Rabbi Joshua Spodek (L). Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Spodek Rabbi Arye Sufrin (R), Photo courtesy of Rabbi Arye Sufrin

YULA introduces new leadership, faculty for next academic year


When the next school year begins, Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) will welcome new heads of school to both its boys and girls campuses along with more than a dozen new educators.

Rabbi Arye Sufrin and Rabbi Joshua Spodek, the incoming heads of the Modern Orthodox YULA Boys High School and YULA Girls High School, respectively, said in a joint interview that their appointments represent an endorsement of the school’s commitment to its core values, rather than a change of course.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of people who have spent years building the school, and we’re only looking to continue that growth,” Spodek said.

“Serious Torah, serious academic rigor and a focus on character development — that’s the driving force,” Sufrin added, saying he hopes to inspire students to lead observant Jewish lifestyles.

The two rabbis sat for the interview in the innovation lab of the boys campus, a high-ceilinged space lined with beakers and containing a pair of 3-D printers and a virtual-reality headset.

Sufrin, 32, is long established in the YULA community, having held positions at YULA Boys High School since he started as a part-time Judaic studies teacher in 2008. Most recently, he was the school’s principal.

He is replacing Rabbi Dov Emerson, head of school since 2013, whose departure was announced in May.

In Emerson’s May 3 resignation email, he said he would be moving to New York to become director of teaching and learning at Yeshiva University’s Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy.

Spodek, 41, was principal at the Scheck Hillel Community School, a K-12 Orthodox day school in North Miami Beach, Fla. He said he was still in the process of moving to Los Angeles with his four children, ages 9 to 17.

Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, the outgoing head of school at YULA Girls High School whose resignation was announced in November, is set to assume the position of Judaic studies teacher at Shalhevet High School for the upcoming school year.

In addition to Sufrin and Spodek, YULA has announced more than a dozen new staff and faculty appointments in recent weeks to both the boys and girls schools.

Most recently, Sufrin announced in a June 23 email that five new part-time and full-time Judaic studies educators would join YULA Boys, including Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, dean of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, and Rabbi Pini Dunner of Beverly Hills Synagogue.

Meanwhile, Spodek said that since April, YULA Girls has hired eight full-time Judaic studies educators; a guidance counselor; a college counselor; an academic adviser; a director of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics (STEAM); and a media and communications manager.

Spodek said the hires help fulfill three core missions: cementing YULA’s status as a premier yeshiva for girls; providing emotional, social and college-related support to students; and affirming the school’s commitment to STEAM education.

Spodek said he was attracted to move across the country with his wife and children to take his new position because YULA Girls stands on the verge of “some incredibly exciting opportunities for religious growth.”

Parents, students and alumni are “looking for YULA Girls to become that center of serious women’s Torah learning that will emanate out from our school and impact the entire Los Angeles women’s community,” he said.

Sufrin said, “I feel blessed to have this opportunity and [I] look forward to helping YULA reach new heights.”

He began his professional life as a consultant for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited in New York, auditing Morgan Stanley, before quitting finance to pursue his passion in Jewish education.

“My joke is, the only thing harder than telling your wife you’re leaving corporate America to become a chumash teacher in L.A. is telling your in-laws,” he said. “That’s our family joke. All is great, thank God.”

Sufrin comes from a family of educators. His grandfather became Orthodox through the Chabad Lubavitch movement in England, and subsequently became a head of school there.

His father, Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, is head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, a K-8 Orthodox day school on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

During the interview, Sufrin tended to get exuberant when speaking about topics related to Torah and Jewish education. After several uninterrupted minutes talking about 3-D printing, the modern-day relevance of Torah and collaborative teaching methods, he trailed off momentarily.

Spodek took the opportunity to jump in.

“The most powerful thing you’re going to hear from us is that everything Rabbi Sufrin just said about YULA Boys is mirrored at YULA Girls,” he said, stressing that, though the boys and girls schools have different governing boards, they share a community and driving values.

“In his five minutes of his goals and missions of YULA Boys,” Spodek said, “you could use every word to describe the mission and purpose of YULA Girls, and substitute the word his for her.” 

YULA Boys High School Board President David Nagel overlooks the site of a new campus addition. Photo by Eitan Arom

YULA sees start of $16 million campus addition


gigantic hole in the ground some 15 feet deep is causing a tremendous amount of excitement in the Modern Orthodox community since digging began in December.

“I’ve treated it as one of my developments — as my baby,” said David Nagel, a real estate developer and president of the board at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Boys High School.

Nagel stood wearing a hard hat during a recent visit to the future site of the YULA Campus Completion Project. The $16 million effort — including a 100-car, below-ground garage and a 400-seat gym and auditorium, along with labs, classrooms, a learning commons and an art studio — currently is a soggy dirt pit with reinforced walls adjacent to the existing campus.

But it’s also the beginning of a dream come true to outfit the Modern Orthodox school on Pico Boulevard with facilities that will expand the school’s footprint by more than 50 percent when the project is completed in May 2018.

“It has truly been a long, hard and expensive journey,” Nagel said during a March 19 groundbreaking celebration. “But that road has now been traveled, and we are now well on our way.”

Plans to add a gym have been in the works since the school was last remodeled in 2003. After Nagel joined the board eight years ago, he began working toward getting the city’s approval to move forward.

By the time Rabbi Arye Sufrin, now the school’s principal, joined YULA’s faculty about seven years ago, the rumor mills already were churning out talk that a spiffy new campus was in the works.

“I walk into school every day and it’s like, I can’t believe it — we’re almost at the finish line,” he said in an interview last month. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The new addition will feature a 9,000-square-foot gym — nearly large enough for two NBA-size courts — with bleacher seating for 400 and room for another 300 seats on the court. Both YULA Boys High School and its sister school for girls will have use of the facility.

In addition, three new classrooms will allow for future growth in the student population, which currently stands at 165. The project will also add innovation and robotics labs and a common area for students to work in groups.

According to Nagel, the school has raised $12 million of a $17.5 million capital campaign to fund the new building and upgrade the existing building so that it matches the decor, style and amenities of the addition.

“The fact that there’s 35 percent [of fundraising] to go, and we haven’t started building yet — we’re digging — that shows the support and excitement the community has,” Sufrin said. “As it should.”

“It’s a game changer for us in terms of bringing the campus to truly elite status,” Rabbi Dov Emerson, YULA Boys High School’s head of school, told the Journal.

Emerson said YULA’s mission is to provide an “uncompromising education” in both Judaic and general studies. “To have a campus that matches that [goal] is really significant,” he said.

Nagel, a prominent YULA donor who, as president and CEO of the Miracle Mile-based Decron Properties Corp., controls a $1.5 billion real estate empire, is widely recognized as the project’s mastermind.

Beginning in 2009, he shepherded plans for the addition through Los Angeles City Hall with the help of Councilmember Paul Koretz, whose district includes the school.

“Without his efforts, we know we wouldn’t be standing here today,” Koretz said of Nagel at the groundbreaking celebration.

The process of winning approval for the campus required a few key compromises. For instance, YULA agreed to install a cul-de-sac on Costello Drive off of Pico Boulevard to prevent school traffic from running through the residential neighborhood behind the campus.

A rendering of the YULA Campus Completion Project by Gruen Associates.Drawing courtesy of YULA Boys High School

A rendering of the YULA Campus Completion Project by Gruen Associates.Drawing courtesy of YULA Boys High School

The school spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, architects and engineers to secure the proper permitting for the project, even before approaching donors to fund the construction, Nagel said.

But it was worth it, if only to give the school athletics facilities that match the prowess of its students, he said. YULA has won the national Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament, held by Yeshiva University, seven times, more than any other school, according to Nagel.

“People were amazed that for all these years, the school never had a gym. ‘How is it possible that they have such a great athletic program without a gym?’ ” he said.

However, Emerson and Sufrin emphasized that the addition would expand the school’s academic capacity across its range of student programs, supporting not just the general studies education but also religious celebrations and Torah classes, furthering the school’s Jewish studies mission. The campus redesign would put the beit midrash, its study and prayer hall, at the geographical center of the school — fitting, Sufrin said, since it is already the school’s heart and soul.

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

Sharing love, lessons in the face of hate rally


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staff writer Eitan Arom contributed to this report.

Ariella Etshalom: Not afraid to step outside of her comfort zone


ARIELLA ETSHALOM, 17
HIGH SCHOOL: YULA Girls High School
GAP YEAR: Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim
GOING TO: Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University

Ariella Etshalom is a standout student, but she doesn’t let that define her. 

“It’s not about getting the ‘A’ or being valedictorian or being perfect. It’s about being the best person you can be,” said the graduating senior at YULA Girls High School.

Ariella’s not the type to gush over celebrities (although she met Steven Spielberg once) or binge on Netflix. Instead, she’s devoted herself to helping others, volunteering at the child care program at her shul, Young Israel of Century City, and working with children through organizations such as Chai Lifeline, which supports children with life-threatening illnesses. 

“I’m a goodie good,” she said. “The school always knows that they can ask me if they need anything done because I’ll do it.” 

Ariella, 17, has a fervent passion for education, most likely inherited from her parents. Her father, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, teaches at YULA, and her mother, Stefanie Etshalom, is a nursery school teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. 

Ariella has starred in school plays (“I like getting up in front of everyone and being a totally different person”), been editor-in-chief of her school’s literary magazine and served as vice president of YULA’s student council.

The second oldest of five children — and the only girl — also is president of the fashion club at YULA Girls. She even wrote an article about coming to terms with her mane of corkscrewed red hair for the school’s fashion magazine. “People know me for my long, strawberry-blond curls, and I wouldn’t be the same without them,” she wrote.

But, she told the Journal, “When I was younger, I wanted straight hair.”

Growing up, Ariella’s favorite Disney princess was fellow redhead Ariel of “The Little Mermaid.” “That’s why I’m the princess in the family,” she joked. 

“Sometimes I get to be very girly and then sometimes I can be super tomboyish,” she said. “I think it gave me a good balance.” 

In the fall, Ariella will be attending Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim for a year before transferring to Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University in New York City, where she expects to study either psychology or education “so I can help people and use the skills I’ve learned over the years.” Ultimately, she’d love to follow her parents’ footsteps.

Part of what she’ll miss the most when she’s studying abroad will be her family’s nightly dinners. With a strict no-phone policy, every dinner participant is expected to engage in conversation, whether it’s about the weekly parsha or discussing a dilemma encountered that day. 

“We’re a very strange family sometimes,” said Ariella about the dinner banter. 

“Some people are really excited to be away from their parents and being able to do whatever they want, but I’m a little nervous. I have such a great family, it will be hard to not live here,” she said.

At least Ariella won’t be alone in Israel; her older brother Yossi is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Still, her excitement for graduation on June 16 is tempered by the unknown of the future.

“I’m also a little nervous because it’s a whole new thing.”

Letters to the editor: Syrian refugees, Beverly Hills Metro, L.A. Times and more


Syrian Refugees: Compassion or Common Sense?

With regard to Rob Eshman’s column “#WeAreNext” (Nov. 27), there have been very strong views expressed in the Jewish Journal that for the U.S. to reject Syrian refugees because of their Islamic faith would be both un-Jewish and un-American. I both accept and respect that view, especially as my own grandparents and father were forced to become refugees from Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht.
But idealism and sterling values are one thing. Pragmatism and reality can often, sadly, be another. Although it is true that in a perfect world we should welcome any refugee and offer him or her our assistance and care, we cannot be so blinded by our commitment to doing what is right that it results in consequences we later regret. At the very least, we should be entitled to ask tough questions. For example, why are most Islamic countries not offering to take in these Syrian refugees? Is it possible that jihadist groups are taking advantage of our generosity of spirit?  And if so, what should we do to protect ourselves? Would we be right to demand that refugees express some kind of commitment to democratic values, and to refuse entry to those who hate the United States, or democracy, or other faiths? 

Do these questions make anyone un-Jewish, or un-American? Personally, I think not. Sometimes standing up for what you believe requires nuance, flexibility, tough choices and reflective judgment. It is certainly never the case that one size fits all.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills

Is B.H. Fight With Metro B.S.?

The Jewish Journal’s quote of the week in the Nov. 20 issue, in reference to Beverly Hills’ conflict with Metro, was former County Supervisor (and Metro macher) Zev Yaroslavsky’s zinger: “Fighting Metro is not a construction project, it’s a destruction project.”

Oy gevalt.

There is so much arrogance and ignorance rolled into Yaroslavsky’s statement, it could easily give rise to a new portmanteau to describe the chutzpah: arrogrance.  

It is hard to know where to begin, though correcting a major deficiency in the article from which the quip was lifted would probably be a good start (“Budgets Grow, Tempers Shrink as B.H. Metro Fight Continues”). Beverly Hills has never tried to stop the subway. The sole issue for Beverly Hills has been the routing, which was suddenly changed to benefit a powerful developer donor, all in the face of ridership, transit time and cost factors that would favor the original route.

Ironically, it was Yaroslavsky himself who — against Metro staff’s recommendation — killed a mediated settlement, brokered by a retired superior court judge, which would have resolved all issues between Beverly Hills and Metro. Unfortunately, part of his legacy as one of the “five kings” seems to be the arrogrance of institutional bullying with the unique message, embodied in his quote above: Resistance is futile.

John Mirisch, Vice mayor, Beverly Hills

Journalistic Integrity

Thank you, Bill Boyarsky, for saying what dearly needs to be said publicly, even if it’s apparently falling on deaf ears back in Chicago (“Once-Great Los Angeles Times,” Nov. 27). The steady decline of the Los Angeles Times has been absolutely heartbreaking to see and watch. I can only hope that Eli Broad, et al., can somehow pry that once-great paper from Tribune Publishing Co.’s clutches before it’s too late, and breathe some new and sorely needed life into Southland journalism.

Donald Koepler via jewishjournal.com

A Word From a YULA Student

Thank you for the article about a gap year in Israel (“Filling the Gap: The Case for Post-High School Year in Israel,” Nov. 13). I strongly support that students should have a gap year in Israel and I believe more people should spend a year in Israel after high school.

It is sad that not enough people appreciate how a gap year can help them. A gap year would broaden the person’s perspective and increase the students’ appreciation for Israel and Judaism. I also believe that it would help smooth the transition from high school to college.

More colleges should support a gap year.

I hope this article raises awareness of the benefits of the gap year, and I look forward to taking a gap year in Israel.

Menachem Kornreich, YULA 

corrections

The article “U.S. Teen’s Murder in Israel Ripples Among L.A. Parents” (Nov. 27) incorrectly stated that Avishai Rabin is Jeffrey and Amy Rabin’s sixth child to do a gap year in Israel. He is their fourth child to do so.

A profile of comedy executive Brian Volk-Weiss (“When This Comedy Production Exec Describes His Life, He Is Totally Not Joking,” Nov. 27) should have stated that the company he runs, Comedy Dynamics, is one of Netflix’s top sources of stand-up comedy shows, not its top source. 

Sports programs can score big for Jewish day schools


To understand the place of athletics at a Jewish day school, attend a recruitment open house and watch the children’s eyes. As they listen to the descriptions or tour the stations set up to display the school’s programs and activities, look for the moments when the spark of connection appears.

After more than a decade as a faculty member at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, and 20 years prior to that at other independent schools in Los Angeles, I’ve seen those eyes light up most dependably for athletics and performing arts. Whether there is a wall covered with championship banners or tables topped with theater costumes, prospective students and their parents are drawn to these elements more earnestly — and more dependably — than any other school endeavor, including core academics.

I cannot carry a tune or dance a step, so I won’t discuss the role of drama, dance and singing in this process. But I have been involved for nearly half a century in team sports, coaching all sorts of high school teams since 1977. I was also a founding member of the NCJHS faculty who participated in its growth from 40 students in 2002 to nearly 400 today, so I can try to explain the importance of athletics to a Jewish day school’s success.

What do sports teams offer such a school? Students! And for a Jewish day school’s recruitment efforts, the students who have the most to gain — from the perspective of Jewish engagement and learning — are the ones for whom extracurriculars such as athletics (and performing arts) are key spurs to enrollment.

After all, it’s a relatively simple matter to recruit students from families who are committed to Jewish day-school education. They are choosing among a limited number of options. And their children are more likely to have a strong initial connection to Jewish life and background in Jewish learning.

Sports and performing arts appear to be more important in the choices of families who are choosing between Jewish day schools and their secular competitors, whether private, public, charter or non-Jewish religious schools. These are often the families whose children ultimately will experience the greatest boost in their Jewish engagement by virtue of attending a Jewish day school. To them, these extracurricular programs promise to vouchsafe the Jewish day-school experience as a choice that will be comparable to that offered elsewhere.

For schools, these are high-stakes issues. In many respects, spending on athletics and performing arts could be considered recruitment expenses rather than program expenses, as the extra-curricular activities are essential to the schools’ ability to match up with their non-Jewish competitors with whom they are already equal in the academic domain. 

A couple of anecdotes from NCJHS’ early history illuminate the nature of this recruiting competition. In the school’s second year, when there were only ninth- and 10th-grade students, the boys lacrosse team defeated its rival counterpart, the Harvard-Westlake junior varsity team. After the post-game handshake, one of the opposing team’s boys was overheard saying, “I can’t believe we just lost to a bunch of Jews.” Before any of us could respond, one of his teammates gave him a shove and said, “You idiot, we’re a bunch of Jews.” 

A couple of years later, after a one-sided varsity loss to Chaminade College Preparatory, the winning coach attempted to console me by saying that if his Jewish players had been on the NCJHS team, the result would have been much closer. 

Neither comment reflected anti-Jewish feeling — only the stereotypical notion that Jewish schools cannot be competitive in athletics. The walls of Jewish day schools that are now covered with championship banners put the lie to that notion. And anyone who has doubts about the intensity of commitment to sports at Jewish day schools has not tried to squeeze into the Westside Jewish Community Center gym to attend a YULA post-Havdalah basketball game.

My former colleagues at NCJHS, Rabbi Benjamin Resnick and Bruce Powell, wrote powerfully in these pages in 2010 about the opportunity athletics provide for inculcating Jewish values. They described how athletics do more than act as an opportunity for physical and mental fitness; tthey provide a safe environment in which Jewish values and ethics can be translated into actions. A sports program “allows thinkers to become doers,” they wrote. 

Their explanation of the central role of athletics in Jewish education does not have an easy path to acceptance. Years ago, I once scolded a rabbi who was disdainful of athletics in a confessedly snarky comment, claiming perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly that I had presided over more Jewish boys’ passages to manhood on the lacrosse field than had occurred at the bimah of his synagogue.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that to be successful at competing with non-Jewish schools, Jewish day schools need to accept the fantasies peddled by ESPN and bought into by deluded parents that school athletics will prepare their children to “play at the next level.” For many this is valid, but the rosters of college intramural teams are filled with former high school all-stars. 

But if you look at Hillel chapters, Jewish communal housing units, fraternities and sororities with predominantly Jewish memberships — not to mention Jewish organizations such as StandWithUs or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — you’ll find many Jewish day-school graduates who initially had the choice of a Jewish or a non-Jewish school. For many, the athletics (and performing arts) offerings of those Jewish day schools led to the decision to enroll. And that — the exposure to a Judaic curriculum that can create such profound Jewish engagement — has made all the difference, not just for the students themselves but for the entire community.


Neil Kramer is dean of faculty emeritus at New Community Jewish High School, where he taught history and government and coached boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse and golf.

Moving and shaking


More than 1,000 people attended the fourth annual Shabbat at the Ford with Craig Taubman and the Pico Union Project on Aug. 29. 

Rabbis, cantors, pastors, guitarists, back-up singers, a choir and even a sign-language interpreter participated. The event kicked off at 6 p.m. with people picnicking in the theater’s courtyard.

During the evening at the Ford Amphitheatre, Taubman wore many hats — in addition to the kippah on his head of silver-gray hair. As he led the two-hour service with an acoustic guitar strapped on over his white, button-down shirt, he played host, bandleader and musician. Red, yellow and blue lights bathed the outdoor stage as liturgical songs and pop tunes appeared in the same setlist.  

Leeav Sofer, front-man of klezmer-revivalist band Mostly Kosher, believes Shabbat at the Ford is an important part of the patchwork of events that occur in the Jewish community.

“It reminds us that Judaism’s a pretty cool culture and there are ways of keeping it progressive, new and alive,” Sofer, 23, told the Journal. 

At 8 p.m., attendees moved from the courtyard to the amphitheater. Appearances by rapper Kosha Dillz; Israeli singer Shany Zamir; Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein; Cantor Yonah Kliger and Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple; and songwriter Martin Storrow followed.

Feinstein delivered a sermon, which recalled an African-American nurse named Charles, who sat at his bedside for 10 nights while he was in intensive care. 

“Tonight we celebrate angels, because it’s been a terrible summer,” Feinstein said, listing violent tragedies that have plagued the world for the past three months. “Let’s go be an angel.” 

Pico Union Project partners, including Pastor Omar Perich and the trilingual Pastor Abraham Chung, who speaks Korean, English and Hebrew, participated in the services. Victory Outreach DTLA, a church comprising rehabilitated gang members and drug addicts, also participated. Perich took a moment to introduce them toward the end of the night.

Additional performers included vocalist Dale Schatz and guitarist James Fuchs; poets Rick Lupert and Andrew Lustig; and the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble.

— Tess Cutler, Contributing Writer


Fans of dance fitness and Israel teamed up on Aug. 24 for the first-ever Friends of Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) “Zumbathon,” a large-scale Zumba class aimed at raising funds to support Israeli soldiers.  

Zumba Instructor Marisa Schor at the FIDF “Dance for Peace Zumbathon” event on Aug. 24. Photo by Rob Goldenberg

Molly Sobaroff, director of Young Leadership at FIDF, worked with four Zumba instructors with strong ties to Israel — Marisa Schor, Orly Star Setareh, Sara Tanz, and Samantha Reiss Goldenberg — to put on the event, which was held at the Westside Jewish Community Center. 

Zumba, a popular type of high-impact dance fitness, was the main draw for the 100-plus participants. Each paid $40 to attend the special 90-minute class. Zumba is primarily known for using Latin dance moves and music, but for this particular event, the instructors incorporated some Israeli folk dance. 

In addition to the entry fee, the Zumbathon raised money through community sponsors, a raffle and silent auction, making a total of $5,500. Schor called the event a huge success. 

“We are very proud of our event’s results and want to share with our community that we put our two sweaty cents in to help Israel.”

The money will be used by FIDF to buy care packages for Israeli soldiers, a show of solidarity and support that is especially important to the event organizers, considering the current situation in Israel. As well, children who attended the Zumbathon had the opportunity to write cards for soldiers to express gratitude for their service. 

— Rebecca Weiner, Contributing Writer


The Valley Jewish Community Center (VJCC) officially has a new home in Woodland Hills. Its grand opening on Aug. 24 attracted more than 200 people and included a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the hanging of a mezuzah

The new location at 20350 Ventura Blvd. includes an office for Executive Director Jerry Wayne and a large activity room. This new acquisition makes it the sole Jewish center in the San Fernando Valley.

The VJCC has been using free spaces at synagogues and elsewhere since the early 2000s, when a developer purchased its former Granada Hills campus. Through fundraising efforts and a three-year grant from JCC Development Corp., they were able to rent the new space. 

“It’s finally a place where we have roots again,” Steve Levine, VJCC vice president and chair of the grand opening committee, told the Journal. “We have a place to hang our hat and have club meetings. It’s a positive move. It’s the first of a few satellite locations we hope to open somewhere down the line in the Valley.”

Among those who attended the opening, aside from Wayne and Levine, were Los Angeles Councilmember Bob Blumenfield; Rabbi Ron Li-Paz of Valley Outreach Synagogue; Bill Bender, VJCC immediate past president; Elaine Fox, past president and current secretary and board member of the VJCC; Steve Rheuban, member of JCC Development Corp.; and representatives of a number of elected officials.

— Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer


YULA Girls High School graduates Sophia and Emily Levine, 19 and 22, and Sarah and Elizabeth Mandelbaum, 21 and 18, recently organized a fundraiser that collected more than $5,000 in support of American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate.

“Being that I’m religious and can only imagine how important God comes into play during a war, I figured that helping religiously was crucial,” Sophia Levine told the Journal by email.

An Aug. 11 fundraiser for IDF soldiers took place at SoulCycle in Beverly Hills. Photos courtesy of Sophia Levine

The Aug. 11 event in Beverly Hills spinning studio SoulCycle drew approximately 50 people and underscored the creative ways community members have been raising funds for the Israel Defense Forces this summer. The women advertised the event as a “cardio party.” 

The Levine sisters and Sarah Mandelbaum traveled to Israel Aug. 14-24 and gave out “IDF Is in Our Soul” T-shirts to wounded Israeli soldiers. 

“Israel’s really an important place to us all,” Sophia Levine said.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

High school project engineers opportunities for learning


Three girls huddled around a three-panel display board plastered with information about their final project: the wireless headphone. They took turns demonstrating it to fellow students who listened to the sound of pre-programmed notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — sans Bluetooth. 

“This helps our society,” said Yehudit Kaszirer, part of a team of three freshmen from Valley Torah High School in Valley Village who developed the white, wireless headphones as part of a capstone project. “Wires get tangled up, and people don’t keep their eyes on the road. This is wireless, so we are preventing accidents.” 

The Kellerman Gymnasium at YULA Girls High School was filled with such inventions — vibrating pillows, heated jackets and bike cyclometers — and students showing them off to other teams, teachers, parents and judges as part of the Young Engineers Conference on May 15. 

Kaszirer, along with her teammates Shira Ardestani and Rochel Leah Raskin, were part of the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) Tech High School Engineering Program, a curriculum that launched during the 2013-2014 school year at eight high schools in Southern California. This was their chance to show off their capstone projects from the past semester.

“The mission of CIJE is to help enhance the secular studies education at Jewish day schools no matter what denomination it is. It’s to prepare the children who are attending those schools for the challenges of the 21st century in terms of careers, skills and learning,” said Judy Lebovits, vice president and director of CIJE, which is based in New York. “We feel that not only are we preparing these children, but there are many children who may have not normally gone to Jewish day schools because this course does not exist.”

Within these CIJE-sponsored classes, students are exposed to a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Program (STEM) that enables them to tackle issues in those subject areas. Many students and teachers were hesitant about the curriculum before beginning the school year, unsure of what to expect. 

“At first I thought I wouldn’t like the CIJE program — I’m not really into doing things like that — but once I started doing it, once I saw it was easy, and once I got the hang of everything, I really enjoyed it, and I want to do more,” Ardestani said. “It was just a good feeling of accomplishment.” 

Teachers were experiencing the program for the first time alongside their students. They attended two separate trainings, in Israel and New York, to prepare for the new syllabus. 

“I was pretty scared and overwhelmed,” said Heidi Theisen, teacher of Foundations of Engineering at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, “but the training made us feel a lot better.” 

After a year with CIJE’s curriculum, there was visible growth among the students in terms of the newly acquired skills, she said. 

“The kids learned a lot. It was more than just learning programming and electricity; they learned about building something,” Theisen said. “They learned so much about projects and just the entire engineering process.” 

CIJE stresses problem solving, reasoning skills and innovation. A major part is the capstone project. 

“It gives young kids like us the opportunity to pursue doing what we like and engineering, which you don’t [usually] get the option of doing, so I really like it,” Raskin said. “It’s cool. It gives us a chance.”

Her teammate shared a similar view of the CIJE program. 

“You don’t know you like something until you try it,” Ardestani said. 

Yacov Jaques Ohana, father of two students at the conference, called the program “phenomenal.” 

“I cannot thank [CIJE] enough, what these guys are doing finally to bring this to Jewish school and, hopefully, get them in technology,” he said. 

The program plans to continue next year at the current schools, and possibly add more, according to Lebovits. 

All of the projects on display at the recent Young Engineers Conference got their start in a classroom setting — and more is yet to come. Next year, students will move forward to the next phase of the CIJE curriculum, depending on their grade level, as they focus on a different area of technology each academic year. 

For participants like Kaszirer, it’s been a great feeling so far.

“You are given a chance to just be creative and to just go all out, and by doing this it almost makes you feel like you’re Superman, like you can do anything you absolutely want to.”

L.A. youth become Israel’s brave lone soldiers


“I want to give back, not just sit back,” Samuel “Shimmy” Kandel said. The 19-year-old Angeleno was explaining in a phone interview why he decided to interrupt his studies at Santa Monica College to serve as an American volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Danny Rubin and Ari Platt, both 24, became friends at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA). Both went on to serve with the IDF’s elite Givati Brigade between 2009 and 2011, after which Platt extended his term for a year to attend officers’ school. Platt is now a pre-med student at Columbia University.

Each year, some 5,000 young men and women like these three come to Israel from about 120 countries — most of them from the United States — to serve in Israel’s armed forces, leaving behind their families and friends for one to two years, sometimes more.

In Israel, these enlistees are known by the somewhat odd designation of “Lone Soldiers,” to indicate, according to the IDF Web site
ldplatt@gmail.com.

Charity wins over runners


More than 20,000 runners participated in the Jerusalem Marathon on March 1, completing a course that started at the Knesset and passed a number of important cultural landmarks, offering sweeping views of the city and, as the marathon’s Web site touts, “a run through history.”

For runners like L.A.-native Ben Sarto, however, there was more at stake than personal pride and a unique experience: Sarto ran as part of Team Butterfly, a group that used the race to raise money for research around a little-known condition called epidermolysis bullosa (EB). 

The condition causes skin to blister from even the slightest contact or friction. These blisters are extremely painful, often compared to second- or third-degree burns. EB is relatively rare — it occurs in approximately one out of every 20 million births — but its effects tend to be severe and debilitating.

Team Butterfly, which ran its first race last year in Jerusalem, is the joint effort of the Jackson Gabriel Silver Foundation and an EB sufferer named David Beiss. The foundation was created to raise awareness and money for EB research after a woman named Jamie Silver had a child named Jackson who was diagnosed with the disease shortly after his birth in 2008.

Although Beiss, of West Hempstead, N.Y., does have EB, very few of the runners he’s recruited over the last two years suffer from the condition. In fact, few knew of its existence before meeting Beiss or others connected to Team Butterfly.

“Just meeting someone with EB and hearing about how he lives his day to day life was the push to make me run,” said Celine Banafsheha, who went to YULA Girls High School in Los Angeles before heading to Jerusalem to study at the seminary Midreshet HaRova.

Ariel Rafe, an Angeleno studying abroad at Yeshivat Torat Shraga, was already thinking about doing a half marathon while she was in the city. It was the added bonus of being able to fundraise through Team Butterfly that convinced her to actually sign up.

Last year, Beiss decided to demonstrate one of his parents’ favorite maxims — that he could do anything as long as he put his mind to it, and didn’t give in. Despite the pain and blisters he knew he’d endure, Beiss ran almost a full 10k, getting through the first four miles surrounded by a team of eight friends who cheered him on. When the pain became overwhelming, those same friends “basically took turns carrying me on their backs,” he said. “It was pretty incredible.” This year, he says the number of runners on the team required too much attention for him to run the race.

Beiss’ run in 2012, combined with funds raised by other runners on Team Butterfly, totaled around $50,000. That money, along with other donations to the foundation, has already gone toward studies on gene and protein therapy treatments being done at University of Southern California, University of Minnesota and Stanford.

“When Jackson was diagnosed, we were told that clinical trials for these kinds of things were at least 15 years down the road, but now we’re looking at trials likely to start taking place in the next two years,” Silver said.

Beiss says that Team Butterfly collected just under $60,000 this year.

It was Beiss’ idea to create Team Butterfly; he had grown up involved with activism and fundraising related to various diseases, and he participated in numerous charity runs, usually using a wheelchair on most of the course and running only the last mile. When he heard about the Jackson Gabriel Silver Foundation, however, he was excited to get involved with a project he was connected to on a personal level.

He called Silver and proposed using participation in a race as a fundraiser; he chose Jerusalem as a location because he was studying abroad there as part of his coursework with Yeshiva University in New York. It didn’t hurt, too, that the Jerusalem marathon includes courses for half marathons and 10ks, allowing runners to choose their distance to suit their energy and enthusiasm.

This year, in addition to the Jerusalem marathon, there will be Team Butterfly runners at the New York marathon and half marathon, and participants ran in the Disney marathon in Florida this past January.

The way the cause caught on was a surprise, Silver said.

“We thought sure, maybe he’ll get 10 runners, and every little bit will help,” she said of those early conversations. But Beiss’ infectious energy and tenacious advertising efforts attracted more than four times that many participants to the first Team Butterfly run in Jerusalem last year. This year there were 84.

The fellowship of being part of a team with a specific, charitable goal helped runners feel connected to what they were doing, and got them through some of the tough parts of the race.

“There was so much unity on Team Butterfly, and during the run everyone was encouraging everyone to keep going,” Banafsheha said of her 10k run. “I felt as though the entire city of Jerusalem had stopped to come and cheer the marathon runners on. As I was running, seeing fellow Team Butterfly members in our matching team shirts gave me the spark to keep going.”

Sarto agreed: He and his running partner kept each other going with “support and encouragement” on the course, and he loved knowing he was part of a good cause at the end of the day as well.

The impact appears to have been a lasting one.

“I definitely plan on continuing to be involved in Team Butterfly,” Banafsheha remarked. “I think the race made me feel like I was so much more a part of the cause than I felt before, and I hope to run the marathon again next year. I’m really happy I was part of the marathon because I feel as though I built an even deeper connection with Team Butterfly, and in my own way I was able to play my part in helping the cause.”

Groups tout youth grants


As the Jim Joseph Foundation, a San Francisco-based foundation that focuses on Jewish education, wraps up three major grants in the Los Angeles area, its beneficiaries are touting their programs’ successes as models for Jewish funding.

One such grant, the High School Affordability Initiative, was created to make Jewish high school education accessible to middle-income families who would otherwise be ineligible for tuition assistance. Another grant allowed the Hillel at UCLA to reach out to unaffiliated Jewish students and offer informal learning opportunities, while the foundation’s third grant, the JWest Campership program, has helped send thousands of L.A.-area kids to Jewish summer camp.

“We can look back now and say that the JWest incentive program has been a game-changer for the field,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Camp enrollment in the Western Region camps is up 19 percent, versus a national enrollment growth of 9 percent.”

The $11.15 million initiative, which launched in 2008 and will conclude after this summer, has brought more than 3,300 first-time campers to Jewish sleep-away camps in the Western Region — 1,570 of whom hail from the greater Los Angeles area. Designed as an incentive program, the initiative offered up to $2,500 over two to three summers for families sending their kids to Jewish summer camps for the first time. 

In addition to increasing the rolls of first-time campers, the initiative has also kept them coming back. Some 60 percent of first-time campers returned the following summer, thanks to camper retention grants, Fingerman said. While grants for first-time campers are no longer available, some returning campers are still eligible to receive up to $500 toward their third summer. 

Another aspect of the grant’s success, Fingerman said, has been the convening of West Coast Jewish camp summits. As a result of the summits, “Camps started working together, marketing together and viewing each other as colleagues, not as competitors,” he said. 

While the JWest Campership initiative is winding down, The Jewish Federation’s One Happy Camper Program, which ran concurrently with JWest, will continue. One Happy Camper offers $1,250 grants for first-time campers who attend a summer session of three weeks or more. Grantees attending a two-week summer session are eligible for $750.

On the education front, the High School Affordability Initiative, which was funded to the tune of $12 million, has helped hundreds of middle-income families send their kids to five L.A.-area Jewish high schools: YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School, Milken Community High School, New Community Jewish High School and Shalhevet High School. 

The initiative has also helped the high schools build endowments, so that middle-income families can continue to receive tuition assistance, even after the six-year Jim Joseph Foundation grant runs out in 2014. 

Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations and director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at BJE-Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, the agency responsible for overseeing and implementing the initiative, said that the move toward building endowments represents a sea change in the culture of Jewish day schools.

“When I started at BJE eight years ago and went around speaking at the day schools, I could count on one hand the schools that had any endowment,” Prum Hess said. “We really had to change the culture, and what the Jim Joseph grant did was give us the huge carrot to begin enacting that change within the five high schools.”

As part of the grant’s stipulations, the community had to raise $21.5 million in endowment funds and earmark the proceeds for middle-income tuition assistance for six years beyond the grant. The five high schools are responsible for raising a combined $17 million in endowment funds. The remaining $4.25 million has already come from the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund, a joint effort of BJE and Federation.

“To date, each of the five schools has reached its yearly benchmarks,” said Chip Edelsberg, executive director of Jim Joseph. “The upshot of this is that they’re well on their way to creating what we believe is one model that speaks to the affordability challenge.” 

So successful has been the initiative that New Community Jewish High School recently met its six-year goal of $4 million in three years. 

At the university level, Jim Joseph aimed to make Jewish life more engaging through its Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative. That effort, which launched in 2008 and was extended from 2013 until 2014, is part of a larger initiative at 10 campus Hillels across the United States, for which Hillel at UCLA was the prototype. 

The $10.7 million grant, some $750,000 of which was awarded to UCLA’s Hillel, allows for a senior Jewish educator to work alongside the Hillel director. The senior Jewish educator engages students in informal Jewish learning and works directly with a team of campus engagement interns, who reach out to their peers to give them meaningful Jewish experiences. 

“Unless you reach college students where they are, they are not necessarily going to seek out experiences to address their Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, this year’s senior Jewish educator at UCLA’s Hillel.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the long-time director of UCLA’s Hillel, said that on Yom Kippur, dozens of students attended a discussion that Lerner led concurrently with the religious service. Seidler-Feller, who described himself as a more formal Jewish teacher, lauded the less traditional approach that the Jim Joseph grant has funded.

“It’s a more relaxed form of reaching people,” Seidler-Feller said. “This is informal education at its best.”

Slain doctor Ronald Gilbert remembered for his love of Judaism


Friends and family of Dr. Ronald Gilbert, the urologist gunned down Monday in the exam room of his Newport Beach offices, told a large crowd gathered for the doctor’s funeral Wednesday he had devoted himself to living a Jewish life.

Every morning, Gilbert attended Chabad of West Orange County to put on tefillin and pray, and he would often go straight from there to the Hoag Hospital-Newport Beach, where he was on medical staff to perform surgeries, said Rabbi Aron Berkowitz, the Chabad rabbi, during the funeral service.

Whenever he had to leave prayer services early for surgeries, he would apologize, the rabbi said. Gilbert was serving as lay leader of the Chabad at the time of his death.

During Gilbert’s funeral, held at Harbor Lawn-Mount Olive Memorial Park and Mortuary in Costa Mesa, eulogies portrayed him as someone who loved his family and his faith, and who found fulfillment in his career and made friends easily.

“He was a super mensch,” his rabbi said. “He was a tremendous, tremendous person.”

Gilbert, said Rabbi Berkowitz, was born to a Conservative family who lit candles on Shabbat and celebrated the holidays. He had a love of learning that led him later in life to appreciate the values and traditions he grew up with. Gilbert started becoming more serious about Judaism approximately 15 years ago, and he and Berkowitz would study Torah together in Gilbert’s office. Gilbert had a knack for retaining what he read and for learning Hebrew grammar, Berkowitz explained.

Gilbert valued the moral lessons of the Torah even more than ritual observances, Gilbert’s son, Stephan Gilbert, said at the funeral.

Visiting Los Angeles from New York, where he attends Yeshiva University, Gilbert’s son, Stephan, told of how, after studying for one year at a yeshiva in Israel he could not decide whether he wanted to spend a second year there. He asked his parents for advice. Gilbert wanted his son to return to Israel, but he let his son decide on his own, Stephan remembered.

Gilbert also loved music, sports and fine food, but he was remembered for loving his children more than anything. He traveled all over the world, stayed in some of the grandest hotels and ate in top-class restaurants, but the joy he got from being a father surpassed everything else, Stephan said.

The funeral took place two days after Gilbert was murdered by one of his patients, according to the office of the Orange County District Attorney.

According to the district attorney’s office, the suspect, Stanwood Elkus, 75, arrived at Gilbert’s office in Newport Beach at 2:45 p.m., on Jan. 28, armed with a firearm. When Gilbert entered the waiting room, Elkus allegedly pulled out his weapon and shot Gilbert multiple times.

Police found Gilbert dead on the scene with multiple gunshot wounds to his torso, according to the Newport Beach Police Department. Elkus was taken into custody without incident, police said.

Witnesses identified the victim as Gilbert, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the identity on Jan. 29, a Newport Beach Police Department spokeswoman told the Journal.

Gilbert, 52, leaves behind a wife and two children.

Elkus, of Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, has been charged with “one felony count of special circumstances murder by lying in wait and the sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a firearm causing death,” the district attorney’s office said.

If convicted, he faces life in state prison. He is being held in a Santa Ana jail without bail.

The Jan. 30 memorial service for Gilbert drew a crowd to large for the mortuary’s chapel. The crowd spilled out toward the street to hear testimonies of a life lived well and meaningfully. Attendees included classmates of Gilbert’s younger son, a tenth-grade student at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA).

“It’s devastating,” Rabbi Shimon Abramczik, director of student activities at YULA, told the Journal. Gilbert’s younger son is a member of YULA’s residential program, which is run by Abramczik.

Dr. Gilbert was “friendly, gregarious and very happy,” Abramczik said.

The Gilbert family has suggested that those interested in honoring the doctor’s name donate to an organization of their choice or to Gilbert’s place of worship, Chabad of West Orange County.

Building a diplomatic resume at home, abroad


David Shalom

YULA Boys High School

Going to: Yeshivat Orayta/University of Texas at Austin

David Shalom wants to broker a final status peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. While this goal may seem lofty, the YULA student has already taken big steps in pursuit of this dream.

Politics and music have been the two main ingredients in Shalom’s life, but as he looks ahead to college, he says politics and diplomacy will take center stage.

“I feel excited about the future, to study politics and to start my life in college, but in graduating I also feel like I have already accomplished a lot so far,” he said.

Shalom got his first taste of political life taking part in model U.N. conferences at Shalhevet School and interning for state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). He then transferred to YULA Boys High School in 10th grade, where he was accepted into a five-week political advocacy program in Israel called The Jerusalem Journey: Ambassadors. Shalom said this was where his passion for diplomacy began.

“On my summer program in Israel, I learned a lot about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.

Shalom turned his passion into his work when he set up “Israel Advocacy,” a course he teaches to 50 YULA students.

“When I was in Israel, I was trained to be an ambassador. I learned so many things I thought everyone else could learn, too. I have a skill to move things forward, and I will always try to make use of this skill in my work.”

Recognizing the barriers that impede peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shalom decided to break down one of his own: language. Taking a night class in Arabic at Santa Monica College in his senior year, Shalom’s perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict broadened immensely when he became friends with a Palestinian in his class.

“I took this class with a lot of Arabs, and … I realized that they were like me and wanted the same things I want: peace for the Israeli-Palestinian region,” he said.

Shalom thinks peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible — given the right leaders on both sides.

“When you look back at history, all it takes is leaders on both sides who can galvanize their people toward peace. With bold leadership, courage and bilateral negotiations, peace can be achieved,” he said.

Shalom will spend the next year with Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City before going on to study international relations and global studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

A teen’s good deed restores faith


Ethan Youssefzadeh had just run in a track meet held at West Los Angeles College when, while walking to his car, he saw a wallet lying on the grass.  The YULA senior picked the wallet up and opened it to look for the name of the rightful owner.

That same early May evening, a man whose son had competed in the same meet on a different team returned to his home in Woodland Hills, only to find his wallet was missing. That man, who asked that his name not be used here, said he believed he would never get back his wallet, particularly as it contained almost $350 in cash, along with his driver’s license, credit cards, some gift cards and more. Given that some 200 students and parents had attended the sporting event, he thought, who would return $350 if they didn’t have to?

That very night, when a knock sounded at his door, the man quickly learned that there are people who would. At the door was Youssefzadeh, whom the man had never met, come to deliver the wallet. Youssefzadeh had driven 45 minutes out of his way, to the address on the driver’s license. The cash, credit cards, gift cards and identification all were still inside the wallet, along with everything else.

For Youssefzadeh, it was a simple matter of following what he’d learned all his life at school. “I’ve been trained to do it,” the 18-year-old said in an interview.

Which is what Youssefzadeh explained to the incredulous man when he made his delivery. After taking his wallet back, the man said in an e-mail that he attempted to give the boy the cash as a reward. When Youssefzadeh refused to take the gift, the man asked what could possibly have motivated the boy.

As a student at the Orthodox YULA who is about to travel to Israel to attend a yeshiva in Jerusalem, Youssefzadeh told the man that he believes the lessons of the Torah required him to return the wallet, and that the Torah is a “guideline for life,” he said. That aside, he added, it is “common sense” to return a lost object when there is evidence of who the owner is.

The wallet’s owner saw Youssefzadeh’s good deed as a rare act of integrity. “The truth is, I am not sure if my children, or even I, would have ever returned something with such great value,” he wrote in an e-mail to YULA’s administration the night he got his wallet back.

He was just as surprised that the boy refused his reward.

Youssefzadeh explained later: “If I accepted the money, I would have felt bad. … I went all the way there to return the wallet, and I knew [it] would have a better meaning if I left” without taking it.

The two talked more. Youssefzadeh revealed that he is the president of his school’s student council, and the man had an epiphany.

“If this is what Jews do, then I want my kids to be like your students,” the man wrote to YULA. And so, on the following Shabbat, for the first time in a “very long time, in honor of Ethan,” the man didn’t go to his work, where he is a real estate agent.

He also wrote in his e-mail to YULA that he planned to donate the $350 from the wallet to the school’s student council fund. The e-mail made YULA head of school Rabbi Heshy Glass reflect on Youssefzadeh, whom he has known for four years. It “made me feel that the lessons which are not necessarily frontal lessons in the classroom got across to him,” Glass said.

“The core values of respecting someone else’s property, caring about someone else’s property, going out of your way to help an individual, doing a mitzvah for the right reason and not for the reward — no one talks about it day to day, but you want it to be the result” of a Jewish education, Glass said.

So, after receiving the e-mail, Glass read it aloud to the school during an assembly. And the story has since gone viral, Glass said. Layla Bayramova, a math teacher at YULA’s girls school, shared the tale with her fiancé’s children, who attend school in Mira Costa, Calif., and they told their friends. One kid, a member of her school’s broadcast journalism program, now wants to interview Youssefzadeh so “she can share this story with her community,” Bayramova said.

On the morning of May 7, before Youssefzadeh went to school, he again met up with the man at a 7-Eleven convenience store on Robertson Boulevard. The man gave Youssefzadeh the money to donate to YULA’s student council.

This time, Youssefzadeh accepted.

Financial exec Rubin pleads guilty


David Rubin, chairman of the board of Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park and president of YULA girls’ high school, pleaded guilty in federal court in New York on Dec. 30 to wire conspiracy and fraud involving proceeds from municipal bonds. Beverly Hills-based CDR Financial Products, which Rubin founded and runs, pleaded guilty to related antitrust charges.

Rubin, 50, could face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. CDR could face a fine of $100 million. Rubin will be sentenced April 27.

Rubin had been scheduled to go to trial in New York on Jan. 3. He had asked U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero to delay the trial so he could care for his wife, Gitel, who has pancreatic cancer. The Rubins, who live in Hancock Park, have seven children, ranging in age from 2 to 24.

When the judge denied the request for a continuance and Rubin lost that motion again on appeal, Rubin opted to plead guilty so he could be home focusing on his family rather than in New York for the trial.

According to a close friend who declined to be identified, Rubin has maintained his innocence throughout the legal proceedings, and had wanted to stand trial to fight the charges. But friends and family convinced him to agree to a plea that will likely keep Rubin out of prison.

At the end of the hearing, when the judge wished Rubin’s wife well, Rubin burst into tears, the friend said.

CDR had developed a niche as a broker helping state, county and local agencies invest money raised from bonds.

In pleading guilty, Rubin admitted that, from 1998 to 2006, his Beverly Hills-based firm awarded lucrative contracts to investment management firms that paid CDR. Prosecutors said CDR did not run a fair, competitive bidding process, but instead channeled information that would aid money managers who paid to play, according to the Department of Justice. CDR also solicited intentionally losing bids, and signed certifications that contained false statements regarding whether the bidding process complied with relevant Treasury Department regulations, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.

The actions cost taxpayers money because the contracts did not always go to the firms that would offer the best returns, according to the Justice Department.

Rubin’s attorney could not be reached for comment, but Rubin’s friend said the case is complex and involves a government sweep of an industry that for years has been operating according to widely held practices.

Rubin had been confident he could beat the charges, the friend said.

Rubin, along with Zevi Wolmark, the former chief financial officer and managing director of CDR, and Evan Zarefsky, a vice president of CDR, were indicted in October 2009. Wolmark and Zarefsky began trial on Jan. 3.

“Mr. Rubin and his company engaged in fraudulent and anticompetitive conduct that harmed municipalities and other public entities,” said Sharis A. Pozen, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “Today’s guilty pleas are an important development in our continued efforts to hold accountable those who violate the antitrust laws and subvert the competitive process in our financial markets.”

Rubin is the 10th individual to plead guilty in an ongoing federal investigation into the $3.7 trillion municipal bonds industry, under President Barack Obama’s interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force that coordinates the efforts of the Department of Justice, the FBI and the IRS.

So far, the Justice Department has filed charges against 18 former executives of financial-services firms. With Rubin, 10 have pleaded guilty. JPMorgan Chase, USB, Wells Fargo and GE have paid $743 million in restitution and penalties.

Rubin has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in the past decade. He was a fellow of the Wexner Heritage Foundation in the late 1990s and has been an activist and philanthropist in the area of Jewish education. He was the driving force behind moving Yavneh into the former Whittier Law School building on Third Street and Las Palmas Drive in 1998, and improving the school’s academic and religious standards. He also has been involved in revitalizing the lay leadership at YULA girls’ school. Friends estimate that over the last 10 years, he has given more than $10 million to Jewish institutions.

YULA vice principal’s sons to attend alma mater


Rabbi Joseph Schreiber, the vice principal of YULA Boys High School and a 1974 Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh alumnus, is sending two of his sons to his alma mater this month.

Nathaniel and Daniel Schreiber, who are triplets along with their sister, Elisheva, decided separately to go to the post-high school learning program in Israel without any pressure from their father, Rabbi Schreiber said.

Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh (KBY) was founded in 1954 as the first hesder yeshiva in Israel, which combines talmudic study with service in the Israel Defense Forces. In the 1960s, KBY initiated a learning program for post-high school students from the United States and other countries. About 100 L.A. high school graduates have attended the program since its opening, according to Leah Russel, KBY administrator. Prominent KBY alumni in Los Angeles include Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, a lecturer and teacher at YULA Boys High School.

“It’s very, very exciting and gratifying to know that they are able to follow a bit, hopefully, in their father’s footsteps, and they should just be able to get as much out of it and grow in their learning and personal growth,” Rabbi Schreiber said.

Elisheva Schreiber is planning to attend Chochmas Lev, a newer seminary in the Bayit V’Gan neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The big picture helps her balance it all


It took Judith Greenbaum 40 long minutes before she finally signed the form to decline acceptance at Harvard. “Yeah, that was a tough one,” Greenbaum, who is graduating from YULA Girls School, said as she laughed, “but it just wasn’t the right choice for my life’s big picture.” Her future hopes center around being an involved mother, leading an active Jewish life and pursuing a career in business. With New York’s Jewish community at her doorstep, Greenbaum believes Columbia University will offer better preparation for the life she envisions, after studying at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim.

Finding balance is Greenbaum’s constant struggle, while she juggles being co-regional president of NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth), co-captain of YULA’s Model U.N. team, playing on the tennis and soccer teams and writing for the school newspaper. She also maintains top grades and created a campaign to raise awareness about the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. There’s little time to catch up on sleep, even during summer vacations, when she has traveled to Israel on Yad B’Yad’s program for kids with disabilities and participated in NCSY’s overseas JOLT program for Jewish Leadership. 

Why does she push herself so hard? “I really just want to get the best out of life. I never want to say I had all of these opportunities and I just blew them,” explains Greenbaum.

The youngest of four kids, Greenbaum is happiest when she feels she’s contributing to the world, which is why she was motivated to act two years ago following a lecture about Shalit, who has been held prisoner by Hamas since June 2006. Greenbaum wrote to Israel’s prime minister, spoke with local consuls, set up a Web site and created a national high school project involving more than 30 schools across the country, writing letters urging efforts for Shalit’s release. She and leaders at the other schools organized rallies and got wrist bracelets donated to raise awareness. 

It’s been a journey. Greenbaum started ninth grade unsure of who she was and what she wanted to do, so she tried almost everything, even some things that she wasn’t so great at — she got a non-singing part in the school’s musical. “I can’t sing or dance at all!” she said.

Involvement in NCSY has been a highlight of her high school years. Reveling in Havdalah services and the chance to make friends with all types of people, she summed it up by saying, “I love being Jewish, and I love the fact that I love being Jewish.”

Class Notes


Deep Thoughts for Teens
Teens searching for meaning and direction — and what teen isn’t? — can find some Jewish guidance at Nativ-Jewish Teen Seminars, a new nondenominational weekend workshop program affiliated with the West Valley’s JCC at Milken with the goal of helping teens navigate big decisions and difficult issues in a Jewish context.

The two-and-half-day or four-day seminars are facilitated by Jackie Redner, rabbi of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and former campus rabbi at Kadima Hebrew Academy, and by Beth Freishtat, who developed the program and who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and adolescent and family therapy.

Through discussions and activities, the groups will explore themes such as peer relationships, family conflict, spirituality, self-image, sex, love, individuality and belonging, anger, discrimination, drugs and alcohol, and hopes and dreams. The semiars take place at the Westside JCC and at the JCC at Milken. Upcoming Nativ dates are April 13-15, May 18-20, June 22-24 and July 6-8.

For more information, visit www.nativseminars.com.

Preschool Teachers Get Basic Training
Close to 1,000 preschool directors and teachers attended a day of Judaic, pedagogic, and child development workshops at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s annual Bebe Feuerstein Simon Early Childhood Spring Institute last month.

Nationally renowned early Jewish educator and author Bev Bos led sessions in her field of expertise — “Memories and Traditions,” “How Children Grow” and “Creative Art, Music and Language.” Forty other presenters led sessions on a range of topics.

The day also featured awards presentations. The Lainer Distinguished Educator Awards for Early Childhood Educators, which include a cash gift of $2,500, were presented to Jeri Dubin, a preschool teacher at the Adat Ari El Rose Engel Early Childhood Center; Miri Hever, a Gesher teacher at University Synagogue; and Hilary Steinberg, a 20-year veteran educator at Valley Beth Shalom Nursery School. Some 15 teachers also received The Smotrich Family Educator Awards, which recognize innovative Judaica curriculum projects.

For more information, visit www.bjela.org.

YULA Scores Diplomatic Coup
For the sixth time in the last eight years, Los Angeles’ YULA yeshiva high school was named best delegation at the Yeshiva University National Model United Nations. Students from more than 40 Jewish day schools from across the United States and Canada participated in the conference, representing 46 countries and international agencies. They spent three days analyzing and developing solutions to such problems as global warming, the distribution of power within the United Nations, gender discrimination in the world community, and the international response to natural disasters.

YULA’s 18-member delegation, led by senior co-captains Ari Platt and Adina Wolkenfeld, represented India, Belarus and Uruguay. The team brought home four best delegate and six honorable mention awards.

For information visit www.yula.org or www.yulagirls.org.

New Educational Leadership at HUC-JIR
Michael Zeldin, professor of Jewish Education a the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles, will succeed professor Sara S. Lee, who will retire after 27 years as director of HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education (RHSOE) on June 30. Lee and Zeldin have worked together as colleagues for the past 25 years.

“The appointment of Dr. Zeldin signals that the distinguished legacy of professor Lee will be carried forward,” HUC-JIR President David Ellenson said. “As a renowned scholar, gifted teacher, and passionate advocate for Jewish education, Dr. Zeldin will sustain the RHSOE as a model of integrated learning and excellence that has inspired others in the field of Jewish education.”

Lee will continue to teach and guide special projects part-time as a professor emeritus. More than 275 graduates of the RHSOE lead Jewish educational programs in Reform congregations and day schools throughout North America.

For more information, visit www.huc.edu.

Hi-Tech Jetsetters
Two students and a professor from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology visited the Western states last month as guests of the American Technion Society.

Anat-Anna Gileles a third-year student, who studies molecular biochemistry, and Reuven Nir, who is pursuing a doctorate in medicine and conducting research on the neurological mechanism underlying pain and the processing of pain itself, toured with professor Shimon Haber, the Technion dean of students, and a member of the faculty of mechanical engineering. The students met with supporters not only to share their research, but to add a personal element to the connection between Technion and the United States.

For more information, call (323) 857-5575 or visit www.ats.org.

Free Holocaust Workshop for Teachers
Educators are invited to a free workshop that will present “Echoes and Reflections: A Multimedia Curriculum on the Holocaust,” developed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Yad Vashem and USC Shoah Visual History Foundation.

The workshop, sponsored by the ADL in partnership with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, will take place at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, May 6, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. R.S.V.P. required by April 20, at (310) 446-8000 ext. 241 or vmorishige@adl.org.

Holocaust Workshop
Last month, 30 educators from across Los Angeles participated in a five-week workshop, “The Relevance of Teaching the Holocaust in the 21st Century,” co-sponsored by the ADL, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance and the Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance. Teachers from public, private and religious schools learned the historical background of the Holocaust, as well as practical ways to introduce their students to this material.

For further information visit www.adl.org or www.echoesandreflections.org.

College Shabbaton
EdJewCate, a new organization bringing Torah-observant teachers, information and programming to college students and young adults, is holding its kickoff Shabbaton weekend retreat in Los Angeles April 20-22 at the Westin LAX Hotel. Featured speakers include rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, author of “The Committed Life” and “Life is a Test”; Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Wenglin, author and presenter of “Full Contact Judaism” and Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, author of “The Art of Amazement.”

For more information visit www.edjewcate.com.

Preteens Get a Taste of the Future
Middle schoolers at Pressman Academy took part in the daylong Total Teen Expo last month. Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer was the keynote speaker, and she used a personal story, a Chasidic tale and popular music to help students understand their power to improve the world. The day’s sessions included a police detective, author Dana Reinhardt, screenwriter Ed Solomon and L.A. City Council Chief of Staff David Gershwin, leading sessions on Internet safety, fitness, etiquette, nutrition and budgeting. The day ended with a poetry slam led by Eitan Kadosh and a drumming circle.

The school with no name


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

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

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

Natan Eli is not one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Orthodox youth not immune to high-risk lifestyles


A few weeks ago, Joel Bess gathered his group of 15 teenage boys and took them to the funeral of a 21-year-old who had died of an overdose. Like the teenagers, the youth who died was Orthodox and didn’t fit the yeshiva mold and wound up on a path of high-risk behavior.
After the funeral, Bess — the son of a prominent rabbi who spent his teenage years and beyond in a whirl of self-destruction — asked the boys to write their own epitaphs on pictures of blank tombstones.
 
“I wanted them to think about how people would remember them and what they would say about their lives,” said Bess, who is now 29, a father of three and has a strong relationship with his own father.
 
Bess knows how hard it is not to fit in, to fall and then to muster the strength to move toward health of body and soul.
 
“Almost all my friends ended up dead or in jail, and I’m trying to prevent that with these kids,” he said.
 
He has been meeting weekly with the boys for about nine months through Issues Anonymous, a group he helped found.
 

My son, the plumber. Amen.

 
On a hot abandoned Granada Hills playground surrounded by waves of wheat-colored brush, Rabbi Mayer Schmukler looks around and sees the future. Rather than the overgrown jungle gym and dusty rows of red Little Tikes cars at the site that once was the North Valley JCC, he sees a soccer field, a refurbished pool, maybe tennis courts behind the new dorm buildings.
 
Last year, Schmukler, a Chabad-trained rabbi, brought 15 boys to this eight-acre site to pilot JETS — Jewish Education Trade School. This year he’s got 35 boys praying, studying Torah and training to be carpenters, plumbers, chefs and elevator repairmen.
 
Schmukler is keenly aware that a Jewish vocational school faces some deeply ingrained prejudices.
 
“Everyone feels that if a Jewish kid has to become a plumber it’s a sad situation, that really he should be a lawyer or an accountant, or a rabbi,” Schmukler says.
 
But some kids aren’t cut out for academic rigor. Leaving them in a mismatched environment often leads them toward self-destructive paths to failure.
 
“We take kids that maybe have low self- esteem and show them they are good at something — or we make them good at something — and show them they can make it in this society,” said Schmukler with a smile that never leaves his eyes or his mouth, hidden though it is in his untamed beard.
 
JETS doesn’t take the most hard-core cases. Boys have to be drug-free for 12 months to get into the program, and there is mandatory drug testing every two weeks.
 
But some of his kids come from broken homes, or have emotional, learning or behavioral challenges. Most of them live on campus in classrooms converted into dorms.
 
JETS, an independent nonprofit, employs teachers, social workers, dorm counselors and a psychologist. Students get personal counseling, and classes in ethics and time management and organization as well as high-school equivalency preparatory classes.
 
It was the combination of industry and ethics that won Schmukler a California Regional Consortium for Engineering Advances in Technological Education grant and award from the National Science Foundation in May 2006.
 
Most of the trade classes are offered at College of the Canyons, an accredited community college in Santa Clarita that provides work force training.
 
Last year, the boys built a skateboarding ramp. This year, they’re building a house, from computer modeling to reading the blueprints to carpentry, plumbing, electricity and the finishings.
 
Some of the classes, such as cooking, take place at JETS. The school is building a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen, and hopes to open a kosher culinary school to the public.
On Shabbats when they stay in, boys prepare meals for each other. They have also taken trips to the Grand Canyon and Northern California.
 
Schmukler’s approach to discipline is to help the boys self-motivate. Smoking, for instance, is not prohibited. But boys can only smoke alone, and only in designated spots that might be a half-acre from the action. There is no wake up call in the morning — boys need alarm clocks to rouse themselves. Free time is scheduled up with classes in kickboxing or karate, and a whole set of bikes and the old JCC gym facilities are available to the guys.
 
Schmukler has bigger plans for the campus, and he is a strong fundraiser. He worked for years as the development director for Chabad’s Russian program, where he first set up teen centers in West Hollywood. JETS has an annual budget of about $1 million, and Schmukler works his connections well. He’s already raised $5 million for the purchase of the campus and got an adjacent parcel donated.
 
Schmukler is also giving space to the JCC for offices and some programming, and is working out further arrangements with them. He says he wants JETS to be a center for Jewish unity, especially because no one can forget the 1999 rampage by Buford O. Furrow, who wounded five people at this JCC and then killed postal worker Joseph Ileto.
 
“Because of that I really believe something positive has to come from here,” Schmukler says. “Judaism is positive, and if you open up with something positive, we’ve won.”
 
For more information, visit www.jetsschool.org or call (323) 228-5905.

 
— JGF

Issue Anonymous is one of several new programs that have emerged in the last few years to serve the Orthodox community, giving kids, their parents and local high schools more resources and options than have ever been available in Los Angeles.
 
At Issues Anonymous, the boys can express themselves freely — which they did on the blank tombstones.
 
“To our beloved son, we loved you and we wish we could have been there for you,” one of them wrote.
 
“He died on the road to recovery. He meant well and he tried hard. Had he lived longer he would have made some big differences. He will be missed by the select few that he touched.”
“We loved you, and we will miss you. You were a good friend, son and brother. You really were nice and smart.”
 
And then simply, “I hope I rest in peace.”
 
For these youths, the introspection and repentance of Yom Kippur is a full time, ongoing pursuit.
 
For nearly two decades, it has been an open secret in the Los Angeles Orthodox community that some kids are turned off by religious observance and high academic standards, and they end up turning to truancy, alcohol, unsafe sex or drugs.
 
Once on that path, many of the boys feel let down or pushed out by their schools, families or both. They feel hated by the community, and especially lost because they don’t feel they belong anywhere else. They call themselves screw-ups, and worse.
 
Some of them take a high school equivalency exam — or not — and get sent off to Israel or to yeshivas outside of Los Angeles. Some land in rehab, in jail, on the streets — or dead.
They are Sephardic, Ashekenazic and Persian. Their families are Chasidic and Modern Orthodox.
And to those who know them well, they are loveable boys who just need someone to believe in them.
 
“I think the community needs to embrace these kids with love,” says Debbie Fox, director of Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, who brought Bess in to start Issues Anonymous when four mothers approached her looking for help.
 
“I know that people are afraid that the kids will influence others. But that doesn’t mean we don’t create a place for them,” she said. “It means we need to look at how to balance things and how to do things safely and acknowledge that they are part of our community. We cannot sacrifice these kids — and they’re really beautiful kids.”
 
Los Angeles’ Orthodox community now offers some organized solutions for these boys — though none have been put forth for girls, even while most observers agree that, too, is needed.
 
The Jewish Educational Trade School (JETS), a vocational boarding school for boys who weren’t cut out for the academic rigor of yeshiva, started meeting last year at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. This year 35 boys spend part of each school day studying Torah and high school equivalency, and part of their day learning trades, such as elevator or air conditioning repair, or construction.
 
But JETS doesn’t take in the hard-core boys. Students have to have been drug-free for at least a year, and they are tested regularly.
 
Boys who are currently using drugs are welcome at Issues Anon and Aish Tamid, an organization Rabbi Avi Leibovic founded six years ago to provide a welcoming environment and support services.
 
Leibovic’s latest venture is Pardes/Plan B, a program that combines Torah study, outdoor adventure, counseling and high-school equivalency preparation. The program started in mid-September and, so far, the reports are positive.
 

Pardes: School, But Not
 
Pardes meets at Congregation Shaarei Tefila on Beverly Boulevard, where the boys pray every morning. Then they go out on a trip — hiking, bowling, boating — all the while imbibing bits of wisdom from their teacher, Rabbi Ari Guidry, and a social worker who has had years of experience with this population in New York.
 

“The rabbi is awesome,” says Aharon (boys names have been changed to protect their privacy). “He’s not like a typical rabbi. He knows how to treat us — like the humans that we are.”
Aharon has always been a good student and hopes to go to college; he is excited about the academic subjects being taught by End Result, an organization with great success in running classes in juvenile detention centers.
 

Aharon’s mother is glad he chose Pardes.
 

“Pardes is not going to be top-notch academic experience, but for me it is much more important that his soul is intact,” she said. “I believe that this year he can work on himself; he can set his own spiritual compass to know in which direction he needs to go to find true happiness in life.”
 

She is one of the mothers who approached Fox last year to start Issues Anon, after she realized that Aharon was doing drugs, taking the car out in the middle of the night when he was 14 or 15, and messing up in school.
 

“Anything I tried to do in terms of controlling him and where he was going and what he was doing didn’t work,” said Aharon’s mother, who also attends a parent support group offered by Aish Tamid.
 

Leibovic, a 33-year-old YULA graduate who can personally relate to what these kids are going through, was one of the first in Los Angeles to try to organize programs for this population. He started with post-high school young men and then expanded to the younger set.
 

Aish Tamid has Shabbat programs, career fairs, study groups and the popular Teen at the Bean, a weekly discussion and study session at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Beverly Boulevard.

 
Mostly, Leibovic, a father of six and a full-time attorney, has made himself and a growing staff of social workers and counselors available to the boys and their parents at all hours, giving individualized guidance about everything from rehab centers to family therapy to finding employment.
 

Leibovic is still trying to find funding for Pardes. Young men who have been through Aish Tamid programs donated a van worth $22,000. Pardes only has enrolled a half-dozen students.
Leibovic is hoping eventually to fill the van with 13 kids. He said he knows of about 10 kids in need who aren’t in any program, but are still holding out to get into one of the local yeshivas, which historically haven’t dealt well with these kids.
 

“There is no way that any one school can cater to all of the students we have in our community,” said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School. “A school’s job is to be as broad as possible and needs to see themselves as embracing and accommodating as they can be. But as good as a school can be, there is no way we can do it all.”
 

While high school principals are grateful for programs like Pardes and JETS, they know there is work to do in making such programs acceptable to the boys and their families.
 

“I think there is still a stigma in the eyes of the children about going to these schools,” said Rabbi Dovid Landesman, principal of YULA. “We have to work on the psychology to make kids accept that these schools are more suited to their needs, because I really think both of these schools [Pardes and JETS] are a bracha to the community.”
 

Issues Anon: Steak and Free Expression
 

Yossi has managed to stay at YULA through his senior year, with an inclusion aid to help him through Attention Deficit Disorder. He started smoking marijuana at summer camp after 10th grade, and then he started popping his dad’s Atavan and Valium.
 

“I really messed up my whole 11th grade year, but I was on drugs so I didn’t care,” he says.
He fights with his father, but has a close relationship with his mother. She got him into rehab, which allowed him to stay in school. Yossi’s been clean 90 days.
 

He attributes much of his success to Issues Anon, the Jewish Family Service Wednesday night group that Joel Bess runs with social worker Howie Shapiro.
 

“This is the one thing I look forward to every week, and it’s really helped me a lot,” says Yossi, at a recent dinner at La Gondola.
 

The boys were there to celebrate milestones — some had just started school, some were chalking up months of sobriety, some were just happy to still be getting up in the morning. (All of them were grateful for the glistening heaps of ribs and giant sized steaks on their plates.)
 

Some of the boys wear kippahs and some don’t, some have spiky coifs or buzz cuts, and several of them sport large Jewish stars around their necks and pants sagging well below their hips.
Regular meetings start with the boys jotting down an issue, all of which are then read aloud, without revealing the source, and discussed. The guys give each other advice about how to get through their issues.

 
Tonight, many of them note their sobriety counts — a year and half, 90 days, two months — “and I better start feeling some of those changes promised,” one of them quips to Bess.
“I threw out all of my stuff two weeks ago,” another announces, to the applause of the group.
“Damn, you should have given it to me,” another jokes.

 
“My mom kicked me out again,” a boy says quietly.

“Cool! Are you sleeping at my house tonight?” his friend asks hopefully.

 
Behind the jokes, the cursing and goofing off, the kids are there for each other.
“If you see these kids sitting in the back of the classroom goofing off, you get one impression,” says Shapiro, the social worker. “But when you hear them talking about what they don’t get from their parents or how they fell through the cracks, it’s really amazing the depth with which they can describe what they are feeling and what they need. But the school administration and the parents don’t see that depth. They just see the GPA and the drug use.”

 
The kids in the group have become close friends and relate easily to Bess, who runs a division of an infomercial company and has a hip style the kids are comfortable with. They call him or knock on his door at all hours, and he welcomes them.

 
“I feel like I can do things now. Before I wasn’t able to do anything,” says Zev, who has been clean for a year and half and is being schooled at a private home in the valley.
Zev is one of many siblings from a Chasidic home. He has an abusive father and a supportive mother. When he was only 9 or 10 years old, he got his first taste of weed in shul on Simchat Torah.
 

He’s 15 now but looks a lot older, with a scraggly beard, big eyes that hold your gaze, and a quiet voice.
 
He is a leader — several boys say it was Zev who got them started on drugs. Now, at Issues Anon meetings, they turn to him for support in staying sober. And it was Zev who instituted the idea of starting each meeting with gratitude — going around and saying something positive about your week, or your life.
 
Tonight, Yossi is proud of 90 days sober. And like the other boys around the table, his goals are basic.

 
“I just don’t want to f*** up anymore,” Yossi says. “I want to get my life together and to be able to go through stuff without relapsing. I just want to be able to function like a normal person.”
 

www.aishtamid.org (323) 634-0505
www.jfsla.org/aleinu (323) 761-8816

Another Tendler Steps Down


The longtime principal of one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish high schools is leaving to start a new school. Rabbi Sholom Tendler resigned last week as Hebrew principal of Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and as rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. He said he plans to open a new yeshiva boys’ high school elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Tendler’s resignation comes shortly after his nephew, Rabbi Aron Tendler, resigned under pressure as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Meanwhile, Tendler’s other nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler was suspended this year by the board of his New York City-area synagogue as a result of longstanding allegations about alleged sexual misconduct.

Sholom Tendler, 61, says his departure is a matter only of his desire to start a new high school.

Sholom Tendler has been YULA’s rosh yeshiva, Hebrew for principal, for the last 26 years, including in 1987, when the school hired attorneys secretly to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against Aron Tendler. The internal probe yielded inconclusive results, but Aron Tendler was moved from the girls school to the separate boys school.

“I was aware of that investigation,” Sholom Tendler told The Journal, adding that he recused himself from the situation because his relative was involved.

After news of the investigation came to light in recent months, YULA alums and parents expressed outrage that the school dealt with the matter privately. Some clamored for “accountability.” Sholom Tendler’s resignation, so soon after the disclosures, has inevitably invited speculation that his departure is, in effect, the school’s response to community pressure.

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between [what happened with his nephews] and my decision to build this new school,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how unfounded rumors can blacken even the most beautiful of endeavors.”

Sholom Tendler also expressed sympathy for his nephews’ ordeals: “It’s very painful, and I’m supportive of them and their families in this terrible time of agony that they’re going through.”

Aron Tendler has declined interview requests; Mordechai Tendler has been more vocal, denying any wrongdoing.

YULA officials also emphasized that Sholom Tendler’s exit is voluntary.

“He helped create YULA,” said Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of YULA’s boys division. “He could have stayed at YULA for his entire career.”

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

He replied that there is a shortage of yeshiva high schools in Los Angeles.

“Anybody will tell you there are not enough high school desks in Los Angeles. It’s a healthy sign, but a serious problem,” Sholom Tendler said.

His added that his new school will fill a niche for the more “ultra” side of the Orthodox community, while also stressing a serious academic curriculum.

Sholom Tendler is calling his new high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok — named for his father, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, a rebbe who inspired “a joy of learning,” as Tendler put it. He plans to open in September for about 10 to 15 ninth-graders. He said he is currently scouting for a location in the Pico-Robertson or La Brea area.

The school will provide both serious Torah study and strong secular academics.

“People who are observing the demographics in the Jewish community see that there are a growing number of people who are very serious about religious observance and at the same time want to live in the professional or business world, rather than the rabbinate. We want parents to have the opportunity to prepare their sons for either way of life,” he said.

Because of the labor involved in starting a school, Sholom Tendler also is stepping down from heading Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where he has served as rabbi almost since its inception 13 years ago. He will stay on until the search committee finds a new rabbi. He said he expects to remain involved in the community, possibly as rabbi emeritus.

 

Girls School Debuts New Campus


On a brisk autumn afternoon, gaggles of girls in hooded sweatshirts and uniform skirts sit on asphalt eating salads out of Gladware and pizza out of foil.

There is ample room at the new picnic tables, but old habits die hard, and the girls are making themselves at home in Yeshiva University of Los Angeles’ (YULA) new state-of-the-art, architecturally stunning girls high school.

As is a teenager’s prerogative, the girls remain oblivious to the momentousness of this occasion, 25 years in the making.

“The girls finally have a real school,” said Alan Gindi, a father of five daughters who shepherded the project from campaign to completion.

It is not just the $6.5 million, fully wired facility with a gym, two science labs, an art room, a computer center, a student lounge and an auditorium that makes Gindi say that.

In the past four years, the school has, for the first time, acquired a micro-involved lay board that, in concert with the new head of school it hired three years ago, souped up the curriculum, added special programs and classes and raised the standards of excellence at the 190-girl school.

“We wanted to create an environment where a girl can excel at whatever it is she wants to be involved in, whether it is sports, or science or studying Torah or doing mitzvot [charitable deeds],” said Gindi, who with his father, Jack Gindi, runs the Jack E. and Rachel Gindi Foundation.

Whether the 11-person board saved a foundering school or merely brought an already-excellent school up a few notches is a matter of debate, but what is clear is the girls can, for the first time, take pride in a campus and a curriculum that attests to the seriousness with which the Modern Orthodox community takes educating its girls.

The 26,000-square-foot building at the soon-to-be dedicated Gindi Campus wraps around a landscaped courtyard, anchored by an atrium-like library and technology center. Throughout the facility, which can accommodate up to 250 students, light streams in through windows and skylights, illuminating the lavender and sage walls that create a feminine but not girly ambience. There are surprisingly few right angles, and rounded corners and curved windows give the place a fluidity that has worked well since the girls moved in last month.

YULA, whose parent corporation has since changed its name to Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YoLA), was founded by Rabbi Marvin Hier soon after he established the Simon Wiesenthal Center. YoLA and the Wiesenthal Center have since split into separate entities, but remain closely connected under the leadership of Hier and Rabbi Meyer May, who are respectively the dean and executive director of both.

The girls school first met in the basement classrooms at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard near Beverly Glen (full disclosure: I was one of those girls). In 1991, the girls school moved to the current location, a 13,000-square-foot former private high school.

The boys school, adjacent to the Museum of Tolerance, completed a $12.6 million facelift in 2002 on a 50,000-square-foot facility.

“The girls school was viewed as the stepsister of the entire organizational structure, and no one was stepping up to the plate…. It was ripe for community involvement,” said David Rubin, a board member who decided to join the effort to revamp YULA rather than start a girls high school at Yeshivat Yavneh, an option he and others explored seriously.

May rejects that notion, saying the school was in the capable hands of administrators and educators hired and supervised by himself and Hier. Hier and May are both board members.

“I think it is unfair to the administrators who preceded the lay board to say ‘now that we have a lay board we have achieved excellence,’ The school has been excellent for a long time, because we have outstanding kids, and that didn’t start in the last three to five years,” said May, adding that he is tremendously appreciative of the improvements the board has achieved.

Gindi said that decisions took too long to get all the way up the ladder to Hier and May, causing frustration within the school.

One of Gindi’s stipulations in putting a board together and raising the funds was that control of the school — from setting the vision to managing operations — be transferred to the board. The agreement also allows for the board to eventually take over financial management of the school.

One of the first actions of the board was to search for a female head of school.

In 2002, Chanah Zauderer, an educator who had headed the Manhattan High School for Girls, brought to YULA her expertise in envisioning a systematic and comprehensive curriculum.

Together with the board and the parents’ education committee, Zauderer worked to strengthen Judaic studies by giving it equal time with general studies. She infused the curriculum with more classes, such as art, music, modern Israeli history and a leadership seminar.

Last year’s Zauderer intensified the Jewish law component by introducing source books with relevant halachic texts from the Bible through the Talmud and contemporary religious responsa.

“When the dinim [Jewish law] teacher gets up and lectures it makes him the almighty holder of knowledge,” Zauderer said. “We want to encourage the girls to look for the sources themselves and for them to see firsthand that every halacha has its basis in text.”

It is a subtle but not insignificant change for a school that has not taught girls Talmud, adhering to traditional models of gender-specific education (see sidebar).

Zauderer is strict about enforcing the dress code, but at the same time she and the board are paying more attention to whether teachers, who often come from more right-wing communities than the student body, respect the girls’ religious milieu. The board has also seen to it that teachers no longer try to sway the girls to exclusively right-wing post-high school programs in Israel, but try to find the right fit for each girl.

All of these changes are ways of trying to ensure that YULA stays true to its mission of being a Modern Orthodox school, with a wide community base. Keeping that base will mean ongoing community involvement, a key to the school’s success.

“The accomplishment here is we are taking something that was institutionalized and bringing it back to the community,” Rubin said. “I think a group of lay people really fought for what the kids need and what the community needs, and I think the community feels we were right, and the YULA system feels we were right and hopefully this will be a benchmark for other of these types of projects.”

The Gindi Campus of Yeshiva University High School will be dedicated on Sunday, Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. at 1619 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 203-0755. For information about YULA’s 25th anniversary reunion on Dec. 26, call (310) 203-3189 or e-mail yulafamily@yahoo.com.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

Advances in Teaching Girls Talmud


By introducing more rabbinic texts into the Jewish law curriculum at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) , head of school Chanah Zauderer seems to be both following a trend and creating new realities for Los Angeles’ Modern Orthodox community.

What YULA expects of its incoming students can have a trickle-down effect on the elementary schools, just as the knowledge that ninth-graders come in with can influence what YULA teaches.

For years, most Orthodox schools in Los Angeles followed a strict traditionalist approach of not teaching girls Mishna or Gemara, oral law texts that stayed in the purview of male study halls. While East Coast schools and schools in Israel began introducing Talmud into the girls curriculum in the 1970s, Los Angeles stuck to traditional models of emphasizing Bible and giving girls practical, bottom-line dos and don’ts of Jewish law.

The basic halachic consideration of whether or not girls are permitted to study Talmud has, over the years, become muddied by a political overlay, with ultra-traditional rabbis wanting to stave off any hint of feminist inroads in the Orthodox community.

The issue became a focal point in the fight to stop the opening about a decade ago of Shalhevet, a coed Modern Orthodox high school with a gender-blind curriculum.

Today, several Modern Orthodox schools have begun to quietly introduce more halachic texts into the girls’ curriculum.

At Yeshivat Yavneh, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin has been trying to infuse more balance in the curriculum, giving boys more exposure to Bible and girls more access to halachic sources, while still retaining the traditional areas of emphasis.

“It seems to me counterproductive to deny girls access to Talmud,” said Korobkin, who last year introduced a two-day a week oral law class, where seventh- and eighth-grade girls study topical areas of Jewish law in the Talmud.

At Maimonides Academy, principal Rabbi Karmi Gross recently introduced a curriculum where girls study practical Jewish law by tracing it through the halachic sources, including Mishna and Gemara.

The biggest change is occurring at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, now in his second year as headmaster, introduced a Mishna program for fourth- through sixth-graders where girls and boys have identical curricula.

For now, while the seventh- and eighth-grade boys study Talmud, the girls pursue a halacha tract similar to that at Yavneh and Maimonides, but Sufrin plans to reevaluate that once the Mishna program is firmly established.

Sufrin believes that the study of oral law enhances ones’ ability to learn Bible or any Jewish text, and that all study of oral law has practical application, whether it is directly or through bettering the ethical and intellectual make-up of a student.

“Our students have to be able to realize that limud HaTorah [studying Torah] is as exciting as any other subject,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to broaden their horizons with the wealth and richness of Judaism through their ability to learn all of the texts available to klal Yisrael [all of Israel].” — JGF

From Worst to First


Junior varsity runner Joey Small.

After the Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles crosscountry team won the Westside League finals on Nov. 6, a competitorwas puzzled. “You guys were so bad last year,” the rival asked RaphyHulkower, 15. “What happened?”

What happened, besides talent and hard work, was that the Orthodoxrunners were under an unusual amount of pressure.

Recently, YULA officials battled with the CaliforniaInterscholastic Federation to switch one heat of the areapreliminaries from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, to Thursday, Nov.13. At first, CIF leaders refused, insisting that they could notaccommodate the special needs of every group. But when other schoolssupported YULA, the team won its appeal.

“So we know we have to make an impression,” says Hulkower, a wiryteen-ager wearing a school uniform and a black kippah. “We can’texpect CIF to change a 20-year tradition for a mediocre team.”

The YULA squad, however, is anything but mediocre. It has come along way since the 1996 season, when “we were the worst in theleague,” coach Jason Ablin says.

At the time, cross country was regarded mostly as conditioningpractice for members of the school’s league championship basketballteam. Enter Ablin and his new assistant coach, Tom Fitzgerald, whoonce trained for the Olympic trials in cross country. The duo began arigorous, methodical training program for the seven varsity and some10 junior varsity runners.

For two hours after each 10-hour school day, the teens ran in thedark over hill and dale, over dirt and sand, from Temescal Canyon toMalibu beach. They did speed work at a track in Beverly Hills.

Before long, the top boys were running a mile in just over 5minutes — and sustaining that for three miles.

“I was surprised by how good I was,” says Joshua Hess, 16, whoruns the team’s top mile.

The work paid off this season, as YULA won three Westside meetsand then the league finals. After the Nov. 6 race, the runnersdavened mincha not far from the finish line.

As The Journal went to press, they were preparing for a gruelingheat of the area preliminaries on Nov. 13 (tune in next week for theoutcome).

But regardless of how well they do, YULA’s runners will not beable to go on to the Southern California finals on Nov. 22. That’sbecause YULA officials couldn’t convince the CIF to move the Saturdayrace to a Thursday.

Hess finds this “frustrating and disappointing,” but he’sdetermined to run his best.

“We’ll take things race by race,” says Moshe Adler, a teamcaptain. “If we do well, we’ll have a good argument that CIF shouldaccommodate us next year.”

Class Acts


“I definitely stand out,” says Bina Hager, 17, of Hancock Park.

And it’s not just because the YULA senior is a strapping 5-foot-10 tall. Consider, for example, the cubist self-portrait that hangs upon her bedroom wall. Or the wildly colored abstract paintings, all Hager originals. Or the 6-foot-high punching bag and the gloves in one corner.

Kick boxing is, well, unusual fare for an Orthodox young woman, but Hager doesn’t mind the raised eyebrows.

“The mockery of my friends reverberates in my mind as I face the punching bag,” she cheerfully writes in an essay. “[But then]…the air crackles as I unleash my hand with unbridled fury…I savor the electricity of that moment…when I channel all physical chaos into artistic order.”

If Hager is an iconoclast, she’s also a Renaissance woman.

Two years ago, she began volunteering at Yachad, a program for children with disabilities; she went on to assist the physical therapists at a summer camp in the Catskills, where a number of experiences were engraved in memory. There was the autistic child, with whom she worked for seven weeks and who finally said her name. And there was the frail 9-year-old boy who was just learning to walk. The process was painful for the child, and Hager “held him, my palms supporting his elbows, as he embarked on a most courageous journey, a journey of five steps.”

Now, she has no doubt about her life’s path: Hager will attend Barnard College and study psychology and special education after attending a yeshiva in Israel next year.

“What working with people with disabilities has taught me is that the little you can give of yourself means so much,” she says.


Alexa Fields, Harvard-Westlake School

Don’t tell Alexa Fields that Latin is dead.

She’ll give you a look and say, “Rident stolidi Latina verba” — “Only fools laugh at the Latin language.” And Latin, specifically her poetry, helped get her into Harvard University’s early admission program, after all.

Fields first took Latin in fifth grade — rather reluctantly — but promptly fell in love with the language.

“I discovered that these ancient people were not deadbeats,” says Fields, who has also taken intensive summer theater workshops at the Santa Monica Playhouse, has studied French in Avignon and varsity lettered in cross country. “They were alive, clever, scandalous, mischievous, and they had great stories to tell.”

Fields read many of them over the years, in the writings of Ovid, Cicero, Horace, Catullus and Virgil’s “Aeneid” — “a real blast, which reads like a soap opera.” Some of Catullus’ poetry is so risqué, she adds, wickedly, that a substitute teacher once assumed the students were fabricating the translation and stormed from the room.

After completing Harvard-Westlake’s entire Latin curriculum last year, Fields decided to follow her own muse; with dictionary in hand, she composed five poems, “Carmina Vitae” (“Songs of Life”), in painstakingly strict hendecasyllabic meter.

One defends the Latin language, another extolls silliness, and the National Latin Honor Society member, for her part, will become the subject of a favorite joke when she travels to the former Roman empire this summer.

“A Latin student wandering in Italy asks where the restroom is,” says the 17-year-old senior, who is considering classes in science, psychology and music at Harvard. “The Italian stares at her for a long time and finally says, ‘You haven’t been here in awhile, have you?”


Zhanna Livshits, Fairfax High School

You’ll find Zhanna Livshits bustling about the multicultural kitchen at Project Angel Food, preparing meals for people with AIDS. Or she might be in the dialysis unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, holding the hand of a gravely ill patient.

“I believe that people need each other, need to know they are not alone in their struggle,” says Livshits, 18. For her, volunteerism has become a way of life because “I understand what it is to feel powerless, abandoned, with no one there to help.”

Livshits is speaking of her experience as a Jew in Belarus, where anti-Semites sprayed gunfire into the family apartment. She is also speaking of her early years in the United States, when, as the first in her family to learn English, she took on responsibilities beyond the realm of a typical 11-year-old. She dealt with the gas company and the welfare office. And when her parents couldn’t find work, she secured jobs as a tutor and as a receptionist. The tasks were doubly daunting for Livshits because she has battled stuttering all her life.

“But I am so grateful and admire my parents so much for bringing me here,” says the senior, who vows to become a physician “to make a difference and so that my family never again has to live in poverty.”

The Fairfax High salutatorian is well on her way, with some $9,000 per year in scholarships to attend UCLA.

Nevertheless, she believes that her most important work is with patients such as Lynn (not her real name), a 29-year-old woman whose kidney transplant had failed for the third time.

“She was pale and crying, but, at the end of our time together, she smiled,” says Livshits, who may go into the Peace Corps before medical school. “I don’t have the words to describe how that made me feel.”


Laurie Rubin, Oakwood School

In March, Laurie Rubin’s rich, intensely expressive mezzo-soprano dazzled the audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington with a feisty aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Just two weeks later, she sang at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and snagged first place in the classical voice category of the prestigious Music Center Spotlight Awards.

The thoughtful, vivacious Rubin has entered five competitions in her 18 years and has won first place in four of them.

But what sets her apart from her competitive peers is that she is blind.

Her love of music began when she was a baby, when her parents stimulated her other senses with scents and classical music. By age 16, she was already a seasoned performer, singing in six languages at Jewish and other functions honoring individuals such as George Burns, Ronald Reagan and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Recently, she sang at an event for the Foundation for the Junior Blind, an organization that has helped her build self-confidence.

Rubin was the first blind person to win the Spotlight Award; the first to attend Oakwood; and the first to become bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom, where 600 congregants turned out to hear her chant the Torah portion from her Braille book atop the scroll. She has perfect pitch, learns music by ear, and hopes to become an opera singer, recitalist and cantor.

Nevertheless, a prominent conductor once warned her that no opera company would hire a blind person; some competition judges have been cynical; and Rubin, further, had to fight to be admitted to the gifted program at one school.

At the Tanglewood Institute, she was overcome with emotion while learning the role of Iolanthe, Tchaikovsky’s blind princess who longs to do more than the world will let her.

So Rubin has become an activist; she has been the subject of two educational films about blind people, and has screened and discussed them at Los Angeles-area schools.

“I’m sure at times I won’t get roles, because I am blind,” says the singer, who’s won a $8,000-per-year scholarship to Oberlin College and Conservatory. “But I’ll keep trying because music is music; it expresses what is in the heart, no matter what the politics.”


Adam Rosenthal, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple

Adam Rosenthal is writing a guide for teen-agers like himself, his older brother, Jeremy, and many of his friends, who have become more observant than their parents. Its working title: “Mom, I Can’t Go Out With the Family. It’s Shabbat.”

In January, Rosenthal was elected as the international president of United Synagogue Youth (USY), representing more than 20,000 Conservative Jewish North American teens, and he just completed a year term as regional president of USY’s FarWest Region, which includes Southern California and five states.

Rosenthal’s Jewish involvement has been lifelong, starting with Camp Ramah — where his mother worked — at age 3, and continuing there every summer since. This year will be his second as camp counselor.

But Ramah, which he calls “a Jewish utopia,” existed only during the summer, so Rosenthal became involved in USY at his temple, Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood. He quickly became a youth leader and also team-teaches a fifth-grade class with his mom.

“I love planning activities that really change people’s lives,” he says.

One such program is Hevrah, which brings together USY-ers and Jewish teens with disabilities for social and religious experiences.

Rosenthal, who attended Los Angeles Unified public schools in Woodland Hills until this year, plans to spend his freshman college year on the USY NATIV leadership program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He will then