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Is AKLA the Future of Jewish Pride?

An exciting new b’nai mitzvah program introduces Jewish teens to Jewish and Israeli achievements in arts, medicine, technology and security.
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June 12, 2024
Students with virtual reality headsets interact with Albert Einstein. Photo by Kyle Ellis

On a recent Sunday morning, an energized group of 25 teenagers gather at Sinai Temple in Westwood. Their enthusiasm is justified. They have a busy day ahead of them. 

When everyone’s ready, the teens hop on a bus, their excited chatter filling the air as each makes their way down the aisle to find a seat. Boys sit with boys. Girls with girls. The destination is the Skirball Cultural Center. 

Inside a theater at the Skirball, they strap on cutting-edge virtual reality headsets. Suddenly, they find themselves inside an immersive environment while interacting with Albert Einstein. The state-of-the-art technology provides insight into innovations developed by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

As the day continues, the group of teens are treated to an aerial presentation of drones, led by specialists from Ben-Gurion University. Afterwards, they participate in a discussion about Israeli water technology. 

Jeff Polak, AKLA Founder

This flurry of stimulation is a typical Sunday for the participants of AKLA, a bold new initiative that facilitates experiential mitzvah projects and activities for Jewish kids ages 12-14, around the time of their bar or bat mitzvahs. The timing is intentional; it’s a transitional moment when teens begin to carve out independent paths for themselves, the organization’s founder, Jeff Polak, told The Journal in a phone interview. 

“We showcase the awesome achievements and accomplishments of the Jewish people, whatever they may be,” Polak said. “Our goal is to excite kids who are 12 to 14 years old, b’nai mitzvah age, to get them on a track to be enthusiastic about this amazing community and understand the breadth of the Jewish people’s accomplishments.”

What’s AKLA?

Pronounced “ACH-la,” AKLA’s name derives from the slang Hebrew word for “awesome,” “excellent,” or “great.”

Each day’s program is designed to emphasize the unique achievements of the Jewish and Israeli people, particularly those who’ve had a lasting impact on society. 

Over the course of five consecutive Sundays, AKLA students travel by bus to sites around the city — their stops include the Skirball Center, the Jewish Federation Los Angeles headquarters and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — where they participate in sessions led by experts in entertainment, medicine, technology and self-defense, among other fields. Each Sunday is a jam-packed, half-day program designed to emphasize the unique achievements of the Jewish and Israeli people, particularly those who’ve had a lasting impact on society. “We’re not religious or political,” Tonia Barber, AKLA’s executive director, told The Journal. “We’re just celebrating the awesome accomplishments and contributions of the Jewish community to society.”

Five Weeks in AKLA

On a recent Sunday, a cohort of AKLA teens visited the Mid City headquarters of the L.A. Jewish Federation. There they participated in activities revolving around security and defense. The group heard from a panel of Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Jewish Federation security experts in discussions that were framed to be informative without frightening the teens, Barber said.

AKLA students participate in the Krav Maga session. Photo by Kyle Ellis

Cole Saltzman, one of the students in the 2023 fall cohort said the Krav Maga session was worthwhile considering the constant attacks targeting Jews today. “A lot of people now are thinking of Jews as less than normal, and it really sucks, so you need to be able to defend yourself and your rights,” he said.

“When we go to a hospital like Cedars-Sinai and see how far it’s come, from a hospital with five beds, to what it is today, and we learn about how it’s a hospital with Jewish roots, the kids can’t help but feel proud of that.” – Jeff Polak

On the following Sunday, they traveled to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where they practiced cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) maneuvers on mannequins, toured the hospital’s simulation center and met with Rabbi Jason Weiner, director of the medical center’s spiritual care department. “When we go to a hospital like Cedars-Sinai and see how far it’s come, and we learn about how it’s a hospital with Jewish roots, the kids can’t help but feel proud of that,” Polak said.

Case in point: As the group of teens first approached the hospital, they saw a Star of David prominently placed on the top exterior façade of the medical center, which was founded at a time when other hospitals refused to offer Jews equitable care or allow Jewish physicians onto medical staffs. Of course, the teens had been unaware of this history, and had a tough time fathoming there could be a time when antisemitism was so openly part of society. 

AKLA students meet with Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier during an arts and media day. “The kids loved hearing his stories and being able to touch the Oscar,” AKLA Executive Director Tonia Barber says. Photo by Kyle Ellis

As they looked up at the Jewish star, they felt a keen sense of pride. “I think they feel validated, and they feel seen, and they feel excited,” Rabbi Lori Shapiro, the program’s rabbinic educator, told The Journal in an interview while discussing “AKLA moments.”

Shapiro is the founder of an innovative Venice Beach-based Jewish community, Open Temple, and she previously served as the director of Jewish life at USC Hillel. She has years of experience working with young Jews and knows what makes them excited about Judaism. She compared AKLA’s structure and goals to Birthright Israel, which is widely acknowledged as successful in fostering a strong connection among its participants to Israel.

“With Birthright, someone noticed you can have as much impact with a 10-day experience as you do with five years of Hebrew school. People love that. I think AKLA borrows from that wisdom,” she told The Journal. “It gives people a very dense, well-programmed, thoughtful and respectful invitation to experience their Judaism.”

During their AKLA trips, the teens visited two museums: the Museum of Tolerance, where they participated in a tour of the facility, met with a Holocaust survivor and learned about a Holocaust remembrance project, and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, where the day’s topic was “Arts and Media.”

They learned about Jewish movie studio moguls who helped develop the film business into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today, from Carl Laemmle to Louis Mayer to Steven Spielberg. 

At the latter, they learned about Jewish movie moguls who helped develop the film business into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today, from Carl Laemmle to Louis Mayer to Steven Spielberg.

Deli food is part of the Jewish experience, so they swung by Canter’s Deli for lunch, where they were given a tour of the deli’s pickle room by one of the restaurant’s owners. “They were just taken with all of it,” Barber said.

AKLA students complete writing exercises as part of their five-week experience. Here they craft letters to IDF soldiers after Oct. 7, including a thank-you note to a VR creator who was called back to Israel for service and whose tech was premiered during AKLA. Photo by Kyle Ellis

Why AKLA?

Ultimately, AKLA’s leadership want Jewish teens to feel good — awesome, even — about being Jewish. Working with Polak is an advisory board that includes Shapiro; Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief and Publisher David Suissa; Jewish educator Samara Hutman and Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles Board Chair Evan Schlessinger. 

By exposing them to the many areas where Jews have succeeded and excelled and by introducing the teens to Jewish and Israeli contributions to local and global society, AKLA is instilling in them a sense of Jewish pride. Between Israeli-engineered VR-experiences and engaging, relatable discussions about how the mythology of “Superman” is rooted in Judaism, AKLA exposes the teens to the persistent spirit of Jews who’ve overcome antisemitism and taken control of their own destinies.

Of course, AKLA didn’t anticipate Oct. 7. In the aftermath of the worst single-day attack on Jews since the Holocaust, the teens’ program has taken on new significance. (AKLA’s previous cohort met for the first time on Oct. 12, just five days after the attack.) While AKLA’s youth were raised during a time where attacks against Jews existed only in distant stories told to them by their grandparents or great-grandparents, recent surges in antisemitism have demonstrated Jewish safety is never a guarantee.

“Right now, people are scared to be Jewish. People don’t know if they want to be out as Jews and AKLA offers people, like, absolute permission to be Jewish. It’s not political, it’s not identity politics. It’s like pure, good, clean Jewish innovation. That’s we what we do. From Torah to today, we’re innovators.” – Rabbi Lori Shapiro

“Right now, people are scared to be Jewish,” Shapiro said. “People don’t know if they want to be out as Jews and AKLA offers people, like, absolute permission to be Jewish. It’s not political, it’s not identity politics. It’s like pure, good, clean Jewish innovation. That’s we what we do. From Torah to today, we’re innovators.”

For Polak, the mission of spreading a pro-Jewish message to young Jews is vital. Among his own two children, he observed their adoption of a universalist, tikkun olam-centric idea of Judaism that emphasizes repairing the world through environmentalism, social justice and ending homelessness. While no doubt important, those issues fail to expose young Jewish souls to the richness, beauty and complexity of Judaism, expand their knowledge of their faith or deepen their Zionism, he said.

The David and Janet Polak Foundation, founded by Polak’s parents, completely subsidizes the AKLA program, allowing it to be free for each student. Polak, a certified investment management analyst, serves as the foundation’s president and executive director. 

Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz joins an AKLA student during a luncheon held at Hillcrest Country Club. Photo by Kyle Ellis

Since its inception in 2012, the foundation has supported Israel, the American Jewish community and other causes. It has donated funds to more than 50 organizations, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles Jewish Health, formerly known as L.A. Jewish Home, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

AKLA is the latest venture that’s close to the philanthropic family’s heart.“The Polaks have attended a number of the [AKLA] sessions,” Barber said. “They feel great the kids are learning this vital information.”

How to Get Involved

Sinai Temple and Temple Judea in Tarzana have been recruiting teens for the AKLA program, with Temple Judea’s Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot playing an active role. Milken Community School and Pressman Academy have informed their students’ families about the program.

Currently, the organization is conducting outreach for its next cohort, which is scheduled to begin in October after the High Holy Days. AKLA accepts applicants on a rolling basis, and the website — aklausa.org — offers details on how teens can apply.  To date, the organization has served nearly 80 teens, with approximately 25 in each of the three cohorts that have thus far been held. 

The teens’ religious backgrounds span the spectrum — some are secular, others religious — and bringing teens from such a diverse range of Jewish households together is part of what makes AKLA unique, Polak said.

“It’s nice to bring that broad community together. We have kids who are very secular and are not participants in any meaningful way in Judaism, and we’ve had kids who are religious. And a lot in-between.”  – Jeff Polak

“It’s nice to bring that broad community together,” he said. “We have kids who are very secular and are not participants in any meaningful way in Judaism, and we’ve had kids who are religious. And a lot in-between.” 

 

What’s Next?

The organization has enjoyed sufficient success here in Los Angeles that its leadership believes it can scale, expand and serve additional Jewish communities. That means AKLA could soon be reaching Jewish teens in Chicago, New York, Miami, Boston and San Diego.

“We’re looking to have a big expansion of our program this coming fall,” Polak said. “We’d like to increase our numbers and have this operating in other cities.”

For those in Los Angeles, an AKLA event is tentatively scheduled for June 23 at Warner Bros. Studios,celebrating the Jewish origins and founders of Hollywood.

“I’ve always thought of Judaism as sort of, like, you’re-sitting-in-a-temple-praying-kind-of-thing. And I think that really opened my eyes to how it can be enthusiastic, it can be different.” – AKLA student Jack Berkett

The enthusiastic response to the program has led Polak to believe he’s onto something. He’s even seen AKLA alumni wearing their AKLA sweatshirts while out in Palisades Village.  “I’ve always thought of Judaism as sort of, like, you’re-sitting-in-a-temple-praying-kind-of-thing,” Jack Berkett, 13, a member of the 2022 fall cohort said. “And I think that really opened my eyes to how it can be enthusiastic, it can be different.’”

For Polak, it all crystallized for him during a recent lunch with an AKLA teen’s dad who told him his son now wants to wear a kippah in public because of his positive experience with AKLA. “AKLA is the one thing that everyone can agree on,” Polak said. “It’s awesome, if you will.”


Ryan Torok is a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal.

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