosptial and Mental Health Center, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Kadima Heschel West Middle School and the Shalom Institute.

“Maintaining functional and appealing Jewish community buildings and spaces is an important part of ensuring the vitality of Jewish life,” the grant application states. “Historically, buildings have been seen as one measure of a Jewish community’s permanence: when buildings are erected, it establishes Jewish community presence.”

The division, the most successful of the Federation’s business divisions, exists to provide financial, technical and strategic resources to Jewish organizations. The RPO is made up of leaders in local real estate whose expertise is at least as valuable as the funds they donate, said Jodi Berman, who as vice president of leadership development oversees the real estate funding program.

“Synagogues are in buildings, agencies are in buildings,” Berman said. “They all have to deal with real estate issues.”

— BG

Shalhevet Director Attends Leadership Seminar in Israel

Cecile Wizenfeld, director of admissions and early elementary education at Shalhevet School, recently attended the Principal’s Program, a 10-day seminar organized by Bar Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. Wizenfeld, who has worked for more than 30 years in Jewish day schools, was one of 18 North American educational leaders chosen to participate. Over the course of the program the participants engaged in workshops to discover how they engage with students and how their institutions could improve.

“What makes this seminar particularly unique and exciting is the hands-on involvement of each participant,” said Deborah Court, director of the Principals’ Program. “As a result, the principals go home with new ideas and real tools with which to initiate school improvement within the context of their unique school culture.”

The educators will reconvene in February to discuss how the projects and improvements they initiated at their schools are progressing.

“It wasn’t just about us as principals, it was about us, how we could bring these tools to people that we work with. It was beautiful, it was amazing, it was inspiring, I’m still reeling from it,” Wizenfeld said.

— Jina Davidovich, Contributing Writer

The school with no name

You can hang out for years at the Pico-Robertson intersection: Shop for fixtures at McNoon Crystal Lighting, get grande drips at Starbucks, carpets at MoghaddamRugs, mezzuzahs at Schmulies, a Hollywood head shot at Award Studios, some Zantac at Walgreens after you had a pastrami at PKD (Pico Kosher Deli) and spend afternoons reading Yediot Aharanot and Commentary at the corner newsstand — and still have no clue that you are 50 feet away from a Jewish high school for boys called Natan Eli.

It’s been there for six years, teaching Talmud, geometry, social studies and pretty much everything you’d expect to see in an Orthodox Jewish high school, including P.E.

In the business of advertising and marketing, they love the word “branding” — the idea of creating a powerful brand name that will be on everyone’s lips. In the world of Orthodox Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, there are some prominent brand names on everyone’s lips, like, for example, YULA and Shalhevet.

Natan Eli is not one of them.

If YULA is the equivalent of Cedars-Sinai, then Natan Eli is the L.A. Free Clinic.

When I asked the principal of the school what distinguished Natan Eli from other Orthodox high schools, he repeated several times that they never turn anybody down.

Can you imagine making that your marketing strategy? We take everyone? Even if you don’t have a penny! Even if you just spent two years in a place for juvenile delinquents! All we ask is that you be Jewish and that you want a Jewish education.

This may not be brilliant marketing, but it’s the brand of Natan Eli, where I am now sitting in the principal’s office, and where I meet a boy named Chaim.

This is Chaim’s first year at Natan Eli. (The boys’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.) Last year, he was at a boot camp near Palm Springs. He’s never met his father, who stayed behind in Teheran when his mother came to Los Angeles with his brother and two sisters more than a decade ago. While he was there, his mother had some personal health issues and returned to Teheran. Chaim heard about this from a relative. When I ask Chaim if he misses his parents, he says, “When I think about them.”

When I ask him when that is, he says, “At night, before I sleep.”

Chaim sleeps at the house of his guardian, a man called Eli who Chaim thinks is a “rabbi and taxi driver.” They go to synagogue together on Shabbat. Chaim, who doesn’t talk much, says that he likes to pray because it means that “God is watching after me.”

Right now, Chaim’s mind is on their basketball game Monday night.

I also get to meet David, a short kid with dark, olive skin who also drops by the principal’s office.

Unlike Chaim, David, whose family moved to Los Angeles this year from New York, is a walking bundle of adrenalin. His words run into each other as he tries to tell me how much he loves the school. I’m able to note two things: One, he loves being able to walk right into the principal’s office anytime he’s in a bind (“I could never do that in my old school”), and two, he loves the afternoon field trips, when the school occasionally takes all 30 boys (it’s a small school) on outings like barbecues or bowling.

While I was schmoozing with David, and the principal’s assistant was running to 7-11 to get creamer for my coffee, Jack walked in.

Jack is a 6-foot-3 version of James Dean. If the school was coed, Jack would probably be quite busy with activities not much related to algebra or Gemara.

As it is, Jack, who was in one of the better-known Jewish high schools last year (and not doing very well; he says he’s doing better this year), is also preoccupied with their basketball game on Monday night. When I ask him if his team is as good as YULA’s (which I hear has a really good team), he says, with a look of disappointment, that they don’t play in their league, but that he would love to play them in an exhibition.

Everyone in the room, including the principal, agrees that that would be a great idea; maybe even having a round-robin tournament with Shalhevet.

In the hallway of this small, plain-looking building, I run into Ben, whose parents I’ve known for many years. I can’t hide my surprise at seeing him, because I’m guilty of stereotyping, and sweet, quiet Ben never struck me as the kind of boy I’d see in a “tough guy” school. I know Ben well enough to explain my surprise, and he knows me well enough to gently explain some things to me.

What I get from Ben is not quite the hopeful spin of the grown-ups at the school — “just as good as any other school, but with more personal attention because of our smaller classes” — but it’s also not what I expected.

Ben explains that he got into one of the “better schools,” but that he prefers the camaraderie at Natan Eli. He tells me that the school (he’s been there for a couple of years) is not just for tough kids or troubled teens, and that it’s really “cleaned up” this year. He says the motivational speakers and psychologists that come regularly have helped. The learning can be intense, but the school doesn’t overwork them, so he has more time for outside interests, like art.

He also loves that they let the boys go out for lunch.

The principal calls this a privilege, not a right. The school’s approach, when it comes to influencing behavior, is not to punish, but to withhold privileges. Get out of line, and you get to spend your lunch time in a drab waiting room with empty vending machines, instead of hanging with the buddies at Jeff’s Gourmet.

While the subject of lunch is being discussed, David, the New York boy, jumps from his chair and starts talking about the toaster. The toaster? He explains that in his old school, they also served free bagels in the morning, but that here, at Natan Eli, you can toast the bagels.This one fact — the toaster — seems to light up the room. Even the principal, Rabbi Rafi, is almost giddy when he tells me how popular the toaster has been with the boys this year.

The rabbi knows that it’ll take more than a toaster for Natan Eli to make a name for itself, but he also knows that he’s got a whole bunch of other names that come first, like Ben, Jack, David and Chaim.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

A Shalhevet Response


“What’s Next for Shalhevet?” by Julie Gruenbaum Fax appeared in these pages on Feb. 4. Reactions of Shalhevet

parents, faculty, students, alumni, administrators and, indeed, even its rivals, have ranged from rage and outrage to tears and dismay.

From the beginning of the article where Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet’s founder and the owner of a Jaguar with “vanity plates,” “kvells” in a weekly school town hall meeting — Why does he kvell? What transpired in Town Hall to give him such pride? — and then leaves to “nail” a donation, the stage is set.

Shalhevet, like all Jewish schools, is forced to raise funds in order to survive. But fundraising isn’t the least bit sexy: it is arduous, time-consuming and, more often than not, frustrating. “Nailing a donor,” on the other hand, with its implication of something less than savory, is. And what of the Jaguar? Is Friedman better defined by the car he drives or by the fleet of such vehicles he could have purchased with the support he has given Shalhevet and other Jewish organizations throughout the years? Would there be comfort in having our philanthropists live humbly?

The article departs from Friedman and goes on to repeat a vulgar, slanderous term that had been used by a teacher in a feeder school to describe Shalhevet’s young women. The initial use of this slur constituted lashon harah (gossip); its gratuitous repetition in the body of the article constitutes not only lashon harah, but rechilus (slander) as well. It was this that elicited tears from many of our seventh- and eighth-grade girls and outrage from their high school counterparts. And while, as the article states, “a number of younger siblings of Shalhevet graduates have gone … to YULA,” a number of younger siblings of YULA graduates are in attendance at Shalhevet.

The article proceeds to quote or paraphrase dissatisfied parents, all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity. What of the many satisfied parents who would gladly have allowed their names to appear? What of the parents who are elated that their children have found their voice, their love for Israel and their moral compass at Shalhevet? What of the parents of Shalhevet alumni whose children are in Israeli yeshivot or living as Jews on elite campuses throughout the United States? The parents of Shalhevet students who are recognized not only for their grades, but for their contributions to the community? The parents whose children write about Shalhevet in their graduate school applications? And what of the parents who have the vision and independence to be sending their younger children to Shalhevet next year and the year after that and the year after that?

Shalhevet is not perfect. Only 13 years old, the school is learning, and sometimes hurting, from its mistakes. Admissions criteria are more stringent and the financial aid process has been codified to meet the standards of other schools in the Los Angeles Jewish school system. We have changed our policy of relying upon Israeli rebbeyim, whose terms are necessarily limited in order to hire a permanent head of Judaic studies who will grow over time with the school. And Friedman, recognizing the increasing complexity of the school he founded, is seeking to share its governance with others who will perpetuate his superb vision. But Shalhevet has never been a “free-for-all.” Nor did Yale-bound senior Leor Hackel, chair of the school’s agenda committee, feel that he was fairly treated when, after an extensive interview, only a glib joke that he made toward the end was quoted in the article.

It would seem that Shalhevet should be inured to slights from The Jewish Journal. Several years ago, when the school dealt openly with a group of students who had used drugs, The Journal covered the school’s heroic responses fairly, but failed to recognize its leadership role in developing a plan of action for all schools in the Bureau of Jewish Education. All schools — were they to be honest — must deal with substance abuse among their students. Nevertheless, despite Shalhevet’s mature, professional response to the incident, The Journal predisposed readers to expect something else entirely by the article’s title — “Scandal” — scrolled across the cover in smoke. When, at the height of the Intifada, Shalhevet students spent their summer in Israel performing chesed (acts of loving kindness) with victims of terrorism, the caption under their photograph identified them as YULA students. Most recently, although Shalhevet students have mounted a major fundraising campaign to assist victims of genocide in the Sudan and even brought an escaped Sudanese slave to address the school community, other schools’ efforts were extolled in The Journal. Shalhevet’s were not.

Last week in the school’s town hall meeting, a student aptly stated that this paper is far more “Journal” than “Jewish” in its treatment of Shalhevet. This community needs The Jewish Journal; we need it to report fairly, objectively and Jewishly.

The bad news is that good news doesn’t sell papers. Sensationalized articles do. The good news is that Shalhevet is alive and well and ever changing for the better.

Editor’s Note: The balanced portrayal of the school as put forth in the article gave a fair picture of the many positive attributes of the school and its students, the challenges facing the school and the actions it is taking to meet those challenges. Our intention was never to hurt or offend Shalhevet students, and we apologize if any students, parents or administrators took accurate reports of these inane and widely known comments as anything other than a sorry reflection on their originators. The Jewish Journal and Julie Gruenbaum Fax continue to believe that Shalhevet is a vital and valued part of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Beatrice Levavi is director of admissions for Shalhevet.


Letters to the Editor


Shalhevet’s Future

Let’s look 20 years into the future. Who will be our community leaders (“What’s Next for Shalhevet?” Feb. 4)? They will, by and large, be students from schools like Shalhevet High School and Middle School, because there they learn that when a community paper prints a four-letter word supposedly spoken about them by some misguided, anonymous person, the students are to work with their school’s external relations committee to address the problem.

They learn through weekly town hall meetings that having a voice means taking responsibility and leading a group can be hard work.

Their school is constantly under attack by misguided community members that occupy themselves with how to destroy another’s vision, rather than building for the future.

These students are in training for adulthood, and they will thank Jerry Friedman for creating a positive environment that nurtures their growth.

Had there been such schools in Europe 80 years ago, there may have been many more survivors. Sure, the school has challenges, as does every institution, and the administration is actively working through them.

But the editors who reviewed this article also have problems. They have no idea that there are educational consequences to repeating cruel words about young adults in print.

Name withheld
Ph.D program,
Gevirtz Graduate School of Education

Your recent article was a real eye-opener. Since when are unattributed quotes, name calling and gossip allowed into print? As a journalist, my editor requires I only quote sources willing to share their name. Doing any less is irresponsible to the reader and potentially slanderous to the topic.

It was amazing that the wrongdoing purportedly done by another school was put into print, let alone anonymous parents quoted. In my opinion, an apology should be printed.

Helene Lesel
Los Angeles

As parents of two current Shalhevet students, we were disappointed with the lack of balance in Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s article. She implied that all families she had spoken to believed that despite Shalhevet’s wonderful vision, the school’s problems forced families to leave.

That certainly is not the case with us, nor with most other families we know. Yes the school has weaknesses. Name one that doesn’t.

But the school’s values and dedicated and gifted teachers easily outweigh whatever problems are present. Our children not only are learning at a high level, they are participating in such enriching activities as Model U.N., high-end drama, playwriting and film studies. Unlike other Orthodox high schools, Shalhevet encourages seniors to join with the broader Jewish community in going on the March of the Living.

We love the school; our kids love the school, and your article implies that families like us simply don’t exist. We do, and we refuse to be marginalized or forgotten.

Fran and Joel Grossman
Los Angeles

This is my 11th year as a teacher at Shalhevet. I am appalled by your article, “What’s Next for Shalhevet?” Ever since I came here, I have been amazed at the supposedly religious people who commit such lashon harah against our school.

I vociferiously protest that you printed a third party’s hurtful slander on our wonderful girls. Despite a nine-and-a-half hour school day, our girls perform hours of community service in synagogues and other organizations.

Recently, two girls started a committee to aid people in Darfur. In town meeting, they made a presentation that emphasized that as Jews, we cannot [ignore] others who are persecuted. Shalhevet girls are bright, articulate and concerned with the world around them. I cherish them all.

Your writer’s heavy dependence on anonymous sources is unprofessional and biased. Who is the “prominent community leader” quoted at such length? What is this person afraid of? The implication that there would be some sort of reprisal is another form of lashon harah.

In over 25 years of teaching, I have never worked with a better faculty, staff or student body than those at Shalhevet. I am honored to work here.

Jill Beerman
Social Studies Chair
Shalhevet High School

Mating Game

As a single Jewish woman over 40 years old, I want to express my frustration, concern and disgust regarding the lack of outreach support on the part of Rabbi David Wolpe, The Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the University of Judaism, etc., in helping singles over 40 years old find spouses (“The Mating Game: What Is the Jewish Community Doing About the Singles Problem?” Feb. 11).

I began to experience this discrimination in my late 30s, when the Los Angeles singles events cut off at age 42. The problem with the arbitrary age limit is that a 45-year-old guy wants to meet women in their 20s to 40s but can’t if you cut off the age limit. A woman in her late 30s wants to meet men in their late 30s to 50s but can’t if you cut off the age limit. And a single woman in her 40s is open to meeting men in their 30s to 50s but can’t if you cut off the age limit.

Organizations such as Stephen S. Wise offer singles programs for 40s-60s. But why would a single 42-year-old woman or man want to attend? There won’t be any people in their early or mid-40s at the event.

You are all unknowingly contributing to the abundance of Jewish singles in Los Angeles, and it’s not right. Other cities don’t discriminate. Who are you to decide what age range is right for us? All singles organization should have activities for the 30-55-year-old age range.

Frustrated SJF
Los Angeles

I liked your article on the “L.A. Lonely Hearts Club” (“The Mating Game: What Is the Jewish Community Doing About the Singles Problem?”).

What about single people who are in their 50s and 60s?

Besides myself, a single female who is 61 years old, I know of several others who are around 60 who can’t seem to meet anybody.

I did the Friday night services thing and found mainly families at the services (and nobody seems to want to associate with single people); went to singles (Jewish) dances, etc. and finally gave up even dating.

It’s been quite a few years since I have gone out on a date. I live by myself, have never married, don’t have many friends, don’t go to places at night since I don’t like going out at night by myself and I will not drive freeways (I live in the San Fernando Valley).

Where are the singles groups that have people who are about 60 years old? I am not an old person or think old or even look 61.

A few years ago, I even signed up through The Jewish Journal and put an ad in the singles section of the newspaper. I met two men; both turned out to be not what they said in their ads.

At this point, I am completely out of the loop for meeting any decent, single and sincere men who are really interested in dating.

Sherman Oaks

Condemn Violence

Rabbi ReuvenFirestone is correct when he points out that Muslim groups have condemned acts of violence (“Rabbis, Imams Find Common Ground,” Feb. 4). Many Muslim-American groups have done so (

In addition, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Web site contains a petition (Not in the Name of Islam) vigorously condemning terrorism and violence. So far, more than 687,000 Muslims have signed the petition.

Stephen Krashen Malibu Is France Hopeless?

Two recent books argue that France is not our ally (“Is France Hopeless?” Feb. 4). “The French Betrayal of America” and “Our Oldest Enemy” both explain that France sees itself as a neutral third pole (at best) between radical Islamism and the USA.

Fortunately, Jacques Chirac is now being confidently challenged as pathetic by Britain’s Tony Blair and as a failed anti-American by likely electoral challenger Nicolas Sarkozy.

Choose carefully, France. French citizens did once inspire and donate to the Statue of Liberty. They were the kind of liberty-loving fans of the United States whose ideological heirs today disdain and emigrate from a declining French nation of socialists and anti-Semites.

Larry Greenfield
Southern California Director
Republican Jewish Coalition

Rob Eshman’s article is a fairly comprehensive report on the situation in France. However it leaves out many salient points about what certain American Jewish organizations have done and continue to do to alleviate the situation.

It was the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) call for a boycott of the Cannes Film Festival to protest the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in May 2002 that really concerned the French government and initiated a change in their policies.

Even before the election which brought a new conservative government to power, President Chirac called Ariel Sharon to enlist his efforts to get the AJCongress to back off their pressure. Interesting twist where Israelis are used to pressure American Jews – the opposite of what normally happens.

Eshman is right when he reports that disaffected and nonintegrated Muslim youths have used the streets of France to play out the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Union des Patrons et Professionnels Juifs de France has made contacts with moderate Muslims, especially the Kabils, non-Arab Muslims who number more than 1 million in France who are integrated and resist violence and radical Islam.

He also is right that it is questionable whether Jews will ever be fully welcome in France. However, it is through efforts and initiatives such as the AJCongress has undertaken that will make it more possible.

Gary P. Ratner
Western Region Executive Director
American Jewish Congress

Overall, Rob Eshman’s column, “Is France Hopeless,” was quite informative. Irrespective of the premise of the article, I did disagree with the labeling of Barghouti as an activist, when in fact, he was proven guilty of multiple murders in an Israeli court of law.

Jacques Lubliner

Sour Note

In the feature by Kelly Hartog (“Project’s Tunes Hit Multicultural Notes,” Feb. 11), the article incorrectly states that Idan Raichel was of Ethiopian descent.


What’s Next for Shalhevet?


Sitting at the back of a large multipurpose room packed full of students and staff at Shalhevet’s weekly town hall meeting, Jerry Friedman is kvelling at a level usually reserved for grandparents at a bar mitzvah.

Someone taps him on the shoulder, and Friedman reluctantly excuses himself to take a phone call.

A half-hour later, back in his office, he says that during the interval he nailed a $500,000 donation. It’s good news for a hand-to-mouth school that for the past few years has suffered an enrollment and fundraising slump.

Despite its fair share of controversy and assaults on its reputation, the school Friedman founded 13 years ago has established itself as an innovative, liberal Modern Orthodox high school with high academic standards, where kids for the most part really love the school.

Now, as it reaches the traditional age of maturity, Shalhevet is working hard to ensure its continuity, as it determines what role the man who gave birth to and still controls the school should play.

Friedman’s silver convertible Jaguar, parked right at the school’s front doors, sports “SHLHVT” vanity plates. He has been the head of school, the president of the board, the executive director and the main fundraiser — and he has never drawn a salary.

Friedman acknowledges that for the good of the school, he must allow others to take over critical tasks. This year, the school hired an executive director for the first time, taking all operational and financial issues out of Friedman’s lap. An active lay board has taken shape, and a nominating committee will soon tap a president so that Friedman can vacate that position as well. He says he will focus all of his energies on the educational and moral development of the students and, of course, still have his hand in some fundraising.

But whether those changes will be enough, and just how far Friedman is willing to pull back, could play a role in determining how the school faces some of the biggest challenges in its short history.

This year’s ninth-grade class represented the lowest number of applicants the school has received since it became firmly established. While there are between 50 and 60 students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, there are only 36 ninth-graders, and that number represents a significantly higher percentage of acceptances out of the total pool of applicants than in previous years.

Quality and quantity among applicants has improved for next year, according to Beatrice Levavi, director of admissions.

Friedman attributes the dip to years worth of communal lashon harah, or slandering. Shalhevet challenges local religious norms by being a coeducational yeshiva where girls learn Gemara, and some segments of the Orthodox community have been maligning the school since before it opened.

Teachers at the Orthodox feeder schools have actively discouraged students from going to Shalhevet. Parents and students report of hearing a teacher at a day school call Shalhevet girls “sluts,” and of getting the heart-to-heart from concerned teachers when a student professes interest in Shalhevet. One parent said his daughter’s eighth-grade mentor refused to write a recommendation when she wanted to go to Shalhevet, and others report transcripts being withheld.

All of this has put Shalhevet constantly on the defensive, but more telling than the communal bad-mouthing is the fact that former Shalhevet supporters have defected. A number of younger siblings of Shalhevet students have gone instead to YULA, a more traditional Orthodox yeshiva and Shalhevet’s primary competition.

How did a school that nearly everyone agrees fills a much-needed niche for a more open-minded Modern Orthodox education, and has been quite successful in secular academics, lose so many supporters — both in terms of donors and students?

Families who spoke to The Journal strongly support the school’s vision and philosophy from the nonjudgmental Modern Orthodoxy to the passionate Zionism to the focus on moral development where kids participate in democratic decision making. They said that their kids came out with a sense of confidence and respect for intellectual curiosity.

But, they said, the school was run so sloppily at every level that disorganization and flakiness dominated the operations and even some academic aspects of the school (most parents spoke on condition of anonymity, since some have students at school).

“What frustrated a lot of parents was that this was the only school with a mission we believed in, but the problems overwhelmed the mission,” said one father who sent a child to YULA after other children were already at Shalhevet.

Just how much of the disorganization can be attributed to Friedman’s omnipresence — and his reputed abrasiveness — is a matter of opinion. Friedman admits that operations suffered because he was spread too thin, and that he lacks the diplomacy sometimes necessary to stroke the egos of parents and big donors.

“After 13 years I’ve made a dozen or so enemies, but I’ve always been consistent on principles,” he said. “I understood that if we are building a school based on morality and ethics, then the greatest hypocrisy would be to say, ‘write a check and I’ll do what you want.'”

Several parents question whether the current changes are enough, as long as Friedman remains head of school.

“As a personal achievement for Jerry and in filling a community niche it is remarkable,” said one former parent, who is a prominent community leader. “But it is an institution dominated by one individual who can’t seem to let go or create an organizational structure that allows it to be a normal place. That is really the issue. Everything else is small. Everything else would fall into place if it were allowed to develop in a natural way.”

Friedman, a successful real estate developer and philanthropist, got his doctorate from Harvard when he was 50 with a thesis focusing on the moral development of day school kids. He came back to Los Angeles and poured millions of his own money into creating Shalhevet.

Students are passionate about the school.

“There are so many terrible rumors, but nobody sees how amazing Shalhevet is from the inside. Kids come to school, and they are happy and love being at Shalhevet,” said Sarah Honig, an 11th-grader who started an external-affairs committee to counter community badmouthing. She points to the plethora of opportunities in the arts and social action, and the mutual respect and caring among teachers and students.

“Certainly it’s not perfect and lots of kooky things go on in the school, but it really is a vibrant community where a lot of wonderful things happen,” said senior Leor Hackel, who plans to spend next year in yeshiva in Israel and then to go to Yale, were he got in early admission.

After so many parents complained — or just left — Shalhevet has worked to tame the atmosphere of a free-for-all, where classes were often canceled, rules were loose and changed often, and Judaic studies weren’t taken seriously, according to parents and students interviewed.

Two years ago, Friedman instructed general studies principal Sam Gomberg to tighten things up, and students and staff admit it took a while to find the right balance between having a disciplined atmosphere and maintaining the commitment to a democracy in which students play a role.

Judaic studies are also being beefed up, with more advanced classes, more Gemara and more demands in existing classes. The school is searching for a rosh yeshiva to end the revolving door of Israeli rabbis who have traditionally filled the position for two- or three-year stints.

Administrators acknowledge that admissions had gotten out of hand in the past few years, with Friedman not wanting to turn away students who might not get a Jewish education otherwise. He acknowledges that he let in students who were unqualified and handed out scholarships with little or no system.

This year Levavi, who has been on the administrative staff for seven years and is the mother of four Shalhevet graduates and two current students, is being very selective in admissions.

“We’re interviewing amazing kids,” she said. “I have every belief that we are going to have a remarkable ninth grade next year.”

New structures are also being implemented to tighten tuition collection and how scholarships are awarded. For years the school ran at a deficit and fundraising was a frantic pursuit, born out of starting out undercapitalized and then straining to buy the $6.8 million Westside Hospital building on Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in 1999.

Four months ago, Ken Milman, who had been head of the collections department for IDT Telecommunications, was hired as executive director to put the house in order.

“If you come in and see stacks of bills not getting paid and check requests sitting there and teachers wanting books and things not getting fulfilled on time, it is a matter of putting in business processes to solve those problems,” said Milman, who handles all nonacademic operations and reports directly to the board, not to Friedman.

Friedman and others hope that empowering a lay board of 22 people — larger and more diverse than the school has ever had — will help take the focus off Friedman and put it back on the school.

“It is part of the maturation of the school that after some period of time the person who really is the school starts looking to others to take over responsibility, while maintaining the basic reasons for why the school was set up,” said Marc Rohatiner, a board member who has had three daughters at Shalhevet. “This is not a model that can survive as the school grows, where there is one person responsible for all aspects. There has to be checks and balances, formally and informally, and Jerry recognizes that because he is the one who initiated this.”


Front-Page Gray

For one brief, shining moment this week, the Los Angeles Times achieved the impossible: it united the Jews. All across the region, we went out to get our Sunday paper, saw an 8,000-word, front-page, above-the-fold story on a minor brouhaha at a small Orthodox high school, and said, as if in unison, "Huh?"

The feature story by Barry Siegel became Topic A of conversation all week. Whether people liked it or reviled it (see Rabbi Dov Fischer’s Op-Ed piece on page 8), they all wondered why they were reading so much of it. "They spent more ink on this than on why we went to Iraq," said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

"Lessons in Division" looked at the controversy that arose when Alexander Maksik, a new, young English teacher at Shalhevet, a progressive Orthodox high school in the Fairfax district, sought to bring the Palestinian perspective on the Israeli-Arab conflict into his seventh-grade classroom.

Parents, fellow teachers and school administrators objected to Maksik presenting sympathetic — and, they believed, inaccurate — portraits of the Palestinians into the classroom. After several fierce exchanges, the school, which Jerry Friedman founded to encourage open debate and democracy, let Maksik go.

Siegel has carved a journalistic career out of examining the complex social and moral questions behind local conflicts. His 8,000-word piece, "A Father’s Pain, a Judge’s Duty and a Justice Beyond Their Reach," published Dec. 30, 2001, is a heart-wrenching and powerful account of a court case involving a father whose fleeting act of negligence led to the death of his 6-year-old son. Siegel won a Pulitzer Prize for it.

Shalhevet’s journey to the Times’ front page began on May 24, 2002, when The Jewish Journal published an Op-Ed piece by Maksik titled, "The Curse of Certainty."

Siegel happened to read the column and followed the angry letters to the editor we published in subsequent issues.

For such stories, the Times allocates Siegel several months, expenses, an editor, a photographer — an investment that one source told me easily approaches


"If you decide to invest that kind of time and energy into a story," said an editor, "it’s either going on Page A1 or it’s not going to run."

Critics of the piece felt that the payoff was a slam at Orthodox Judaism. After all, the teacher, Maksik, was an adult who knew that even a progressive Orthodox school has certain norms and parameters. Would the Times have devoted such space to a newcomer at a Catholic school who tries to teach seventh graders the positive aspects of abortion?

"The story shows the Times is both hostile and prejudiced toward Orthodox Jews who do not conform to the Times’ notions of what is right and what is wrong," attorney Nathan Wirtschafter said.

But non-Orthodox critics found plenty to fault as well.

"What I found disappointing in the piece," Jeffrey Brody, professor of journalism at Cal State Fullerton, said, "is that it’s about a school that promotes freethinking and debate, but I found the characters were one-dimensional. There was the idealistic teacher; the rich, liberal school founder; the macho tank commander rabbi. The characters are wooden."

Brody found it hard to believe that Siegel couldn’t find more nuance in his subjects.

Siegel’s depiction of Shalhevet does tend to emphasize the extremes. To many familiar with the school, Maksik is not such a crusader, his opposing rabbis are not so hardline, and Friedman too is much more complex and savvy than the article suggests.

In fact, the article may give the impression that the Jewish community is more polarized than it is, even along religious lines. There are Orthodox Jews like Yitzhak Frankenthal who regularly seek out Palestinian perspectives. There are Jews of all denominations on all sides of the issues. There are Jews conflicted within themselves. The strength of Jews under attack to entertain nuance and delve into moral ambiguity is also part of this conflict, and one of the most encouraging.

But at least one of Siegel’s subjects isn’t complaining.

"On balance you have to give the guy credit," Friedman told me. "This is not a trivial piece. I don’t think he had an ax to grind. Sure you could object to some parts, but the guy wrote an objective article, and, kol hakavod [congratulations], I’m proud that a Jewish institution got that much space."

In the end, he said, the strength of Shalhevet’s vision came through: "We’re not going to go to the right, we’re not going to go to the left; we’re centrist. Too many of us deal with the world in black and white, but there’s a hell of a lot of gray kicking around."