Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Scott Westle Prefers the Classroom to the Pulpit

In his classroom, Rabbi Westle stresses truth-telling.
January 18, 2024
Rabbi Scott Westle

In an environment of clashing Worldwide opinions, Scott Westle, the rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School, has set an ambitious target for his sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

“I want my students to know the history and have the facts,” he told the Journal. “They are confronted daily with information, not all of it true. Their social media apps do not contain bibliographies. I want them to hear the stories, learn the facts, see how they are sourced, what is accurate, what is false.” In his 10th year at Heschel, he realizes “they aren’t able to process what is true and what is not.” The students (age 12-14) “are not yet critical thinkers.” Westle sees it as his responsibility to teach them how. 

Entering their teens, students don’t have the context to grasp the connection between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Jewish sentiment. “Or why people didn’t know much about the geopolitical situation before Oct. 7, and now they are experts. My kids don’t know yet how to process those things.”

In Westle’s youth, growing up in different communities with a father who was education director at Conservative synagogues, he fell in love with Israel and the Jewish people. That’s never waned. “I love the connection between Jewish history and Israel,” he said. “I share that passion with my kids. I don’t apologize for it.”

In his classroom, Rabbi Westle stresses truth-telling. He wants students to have a clear understanding of the Jewish people’s connection to the Land, to the State of Israel, why it matters as a value to Jews, why L.A. Jews should care about Israel and to learn about the phrase “war is hell.”

When his students are confronted with raw numbers and information, they may ask themselves, “how am I meant to feel?”  Does Rabbi Westle want his students to take a certain perspective? Or does he give them a range from which they can choose? Are they mature enough to select?

While some families talk about the war at home, the rabbi has made a habit of encouraging students to check the news. “I will say to them ‘Check MSNBC, check Fox News, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, The L.A. Times. When they all tell the same story, that is called truth.’

“I tell them to check multiple [sources]. I tell them about Israeli sources that I check, and they also are across the spectrum.” Among those sources Westle mentioned are The Times of Israel and Ha’aretz.

As with students elsewhere, those at Heschel have cell phones, internet and social media access. “Unfortunately,” said Rabbi Westle, “there is a large campaign around the world to point out every mistake Israel has made in the history of its existence. This is under a magnifying glass. My students are grappling with the notion of ‘What does it mean that I am so proud of this place, and yet I am seeing all of these other ideas on social media?’”

The child of two Jewish educators, Westle was born in Florida and grew up in Albuquerque, N.M. and Tucson, Ariz.
“Real hotbeds of Jewish culture,” he ironically noted.  “Funny because my parents wanted us to have this Jewish life. It was very hard. In upper elementary and high school, I was very involved with Jewish youth groups and USY, and all my friends were based in Southern California. I was constantly coming to L.A. in high school, which mystified my friends.”

As a teenager, Westle took Jewish youth trips around the country, and also to Poland and Israel.

He remembered spending 10 days in Poland before setting foot in Israel. They visited camps, cemeteries and learned about pre-Holocaust Jewish life that was and Jewish life that was resurgent. He remembers standing inside a gas chamber and singing “HaTikvah.”

“When I went to Israel for the first time,” he said, “I remember thinking this is somehow the greatest thing that ever happened to the Jewish people — without really understanding what it was. From there, my engagement just grew.”

Westle always seemed to be involved in Israel education on campus.  After graduating San Diego State, he returned to Israel “looking for myself.” He learned for a year at the Pardes Institute then, because of Jewish youth group friends, he moved to Los Angeles on a whim.  One of his first jobs was with the Israel organization StandWithUs. “After a few months,” Westle said, “I realized I didn’t want to teach college students to defend Israel. I wanted to teach students to love Israel.”

Still in his mid-20s, he became a USY director in West Hills. The rabbinate was not in sight. “I was thinking,” “I hope someone sees the way I am running a youth program in a synagogue and says, ‘I like what you do, and I want to offer you a job in my business.’”

That never happened. “Instead, what I heard was, ‘You are good at running this Jewish youth program. Maybe you should be a rabbi,”’ Westle said.

He realized he loved being involved with Jewish nonprofits, and “being a rabbi gets you a seat at the table.  “I didn’t see myself as a religious leader, though. But I thought with education, the guidance and wisdom of traditions, they might make me a good candidate for whatever I want to do.” In 2014, he was ordained at American Jewish University, the same year, he said “Heschel took a chance on me.” 

For now, Rabbi Westle’s home is in the classroom, and probably long-term. He flashed a smile. “I feel very fulfilled. My biggest complaint is that I am not always challenged by sparring matches with 13-year-olds.”

Fast Takes with Rabbi Westle

Jewish Journal: As an eclectic reader, what is the best book you have read?

Rabbi Westle: “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac, which I read when I was 18 and living in Israel. Also, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Memoir,” by William Finnegan, even though I don’t surf — but I love the beach.

J.J.: Favorite Jewish food?

Rabbi Westle: Classic latkes.

J.J.: Favorite place you have traveled?

Rabbi Westle: Queenstown, New Zealand, known as one of the extreme sports capitals of the world.

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