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Friday, September 25, 2020

Back to school, sort of: Shalhevet students start their year under unorthodox conditions

Chaos has brought community to the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC), where Shalhevet High School is operating for its 2014-2015 school year as construction proceeds on its actual campus.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, a Shalhevet Judaic studies teacher, dryly remarked that sharing a small lounge at the JCC with the entire Shalhevet faculty promotes bonding. 

“Education needs no walls,” Schwarzberg said while eating a lunch of kosher Chinese takeout during a recent school day. 

“Or air conditioning,” added Raizie Weissman, Shalhevet’s director of student life, not missing a beat. (Only three of the 14 classrooms at Shalhevet’s temporary home have air conditioning.) 

The school is spending the current school year at the Westside JCC while a $12 million construction project proceeds on its campus near the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. In a way, it’s a case of déjà vu. The JCC was the Modern Orthodox school’s home of its inception in 1992 and continuing until 1999, when the high school purchased its current site and added a lower school and a middle school. 

Three years ago, the school did away with its lower and middle schools — keeping the eighth grade for one additional year — and set out on a journey to grow its high school into a pre-eminent education community. Today it has 188 students, nearly 30 faculty members and nine administrators.

The trip back to the JCC began with the April sale of Shalhevet’s southern building for $14.2 million to Alliance Residential. That money is helping to fund the construction of the new, three-story building on the north side of the property, a project being pursued instead of renovating the remaining building. Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal told the Journal that a bank indicated it would be a better investment to build from the ground up.

Segal expects the new site to be ready in June. The school is also in the midst of an intensive capital campaign to raise $10 million to settle the school’s debt and raise money for an endowment. So far, the school has raised nearly $4 million, according to Segal. 

The move has presented challenges. The school is not using a caterer at the moment, there is no cafeteria at the JCC and there are no kosher restaurants within walking distance, so the school orders takeout from either Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory, Bibi’s Bakery & Café, Nagila Pizza or Shanghai Glatt Kosher. 

The move also has affected several programs and activities. 

“We had to change the timing and date of Town Hall, the drama department has had to practice offsite, the student newspaper has had to move operations offsite and everyone has had to pitch in one way or another,” Segal wrote in an email. 

The move has not affected the school’s sports teams. Even at its old site, the school was renting space off campus to accommodate the squads. 

Additionally, there is no locker space for students — the award-winning student newspaper The Boiling Point reports that students are relying on iPads instead of textbooks.

Because of the lack of air-conditioning, a heat wave last month forced Shalhevet to further relocate its ninth- and 10th-graders temporarily. Over a period of four days, officials hired shuttles to transport Shalhevet students and faculty between the JCC and B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Young Israel of Century City, two congregations located approximately two miles west. The 11th- and 12th-grade classes remained at the JCC, utilizing the center’s few air-conditioned rooms. According to The Boiling Point, high temperatures on Oct. 3 closed the school down entirely, with the school offering optional pre-Yom Kippur davening in the morning and optional Judaic classes.

“It’s a lot of give and take, and that’s kind of the beauty of this year,” Shalhevet executive director Robyn Lewis told the Journal. 

Rina Katzovitz, a senior, believes the Shalhevet community is making the best of a difficult situation. The spunky student, who wore a purple, collared t-shirt, a skirt covering her knees and Converse sneakers, said the school’s leadership and the JCC’s other tenants deserve credit for how well it is going. 

“I think the administration is taking it … in stride — all of the difficulties that come with switching buildings, with being at a community center. The people here have been great. Even though we are loud and sit in the hallways and stuff, we’ve never heard a complaint from them,” she said. 

Shalhevet’s move to the JCC has been met with a positive response from the building’s current tenants, including egalitarian synagogue community IKAR. 

“It’s definitely crowded, but it’s a pleasure having them here. It feels like the place is always buzzing with activity,” IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban said.

Shalhevet is occupying, in one way or another, all three floors of the Westside JCC, which is also home to an early childhood center, various seniors programs, the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy and more. A handful of classrooms, the teacher’s lounge, gymnasium and auditorium occupy the second floor and the majority of classrooms are on the third floor.

During a recent visit, Shalhevet students were gathered on the first-floor’s outdoor courtyard eating lunch at picnic-style tables. An impromptu dance party there in celebration of Rosh Hashanah once drew the attention of preschoolers whose classrooms are within view, according to Noam Weissman, Shalhevet principal.

On the second floor, Joelle Keene, journalism faculty adviser, led a session on journalism in one of the air-conditioned classrooms. And nearby, in the large, cavernous entryway on the second floor, Noam Weissman sat with laptop in lap in a chair against the wall, surrounded by students who were likewise just hanging out in the hallways.

“I just go all over the place and see what happens. It’s fun,” he said. 

Upstairs, on the top floor, where the walls are painted blue and the rooms with no AC are hot, the business club convened to discuss bonds and the like. And school counselor Rachel Hecht — one of the few faculty members to have air conditioning — was adjusting to an office that provided a different challenge. Her old office was large enough to house a sofa for lounging students; now she is using a closet space as her office. 

“I had so many kids in here [at one point],” she said, “it was like a clown car.” 

Still, she continued, “We’re resilient, so it’s working out fine for us.” 

Of course, some things are more difficult than others.

“I do miss my couch.”

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