Late one recent afternoon in Beverlywood, a first-grader named Ben was learning about the story of the golden calf. Not happy about what he was hearing, Ben asked his teacher, incredulously: “They made a new god?!”
Across the hall, eight fourth-graders were learning the Purim story, calling out as many characters as they could from the Megillah. One boy, Yagel, who wore a kippah and tzitzit, excitedly yelled out names in a perfect Israeli accent while correcting his fellow students’ “mis-annunciations.”
These scenes are noteworthy because they didn’t take place at any Sunday school, day school or yeshiva. They took place at Nagel Jewish Academy, a daily after-school Orthodox program, which officials believe offers a solution to the problem of expensive tuition for private Jewish education.
Unlike a traditional day school, Nagel Jewish Academy, which has three locations, operates two hours a day Monday through Thursday, after public schools let out. It focuses exclusively on Jewish and Hebrew education and costs only $25 per month, per child, for supplies and snacks provided by the school. Its budget this year is $400,000, a 166 percent increase from the 2014-15 budget of $150,000, which was financed almost entirely by founder Levi Nagel.
Nagel said he has wanted for years to create an academy serving Jewish children who attend public schools. He says thousands of Jewish parents who want to send their children to Jewish schools don’t, and that high tuitions have other negative impacts on Jewish families, particularly Orthodox ones.
“Families have been shrinking. People are having much [fewer] kids now than they used to because of the cost of tuition,” Nagel said in a recent interview at Shiloh’s restaurant in Pico-Robertson.
Betty Winn, director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), said annual K-8 tuition for the 37 private schools in L.A. within the BJE network range from $6,000 to $34,700, with a median tuition of $20,185. She also pointed out, though, that over half of families receive financial aid.
“So many of our schools really have extended the amount of need-based assistance that they give … so I think some of the families that are choosing other avenues may not have even explored the day school options,” she said. “I’m sure some have, but I’m also sure some haven’t.”
Nagel, 36, who is married and lives in the Hancock Park/La Brea area, knows all about the expense of Jewish education from personal experience. The financial manager — who was named No. 2 by business website On Wall Street in its 2015 list of top 40 advisers under 40 — pays $80,000 in annual tuition for his four young children to attend Jewish day school.
He opened Nagel Academy’s first location in September 2014 at the property owned by Chabad of Beverlywood. It has since expanded to two more locations — in Beverly Hills and Tarzana — serving a total of 265 students. They come from families with different levels of religious observance and range in age from 5 to 12 and grades kindergarten through sixth.
Nagel’s goal is for his schools’ students to be as well-versed in Judaism as students at any of the local Orthodox day schools. Its curriculum includes written and spoken Hebrew, the Jewish prayer book, the annual holidays and the weekly Torah portion. He said Nagel Academy is “still a little behind,” but argues that the two hours a day of Jewish studies students get at his schools isn’t much less than the proportion of each day spent on Jewish studies at day schools, where each day is split between Jewish and secular studies, not to mention things like lunch and physical education.
At the school’s Tarzana location, which is provided rent-free by the Beith David Educational Center & Synagogue, more than 40 students were split up and learning in four different classes one recent afternoon. The class with fifth- and sixth-graders was learning in the synagogue’s spacious beit midrash, with five girls and one boy seated at a long table while the teacher walked her students through the Hebrew alphabet and vocabulary.
“Not only can I read this, I understand what it means!” exclaimed Eden, an 11-year-old girl whose sister, Lea, is in fourth grade and also attends Nagel Academy.
Shlomo, an 11-year-old student in fifth grade, told the Journal that he attends Wilbur Avenue Elementary School during the day. He briefly tried another Hebrew school before his parents found Nagel Academy, which has helped him learn to read and write Hebrew words as long as four letters (so far).
Elsewhere, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders were making their own tzedakah boxes and the second- and third-graders were playing a game of trivia about tzedakah (the theme of the week) and kashrut.
“When do we give tzedakah?” the teacher asked one team.
After deliberating as a group, Team Tzedakah gave the correct answer: Jews traditionally make a donation every day before the morning prayer service.
In the main entrance hall of Beith David, Mahnaz Danyan, a Jewish woman from Iran, waited for school to let out at 4 p.m. Two of her children just enrolled at Nagel Academy. During the day, Melody, 11, attends Gaspar De Portola Middle School in Tarzana, and Michael, 9, goes to Nestle Elementary School.
“They need to know they’re Jewish. We were looking … everywhere, so we found out here are Hebrew classes,” Danyan said. “[Jewish day] school is perfect, but it’s expensive for us, so here is better.”
Yulia Edelshtein, who lives in Pico-Robertson with her husband and two children, enrolled her son Eli, 7, in Nagel Academy’s Beverlywood location when it opened in 2014; her daughter Ziona, 6, followed in kindergarten this year. During the day, both of them attend Canfield Elementary, a public school in Pico-Robertson with relatively high numbers of religious Jews.
Edelshtein described herself and her Israeli husband as a “traditional, observant” family that observes Shabbat and keeps kosher. She said they would send their kids to Jewish day schools if they could afford it.
“We’re a young family and still building ourselves, so it would’ve been impossible for us to go to a private school,” Edelshtein said. “I really feel like it’s the best of both worlds — and I really love Canfield — to give the kids a secular education and a Hebrew education, and I feel that Nagel makes this possible.”
For parents like Lisa Arnold, Nagel Academy’s appeal isn’t just its affordability. The Beverlywood mother of three said that two of her children, Noah, 10, and Shaine, 8, have learning needs that local Jewish day schools haven’t been able to meet. So, for general education, her kids go to charter schools, and they use Nagel Academy for their Jewish education.
“What’s so unusual about it is the excitement and the joy for learning that’s showing itself,” Arnold said. “It’s not associated with school. It’s almost like a preferred activity if you’d drop your kid off at karate or dance.”
Is it possible that Nagel Academy could lead to an exodus of students from private Jewish schools to public alternatives? Nagel and the school’s head educational consultant, Rabbi Leibel Korf, said the answer is a resounding “no” and that it was never the intent.
“The naysayers, before we started … they were saying, ‘Hey you’re going to take kids out of private schools and move [them] to public school,’ ” Nagel said. “The fact is every one of the kids came from public school. We didn’t take [them] from private school.”
Nagel cited one example in particular that he feels shows Nagel Academy is helping families that simply can’t afford private school, rather than giving parents an excuse to save money on tuition they’re already paying.
“What was [a] little sad was the majority of the women dropping off their kids [at the Beverlywood site] are so religious that they cover their hair. But their kids did not know the Aleph Bet or know how to read Hebrew,” Nagel said, an indication, he feels, that their children only attend public school during the day because there’s no other option.
Korf, who runs the Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, where Nagel attended before he moved in 2005, said the school exists because it’s needed.
“The reality is so many children are not getting Jewish education because of the fact that people who would [otherwise] send [their children] to Jewish schools are not sending them. This is the fact,” Korf said during a recent interview at the school’s Beverlywood location. “We’re not creating an alternative for Jewish schools. We’re [responding to] a fact.”
That said, Korf suggested that nothing can completely substitute for a Jewish day school education, which is what his four kids receive at Cheder Menachem and Bais Chaya Mushka, which are Chabad boys and girls schools, respectively.
“I’ll take the shirt and pants off me and I’ll sell my house and I’ll live in a small apartment,” Korf told the Journal. “You can’t send your kids to a public school and not jeopardize basic Jewish observances.”
Students at Nagel Academy in Beverly Hills.
For their part, Nagel and his wife, Chaiky, send their four kids, ages 4 to 11, to Maimonides Academy. And while he said he’d rather send his kids to public school and Nagel Academy — and use the difference to sponsor more Jewish students at Nagel Academy — his wife insisted on private school.
“It’s a waste of money … but my wife has the final say,” Nagel said.
Nagel Academy’s main expense is its teachers. Right now, there is only one full-time employee, and all of the 15 Orthodox teachers work on a part-time basis. Nagel approximates that one student costs about $1,250 per year, and he said he is working furiously to raise enough money to open three more locations for the 2016-17 academic year — in Westwood, Santa Monica and another in the San Fernando Valley.
He’s been pitching Nagel Academy to major local donors with the goal of each one sponsoring at least 100 kids a year. Nagel said philanthropist and entrepreneur Frank Menlo recently came on board, and businessmen and philanthropists Sam Nazarian and Shlomo Rechnitz have made pledges.
One way Nagel Academy keeps costs down is having a very low ceiling for rent expenses. The only location where it pays a usage fee is the Beverlywood location, which Nagel Academy Director Chana Leah Margolis said is “super-minimal rent.” Nagel added that, going forward, a condition of using any facility is that it’s provided rent-free.
“There are millions of square feet of empty Jewish real estate during those hours,” Nagel said, referring to the time of day Nagel Academy is operating. “So if it’s a community that needs it, they have to invite us in and give us a location for free. What we’re doing is paying for the teachers.”
He thinks Nagel Academy could grow to 1,000 to 2,000 students per year with enough word of mouth and enough fundraising, and he’s already talking about future locations in Brentwood, Los Feliz and even more throughout the Valley.
“We should, at a minimum, provide enough space for a thousand kids,” Nagel said. “We have the obligation to make it available.”