Tony Lawrence. Photo courtesy of Deborah Sokolow

Milken Mourns Loss of Beloved Teacher


Tony Lawrence didn’t have any family in Los Angeles, so the teachers and students at Milken Community Schools became one for him. As he lay on his deathbed Nov. 29 at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, more than a dozen teachers and administrators filled the room. It was so crowded, the nurses could barely get in.

After a yearslong battle with lung cancer, Lawrence could no longer speak, and it was unclear how much he heard or understood. But his friends and colleagues, including Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman, chatted and read text messages aloud as they came in from those wishing Lawrence well, until sometime in the late afternoon, when Lawrence stopped breathing.

“He just sort of slipped away,” Weisserman said. “It was actually beautiful in its own way.”

The high school social studies teacher known for his humor and warmth died last week at the age of 65. Milken held a memorial service for Lawrence on Dec. 1, where students and faculty shared their memories and grief.

Lawrence’s brother, William, who traveled here from Indiana, said he was “just totally overwhelmed” by the outpouring of affection and mourning from Milken community members. “We couldn’t believe it,” he said.

Members of the Milken community also took to the school’s student news website, The Roar, to remember Lawrence, describing how he was able to inspire students and tease them without offending them. Some credited him with their choice of college majors and careers.

“I never had a teacher that pushed their students to reach their full potential as much as he did,” Milken 2017 graduate Hannah Newman wrote. “Mr. Lawrence was the most dedicated, caring, loving, intelligent, and humble person I’ve encountered in my life so far.”

Anthony Carl Lawrence was born on Jan. 22, 1952, in Mooresville, Ind., to Patricia and Lawson Lawrence. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in secondary social studies education at Indiana University in Bloomington, he returned to Mooresville High School, his alma mater, as a teacher. He moved to California in the late 1970s, settling in Orange County. He taught at a number of Southern California private schools before Milken hired him in 2001 to teach subjects including United States history and Advanced Placement Government.
On The Roar website, students recounted jokes they shared with Lawrence as well as his tendency to spontaneously dance in the hallways and at school assemblies.

On Facebook, students also remembered Lawrence’s humor, for instance recalling a yardstick he would use to jokingly threaten them. But his jokes, even the teasing ones, were meant to show he loved them. “He would never heckle somebody he didn’t,” Weisserman said.

“For him, teaching was almost like being in the clergy.”
— Gary Weisserman

The headmaster said Lawrence took charge of civic activities such as mock debates and Election Day events, going out of his way to educate students about the democratic process. He also advised Milken’s chapter of the Junior State of America and often emceed holiday parties and other school events.

Lawrence had struggled with lung cancer for years, but his condition worsened in the past 10 months, prompting him to use an oxygen tank and a wheelchair. He stopped teaching two months ago when one of his lungs collapsed, Weisserman said.

Weisserman said that even while confined to the hospital, Lawrence was eager to get back to teaching, saying, “ ‘I just want to check in on my kids. I just want to be back where I belong.’ For him, teaching was almost like being in the clergy, in that it’s not your job, it’s your work.”

William Lawrence said his younger brother’s nature — warm, funny and a bit mischievous — was evident well before he arrived at Milken, as was his passion for teaching, which was apparent as early as junior high school.

He said when a UCLA nurse called him to inform him of his brother’s death, she wept on the phone, saying that she had grown close to Tony in the short time she knew him. “He had that impact on a lot of people,” he said.

Screenshot from Twitter.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, Theologian and Teacher


Two generations of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) are mourning the passing on Nov. 24 of a challenging and beloved teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman.

Beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s, Gillman was a commanding presence in the seminary community for over half a century. He was ordained by JTS in 1960 and earned his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University in 1975.

He served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School in the 1970s, during a period of transition when JTS debated women’s ordination, which it initiated in 1985. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model an inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life.

Gillman also was a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a volume on the topic in 1993 and working with a committee to articulate the philosophy of Conservative Judaism in the 1988 volume “Emet V’Emunah.” He also wrote several volumes on how to define and justify belief in God through radical questions and sound philosophical considerations. His 1997 book, “The Death of Death,” examined Jewish beliefs about life after death.

You did not have to be an academic to understand his books. Gillman was forever the teacher in his writing, explaining difficult concepts in clear, down-to-earth language.

Gillman’s students will remember him most for the way he challenged them to think deeply about Jewish beliefs and practices and to create a Jewish theology of their own. They didn’t mind when he pointed out weaknesses in the way they were thinking because they knew that he cared deeply for them.

They also will remember lovingly the shock that Gillman evinced when a student said something that he found questionable or downright wrong — and how he would then prod the student into defending his or her particular belief rather than abandoning it. Gillman single-handedly transformed the education of future rabbis, educators and lay leaders from a passive study of other people’s thought into an exciting and significant struggle with one’s own. He did so with warmth, humor, wide erudition, analytic precision and genuine concern for his students.

I first met Neil Gillman at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where he taught me how to chant Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when I was 13. A year later, his wife, Sarah, taught me the first midrashic texts that I had ever seen.

Gillman later played a critical role in my life, persuading me to accept a fellowship and study for a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia while I was in rabbinical school at JTS.

He challenged them to think deeply about Jewish beliefs.

Subsequently, because we shared a deep love of both Judaism and of the philosophical questions that could either undermine it entirely or strengthen it significantly, we became frequent intellectual sparring partners, and I shall miss that immensely. One example: When I was working on the second edition of my book “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants,” he and I spent many long-distance phone calls debating Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology of revelation. As a result, I changed the way I categorized Heschel’s approach in the book — although, to this day, I’m not sure that Gillman was right about that!

We both wrote books on religious epistemology — the question of how we can know that our religious beliefs are true. Mine emerged directly from the world of analytic philosophy, while his included the insights of scholars of religious anthropology. It is through him that all of his readers, including me, learned to appreciate the role of religious stories (“myths”) and ritual practices in shaping what one believes and trusts.

We loved critiquing each other’s work, often with playful expressions of surprise that the other person could say or write such a thing.

We all will make Rabbi Gillman’s memory a blessing if we follow his lead in so deeply caring for one another and for our Jewish heritage that we are not afraid to question both, thus making our relationships and our Judaism truly matters of all our heart, all our soul and all our might.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy at American Jewish University.

Shelly Lowenkopf. Photo by Gina Nahai.

Why My Teacher Became My Hero


My mother’s childhood friend — pale skin and green eyes and the kind of tameness deemed desirable in a wife — would stand before the mirror in her parents’ house and watch herself grow old. Past her prime and dangerously close to becoming “spoiled” (as in, gone rancid), she would count her laughlines and crow’s-feet, the creases in her neck, and say out loud, “I waited too long.”

That was in Tehran, 40-some years ago. My mother’s friend was 24.

My friend’s son, 20 years later, ran into an old family acquaintance here in Los Angeles. The son had been trying to get into medical school in the United States. He was in his third year of applying. “So,” the lady told him, “you never did become a doctor.” He was 27.

It’s a wretched predicament, knowing that others see you as a has-been, or feeling that you’ve failed at some crucial task of life, that your time has run out, the train has left without you and taken with it your friends and contemporaries. Maybe you weren’t as lucky or smart as they; maybe you made one mistake that cost you. And now you’re old and still waiting for love, or parenthood, or the kind of career success you know you deserve. The rest of the world has given up on you, and maybe you have, too. Maybe you’re still trying — you keep dating, try to adopt, apply for jobs, write that next book — aware that you’re probably kidding yourself, feeling like the proverbial Sisyphus.

If it hasn’t happened for you so far …

My former professor and later colleague, Shelly Lowenkopf, sat on the patio of The French Press on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara earlier this month and described his typical day: He writes for about four hours, reads for a couple, writes for another three or four hours, reads for a couple more. One or two nights a week, he teaches writing. He’s 83 years old.

He’s published more than 35 books, edited upward of 500. He’s been editor-in-chief and publisher at more than one major house, and taught at USC and UC Santa Barbara for 50 years. He’s been mentor and guide and cheerleader to countless other writers. But he still hasn’t achieved the kind of success — the million-dollar contract, the Pulitzer Prize, an endowed chair at a major university — that he deserves. So he keeps writing, he says, because that’s the only way to get to where you want to be.

It’s a very American thing, this refusal to be beaten by life, to accept the limitations of age or innate ability or even science. What others may see as the wisdom to know when to submit to fate, Americans see as weakness, even cowardice. Here, you’re never too old; it’s never too late. But even by American standards, Shelly is remarkable.

His Instagram account is a daily tribute to the beauty of his town. His passion for engagement in local and national politics would shame most 20-year-old activists. He’s able to celebrate every one of his students’ achievements with just as much enthusiasm and generosity as he did in his own youth. He’s able to believe, still today, that books matter, words matter. His most recent book, a collection of short stories, is titled “Love Will Make You Drink & Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night.”

He’s 83.

He drives me around Santa Barbara to his usual haunts, talking about his current project and the one after that, and all I can think of is the people I knew in my childhood for whom it was always too late, and all the ones I met later, in America, whose ships never came in, and all the young people I know now, kids in their late 20s and early 30s who feel they’ve missed the window of opportunity. If you’re not famous or gorgeous or rich by now …

I try to explain some version of this to Shelly. I say something like, at some point, one has to wonder if one more book will make a difference.

And he gives me a lesson:

“You’ve got to keep moving forward,” he says, “or else you’ll become that which you were afraid of when you were young.”


Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Teaching the Aleph Bet: Where Hearts and Traditions Meet


Ever since I was a child, I have been terrified of rooms full of children — a strange trait for a Hebrew-school teacher.

Yes, I adore kids one-on-one, but large groups of them scare me.

I thought this fear would abate when I had my own children. I thought that giving birth must endow a woman with some sort of motherly comfort in rooms full of children. I was wrong.

So why do I love teaching Hebrew school?

Two reasons.

First: The fear lasts only a moment until we begin making an aleph with licorice, approximating bet with our bodies and forming gimel in our mouths.

By the time class is over, the kids know the first four letters and how to sing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. And we are no longer strangers.

In this mystical view, these letters are the DNA of our universe, a double helix of 22 beautiful shapes that constitute all of existence.

I love teaching children because in that room we do the sacred work of building a community and creating a bridge across which our traditions can be handed down, as so many before us have done.

At some point during the class, magic happens: We begin to see one another not as inscrutable little kids and inscrutable hulking adults, but as people, as Jews — little Jews and big Jews — across the broad divide between our ages.

Second: I love our traditions, and for me the Hebrew letters are where they all start.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a real Diaspora Jew. I write my songs and poems and essays in English. If you put me on a street corner in Tel Aviv, I would sound like a 5-year-old.

But open a page of Torah or the Mishnah and a whole world springs to life for me. I can almost feel the centuries of eyes, hearts and minds focused on these very same words. Whether the people reading them lived in the Middle Ages, the 1980s or today. Whether they went to bed every night in Spain, Africa, Russia, Iran or — like me — the Pacific Northwest.

Wherever and whenever we live, our hearts meet in these sacred squiggles, these letters that contain our stories beyond geography or time.

According to tradition, God looked into the Torah and created the world. It’s a psychedelic idea: The Torah existed before Creation. The world is literally made up of Hebrew letters — the same Hebrew letters we pronounce, haltingly or fluently, whether building aleph out of candy or standing at the front of a congregation, leading prayers.

In this mystical view, these letters are the DNA of our universe, a double helix of 22 beautiful shapes that constitute all of existence. And in practical terms, the alphabet connects us to Jews who have lived before us and will live after us.

And so, for these reasons, I will continue to teach the Hebrew alphabet and the stories our Torah contains, so that these kids can guard this treasure in their turn.

I’ll teach until my body can no longer carry me into the room, until my mouth cannot form the letters, until my ears cannot hear my students’ small voices shouting back to me in chorus: Gimel! Dalet! Hey!

If some of these kids grow up and never enter a synagogue again, if they never say another Hebrew prayer, if they leave the aleph bet behind and never look back, I bless them on their path. But I hope maybe a couple of them will feel called to walk into a room of small children, armed with a guitar, some aleph-bet yoga poses and the wisdom of Hebrew-school teachers before them.

So, I keep teaching.

Every time we teachers and our students enter the classroom, we are doing holy work. We are building a family, welcoming the next generation into the tribe, and giving them the greatest gift we have: the Hebrew alphabet — 22 beating hearts that carry us, generation after generation, through our beautiful, brief lives.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Mind Blowing Sex – Muslim Style?


Sex is wonderful, and when you’re old enough to not only know what you like but empower yourself to be bold, it can be a great thing. When we are inexperienced we don’t know what good sex is. Considering how long I have been single, I have not had a large number partners. I got a relatively late start as I was 20 when I lost my virginity, but at 51 I now know what is good, what I like, and what I do well. Jewish men are my preference. They are known for girth, amen, but also known for their inability to tell the difference between 5 inches and 8 inches. Bless them.

I never had a heart to heart talk with my mother about sex. I watch porn and don’t read books on how to have good sex. I have spoken with my girlfriends about sex, but it more about how our partners are at it, then how we are. In our 50’s, my group of friends understand the importance of sex, the power it wields, and that most anything can be made better with a blow job. It’s not scientific, it is just one of those things we all know. Men like to receive oral pleasure, probably more than women, but only because women are better at it than men. Know it gentlemen.

I’m not writing about my own sex life right now, although I think you would find it both inspiring and depressing. Instead I am writing about a book that was sent my way called The Muslimah Sex Manual: A Halal Guide to Mind Blowing Sex. It struck me as interesting for a couple of reasons. 1) I was curious as I never really thought of Muslims as being particularly sexual, which I suppose is a stereotype, but still my truth. 2) What was most interesting about the book was not that it can guide me to mind blowing sex, but that it can do it in just 65 pages. Mazel Tov!

This book was written for Muslim women who are looking to have good sex lives with their husbands. It speaks of foreplay, which is a lost art to be sure. It covers kissing, which can immediately tell you whether you want to have sex with someone. It even discusses sexy texting, which is a sign of the times. There are chapters about positions and doing it in the shower. Bravo to author Umm Muladhat for putting it out there. Not only for Muslim women, but for all women. Umm is an American born Muslim woman who wants Muslim women be sexually satisfied.

Amen sister. Sex is nothing to be ashamed of. It should be enjoyed by all women and I applaud Umm for sharing the message that it does not have to be looked down upon. Muslim or not, sex can and should be enjoyed without fear or shame. I’m guessing many Muslin women are rocking it between the sheets. I think Jewish chicks are known to like sex. By like of course I mean as long as it doesn’t ruin our hair and there’s nothing good on TV. Again, stereotypes. Sorry. Not sorry. If you have great sex, and can help other women have the same, then you should.

I think there are a lot of women in the world who believe they are having great sex, but aren’t. Women who want to expand their horizons and get a little wild, but are too afraid of what their partners will think. That is not a Muslim thing, that is a chick thing. Umm is brave and I love her. From describing positions from Cowgirl to Amazon, she goes there. She also doesn’t shame anyone for sticking to the missionary position. There is nothing held back. She simply has a real desire to help the women of her culture with sex, but all women should be reading this book.

She does draw a line of course, because it is based on her faith. No anal, no porn, no period sex, and no sex outside of a marriage. Since writing and self-publishing her book, she has had a little push back from within her faith, which she knew was coming, and therefore why she made up a name to publish under. Her husband knows about the book of course, and even helped her with it, but nobody knows who the real writer is. To this woman, I say you did a lot of good for a lot of people. Her next book will be geared towards men, but I’ll be reading that one too.

I actually have a sex list. Things I’ve done, want to do, hope to do, and will never do. It was fun to make the list and I have been checking things off and adding new things for years. I recently took something off the list because having it there implied it could happen, and it is never happening, ever, so it’s gone. I might add couple new Muslim items to my list now. Inshallah they happen. Women must think outside the box we build for ourselves to make our sex lives better. We are glorious and sexual creatures, no matter how we are keeping the faith.

 

Sinai Akiba teacher retiring after 46 years, will travel to Israel


After 46 years of teaching Hebrew at Sinai Akiba Academy, Rivka Shaked is retiring to spend more time in Israel. She will embark on her first extended visit at the end of this summer to celebrate the High Holy Days in Israel for the first time since her youth.

“Rivka is the teacher who, 20 or 30 years later, students ask about,” said Rabbi Lawrence Scheindlin, head of Sinai Akiba. “They say, ‘Rivka believed in me,’ ‘Rivka helped me see what I am capable of,’ ‘She taught me to care about myself and other people.’ ”

Although Craig Taubman, musician and former Sinai student, was never in her class, he still refers to her as his teacher.

“She was the spirit of Sinai. She gave freely of herself and was open to receiving freely of others,” Taubman said. “Most teachers think that they have to give from the head down, but she gave from the heart up. And she gave and gave and gave. She made everyone feel valued, which is the ultimate gift you can give to someone.”

Shaked was born in Israel, and describes the birth of the Jewish State as one of the highlights of her life.

“I hope to instill in our children the love for our tradition and to educate them to see and feel the depth, the joy and the value of our Jewish heritage,” Shaked said. “I wish for my students to grow and understand the role Israel plays in our lives.”

One of her most tangible accomplishments is the creation of a Hebrew curriculum, “Betzevah Ve’Shir” (“In Color and Song”). She composed 30 songs for it as well as drew each image herself to help the children feel comfortable with the material. Her work was later integrated into the widely used Tal-Am curriculum.

Before her tenure at Sinai, Shaked taught as a volunteer for immigrant students on Israel’s border towns, as an exchange teacher in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, in a Tel Aviv school, and at Temple Emanuel. Then, in 1966, she began teaching afternoon school at Sinai Temple. Three years later, Sinai Akiba Academy was established and she became one of the day school’s first Hebrew teachers, while maintaining her afternoon school job for more than 25 years.

“I saw Sinai go from a few bungalows on the corner of this street to a building that takes over an entire block,” Shaked said.

The Milken Family Foundation recognized her teaching talents in 1999 when she received one of the first ever Jewish educator awards, which included a gift of $10,000.

As much as Shaked looks forward to traveling to Israel, what she will miss most are her students, whom she calls her best teachers.

Teacher arrested after Holocaust lesson goes awry


A South Carolina teacher was arrested on charges of assault and battery after trying to make a point during a lesson on the Holocaust.

Patricia Mulholland, a veteran seventh-grade social studies teacher at Bluffton Middle School, is accused of dragging a student from his seat by his collar and pushing him under a table while shouting “this is what the Nazis do to Jews.” The incident occurred last week.

The teacher said she was attempting to supplement a previous lesson on the Holocaust, The Associated Press reported Tuesday. Police reportedly have copies of videos made by some students on their cell phones of the teacher acting strangely before the incident, according to the Savannah Morning News.

Mulholland, who has been teaching in the district for 23 years, was placed on administrative leave with pay on April 26. The school district has launched an internal review.

It has not been reported whether or not the student is Jewish.

Italian police probing Holocaust-denying teacher over threats


Police in Turin are investigating a high school teacher who threatened in a Facebook post to massacre Jews and go “target shooting” against African immigrants.

Police searched the home of Renato Pallavidini Jan. 6 and seized computers, a flash drive and CDs. He could be charged with racial hatred.

Five years ago Pallavidini was penalized for Holocaust denial.

The Italian media last week reported that on Dec. 29, Pallavidini posted a picture of Adolf Hitler and Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini shaking hands, with a post reading, “Warning to dirty bastard Jews who control us from the land of s—- and fags called California. If you remove this picture, I will go to the synagogue very near to my house, with my pistol, and gun down some parasite Jews.”

He also reportedly published a post on Dec. 23 asking who would join him in “target shooting” against African immigrant street vendors near his home.

The picture and other material on Pallavidini’s home page were removed.

It was the latest in a series of anti-Semitic and racist incidents in Italy over the past two months. They ranged from a Facebook attack on a Jewish website to the murder of immigrant vendors in Florence.

“This is the umpteenth case in recent weeks of a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and more generally speaking, intolerance, in Italian society, that in particular takes advantage of the web and blogs to disseminate messages of hate and create and coordinate organizations,” Giacomo Kahn, the editor of the Jewish monthly Shalom, wrote on the Rome Jewish community website.

The teacher


Mickey Palmer is 87 years old and living in a cozy home by Elizabeth Lake, near Palmdale. She moved there 25 years ago when she retired from teaching sixthgrade.

When she called me at The Journal, I tried to do the math on how old that made her when she was my teacher at Encino Elementary School in 1972. The answer didn’t pop into my head.

Math, Mrs. Palmer reminded me, was never my best subject.

But Mickey Palmer was my best teacher in a school that boasted so many good ones.

I hadn’t spoken to her since graduation, so we both went full speed down memory lane.

“It was a really good school,” I said.

“It was a great school,” she said.

This was the early 1970s. Public schools were far more “Mad Men” than “Mad Max.” Encino Elementary bubbled over with eager, overachieving kids, moms who filled PTA meetings and teachers who were dedicated to helping us excel.

The same was true at the schools I attended subsequently, Portola Junior High and Birmingham High. It’s inconceivable today that our parents didn’t spend a minute figuring out which school within a one-hour drive of their homes would be best for their children: It was the local public one, of course.

It takes a tremendous act of will not to wax nostalgic about the days when families took good, accessible public education for granted. Not only do we parents spend much of our waking life trying to find the perfect school for our perfect children, we then spend the rest of our time — if the school is private, or Jewish — wondering how we’ll pay for it. For too many of us, public school is no longer an option. In 2006, just 42 percent of California’s students scored proficient or above in English, and only 40 percent of kids are at grade level or above in math.

Curing what ails these schools is a complex task. The national education debate, to the extent that there is one this election season, will not make or break either candidate, though people routinely rank education near the top of their national concerns. John McCain has said he wants an education policy that includes “everything that works.” Vouchers, charter schools, Head Start — all of the above.

Barack Obama is for almost all of the above — he opposes vouchers — plus he has said he actually wants to fund these options and throw in early childhood education and good teachers’ bonuses.

The policy differences aren’t huge — you could lock the two men in a room at snack time, and they’d probably come out with a compromise by lunch. The big question is which candidate will succeed in seeing his vision through.

But anybody who’s gone through school can tell you the most immediate cure for a bad class isn’t a president, it’s a teacher. Society has little control over parents and their children, but we have actual leverage when it comes to recruiting, training and supporting teachers.

Mrs. Palmer was a great teacher. But she is by no means the last great teacher.

Schools have deteriorated, parent involvement has evaporated, funding priorities have gone elsewhere, like Iraq, but good teachers keep showing up for work.

Over the past month, I’ve met, serendipitously, three of them. I ran into Ellie Herman at a bat mitzvah last weekend. When I last met her, she was a successful television writer. She told me she walked away from that career to get her teaching credential.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” she said, “and it was time.”

This week Herman begins teaching at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.

Wendy Madnick, a mother of two boys, decided on a mid-life career switch, too. After a rich professional life in journalism — including work for this paper — she got her credential and now teaches teens at Taft High School. I saw her at the same bat mitzvah, and she couldn’t have been more excited for September to come.

“Teens are so rewarding,” she enthused. “They’re so interesting.” And she hadn’t even had a drink.

Adina Ackerman, who is 26, first taught Judaica at Temple Israel of Hollywood’s day school, then moved into the public school system. She will be one of four teachers opening a new charter middle school in Mid-Wilshire focused on social justice.

“We start with sixth grade,” she said, as she laid out the vision of New Los Angeles Charter School with the bubbling enthusiasm of, I guess, a sixth-grader. “And we build from there.”

These women are all accomplished, all capable of succeeding in fields that are more remunerative than public education.

That they choose to teach, and excel at it, and find satisfaction and purpose in it, is no doubt mysterious to a lot of people.

But both as a community, and as a society, we can do more to encourage and support the people who make that choice.

One simple step is to make it easier for professionals to jump into public school classrooms. 

A model for this? Jewish days schools. 

Faced with a shortage of top-quality teachers, Jewish days schools here sought ways to streamline qualified professionals into the teaching profession. 

One solution was the DeLeT program, a fellowship offered in Los Angeles that recruits and trains high-caliber Jewish day school teachers in 13 months.  

“If you follow the roads that people travel to become a teacher in Jewish schools,” Gil Graff, the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education told me, “I’m sure you would find a multiplicity of directions, it’s not just one straight path. You need to make it easy.”

Los Angeles Unified should take a good look at DeLeT.

Mickey Palmer said she doesn’t miss teaching — she put in a quarter century. But she does miss running the school paper, The Encino Echo. When I was her student, she made me the editor.

You never know where a good teacher will lead you.

Is this a job for a nice Jewish boy or girl? You bet it is!


“We are a great institution with a great program of Jewish education. We’re looking for a top-notch Jewish educator. It’s quite an opportunity for someone, and if we find the right person we’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. Do you know of anyone?”

This time of year, I get calls like this almost every day from congregations and day schools across North America looking for highly qualified Jewish educators to direct their education programs. Later in the spring, the calls will start coming from day schools and high schools looking for teachers.

To everyone who calls I have to say the same thing: “I know of a couple of people who are looking to change jobs, but it will be hard to get any of them. Well-qualified Jewish educators will get a lot of offers from which to choose. Most congregations and schools will go scrambling, often leaving searches open for two years or more before they find a candidate who excites them. In the meantime, they settle.

Facing this shortage of qualified Jewish educators at every job level and in every educational setting, I find myself wondering why more young Jewish adults, especially among this current idealistic generation, aren’t choosing careers in Jewish education. Why aren’t more of them clamoring to be Jewish educators?

It’s not that the work Jewish educators do isn’t meaningful. A veteran educator who came to speak in one of my classes told the students that she is one of the few people she knows who wakes up every day, looks at herself in the mirror and thanks God that she gets to do what she does every day. She feels that she touches the lives of children and adults in ways that few people do.

And it’s not about the salaries. It is not unusual for congregations to list jobs for education directors (now often called “Directors of Lifelong Jewish Learning”) for six-figure salaries plus a full package of benefits. Heads of day schools can earn considerably more, and while day school teachers earn less, their salaries are quite respectable (and they are rarely out evenings!).

Nor is it that the work is not creative and exciting. Congregations are re-imagining their schools and coming up with new formats for Jewish education every year. They are experimenting with family schools, camp-like religious school models and new modes of adult learning. Day schools are always seeking ways to remain on the cutting edge of education, always searching for more effective approaches to teaching and learning. Camps and youth groups are constantly creating new ideas for engaging their clients. And throughout the Jewish community, educators are inventing new ways to reach out to populations rarely served.

Yet, how much encouragement to pursue a career in Jewish education do young adults receive from their parents, the Jewish professionals they meet or the community at large? How many young adults will not even hear about the possibility of becoming a Jewish educator as they are grappling during those after-college years with decisions about what direction to take in their lives? And how often will talented adolescents and young adults interested in serving the Jewish people hear about other avenues of service, but not about being teachers or leaders in schools, camps, youth programs and other places where Jews learn?

We who care about the future of the Jewish people can do better.

We who are parents of young adults can remind them of the impact that teachers and educators had on them. We can tell them that they can touch others the way they were touched … and that they can make a good living doing so. We can tell them about teaching fellowship programs like DeLeT and graduate programs with generous financial aid packages. (One school in the East used to offer all Jewish education students free tuition. At my school, most students are eligible for scholarships that bring their total tuition costs for a master’s degree down to only a few thousand dollars.)

We who are clergy, educators and communal professionals can invite promising young adults to talk with us about their futures. We can show them the rewarding path that lies ahead for them if they choose to become Jewish educators. We can point with pride to colleagues in our own institutions who were trained at one of the schools or programs that prepare Jewish educators, and how they’ve made a difference.

And we who are in positions of communal leadership can make sure that our institutions honor all our teachers and educators, and not just those few singled out for awards by national and local philanthropies. In congregations, we can honor educational leaders as klei kodesh, holy vessels who, like rabbis and cantors, bring the delights of the divine and the joys of Judaism to life on earth. In schools, we can honor teachers all year long and not just on “Yom Ha-Moreh” with tangible rewards for excellence and intangible signs of our appreciation.

Maybe in a few years we will be able to look back and say that we changed the landscape of Jewish life by making sure that each Jewish child and each adult Jewish learner encountered passionate, well-prepared Jewish educators, and each institution was led by visionary leaders who brought with them the wealth of talents and the gifts they acquired as they prepared for their careers. But to be able to look back this way, we have to work today to bring larger numbers of young people into the profession of Jewish education and encourage them to seek out the very best professional preparation possible.

Michael Zeldin is Director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He can be reached at mzeldin@huc.edu.

Teacher’s impact creates lasting memories and values


Morah Malka will understand.

She’ll get that I am focusing on Alan Rosen because he was my teacher and not because she and the other recipients of the 18th annual Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Awards are any less worthy of notice than Alan, who also received the award last month.

After all, the award, co-sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, is a big deal: Milken Foundation officials present the award to each of the unsuspecting recipients at an all-school assembly. A videotape of those hand-over-mouth moments is later shown at a feel-good luncheon, attended by all the community machers, that honors not only the recipients but the entire enterprise of Jewish education. And each award comes with a $15,000 cash prize, which adds some heft to that thank- you.

This year, Lee Tenerowicz was the first teacher from Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s 9-year-old Brawerman Elementary School to win the annual award; Bilha Schechter was credited with bringing a little bit of Israel to her third-and fourth-grade students at Valley Beth Shalom Day School; and Mona Riss, a.k.a. Morah Malka, had the entire luncheon of 235 people alternately cracking up and tearing up at stories about her first-graders at Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. She told one about Eliezer, whom she comforted as he cried under her desk, saying his mother told him a nice Jewish girl would never marry a boy who didn’t know how to read Hebrew. Seventeen years later, Morah Malka received his wedding invitation, with a note from his bride thanking her.

That’s how I know that Morah Malka, and probably most teachers, will understand why I’m going to talk about Alan. Teachers talk about their students, and students talk about their teachers, because that relationship builds memories, values and lives.

Alan Rosen was my gym teacher throughout elementary and middle school at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since 1989, he’s been teaching at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood. That’s thousands of students over 35 years. And not just one-year students, but kids he sees for about 40 minutes every day, from kindergarten through eighth grade.

From the chants of “A-lan, A-lan,” I heard recently on the Maimonides school yard, I know not much has changed in the way kids love Alan, and Alan loves kids.

In fact, not much at all has changed about Alan. At 62, he’s spry and muscular, and he still wears shorts even when it’s cold. He still has on that ubiquitous baseball cap and sunglasses and that ever-present grin of contentment, always looking like he’s just about to laugh. He is still gentle but intense. He has the stopwatch (digital now), and that whistle around his neck, and a set of magical keys that opens up secret closets and cabinets with handballs, basketballs, jump ropes, medicine balls, stilts and a huge orange parachute. I’m guessing the closets no longer hold the metal, size-adjustable, over-the-shoe roller skates I got to wear as we circled the green-painted rooftop yard at Yavneh.

He can still take on even the biggest eighth-graders in basketball, and when he starts singing and dancing with the kids, he jumps like an ape and sweeps them all into his wake.

Back when I was his student, singing was mostly a rainy day activity down in Room 310. Before we played gaga, Alan would sit us in a row and try out some new songs he was writing. There was “Make a Good Day, Make a Happy Day,” and there was one about sweeping the floor and responsibility, and I can hear vague vestiges of something about flying like a cloud.

Now those songs have evolved into a curriculum he calls M-3a — Movement, Music and Middot (positive characteristics) Awareness, which integrates moral development with physical movement.

“I want to anchor them to a spiritual expectation,” Alan says during a sixth-grade boys PE class at Maimonides, his voice barely audible above the squeak of sneakers on the blacktop and the calls of “over here!” “Before class, we almost always start with an anchor. I might have them sing ‘Kindness Is Listening to Love,’ which is a 30-second song that highlights kindness, and try to create an environment of love toward each other and listening to each other.”

It might sound hokey, but because he’s Alan, kids listen — even 11- and 12-year-old boys who have just burst from a classroom, ready for basketball.

“Emotions are the feelings, that live inside my heart,” the boys begin on command. “My body is a simcha, I feel it when I play, I strive to keep it holy for the length of my days.” When they get to the last part, where they repeat “holy, holy,” the boys link arms for a rowdy dance.

Alan doesn’t delude himself that these songs change every kid. But alumni have come back to say they remember them, and he can sense, he says, that it impacts how they treat kids who aren’t the best athletes, how they deal with a bad call or how they handle a dispute with friends.

Over on the elementary school yard, we walk across 49 words in circles painted all over the rough asphalt.

Speech. Blessings. Sharing. Trust. Determination. Fear. Love. Choice. Allow. Ruach (spirit). Believe. Classes might start with kids standing in a circle. Then Alan might have them do what he calls movement sequences. Each kid strikes a pose that dramatizes the word she’s on, then moves to the next circle, creating something of a dance. He has kids run to and read each circle in 60 seconds or dribble on each circle as they read the word. Sometimes, he asks kids to find the virtue that is needed at a certain moment. Stand on patience, stand on listening, stand on derech eretz (respect).

A lot of those Hebrew words weren’t painted on the yard I remember, because when Alan was my teacher, he was a young bachelor, and Orthodox Judaism was all pretty foreign to him. Today, he is married with two stepsons and two daughters — his youngest is in the seventh grade at Maimonides — and he is observant and constantly learning about Judaism. He realized, he says, the secular humanism he tried to bring to Yavneh in the 1970s was actually rooted in Jewish traditions like Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Father.

Israel’s teacher strike highlights cracks in the system


As much as he’s been wanting to complete his master’s degree in history, David Graniewitz would rather be standing in front of a classroom, teaching history or English to junior high and high school students.

Instead Graniewitz, who has taught in Israeli secondary schools for almost 20 years, has spent the past couple of weeks glued to his kitchen table, focusing — or trying to focus — on his own studies.

“I like being with a class,” Graniewitz, a 46-year-old father of four, said in his homey apartment in the southern neighborhood of Talpiot, surrounded by mounds of folded laundry. “I’m finding being home difficult. It’s boring.”

Graniewitz is one of the more than 40,000 teachers taking part in a strike launched by the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) on Oct. 10 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Organizers say the strike, which is affecting some 400 junior high schools and 1,200 high schools in the Jewish sector according to the Ministry of Education, could end tomorrow or last for months. The Arab sector joined the strike two weeks ago.

Some secondary school teachers, who belong to the Israel Teachers Union, are not on strike because their union forged a deal with the ministries of Finance and Education several months ago. The result is a hodgepodge of teaching hours and a great deal of confusion.

As of press time on Tuesday, SSTO and Israel’s education minister had resumed talks, with Union of Local Authorities serving as a mediator. While sources on both sides say the gaps remain large, the parties agreed to negotiate intensively to try to end the strike, Ha’aretz reported.

The Israeli public, which has been less than sympathetic to the demands of highly paid striking dockworkers and electric company employees, does not dispute that the country’s teachers are vastly underpaid and subjected to poor working conditions.

“Teachers in this country are getting shafted,” said Jody Zaviv, a Jerusalem property manager whose 14- and 16-year-old sons have been home due to the strike. “I’ve heard their average take-home pay is 4,000 to 6,000 shekels [roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a month] and you can’t raise a family on that. I hold it against the government for refusing to pay a decent wage.”

Teachers, in fact, may earn even less than the figures quoted by Zaviv, according to Keren Shaked, an SSTO spokeswoman.

“A new teacher earns about 3,300 shekels [$825 per month], minimum wage before taxes,” and this is after three years of university. Teachers working 20 years average less than 6,000 shekels [$1,489].”

Independent studies confirm that Israeli teachers earn very little compared to educators in other countries. A survey of 2005 wages conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 30 countries placed Israeli teachers in 29th place, above Hungary but below Slovenia, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Mexico.

Further, data released by Central Bureau of Statistics in July 2007 revealed that Israeli teacher salaries averaged only $1,464 pretax per month, while the average overall Israeli salary was $1,968. Monthly salaries in the electric company averaged $4,537; $2,658 in the industrial sector; $2,259 in the transport field; $1,603 in the health field, and $911 in the catering and hospitality sector.

“Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would become a teacher,” said Shaked, a teacher. “The teachers colleges are crying out for students.”

With few exceptions, Shaked said, Israeli schools “look a lot like prisons. If there’s air conditioning it’s because the parents raised the money. During the past few years, the rate of violence and drugs and dropping out has skyrocketed. Slash money from the education budget and this is what happens.”

Shaked said budget cuts imposed during the tenure of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have meant that teachers who once taught history or the Bible several hours a week to a classroom of students are only allotted two to three hours weekly.

“Teachers may be teaching the same subject in five or seven or even 10 different classrooms” in order to fill their quota and make ends meet, Shaked said. “More students mean more papers to prepare and grade, more students and parents to meet.”

To take home $1,863 per month this past school year, Graniewitz, an immigrant from England, taught matriculation-level courses in three separate secondary schools.

“The city cut back the hours it was willing to pay, which meant that a syllabus that used to take six hours to impart has to be condensed into three hours. You can’t do this and also hold discussions and do group work. Today everything is geared at passing the bagrut [matriculation exams]. There’s no time to impart values. I know it sounds pretentious, but we’re here to educate.”

Graniewitz said the teaching environment has deteriorated in recent years.

“I’ve been teaching in a school in a poor neighborhood, and you would think parents would appreciate teachers for helping their children get out of their rut. That isn’t happening. The amount of antagonism and aggression is shocking. Every day is a struggle. You don’t know if someone is going to throw a firecracker through the door or if your car is going to be vandalized.”

Standing under the protest tent set up by striking teachers within shouting distance of the prime minister’s office, Yael Pulvermacher, a 38-year-old special-ed teacher, said the $1,043 she comes home with every month “isn’t even enough to pay for the music school my sixth-grader wants to attend. I left a high-tech job to go into teaching, but unless something dramatic happens I won’t be teaching next year.”

Despite the many challenges facing Israeli teachers, Graniewitz said he is aching to get back to teaching.

“It’s my fix,” he said, smiling broadly. “Even with the bad parts, I’d still like teaching kids in Israel more than I would in, say, America. Most of our problems are universal problems,” he said.

Crossroads School thanks its courageous music man


Crossroads School in Santa Monica might not be where one would expect to find the archived works of a celebrated composer who survived Dachau and Buchenwald, especially when one considers that the Vienna-born Herbert Zipper worked as an educator at a variety of institutions of higher learning, including USC and the New School for Social Research in New York. But when Zipper died at the age of 93 in 1997, he left his papers to the K-12 school where he taught musical composition and theory in his retirement years. His relationship with the school was such that co-founder and former headmaster Paul Cummins wrote Zipper’s biography.

“[Zipper] helped steer Crossroads into arts education” and had an “impact on the curriculum” that is still felt to this day, said David Martino, Crossroads archivist and curator of the April 22 exhibition, “Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher,” which marks the official opening of the archive to the public.

Among the items to be found in the permanent collection are a German-language letter sent by Zipper on Buchenwald Konzentrationslager letterhead and the original manuscript of “Dachau Song,” Zipper’s stirring anti-Nazi anthem,which was initially titled, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” the ironic words hanging above the Dachau gate, which translate roughly as “Work will set you free.”

On April 22, six tall panels — collages of musical notations, photos and other artifacts — will be displayed in the high-ceilinged, first-floor lobby of the school’s Paul Cummins Library. The panels document Zipper’s long life and career: his days in Vienna before the war; his time in the concentration camps in 1938 and 1939; his wartime work in the underground in Manila, radioing Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the movements of the Japanese; and his postwar career in the United States.

Despite all the inhumanity he witnessed and endured, Zipper never battled depression nor lacked for style. One characteristic picture of him at the archive shows Zipper wearing a bow tie and gray suit, sporting a smile on his face.

“I’ve seen pictures of him from the 1900s to the end of his life, and he went through the Holocaust and World War II, and I think I’ve only seen one picture where he looked unkempt,” Martino said.

Zipper hailed from a well-to-do family and was exposed to classical music at a young age, studying with well-known composers like Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss. Later he became a composer and teacher himself, leading orchestras in Manila, Brooklyn, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was when he convinced an SS guard in Dachau to get him violin string. Zipper and his fellow inmates then stole wood wherever they could find it, cobbled together makeshift instruments and performed compositions such as “Dachau Song,” whose lyrics were written by poet Jura Soyfer, another prisoner. Known in German as “Dachau Lied,” the piece was first performed in an abandoned Dachau building filled with latrines.

Of the secret concerts in the Dachau outhouse, Martino added, “It helped keep people’s sanity and dignity.” Yet even before Zipper came up with this scheme, he began reciting Goethe to others in the concentration camp, refelcting his belief that the arts gave people their humanity.

In addition to the Holocaust-related items, the archive’s permanent collection also includes a telegram signed by General MacArthur expressing his gratefulness for the “splendid contribution” of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, which, conducted by Zipper, performed for American servicemen after the city was liberated.

Zipper might never have led that orchestra or many others were it not for his father, a successful inventor, who was able to secure his release from Buchenwald in 1939, before the Final Solution became official Nazi policy. But Zipper’s time in Dachau was marked by all the indignities and torture that were characteristic of the Holocaust. Zipper saw many fellow inmates murdered. He himself suffered several broken ribs on the way to Dachau when an SS guard leveled him with a rifle butt, which also closed his left eye.

After he got out of Buchenwald, Zipper showed great insight into the Nazi psyche in a letter to his friend Eric Simon, in which he noted that the SS guards “were replaced every half hour” because otherwise they might begin to identify with their captives. “Nazi ideology does not permit free reign of the raw instincts of brutalized monsters. That would be a mistake, because eventually the worst brute after a while will have spent his sadistic impulses and for at least a time may become tame.”

Zipper might not be as famous as Ravel, Strauss or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a friend who became a film composer in Hollywood. But Zipper was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Never Give Up.” And his work lives on in myriad students whom he taught around the world, from China and the Philippines to Germany and the United States. He infused them all with the possibilities opened up by the imaginative realm.

As he once said, “We have to see the world as it is, but we must think about what the world could be.”

“Herbert Zipper: Courage Teacher” will be on display Sunday, April 22, 2-5 p.m., at Crossroads School, Paul Cummins Library, 1714 21st St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-7391 ext. 259 or visit

Films: Teen gang members take a page from Anne Frank in ‘Freedom Writers’


“Freedom Writers” opens with a montage of scenes from Long Beach two years after the Los Angeles riots. Images of gang life and the neighborhoods where members stage their brutal rites float on a stream of hip-hop sound.

Into this picture steps an eager but overdressed Erin Gruwell, a depiction of the real-life teacher whose blossoming as an activist provided the emotional catalyst for yet another alchemical performance by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.
“Lovely pearls,” says the head of the English department at Woodrow Wilson High School, where Gruwell has taken a job teaching the freshman students nobody else wants in their classroom.

The film’s first 45 minutes chart Gruwell’s initially fruitless efforts to connect with teenagers hardened by violence. Then, when Gruwell intercepts a racist caricature of one of her African American students making the rounds on a typically frustrating day, she makes a discovery that eventually changes the lives of everyone in Room 203 — including hers.

“You all may think your gangs are pretty tough,” Gruwell says as her self-segregated black, Latino and Cambodian charges glower at one another from the turf each group has staked out for itself in Gruwell’s classroom. “But you’re nothing compared to the most famous gang of all. Who can tell me about the Holocaust?”

Stunned by the silence and blank stares she receives in reply, Gruwell — and, later, the team of students, actors and filmmakers who have brought “Freedom Writers” to the big screen — perceives an important opportunity.

“The kids you see in this film are living in a world this country denies exists,” said Richard LaGravenese, who directed and wrote the screenplay for “Freedom Writers.” “They’re children just trying to survive. That’s why the kids connected to Anne Frank.”

When Gruwell introduces her students to Frank’s diary, they discover a youthful voice describing a violent world with similarities to their own. Empathy and the deep fulfillment of self-expression begin to stir in the students as Gruwell encourages them to record the loss and trauma in their own lives.

Gruwell’s visit with her students to the L.A. Museum of Tolerance is also recounted in a scene shot at the museum, including appearances by real-life Holocaust survivors who regularly volunteer there — Elisabeth Mann, Gloria Ungar, Eddie Ilan and Renee Firestone.

“This is not the story of a white person coming to the rescue of non-whites,” LaGravenese said. “All Erin did was listen, and listening transformed her and the kids.”

In an interview, the real-life Gruwell herself likened her talent as a teacher to a peculiar knack her father brings to his work as a baseball scout.

“My dad doesn’t carry a radar gun when he goes to college games — he can tell a ball’s speed just by watching it,” she said. “I’m kind of like that. Sometimes I can see a student’s ability even before it begins to blossom.”

That skill figures into one of the most affecting moments in “Freedom Writers.”

“The scene in the hall with Hilary and Mario” (the single-name singer is another actor in the film) “is verbatim what happened with me and one of my students,” Gruwell said. “He had given himself an F on a personal evaluation, and I told him that was like giving me a big F— you. ‘I see you,’ I told him, ‘and you are not a failure.'”

The exchange is jarring, not least because it’s the only time the word is used in the film.

“Richard’s original script had 27 F-words,” Gruwell said. “For a PG-13 rating you can only have one F-word. Eventually we were unanimous that there should be only one F-word to get a PG-13 and reach as many kids as we can.”

LaGravenese, whose writing credits include “The Horse Whisperer,” “Beloved” and “The Fisher King,” described his work on “Freedom Writers” as one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life. He also admits it has been among the most grueling.

“I wrote 22 drafts,” he said. “It was tough, because I was adapting the script from diaries. I also got to know Erin and the ‘Freedom Writers’ very well, and I didn’t want to invent.”

Having to direct the Holocaust survivors who met Gruwell’s students and who play themselves in the film was also difficult for LaGravenese.

“I thought it was a beautiful idea — I told them, ‘Just tell your stories.’ But then I had to say ‘cut.’ It was really traumatic,” he said.

Still, that day of filming brought storytelling opportunities that LaGravenese hadn’t expected.

“I was too shy to ask Gloria [Ungar] to reveal her number, then she walked up and offered,” LaGravenese said. “Seeing her show her number to the kids in that scene is one of the most powerful moments in the film for me.”

Since the period of her life depicted in Freedom Writers, Gruwell has taught in the College of Education at Cal State Long Beach. Many of the students she met at Woodrow Wilson followed her to CSULB and are beginning teaching careers of their own. Together they’ve established the “Freedom Writers” Foundation to provide training to teachers who want to replicate Gruwell’s success with at-risk students in their own classrooms.

“We see our activism as a movement to spark education reform,” Gruwell said. “An education system can both liberate and oppress. The only way it can liberate is if we change the idea that there’s only one way to teach children.”

“Reel Talk” with Stephen Farber will be screening “Freedom Writers” Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. Wadsworth Theatre, on the Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., building 226 Los Angeles. $20.

Working-class lads vie for Oxford in ‘History Boys’


Posner, one of eight freshly minted British high school graduates in “The History Boys,” summarizes his life in a couple of lines.

“I’m a Jew,” he says. “I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f….d.”The lines hint at the tone of the movie, which happily features the original cast of the play that smashed all kinds of award and box-office records in London, on Broadway, and even in Hong Kong and New Zealand.

The masterful drama and film script by Alan Bennett (“The Madness of King George”) is funny with an undertone of deep sadness, subtle and coarse, dense and sparkling, and offers so pyrotechnical a display of ideas and literary references that it may take two or three viewings to take it in.Most books and plays about British schoolboys are set in “public” (meaning private) upper-class institutions, such as Eton or Harrow. But in this film we encounter a group of middle- and working-class lads studying at a state-supported “grammar school” in a drab industrial town of the 1980s in the north of England.

However, the school’s ambitious headmaster is driven to ready his boys for the examination that will admit them to Oxford on scholarships. Two teachers vie to prepare the eight bright lads for the assault on the pinnacle of British education, and their clashing personalities, philosophies and pedagogical approaches are at the heart of the story.

One is the rotund, grey-haired Hector, who teases, bullies and inspires the students with his own passionate love of literature and art and his fondness for old Hollywood movies and patriotic World War II songs.

While culture and learning for learning’s sake are all very well, to impress the Oxford admission board requires a more focused and pragmatic teacher, figures the headmaster.

His choice is Irwin — all characters are known by their last names — a young man who knows all about test scores and how to impress Oxford dons. History, Irwin says, “is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance,” best played out by taking a generally accepted proposition, inverting it, and finding the necessary proof for the inversion.

For instance, the way to impress the examiners with your original thinking on, say, the Holocaust, is to put it “in proportion” by comparing it to previous historical slaughters.

Others have their own definitions of history. To the sole female instructor, history is “women following behind men with a bucket.” To Rudge, the most athletic boy who’ll get into Oxford on a rugby scholarship, “History is one f…..g thing after another.”

Yet, “History Boys” is very far from the happy-school-days-on-green-playing-fields kind of remembrance.

Hector, the devoted teacher, gropes his boys while giving them rides on his motorcycle, but he is more to be pitied than scorned, according to Richard Griffiths, who portrays the role as the play’s central figure.

“Hector is a man whom love has passed by, who is trying to reach out to someone,” Griffiths said during a number of face-to-face interviews with director Nicholas Hytner and three of the cast members.

Griffiths’ performance is brilliant, but, to this biased observer, the character hitting closest to home is that of Posner. In the end, he proves to be the only one of Hector’s boys “who took everything to heart, remembers everything he has ever taught … the songs, the poems, the sayings, the endings; the words of Hector never forgotten,” the female instructor says.

For two-and-a-half years, on the world’s stages and now on screen, the 17-year-old Posner has been played by Samuel Barnett, who is about six years older than his character and a veteran of Britain’s National Theatre.

Anticipating my first question, Barnett opened our interview with: “My father is Jewish, and his parents came from Poland. He married my mum, a Quaker, while both were in college, which made him the black sheep of his family.”

Barnett has a lilting voice and some of the film’s most pleasant moments have him singing such Hector favorites as “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

“I’ve played Posner 483 times, and the acting doesn’t scare me, but the singing terrifies me at each performance,” he said.

Barnett’s part-Jewish background never came up during auditions and had nothing to do with his getting the role, he believes.

“I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism, but when we moved from London to a small town on the northeast coast, my dad was quite worried, even paranoid, about it,” Barnett recalled.

The Holocaust was not discussed in the parental home, and the first time Barnett learned about it was as a 14-year-old student in a class about World War II.

His real education, though, came through Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”

“I watched it six times,” Barnett said. “It absolutely floored me. I was devastated.”

“The History Boys” opens at the Lammle Theatres’ Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica on Nov. 21, at the Town Center 5 in Encino on Dec. 1, and at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena on Dec. 8.

Guide to Torah fleshes out flat characters in stories


“Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary,” by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom (Yashar Books)

Besotted with Torah.

That’s the phrase that springs to mind when reading Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s “Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary.”
The title is somewhat academic, and I have to admit that it does not make the book sound user-friendly. But make no mistake, this lovely and lively volume is a valuable addition to traditional Torah study and to the layman’s library.

One of the first maxims any budding Torah scholar learns is: Aseh L’cha rav — find yourself a teacher. For it is understood that no one can study Torah alone. The corridors of Torah study are an endless maze that can only lead to confusion and frustrating dead ends. Everyone needs a guide, and even the most brilliant talmudic students in the finest yeshivas must have a study partner.

Etshalom’s book cannot replace a study partner; no single book can do that. I’m sure that Etshalom would agree with me on this point, but his book is not meant to do that. Etshalom’s book is meant as a sort of introductory field guide to Torah.

Let’s admit something right away: When we read the narratives in the Torah, we often say to ourselves, “Gee willikers, this story is really weird; this narrative makes no sense. Do people really act this way? Did people ever act this way?”

This is why you have to study with a teacher. This is why you have to scrutinize the text using Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France), the greatest of all commentators, so that you can, as Etshalom says, read between the lines.

I’m a screenwriter and novelist. I think in terms of fully realized characters. I insist on the primacy of characters that act and think in coherent ways, with what’s called in the trade: internal logic. I’m also conditioned to think in terms of plots that work in three acts and have setups and payoffs. I look for stories that end with neat fades to black; stories that are tidily resolved with no narrative problems left dangling.
This rarely happens in the Torah.

Thus, reading the stories in the Torah can be a frustrating experience. So much is left unsaid. Biblical dialogue is so spare it makes Hemingway look positively chatty.
But in truth, the bare bones tales are without literary peer — the basis for almost all Western literature. Etshalom uses traditional Torah sources, plus some of the newer disciplines of archaeology, philology, Assyriology, Egyptology, anthropology and literary theory to disclose the internal logic of the characters and to reveal the full magnificence and truth of the Torah narratives. He’s like a hugely gifted screenwriter filling out a skimpy outline stage by stage (on occasion, Etshalom even refers to the biblical characters as “actors”) so that finally the director can see the epic that he is going to shoot.

In his passionate and eye-opening second chapter, “Entering the Character’s World,” Etshalom analyzes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Here Etshalom introduces the reader to his principal methodology of parshanut — understanding the portions:

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Shoah lessons drive curriculum


The Holocaust will play a major role in educating teens at a new Green Dot charter school in Exposition Park. The entire staff of the Animo Jackie Robinson High School — seven teachers and two principals — has been trained to teach a curriculum by Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that uses the Holocaust to help kids understand the impact of moral choices they make daily.

“In making our school a Facing History high school, we are saying ‘what if we could really shape all the curricular components with this vision? What would happen with kids from the inner city who are really struggling with moral choices, and who often have no idea what it means to have remorse for your actions?'” said assistant principal Kristen Botello.

 
The school has written a four-year curriculum that integrates the Facing History approach through several disciplines, including English, history, science, art and community service. Animo Jackie Robinson is the first school in Los Angeles to adopt Facing History as an underlying educational philosophy.

 
The school opened this year with 147 kids in ninth grade; 18 of them are African American and the rest are Latino. Grades will be added over the next three years until there are 600 ninth- to 12th-graders, and all teachers hired will be trained by Facing History.

 
“I believe the thought processes that result from Facing History affect the kids not only in terms of learning the content of the Holocaust, but in looking at human behavior and the specific, personal events where individuals had to make choices, and how individual choices impact history,” Botello said.

 
Botello taught English at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for 14 years, 11 of them using the Facing History curriculum. She says she can always spot kids who had Facing History teachers.

 
“You can just see it in the way they behave, the way they treat each other and the tolerance levels they have for people who are different, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of disabilities or challenges,” she said.
The Jackie Robinson educators were among 30 LAUSD teachers who participated in Facing History’s five-day September institute called “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” held at Mount St. Mary’s College Doheny Campus.

 
Around 1,500 teachers in Los Angeles have been trained by Facing History.
 
For information, visit www.facinghistory.org or www.greendot.org.

 
A helping foot
 
As they have been for the past 14 years, about 250 kids and families will lend their feet to AIDS Walk Los Angeles Oct. 15 as part of Kids Who Care, a team made up of kids from more than a dozen schools, including Stephen S. Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
 
Last year, Kids Who Care raised $65,000, placing it fifth among the top AIDS Walk fundraisers, most of them corporations.

The team was founded with 25 walkers in 1992 by then-8-year-old Leo Beckerman, a Stephen S. Wise member. Since then, Stephen S. Wise families have raised more than $500,000 for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, now in its 22nd year.
 
The money funds direct services, prevention education and advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County.
 
There are approximately 55,000 people living with HIV in Los Angeles County, and there are 1,500-2,000 new infections each year.
 

For information visit www.WiseLA.org or www.aidswalk.net/losangeles.

 
Family dinners = better grades + better behavior
 
First ladies Maria Shriver and Corina Villaraigosa helped kick off Family Day at Thomas Starr King Middle School near Griffith Park Sept. 25. The Safeway Foundation launched a $2 million public service campaign to encourage families to eat dinner together.
 
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University founded Family Day in 2001 — and this year 600 cities participated. A CASA study found that compared to kids who have fewer than three family dinners per week, children and teens who have frequent family dinners are at 70 percent lower risk for substance abuse; half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana; one-third less likely to try alcohol; and almost 40 percent likelier to say future drug use will never happen. The report also found that teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to get better grades in school.

 
For information visit www.safeway.com or www.casafamilyday.org.

 
The next step for girls: Israel
 
The Orthodox Union’s (OU) Machon Maayan one-year program in Israel opened with its first class of 39 women, many of whom have scant Judaic studies background.
The post high-school seminary in Beit Shemesh — a half hour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — attracts girls who graduate from the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the OU’s outreach youth movement, and want to continue in their Jewish studies.
 
“Where we stop, programs like Machon Maayan continue,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, who was formerly the movement’s West Coast director.
For more information go to www.machonmaayan.org.

 

United Teachers Los Angeles just says ‘no’ to Israel divestment push by union commitee


Under a tidal wave of pressure from the local Jewish community, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has decided to deny use of its headquarters to a UTLA committee planning to host a meeting to discuss the launch of a local boycott of sanctions against and divestment from Israel.

 
In an release issued late on Oct. 5, UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he favored canceling the planned Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian gathering because it will “only polarize our union members and members of our community.”

 
However, the UTLA’s Human Rights Committee might still choose to hold the gathering elsewhere, even though Duffy has lobbied several committee members to scrap it, UTLA communications director Marla Eby said.

 
“It’s still up in the air,” she said.

 
The planned gathering would be sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of a group called Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), a new outfit that, according to its Website, includes author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, as well as revisionist historian Howard Zinn as board members and which has tight links with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s. The gathering is officially endorsed by the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee and by Cafe Intifada.

 
Still, some Jewish leaders seemed to appreciate UTLA President Duffy’s efforts to put distance between the union and the Human Rights Committee.

 
“I’m proud of what the UTLA has done,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the western region of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

 
Earlier, Rowen Taylor had said that allowing such a meeting to take place on union property would give the appearance that that UTLA endorsed divestment and a boycott, which it does not.

 
A draft letter to Duffy from several Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, AJCongress, the Jewish Community Relations Committee and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others, thanks him for sending “a clear message that UTLA does not endorse the [Human Rights] Committee’s action.”

 
Leaders from several major local Jewish organizations met at the L.A. Federation on Oct. 4 to discuss how to respond to the planned event. Duffy also attended the two-hour gathering. Duffy, several participants said, told the group he is Jewish, supports Israel and sympathizes with their concerns. He told participants that UTLA’s 30-plus committees enjoy much autonomy and that their positions don’t necessarily reflect the union as a whole.

 
Duffy said, in the release, that he had removed UTLA’s Web link to the Human Rights Committee and that UTLA would review its procedures for granting use of its facilities to union committees. In an interview Oct. 5, Duffy added that he found the brouhaha a distraction.

 
“Let me put it this way, I’d rather be focusing 100 percent of my time to the contract negotiations going on, rather than this [meeting],” he said.

 
Duffy said he had received far more pro-Israel calls and e-mails than pro-Palestinian communication.

 
Representatives from UTLA’s Human Rights Committee declined to comment. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said he believes the group is “made up of a fringe of anti-Semites.” The congressman added that perhaps UTLA should create a new committee for teachers supporting Israel.

 
The Human Rights Committee’s mission statement calls for “social justice and the peaceful resolution of conflict for its members and other staff, students, parents, the community, the nation, and the global economy.”

 
After learning about the planned anti-Israel meeting, local Jewish groups united in their condemnation, characterizing the event as anti-Semitic and criticizing the UTLA for initially allowing its headquarters to be used.

 
“This is worse than a black eye. This goes to the heart of [UTLA’s] credibility,” said Stephen Saltzman, western regional director of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), before the UTLA announced the gathering could not take place on its property. “This is the largest teachers’ union west of the Mississippi allowing itself to be used by extremist radicals who want to launch a campaign to attack the state of Israel and do so with the implied endorsement of the people teaching our children.”

 
Paul Kujawsky, vice president of the Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles, and a fifth-grade teacher at Germain Street Elementary Street in Chatsworth, said he thought UTLA could make better use of its time grappling with such important local issues as high-school drop-out rates.

 
“As a union member, I’m furious that we are attempting to have our own foreign policy when there are so many important educational issues to be addressed,” Kujawsky said before Duffy’s announcement.

 
A release put out by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Movement for a Democratic Society said the meeting’s purpose is to support the Palestinian people and call for a boycott, divestment and sanctions.

 
“When Israel was created in 1948, 75 percent of the Palestinians were forcibly dispossessed of their lands and forced into exile,” the release says, adding that “Israel’s apartheid and racist system of oppression closely resembles that which South Africa once had…” An MDS spokesman could not be reached for comment.

 
Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said the strategy for boycott, divestment and sanctions is really a “campaign for the elimination of the state of Israel, spearheaded by extremist groups who use the same hateful rhetoric as states like Iran and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”

 

Promoting Jewish Learning


On a recent Friday afternoon, the chapel bells at Duke University chimed “Shalom Aleichem” as about 1,300 educators gathered for the 31st annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).

Billed as “Jewish Literacy: A Learned Community and a Community of Learners,” CAJE 31 was a raw, messy, creative affair, with 20 sessions held every hour for five days on such wide-reaching topics as “God Shopping,” “The Jews of Sing-Sing,” “Assessing Our Relationship to Israel” and “Jews as Global Citizens.” Many of the sessions focused on teaching methodology, text-based learning and creative approaches to Judaism. Participants also met for in-depth discussions on every Jewish theme imaginable, all with the goal of energizing teachers and students for the coming year.

Teachers, storytellers, dancers, rabbis and teenagers training for future leadership positions ran through the southern heat across the sprawling campus looking for classrooms, some of which were buried two floors underground. They also browsed through Duke’s Bryan Center and an array of vendors displaying items such as teaching materials, custom-made crossword puzzles, jewelry and handmade Jewish arts and crafts.

Most of the sessions and evening keynote speeches addressed the issue of Jewish literacy, focusing on how being Jewishly literate means familiarity not just with texts, a bar mitzvah portion, Israeli history or Jewish dance, but with a stew of all those elements and much more.

In a session on adult learners led by Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, one participant said, “Something that changed my life was learning to read Torah at age 40.”

The session also focused on how much emphasis is placed on children’s preparation for b’nei mitzvah and becoming full participants in Jewish life, while parents might not have had an equivalent education and may feel left behind.

Cherie Koller-Fox, a founder of CAJE, held a session on the challenges young teachers face when deciding whether or not to enter the field of Jewish education at all. She encouraged them to assert themselves when asking for the salaries and support they would need to make a career in Jewish education work for them, and urged them to take the reins of CAJE for a new generation.

“CAJE looks old and decrepit, but it needs to be yours,” she told them. “You desperately need it, but it desperately needs you.”

A special session was held each night where teachers and community leaders discussed how to teach the war in Lebanon in the upcoming school year and shared personal feelings about Israel. Some educators stressed the importance of promoting a connection between children and Israel. One participant said, “They should identify with Israel like it’s their own home being bombed, because it is their home being bombed.” Another participant grew pensive over the thought that peace in the Middle East would truly not be achieved in his lifetime.

A few teachers worried that children would grow up with negative impressions of Israel due to media coverage or bias, while others expressed happiness that some of the myths about Israel as only a heroic nation might dissipate.

The war in Lebanon aside, some educators, especially from small communities, were happy to be surrounded by so many fellow travelers.

Ellen Ben-Naim, a teacher at Los Alamos Jewish Center in New Mexico that draws much of its congregation from the nearby research laboratory, said that in her school of 20 students, 7,000 feet up a mountain, even the rabbi is also a full-time physicist.

“This is like a mecca for me. Well, maybe that’s not the right word,” she said, adding that the diversity of Jewish life exhibited at CAJE astounded her. Back home, she said, “there is only one tent in town for everybody.”

Lynne Diwinsky, a teacher at the New City Jewish Center in New City, N.Y., enjoyed CAJE as a prelude to the school year.

“I see [CAJE] as a renewal. It happens right before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the coming year,” she said. “I love the interchange with other professionals.”

Eliot Spack, CAJE’s outgoing executive director, said, “CAJE provides a recharging of their batteries,” referring to the educators who attend.

He called the conference “a celebration of Jewish teaching: “CAJE has inspired people not in a manipulative or proselytizing way, but it’s helped people come to grips with their own Judaism.”

Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council and longtime CAJE-goer, said that making connections and being able to access new materials is important for educators.

“West of the Hudson River, where are people going to get this plethora of books and materials?” she asked.

Avraham Infeld, outgoing president of Hillel, delivered a fiery keynote address on the topic of Jewish identity. He said out of five legs of Judaism — memory, family, Sinai, the people and land of Israel and the Hebrew language — each Jew should learn three. That way, everyone would have at least one Jewish connection in common.

Infeld also mentioned a phrase his late father used to repeat that subtly echoed the conference’s theme: “A Jew has to know more today than he did yesterday.”

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

What Will Life Be Like in 2026?


In honor of The Jewish Journal’s 20th anniversary, yeLAdim asked some of our young readers at the May 7 Israel Independence Day Festival: What will you be doing in 20 years?

“I will run a restaurant with spaghetti and macaroni and cheese.”
— Hannah F., prekindergarten, B’nai Tikvah Nursery School

“Airplane pilot.”
— Preston, second-grader, Heschel

“I want to be a pharmacist when I grow up, so I can make lots of money and have a great life.”
— Gil M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School

“I want to be a basketball player in the NBA.”
— Aaron R., seventh-grader, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies

“When I grow up I want be a pharmacist or a basketball player.”
— Avin M., sixth-grader, Millikan Middle School,

“A cop. I will help the world with bad things.”
— Emil R., fifth-grader,Brentwood Science Magnet

“I will be a professional chiropractor and married with a beautiful girl. I’ll live wealthy for 120 years.”
— Jonathon A., seventh-grader, Etz Jacob

“I’m going to be a rich person in a recording studio. I’m going to be really rich.”
— David A., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“I’m going to be 34 years old.”
— David J., ninth-grader, Reseda High School

“An NBA basketball player.”
— Pedy F., ninth-grader, Tarbut V’Torah

“When I grow up I want to be an acting teacher, because it will help kids be able to do something with their time and it’s a fun thing that most people enjoy. Hopefully I will be a mom and get married.”
— Esther L., fifth-grader, Heschel

“I’ll be a Jewish doctor. I will help all ill and injured Jews. I’ll help my people stay alive. I’ll probably live near a shul. I don’t know. Hashem will show me the way.”
— Daniel V., seventh-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“A veterinarian because I love animals and taking care of them.”
— Shaiel G., fifth-grader, Heschel

“Hopefully living in Israel and helping the government. I will try to make it in as a governor or as a dance teacher. I want to be in the government helping out those in need. And I also want to be teaching the people the joy of dancing.”
— Josue V., eighth-grader, Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School

“I want to work with my dad at Al & Ed’s Autosound.”
— Lerone H., third-grader, Emek Hebrew Academy

“I think I will be teaching classes in a synagogue as a rabbi. I think I could also be a dancing teacher. I think I would be a teacher in Israel teaching people how to sing.”
— David G., seventh grader, Lindbergh Middle School

“An Olympic champion because I ice skate and I will win the gold medal. I try my best and I will love to win in 2026. I hope my future there is great.”
— Sarah W., fourth-grader, Nestle Avenue Elementary School

“Playing my GameBoy.”
— Liad C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“Playing dress up.”
— Shani C., prekindergarten, Kol Tikvah

“I would like to be a motorcycle policeman to protect the city.”
— Brian S., first-grader, Encino Elementary School

“I want to live in a big house with 100 dogs.”
— Brandon H., second-grader, Wilbur Avenue Elementary School

“I want to be a judge because I’ll have a lot of power. I want to be richer than Bill Gates.”
— Ron V., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“I want to be a lawyer because I like defending people.”
— Robert B., fourth-grader, Hancock Park Elementary School

“A fire medic (aka paramedic)”
— Lisa C., preschooler, Gan Bet

“Playing basketball on the Lakers.”
— Freddy C., kindergartner, Sinai Akiba Academy

“I will probably be a linguist 20 years from now. I want to also be a photographer and have a few other jobs. I want to help people and solve problems between countries. I want to live either in Israel or somewhere in Europe.
— Raj G., eighth-grader, Columbus Middle School

“I will want to live next to the ocean, be in the NBA and have a big house.”
— Esther S., fourth-grader, Kadima Hebrew Academy

Back in 1986…

  • The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes.
  • The U.S starts the first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  • Refurbished Statue of Liberty opens.
  • Millions take part in Hands Across America charity benefit.
  • Pope John Paul II visits the Synagogue of Rome.
  • Soviet Refusenik Nathan Sharansky is freed from prison.
  • Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • “Sarah, Plain and Tall” by Patricia MacLachlan receives the Newbery Prize for children’s literature.
  • “The Cosby Show” is No. 1 on TV, followed by “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Murder She Wrote” and “The Golden Girls.”
  • Actress Amanda Bynes is born in Thousand Oaks.
  • Actor Shia LaBeouf is born in Los Angeles.
  • Actor Ricky Ullman is born in Eilat, Israel.
  • “We Are the World,” by USA for Africa is named record and song of the year at the Grammys.
  • New York Mets win the World Series.
  • The Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl.
  • The Nintendo Entertainment System makes its debut.

A Definite Maybe


As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa swirled through both Washington and Los Angeles this year, a media darling wherever he went,

I contemplated a core mystery: Can Los Angeles’ schools be fixed by a man who loves to be loved, who with his union allies opposed education reform and whose wife is an educator with no presence in the fight for reform?

The surprising answer is maybe — if his current independent streak holds.

It is typical these days in speeches by the bustling, well-spoken Villaraigosa to hear a quick civics lesson from him about the profound troubles in public schools and the way these troubles harm the viability of Los Angeles.

He asks, “How could we do worse?”

He should know. He dropped out of troubled Roosevelt High School, then eventually persevered to earn a law degree. It wasn’t easy. Infamously, he failed the California Bar Exam several times. But before you snicker, remember that a disastrous school system saddled him with enormous academic deficits — yet he refused to be its victim.

Now, like mayors in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Cleveland, Villaraigosa wants the power to run the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of 727,000 students, encompassing several cities and two dozen unincorporated communities.

Some are asking why anybody would want to run a district I dubbed, “Los Angeles Mummified” — a name that resonated for many. The better question is, can the schools be helped by a man who, despite his youthful travails, spent his adulthood on precisely the wrong side of the education wars?

As a state legislator, Villaraigosa joined California’s consistently anti-progressive “liberal” legislators to oppose Proposition 227, the ballot measure that ended the disastrous experiment known as “bilingual education.”

What if Villaraigosa’s views — that English immersion would hurt students — had prevailed?

Luckily, clear-eyed California voters ignored the nearly unanimous opposition from politicians. Today, English-language reading and writing skills are improving dramatically among Latino children.

Nor can Villaraigosa take credit for the tough subject matter “content standards” imposed on California’s whiny school districts by Sacramento. Those standards were embraced by the State Board of Education under a surprisingly fearless Gov. Gray Davis, despite claims by the Legislature’s powerful Latino Caucus — of which Villaraigosa was a member — that the standards were just too hard. Under the standards, designed to halt widespread dumbing-down by teachers, California students are clearly improving.

These and other fundamental reforms, fought by teachers unions which are the mayor’s longtime allies, are producing a quiet miracle. After two decades of decline that left California near the bottom among the 50 states, public schools are improving.

Today, L.A. Unified is cited by serious reformers as an example of how a troubled urban district can help its teachers turn things around. LAUSD has miles to go. But in many innercity grade schools, where Superintendent Roy Romer has focused tremendous effort, test scores are approaching levels more typical of the suburbs.

That’s huge. Low-income, minority students are starting to succeed. This, even though roughly 50 percent of L.A. students arrive speaking Spanish or another language (by comparison, only about 16 percent of students in New York City schools arrive speaking a language other than English.)

This turnaround happened in the wake of years — even decades — during which the unions and political groups (with which Villaraigosa was allied) blamed low achievement on insurmountable social ills, particularly poverty, that nobody could fix. The unions fought basic reading reforms, insisting students should work “at their own pace.”

They were tragically wrong, and many Los Angeles teens were left functionally illiterate. Today, with reading reforms now firmly in place, children are enjoying big leaps in reading ability, despite the hardships of poverty. Belatedly, some union leaders — and many teachers — understand and appreciate the importance of these reading reforms. Other union honchos are merely simmering over their political defeats, all too ready to make new missteps in the mission of teacher job protection or, laughably, in the name of helping students.

If he takes over the schools — a very big if — Villaraigosa’s biggest challenge will be to come to grips with how wrong he and his friends were. Although Villaraigosa has criticized Romer, the truth is that Romer, the former Democratic governor of Colorado, stood up to his own natural allies. In his former life, Romer was staunchly pro-union as a politician.

Romer’s efforts in Los Angeles, along with those of former school board President Caprice Young and no-nonsense current board member Mike Lansing, are among the reasons I rarely call the place L.A. Mummified anymore.

Yet Villaraigosa has taken Romer to task for, among other things, failing to stem the dropout rate. On this count, Villaraigosa’s lack of experience in the education wars really shows.

The semi-illiterate dropouts common today were little kids 10 years ago, subjected to endless fads enacted under former school board presidents, such as Jackie Goldberg, and past superintendents, such as Sid Thompson.

Romer tried to undo much of that, by getting teachers to focus heavily on solid, basic skills. In an ironic twist, now-state Assemblywoman Goldberg’s name recently surfaced as a possible replacement for Romer when he retires. Goldberg has spent much of her time in Sacramento fighting to weaken reforms in reading, English immersion, math, science, testing and content standards that Romer has championed.

With such struggles still facing the schools, Villaraigosa’s own weak history in this field doesn’t inspire confidence. What inspires confidence, however, is the manner in which the mayor has proved himself independent of City Hall unions and thus of his past as a labor organizer.

Likewise, he parted company with the powerful Los Angeles Teachers Union in this week’s special election, endorsing a different candidate than the union in the Tuesday primary for an open school-board seat.

If a leader with Villaraigosa’s energy can learn from his mistakes and maintain the independent quality that has helped make him a media darling, he can be a positive force for improving L.A. schools — whether he wins the power to call the shots or not.

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

Class Notes – National Nachas for Shalhevet


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Strong for Camp Ramah

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

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

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

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

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

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

YULA Girls Face History

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

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

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

Jewish Peace Corps

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

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

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

Prejudice Awareness Summit

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

 

A Big Impression


I’m too old to have heroes. But for those who live their lives with courage, I can make an exception. Like the Impressionists, for instance, whose lives of self-sacrifice I was trying to share with my class of older adults.

“OK, everyone,” I say, “whoever’s not here, raise your hand.”

Naturally, Saul raises his hand. Maybe I should explain.

My senior students suffer from short-term memory loss, a condition less severe than Alzheimer’s and dementia but nonetheless frightening. They can recall exact moments from decades past, but in the present, from one moment to the next, many don’t remember who or where they are. Sort of like elected officials.

“Are you saying you’re not here, Saul?”

“Are you?” he asks, a sour look on his face.

“Good question,” I say. “Now let’s look at an amazing movement in art called Impressionism. First, we’ll watch a video to appreciate the magnificent works of Renoir, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, because this class is art appreciation, right?”

Nothing. No response. Twenty-five people and not a whisper, not a murmur, not a peep.

“Which art movement are we learning about this morning?” I ask. “Anyone?”

Louise takes a stab at it.

“Art.”

“Yes, but which movement?”

Silence. You can hear a pacemaker ticking. Imagine being able to remember the color of your socks when you were 3, but you can’t remember where you put your shoes five minutes before.

“OK,” I press on, “aren’t these just wonderful, these paintings of nature and the human form? What do you think Saul?”

He shrugs. He sighs. A big, burly man in his late 80s, he sits week after week collapsed in his chair, with his head in his chest, and I can’t get a word out of him.

I continue. “Now in the late 1860s….”

Suddenly, here’s Marla.

“Who does those clown paintings?” she yells.

“Clown paintings?”

“Yeah,” she hollers. “I saw a painting with a clown, and there was a tear on his cheek. Who does them? They’re great!”

Clown paintings? We’re talking Renoir here. It’s Monday morning; the class is five minutes in, and I’m wondering if it’s not too late to get my real estate license.

“Red Skelton,” I say with scorn.

“Oh,” says Marla, now softly. “That’s right. Red Skelton. Was he an Impressionist?”

“Yes,” answers Bob. “He did impressions of clowns. He was funny.”

“I used to be funny,” says Jake. “Then I got married.”

“Your wife doesn’t know you’re funny Jake?” I ask.

He makes a face. “My wife doesn’t know I’m living.”

“How about you, Saul?” I ask. “Are you married?”

Slowly, Saul raises his head, waves me off and drops his head back to his chest.

“Saul,” I say, “if you don’t take part in the class, I’m going to have to ask you to bring your parents to school.”

“You’ll have to dig them up,” he replies.

I throw my hands in the air. “Oy!” I exclaim.

“You’re Yiddish?” asks Jake.

“The world’s Yiddish,” I tell him. “Who knows the difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel?”

“The shlemiel spills the coffee on the shlimazel,” says Jake.

“OK,” I say, “now how many of you know that one of the leading Impressionists — Pissarro — was a Jew?”

No response. Nothing. Nada. Bubkes. Maybe I could become a plumber. I already have a wrench. I know I saw one somewhere in the garage, I think, a month ago.

Two hours later, I’m exhausted. One last time, I explain how much the Impressionists believed in themselves and what they were trying to accomplish.

“OK,” I say, “what have we learned today? Nellie?”

“Nothing,” she says, cheerfully.

“Nothing? I’m up here talking for two hours, and you’ve learned nothing?”

“We remember nothing,” says Molly.

“Yeah,” says Ray. “Don’t take it so personal.”

Oh. OK. Surely, the West Valley could absorb one more real estate agent.

“What about you, Vivian?” I ask. “Tell me one thing you’ve learned about the Impressionists.”

“Stick to your guns,” she says.

“Thank you,” I cry.

On the TV monitor, the video is now showing breathtaking paintings of the French countryside. One last try.

“Has anyone here ever been to France?” I ask.

“France would be a great place without the French,” says Jake.

“Anyone else?” I ask.

Like an ancient tortoise, Saul lifts his head, and staring off into the beyond, mutters under his breath, “I’ve been to France.”

“Hallelujah! Tell us about it, Saul. Did you go to the museums?”

“I was on the beach,” he says to his feet.

“The Riviera, Saul? Girls? Bikinis? Ooh-La-La?”

“We landed in the water,” he says. “All my friends around me were shot. The water was blood. I was on the beach.”

The room goes extra silent, the only sound the air conditioning. My hero lowers his head back to his chest, but not before my eyes meet his. I am 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and I think I am going to cry.

Wildman Weiner is a credentialed teacher of older adults.

Jack and Judaism


Jack Stein taught me about being Jewish.

First, he told me that Jewish husbands are the best husbands because

they “only cheat a little.” Jack grinned up at me and I smiled back. At 5-feet-8 inches tall, I am used to being taller than many men, but when I put my arm around my diminutive father-in-law, the top of his bald head barely reached my shoulder. Still, he stood as tall as any man I ever knew.

When Jack congratulated me on converting to Judaism, he said, “Don’t be ashamed.” That time he wasn’t kidding — he really meant it. His admonition made me sad, but also taught me more than any book or museum could teach about persecution, cruelty and hatred. I knew intellectually what I was in for, but Jack’s words hit me in my new Jewish gut: “Don’t be ashamed.”

When I met my husband-to-be more than 25 years ago, I had no idea that I would gain not only a wonderful mate, but an entire culture and religion that was more than 5,000 years old. What I learned in my conversion class was thimble sized compared to what I soaked up by spending time with Jack and his friends. His survivor havurah had been together since they arrived in Dallas after the war and raised their families together. I learned from them that being Jewish leaves one open to irrational hatred that no one can understand, much less explain. What Jews do, I learned, is survive.

One night I sat on the couch with Mrs. “Red” Goldberg and Mrs. “Black” Goldberg (so designated by the hair color of their respective husbands) and listened as they described the Nazi horrors inflicted on them and their families. They described their hardship without self-pity or bitterness, but with a will to survive that didn’t have to be expressed specifically because it was infused in their words. They talked with gratitude about the life they had been able to build in this country.

Mrs. “Black” Goldberg told me the Nazis liked to watch her husband, Herschel, run up hill while carrying two soldiers, one under each arm. It amused them, and probably saved his life. Herschel was still a bulldog of a man who, well past retirement age, worked part time at a deli and was the source of day-old bagels for the group.

When Jack told me not to be ashamed of being Jewish, he spoke volumes about what it is like to belong to this tribe. An unbreakable thread runs through it that has never been severed, in spite of the most evil attempts. By telling me not to be ashamed, Jack was telling me to be proud of my decision to become a Jew.

Jack taught by example to survive terror and pain and go on to live a good, long life surrounded by family and friends. Jack didn’t just survive, he chose to love life again. He teased the ladies and cheered for the Cowboys and hummed in the shower. I saw a gleam of triumph in his eyes, filled with tears, as he watched his granddaughter ordained as a rabbi.

We lost Jack five years ago this month, just before Thanksgiving. Last week, as we rose for the Kaddish, I gave thanks to God that Jack was part of my life and that he taught me to be a proud Jew.

I could not have asked for a better teacher.

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia and has been a proud Jew-by-choice for 20 years. She can be reached at

Spectator – Sweet Music Amid Turmoil


Those who have followed the documentaries produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center know what to expect: Films like “Genocide,” “Liberation” and “In Search of Peace” that hit you right between the eyes and in the solar plexus.

Thus, it is more the surprise that its Moriah Films division’s latest documentary, “Beautiful Music,” a 39-minute film narrated by Brooke Shields, proves to be sensitive and understated. “Beautiful Music,” directed and written by the Wiesenthal Center’s Richard Trank, was based on original material by Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier.

It’s about a blind and autistic Arab girl who blossoms into a musical savant under the tutelage of a caring Jewish piano teacher.

Rasha Hamad, who is deaf and blind like her younger sister, is locked into a small room with her sibling by their parents and later abandoned. Traumatized and helpless, the girls are given a warm home in the Arab village of Beit Jala by a Dutch missionary couple, Edward and Helene Vollbehr.

The girls seem unable to respond to human contact, they beat themselves on the heads and they scream endlessly. But then the Vollbehrs notice that Rasha calms down when listening to classical music and shows an amazing aptitude for playing the piano.

The Vollbehrs turn to the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, where Rasha is entrusted to Devorah Schramm — although the task is daunting even for this devoted teacher. While Rasha’s piano playing keeps improving, and she even starts to compose her own music, it takes two or three years of daily lessons before Rasha shows any signs of bonding with her teacher. Rasha also suffers when the larger world around her goes awry, when Scuds fall during the 1991 Gulf War or during the terror of the two intifadas.

With calmer days, Rasha picks up again, The last scene shows her performing a Chopin sonata, joined by Jewish classmates, to the applause of the Jewish audience, which had pitched in to pay for her lessons.

Summing up her experience, Schramm observes, “If we look at the headlines, we see generalities. But when we look at one individual, we see more deeply.”

The film will screen at the Hollywood Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arclight Theatres, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For information visit www.hollywoodawards.com/screenings.

 

PhD on the Flying Trapeze


You’re on the flying trapeze, gliding fearlessly through the air. Keeping you aloft, 30 feet above gaping spectators, are your trusted teammates. Today, your welfare is in their hands. Tomorrow they’ll go back to being — the guys from accounting?

On that premise, Edy Greenblatt has built a new Southern California-based business.

Greenblatt is best known in Los Angeles as an energetic, knowledgeable folk dance teacher. But in search of a more stable career, she studied organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, in a joint doctoral program involving Harvard’s graduate schools of psychology and sociology. Her doctoral research on stress in the workplace took her to a string of Club Meds — the better to investigate worker burnout.

At a Club Med in Florida, she first caught glimpse of a flying trapeze. It was love at first flight.

The 30-something Greenblatt saw “the most powerful tool for professional and personal transformation.” Now, as president and “chief flying officer” of five-year-old Execu-Care Coaching and Consulting, she helps corporate managers hone communication and leadership skills by teaching them the knee-hang and the back-flip dismount from a bar swinging 30 feet off the ground.

It’s not as terrifying as it sounds. Everyone wears a safety harness, and there’s a net below. Greenblatt’s staffers, who do the actual catching each time you fly through the air, have logged 10,000 hours of training and coaching time.

The trapeze requires intense collaboration, so the corporate execs build trust and self-confidence, which makes them more effective at work. That’s the theory anyway.

At the very least, the experience fulfills many a childhood circus fantasy, and it’s a deductible business expense.

The Chicago-born Greenblatt originally came to Los Angeles at 17 to pursue her passion for international folkdance, studying dance ethnology at UCLA and teaching dance all over the place. But eventually it dawned on her that leading novices through “Dodi Li” was no way for a nice Jewish girl to make a living. She also recognized that, as a dance leader, “I was spending my life fixing the damage caused by work and life.” Rather than struggling to restore people’s psyches through dance, she vowed to help transform the workplace that saps so many souls.

That led her to Harvard for her academic credentials and eventually to the trapeze.

In a way, she’s come full circle. In high school, she sold peanuts and Cokes when Ringling Bros. came to town. When they moved on, she was sorely tempted to go with them. Now she uses circus tricks to teach the desk-bound how to soar.

For information, call (626) 644-7745 or edy@execu-care.com.

 

Teaching in the Temple of Nature


Gabe Goldman wanted to believe in miracles, wanted to believe in the power of prayer, wanted to believe that God had spoken to prophets. But Goldman, an Orthodox Jew, felt burned out on Judaism. He would perform the rituals with perfect technique, but no heart. A change, he thought, was in order.

At the time, a little more than a decade ago, Goldman held a prestigious job as curriculum director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Cleveland. He earned $70,000 annually, enough to own a comfortable home and provide for his wife and four children.

With his wife’s blessing, Goldman dealt with his personal crisis by resigning his position, with no other job lined up or even a clear game plan. A hiking and canoeing aficionado, Goldman wanted somehow to combine his love of nature with a rebirth of his love for Judaism. Along the way, he would lose his house to foreclosure and discover a mystical grandfather figure whom he followed, like a disciple, through the wilderness.

Today, the 54-year-old Goldman directs outdoor Jewish education at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. In the newly created position, the former yeshiva student and published author helps other Jews deepen their appreciation of ecology, their religion and themselves. Goldman has taught Brandeis campers to weave a palm-branch sukkah, to light the Havdalah candle by rubbing sticks together and to fashion Shabbat candles from plaster castes of animal tracks.

The world outdoors, however, isn’t simply something to admire, enjoy and appreciate in Goldman’s view. The tall trees, colorful flowers and sun-baked hills all reflect God’s finest handiwork. According to Jewish tradition, flora and fauna are so sacred that Jews could learn all the Torah’s lessons simply by opening their hearts to the plants and flowers.

“There is one doorway to spirituality that remains open 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” said Goldman, a muscular 5-feet-8, 170-pounds. “This is the doorway of nature, the most ancient of all spiritual doorways.”

For Brandeis, the hiring of Goldman is recognition of Judaism’s connection to nature and also an attempt to take advantage of the institute’s 3,000 acres of open space, executive director Gary Brennglass said. Goldman moved to Southern California in May with his wife and 17-year-old son — his other children are grown.

“Gabe is a brilliant teacher with a national reputation,” Brennglass said. “He’s an engaging personality who can relate to our youngest campers in our day camp and to our oldest participants in our elder hostel. We’re lucky to have him.”

Goldman has planted fruits and vegetables with college students in the organic garden and led first-graders on egg hunts in the camp’s chicken coops. Future projects include Rosh Chodesh hikes the first Sunday of each month and Sunday programs in the gardens for Brandeis alumni and families.

Goldman is perhaps most in his element when he leads Saturday morning Shabbat hikes around Brandeis’ grounds, which feature dramatic vistas of 12 rugged peaks. On a recent outing, Goldman led a dozen adults near colorful peacocks and through fields of yellow flowers. Goldman asked participants to close their eyes and reflect on the magnificence surrounding them. Nature’s complexity, interconnectedness and beauty are so divine, Goldman said, that they helped convince the great Jewish patriarch Abraham of God’s existence.

The spiritual bliss that Goldman can reach today contrasts sharply with the despair that led him to give up his comfortable life in Cleveland years ago. Not even his own religious erudition could put his spiritual unease to rest: He had penned his dissertation, at the University of Connecticut, on the teaching principles enunciated in the Torah and Talmud.

He eventually lost his house and saw his salary plummet to below $20,000 annually. But pursuing his quest for meaning, he said, saved him from a life of quiet desperation.

Within a year of walking away from his respectable career, he began studying native American culture and survival skills with a Maine wilderness guide named Ray Reitze Jr. Reitze, whom Goldman affectionately calls “Grandfather,” taught him to see and experience the connection between nature and spirituality.

Among other things, Goldman learned to shed anger by hollowing out his ego. He also discovered the ability to transcend the limitations of time and space by entering a dimension of spirituality. On a 1995 canoeing trip with Grandfather, for instance, Goldman put a bird’s feather on his chest, fell asleep and then felt himself flying above the island where they camped. Another time, he “visited” a friend’s apartment in another city and described, in detail, her dining room and her home’s décor without ever having stepped a foot in it.

In time, Goldman began organizing retreats for Jewish groups in the Allegheny National Forest and elsewhere. In 1997, the New Jersey YMHA Camp hired him to bring Jewish nature programming to its six camps.

Four years later, Goldman founded the Jewish Environmental and Nature Education Institute, a 4-year-old Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization that has conducted hikes and other programs for more than 30,000 Jews nationwide. The institute distributes his book, “Guide for the Spiritually Perplexed: A Jewish Meditation Primer.” (The book also can be obtained at www.outdoorjewishadventures.com.) Goldman hopes eventually to relocate the institute to Southern California.

At Brandeis, Goldman is entirely in his element when he works with small numbers of students, mentoring them in Jewish text and survival skills.

“I was incredibly moved by Gabe Goldman,” said Lisa Cooper, who recently went on a Goldman-led Shabbat hike with her husband. “He had an incredible ability to bring a sense of spirituality and God to nature and make it personal. You were outside but you felt totally present with Shabbat and the morning prayers.”

But nature, Goldman added, doesn’t exist simply for our enjoyment or to prove the Creator’s existence. Halachic law requires the Jewish people to become stewards of the land and to protect the natural resources and animal life that God gifted to humanity. To live in harmony with God’s creatures is to live in harmony with oneself and with Judaism.

Sharon Pearl first met Goldman at a camp in 1999 and found herself captivated by his teachings. Pearl, now a Jewish meditation teacher-in-training under Goldman’s supervision, credits him with changing her life.

“Through his teachings, I learned that there was a whole world beyond what I could see and hear, that God really exists,” Pearl said. “I leaned to trust myself and that I don’t have to listen to the voice of self-doubt that holds me back from living my life to its fullest.”

Goldman said he feels like he’s living his life to its fullest at Brandeis. Surrounded by breathtaking beauty, a supportive staff and campers hungry for his wisdom, Goldman said he has found a place he plans to call home for a long while.

“Brandeis-Bardin is unique. I haven’t found anything like it in the U.S.,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”

 

One of the Girls


I remember Danielle Magady as a tiny kindergartner whose broad smile arced across her face.

I met her and her parents, Terry and Holly, 10 years ago when I wrote one of my first stories for The Journal on developmentally disabled children in Jewish day schools.

Danielle was, at that point, the poster child for the relatively new practice known as inclusion, which places developmentally challenged students full time into regular classrooms. The theory is that inclusion gives children with special needs a better education, while also developing their range of skills to function in the larger society.

In the fall of 1995, the Magadys brought their daughter to Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu, a new Orthodox Jewish day school set on a large, flat pad of land in Baldwin Hills. They knew that public schools had options for a child born with Down syndrome, but the Magadys, who are Orthodox, wanted Danielle to have a Jewish education.

They assumed they’d have to argue their point with the school’s young principle, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg. But the rabbi didn’t hesitate for a moment.

“I felt we’re a Jewish school,” he told me last week. “And being Jewish means you reach out to everyone who’s a Jew and let them have a Jewish education.” Danielle entered a kindergarten class of six, in a school of 200 students.

Although The Journal has written about inclusion and special-needs students over the years, I pretty much forgot about Danielle, until her father called me last month. “I thought you might want to know what happened,” he said. “Ten years later.”

Last week, I met with the Magadys in a small utility room off the auditorium at Ohr Eliyahu.

When they enrolled Danielle, her parents didn’t know what to expect. Though some studies suggest that inclusion is effective in some settings, no research had examined Jewish schools, and just a handful of families had enrolled their special-needs children at Los Angeles-area day schools.

“It’s not been easy for sure,” Holly said. “We always said we’ll take it year by year, as long as she’s learning. We couldn’t envision what it would look like.”

From kindergarten to third grade, Danielle faced significant social as well as academic challenges. Because the school is small, both parents are loathe to identify specific examples, but they say there were hurt feelings and tears.

“Let’s say it was bumpy,” Holly said.

What’s more precisely clear is that the process took the proverbial village. Early on, the Magadys met Carol Faucett, an inclusion coordinator who served as a constant adviser. The Etta Israel organization, which assists families with developmentally challenged children, also helped. Faucett trained some 16 young women, who over the years served as full-time aids to Danielle in class, and held weekly meetings with them. She held monthly meetings with teachers, administrators and the Magadys to work out problems and set realistic goals; she put out fires.

When Terry wanted to chastise a classmate for teasing Danielle, Faucett corrected his phrasing. “The lesson wasn’t that teasing a person like Danielle is wrong, it was that teasing anyone is wrong,” he said.

Faucett, who isn’t Jewish, was later hired as an educational consultant to the Orthodox day school.

“This woman changed the face of inclusion in this city for the Jewish community,” Holly said.

For inclusion to succeed, Faucett helped teachers modify their curriculum. Danielle was able to miss a class on Prophets to study up on Torah. Her Hebrew lessons focused more on speaking and reading than on more difficult Rashi Hebrew. She focused especially on social skills.

“Carol told us the world will always be moving too quickly for people like Danielle,” Holly said. “We needed to prepare her for that world.”

Inclusion shouldn’t be like the show “Survivor,” said Goldberg, the principal. “You don’t parachute a kid in and hope they don’t get voted out.”

In first grade Danielle learned to sit straight, eyes focused on the teacher and to listen and respond appropriately. The academic skills followed the social skills, but emotional hurdles persisted.

“There were times when Danielle felt lonely and felt left out,” Faucett told me later, by phone. In those cases, Faucett brought together Danielle and her classmates. “She would tell a girl, ‘I wish you would call me on the weekend.'” The girl would say what makes her uncomfortable, and Danielle would learn to adjust her behavior.

Faucett said inclusion works best when it doesn’t put extra burdens on the teachers, compromise the learning of other children, or disrupt the classroom.

Even then, it is no panacea. Some children will not respond, she said. And the cost can be prohibitive. The Magadys estimate they spent an additional $20,000 per year on an inclusion coordinator, aids and other expenses not including tuition and outside therapies.

Although state law provides for public school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), to pay for some inclusion services in private schools, this funding is not automatic and usually goes to schools that specialize in treating disabilities and not, for example, Jewish day schools. “No one should expect getting help from LAUSD,” Terry said.

The demands on the parents’ time are enormous as well. Danielle’s education became almost a full-time job for the couple, who also have two younger boys.

But the Magadys are convinced the payoff extended beyond their daughter. Terry’s devotion to Ohr Eliyahu inspired him to raise almost $200,000 for the school when it faced bankruptcy in 1998.

“His efforts kept the school afloat that year,” Goldberg said.

Terry said he had no choice.

“If the school closed,” he said, “where would Danielle go?”

And the hours Terry spent litigating his claims for financial assistance from LAUSD led him to change the focus of his practice from real estate law to eldercare and disability law, which he says has been more rewarding, personally and financially. “Things happen for a reason,” he said.

After an hour of talking with the Magadys, a flurry of girlish voices outside interrupted us. Holly Magady jumped up and opened the door. Two teenage girls rushed in. Both wore their school uniforms, a burgundy polo shirt and long black skirt. One of them broke into a huge arc of smile: It was Danielle.

She is maybe 5-feet tall, with smooth olive skin and an enviable mane of shiny black hair. In the first few moments, I took in her physical symptoms of Down syndrome, but that impression is fleeting. Danielle is effusive, eager and unabashed. I asked her what she liked about school. She listed friends, gymnastics, handball, dancing.

I asked her for highlights of her school year, and Danielle told me this story: A month ago, she was sitting at home alone on Shabbat when the doorbell rang. She opened the door, and there stood all five of her classmates. “They just all busted in,” she smiled. The girls spent the rest of the day talking and playing ping-pong. “She’s just like another person in the class,” her friend Shira Richards said. “She really isn’t different.”

Ohr Eliyahu’s graduation ceremony will take place June 19. “It’s going to be a 10-hanky affair,” Holly said. Each girl will deliver a speech. Terry Magady faxed me a copy of the one Danielle wrote.

“I have learned a lot of things here at Ohr Eliyahu,” Danielle will say, “and I want to share what I have learned with young children. I would especially like to teach young children in the community who have Down syndrome, like me. I want them to have opportunities to be included in the Jewish community just as I have been. With [God’s] help, I will also be able to make a big difference in other children’s lives, and I will show them that despite the challenges they face, they can have courage and faith in [God] and do extraordinary things.”

This month, many of our daughters, sons and grandchildren become graduates. Not all of them are bound for Harvard; not all of them will be the next Einstein or Spielberg. The question of how we educate those with lesser abilities, different abilities and unusual challenges says a great deal about our true qualities as a society and as a people.

“You get that experience once in your life,” said Tzafi Ashram, Danielle’s Hebrew teacher. “It really affected me. Not as a Hebrew teacher, but as a person.”

Goldberg said that having Danielle as a classmate all these years made his students “kinder, more tolerant, more self-reflective.”

“Look,” the rabbi told me, sighing deeply at the end of another long day. “Schools like ours deal with smart kids from good families. They’re going to be fine. I’m less concerned with how much they know than with what kind of people they’ll be.”

Goldberg paused, looking for words: “I guess the highest praise I could give Danielle is, she’s one of the girls in the class.”

 

Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher


Since, as the Torah says, "Confession is good for the soul," let’s begin with a confession. I am a bar mitzvah teacher. My avocation — my hobby — is the navigation of Jewish girls and boys through the tangled web of the bar mitzvah ceremony.

It is a job that demands a great deal of patience with parents as well as kids. Everything depends on: a) the cranial size of the student, and b) the size of the bribes offered by the parents to the kid.

In most families, a cash gift of a green, oblong paper with a picture of Benjamin Franklin works fine. But parents who are really lousy negotiators sometimes get stuck with a clause in the BAP (Bar Mitzvah Agreement Protocol) that results in a separate phone line for Mark or Miriam; or a trust fund containing a red BMW when the child reaches driving age.

Parent 1: "OK, we’ve signed the contract with Mark. Can you get over here by 7:15? He’s in a great mood — we just gave him some money."

Parent 2: "Come over now. He’s had 50 milligrams of Ritalin. Let’s get started."

Well, Teach stumbles over. Sitting around the kitchen table, I explain to student and family the formidable intellectual challenge posed by the bar mitzvah requirements. The theme is always the same. "It ain’t easy and sooner or later you’re gonna hate me."

Yeah, yeah, they understand — "Let’s Go!" they shout.

Teaching 12-year-olds to chant haftarah is like teaching dolphins to sing "Ah! Che La Morte Ognora" from "Il Trovatore." Sooner or later kids and dolphins swim away. It is not a slick ride on a playground slide.

Take my current student (as Henry Youngman would say; "Yeah, please take him — far away"). Let’s call him Ben. When he talks, his parents open their checkbooks and listen with wide-eyed attention. His mother reveres him and his father addresses him in low, respectful tones. Here, extracted from Ben’s file is the verbatim record of my first conversation with his family.

Me: "Well, it’s time for Ben to begin his bar mitzvah training." (To myself: From what I can tell of Ben’s mental equipment, we shoulda started when he was 6.)

Mother: "Oh, nice of you to call, but I’m not sure Ben wants to be a bar mitzvah." (To herself: My son may not have time for this bar mitzvah stuff. He’s probably the Messiah himself and he’s gonna be busy fixing the world.)

Me: "Well, it’s kinda hard for an 11-year-old to make decisions like this. Why don’t you pitch in and make it for him? Just say yes." (To myself: Lucky he couldn’t express himself at birth — he’d have nixed his own bris. So messy.)

Finally, Mother agreed that since Ben was busy — determining his supper menu preferences every night, deciding on his daily TV agenda, choosing his wardrobe — that yes, she’d relieve him of this bar mitzvah decision.

A bar or bas mitzvah is a real challenge for a 13-year-old: the singing of the haftarah and blessings before and after. Plus the Torah reading and associated blessings. Then, finally, the speech. The Torah reading, especially, is a challenge. It’s not easy. There are no vowels, you see, under those squirmy Hebrew letters and the trop — the tune — is different from the haftarah.

The speech is variable. It can be a simple reading of the words typed up by his teacher; a fail-safe stratagem when the child hasn’t mastered the haftarah until 9:15 the morning of the event. Or, the student can spend weeks researching the prophets and the associated rabbinical commentary. A really scholarly bar mitzvah exegesis can equal a doctoral thesis.

But to deal with kids you need leverage. Something with which to reward, something to punish. But we teachers — unless backed up by parents — have an empty pack. All we can do is conjure up visions of all that loot — those glittering gifts; a Jewish version of Christmas Day. But if the kid already owns the world, what’s to bribe with?

Ah, the times they are a’changing. When I was a bar mitzvah boy, my teacher carried a ruler like a sword. And if you blew the trop he called you a dummy. Imagine! Not a slow learner, not someone with ADD, but a dummy! And believe it or not, he rapped your knuckles with his weapon.

Today he’d be in court. The bar mitzvahee, the ACLU and the parents with Alan Dershowitz at their side, would sue his tzitzit off.

The ideal bar mitzvah is not a bar mitzvah at all, but a bat mitzvah. Girls are easier. Give me a plain 12-year-old female with braces who has no talent for band, chess, basketball or chorus. Undistracted by an admiring world, she’ll shine on the bimah and you’ll get tons of compliments on your pedagogic talents. The synagogue audience will bow as they let you go first through the Kiddush line while the bagels are still fresh. Ah, the perks of a bar mitzvah teacher.

Ted Roberts is a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work appears in several Jewish papers, Disney Magazine, Hadassah, the Wall Street Journal and others. He lives in Huntsville, Ala.

Two Educators Earn Honors


Barry Koff, who integrates technology and art into his religious school lesson plans, is a recipient of this year’s Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Joanne Mercer, retiring director of education at Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm, suggested Koff be considered for national recognition by the Jewish Education Service of North America and the local Bureau of Jewish Education.

Another winner from Orange County this year is Limor Barkol, a Hebrew teacher at Morasha Jewish Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita and Westminster’s Temple Beth David.

"I have had the fortune of studying with many of Orange County’s wealth of rabbis and educators, including my mentor, Rabbi Bernie King," Koff said, referring to the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’a lot. "King says that ‘everyone we meet is our teacher,’ so I suppose I come by my Jewish knowledge through my family, friends and strangers."

Koff earned a state teaching credential and completed a master’s degree in Jewish education through Chicago’s Spertus College. Yet his first career as an on-air radio broadcaster comes through in his classroom. During three years at Bat Yaym, Koff encouraged use of student-made video documentaries about Jewish genealogy and music videos about historic Jewish personalities.

"I try to bring whatever creativity I can to allow students to express themselves and their Jewish identity," Koff said.

His assignment is seventh-grade Judaic studies and middle-schoolers preparing to become confirmands.

He previously served as education director at Shir Ha-Ma’a lot, where he started, wrote and produced full-length Jewish-themed musicals for the Not Ready for Orthodox Players children’s theater.

Koff, 46, and his wife, Ann, live in Dana Point with 10-year-old twins, Jonathan and Shoshana. Koff currently is a full-time home-school teacher for his children.

The award recognizes 50 outstanding Jewish educators annually. They each receive $2,500 toward funding professional development.

Koff intends to use the prize money for a summer study program in Israel.

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