Much Moola for New Look at YULA

For Rabbi Marvin Hier, the new $12.6 million YULA (Yeshiva University of Los Angeles) boys’ school building gives him both a feeling of pride and a twinge of envy.

"This is a dream come true, but I am also absolutely envious that they can have a building like this," said the dean of both YULA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "When I went to yeshiva high school and elementary school, we never had first-class science labs like this, or a building like this. This is really a dream."

Hier founded YULA in 1977 as a modern Orthodox yeshiva high school that had the dual goals of producing Torah scholars and college-prepared high school students. The school has two separate divisions — boys and girls — and today, there are about 170 students in each. The boys’ school is famous in the yeshiva world for its athletics. "The basketball team is notoriously good," said Michah Danziger, 15, a YULA 11th-grader. "And the track team is not bad either."

"We win all the championships," Hier said.

Although most YULA students come from modern Orthodox homes — in fact, religious observance is a condition of acceptance into YULA — the school’s Jewish studies staff tends to come from the ultra-Orthodox sector of the community. "Most of the teachers are more to the right than the students are, but I assume that in any school the teachers are more religious," said Rabbi Osher Klein, a rebbe at YULA. "In every school the staff has got to be on a higher [religious] standard than the students."

Klein also noted that YULA students graduate with a strong communal identity. "The overwhelming majority go on to Israel to learn in yeshiva," he said. "Even in the high school, all the leaders in the NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth] are from YULA, and the students play an important [role] in Etta Israel and B’nai Akiva."

The new boys’ school building comes at the end of an erratic campus history. The school started in two wings of the then-Simon Wiesenthal Center building, but quickly outgrew the space and took over the Rambam school building, which was located on the current YULA property. "It was a horrible facility for a high school," Hier said. "It was never meant to be a high school, and the kids were studying in trailers."

Last year, the students moved to a building across the street from the Wiesenthal Center, while the new building was being built. Three weeks ago, YULA students returned from their summer vacations to go to school in the new building.

"People would always say the Wiesenthal Center looks so nice, but look at the old yeshiva building — they are in trailers," Hier said. "Finally, we are able to say that the yeshiva doesn’t have to be embarrassed in front of the Wiesenthal Center."

The building is a state-of-the-art, 44,000-square-foot, three-story structure, with two science labs, lecture halls and classrooms equipped with televisions that are hooked up to computers so teachers can broadcast their notes.

A key feature of the building is the beit midrash (house of study), furnished with imported chairs and tables from Kibbutz Lavi in Israel. The beit midrash has 24-hour security and is open to people who want to learn Torah after hours. It has a library stocked with 4,500 new sefarim (Jewish books), and on Shabbat, the room is used as a synagogue.

In addition, there is another beit midrash in the school, which was built so that Sephardic students would be able to express their culture. On Shabbat, that beit midrash will be used for a beginners’ synagogue service.

But providing this level of facilities does not come cheap. YULA’s school fees are in excess of $15,000 a year.

"The fees are expensive, but it is only because there is no choice today," Hier said. "I am not blaming anyone, but we don’t receive outside [governmental] support. But we also give out a lot of scholarships — we give over $1 million of scholarships a year."

The next stage in YULA’s expansion plans is to build a $2.2 million, 10,000-square-foot gymnasium, and then in February, construction begins on the new girls’ school building. "We want kids to be able to learn in an atmosphere they find pleasing," Hier said.

Torah Makes Dangerous Trek

A group of female Jewish scholars recently danced joyously with a 200-year-old Iraqi tradition — a Torah once held prisoner by Saddam Hussein.

“Here ye! Here ye! Here comes the Sefer Torah!” the women of the Drisha Institute exclaimed at the arrival of the Torah, which had made a difficult journey from Iraq to the United States by way of Jordan and Israel.

“Without a doubt, I am sure that the people who started with this Torah could not imagine that its home would be a women’s study group,” said Nina Bruder, executive director of Drisha, a Jewish women’s study program.

Drisha’s Torah, with its combination of flat mulberry juice ink and raised lettering indicates that it is 200 years old and was abandoned in a Baghdad synagogue with many other Torah scrolls during the exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1948.

There the Torahs remained, collecting desert dust until Hussein stockpiled and hid them not long before the start of the Persian Gulf War.

But in 1991, the Torah was rescued, along with 34 others. After stealing the Torahs from Hussein’s stockpile, an Iraqi Muslim stuffed them into the tires of Jordan-bound trucks and from there the sacred texts were transferred into Israeli hands.

Iraqi authorities caught the man and severely beat him.

“It’s a remarkable story,” said Blu Greenberg, whose son helped repair one of the smuggled Torahs a year ago.

It was during this time that Greenberg was chosen as Drisha’s guest of honor at its 20th dinner anniversary. Greenberg, an Orthodox feminist author and activist, is a “great admirer” of Drisha.

Feeling shy about being in the spotlight, she half-jokingly told Drisha, “If you get me off the hook” as a dinner speaker, “I’ll try to get a Sefer Torah for you.”

Greenberg wasn’t relieved from her speaking engagement, but after several discussions with her son and family, they decided to present the Torah to Drisha as a gift.

They dedicated the scroll to Greenberg’s father, Rabbi Sam Genauer, who is remembered for his hour-long Torah study before work each day. His granddaughter, Lisa Scholtz, currently studies at Drisha in part because of his influence.

“It’s a full-size Torah. Everyone was worried that it would be too heavy to lift,” said Bruder, who explained that the women were instructed in how to handle the unusually large Torah prior to its arrival.

Drisha is the first women’s study group in America to have its own Torah. Only two such groups in Israel have their own Torahs.

An unknown number of Torahs still remain in Hussein’s possession.